How else to react to the news that Louis C.K., famous for his self-flagellating comedy specials and his emotionally raw series on FX, had been taking self-exposure to the extreme in his private life?
I feel sorry for my son, who so admired Louis’ comedic daring and honesty. I know how it feels. As a kid I practically memorized all Bill Cosby’s records. And then I graduated to Woody Allen movies in my late teens. Now I feel that a large swath of my youthful enthusiasms are covered with slime.
Maybe there really is something in the DNA of comedians that causes bad choices. One of the oldest clichés in the book is that people with difficult childhoods and damaged psyches find an outlet for their pain and self-loathing in stand-up comedy. After all, a great deal of contemporary stand-up revolves around self-lacerating stories, which pick at a comedian’s most obvious wounds.
This cliché certainly does not apply to all comics. If Jerry Seinfeld or Jim Gaffigan were accused of sexual misconduct, the shock would be so intense that I’d give up watching comedy altogether. But there are many comedians who do seem to have a screw loose. As Mark Twain purportedly said: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
The list of sexually abusive comics is not short. It goes all the way from C-listers like Andy Dick to stars like Al Franken. The power they hold over audiences seems to embolden them to act out offstage too.
Louis C.K., however, is in a class of his own. He was known for years as a “comedian’s comedian,” using material that went right up the edge of what an audience could stand. His FX show started out as a word-of-mouth hit among comedy nerds. I mostly liked the show but it always made me uneasy, which I gathered was his point: Don’t let the audience get too comfortable.
In the very first “Louie” episode I ever watched, there’s a scene where he’s stopped by a TSA agent at the airport who finds a tube of gel in his luggage. He straightforwardly explains that it’s the “lube” he’ll be using for self-pleasuring when he gets to the hotel. The TSA agent is dumbfounded and mildly disgusted by the matter-of-fact way Louis owns up to behavior that is usually considered shameful.
I have to admit it creeped me out, but not enough to stop watching. I was also unnerved by the frequent references to self-abuse in his comedy specials, but assumed he was just pushing the envelope. Who was to know that a comedian lauded for being a truth-teller was actually telling the truth when confessing to audiences that he was a pervert?
Louis is now in celebrity purgatory. The theatrical release of his new movie “I Love You, Daddy” has been canceled, and HBO has removed his specials and other material from their streaming services.
Kevin Spacey has suffered a similar fate for his own sexual scandals. Netflix canceled the upcoming season of “House of Cards” and he is being completely excised from Ridley Scott’s new movie “All the Money in the World,” with Christopher Plummer playing Spacey’s former role.
The effort to make previously lauded entertainers disappear from our consciousness is typical of our overheated social media-driven culture. In the old days, we would stone sinners or cut off their hands. Today we shame them on Twitter until they vanish.
I can understand that the entertainment business is a business and that no one particularly wants to see a new movie starring Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey right now, but to pull existing content off HBO Go is vaguely reminiscent of those Soviet-era May Day parades, where Politburo members who fell out of favor were erased from photographs.
And to be honest, it’s a bit rich for HBO to get politically correct on Louis C.K. when it profits so fabulously from violence against women on “Game of Thrones” or “Westworld.” Just saying.
These spasms of morality always seem to be applied unevenly, too. For example, we have one sitting president of the United States accused of sexual assault and one former president accused of rape. Apparently, we hold our comedians to a higher standard of conduct than we do our national leaders.
My guess is that Louis C.K.’s career is not over. At least he had the grace to admit his sins and ask for forgiveness. And unlike Bill Cosby, his behavior was not completely contrary to the persona he presented on stage.
I expect an apology tour in a year or two, with a less sexualized performance, and maybe even a grudging concession to the benefits of conventional bourgeois behavior. Because if one good thing comes out of these scandals, it’s the realization that being outrageous onstage doesn’t give you a free pass from basic human decency.