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I Admired Louis C.K. What a Mistake. (Column)

In 2015 — a lifetime ago — I wrote a rave review of “Louie’s” fifth season. Here it is. It’s embarrassing to look at now. Not just because if I’d known what I know now, I would have written a different review of “Louie,” a show that hinged both on comedian Louis C.K.’s performed self-awareness and his uncomfortable relationship with sex. Not just because this review is the first one you’ll see on Wikipedia’s entry for “Louie,” Season 5. But also because it’s clear, reading between the lines of my review, how much faith I had in his comedy. In a paragraph that begins with me positing that C.K. is “one of TV’s greatest comedians,” I went on to write this painfully short-sighted analysis of his perspective: “What makes ‘Louie’ work, time and time again, is that C.K. goes in as hard on himself as he does on the world around him—harder, perhaps. The show is suffused with a take-no-prisoners poignancy that spares no one, and that makes it sublime.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Or at least, I was right in the marginal sense that I thought that’s what was happening, and certainly “Louie” intended to leave the viewer with the takeaway that there’s nobody he’s harder on than himself. But I was not at all right about what made “Louie” sublime. It’s not that C.K. actually went in on himself, it’s that he made it look like he did — enough to get away with a pattern of sexually intimidating female colleagues for a span of at least 15 years. Maybe Louis C.K. was able to interrogate himself, sometimes quite ruthlessly, in some of the finest episodes of “Louie.” But he sure wasn’t interrogating himself when he denied misconduct for years on end. C.K.’s self-awareness had a nice, convenient threshold to it.

I feel betrayed. This strikes me as a singularly useless feeling, especially because I became aware of the rumors around C.K. at least a year before the New York Times exposé. (I think I learned about them after writing all those raves. I think. I don’t know. This might be my own self-delusion.) Those of us in the entertainment-media complex have been waiting for the C.K. story to drop for about a month. But I still didn’t feel prepared for this empty, sick feeling in my gut, like I left a burner on in a remote corner of the universe and this whole time I knew I was forgetting something.

What strikes me looking back at the pieces I wrote about him — about “Horace and Pete,” his sublime dramatic turn; about “Louie,” a show whose episodes have sparked ideas for some of my genre-crossing thinkpieces; about even a Honda Civic joke he made during the Oscars — is how much I trusted him. I even sometimes used that word, “trust” — “trust C.K. to be able to drop something unconventional like this onto the internet with no salesmanship whatsoever and have it land beautifully,” I said in my “Horace and Pete” review. I wrote up a reaction to his Honda Civic Oscar speech that ended on this sentimental note, as if I knew him: “To me, as someone familiar with his work, his words on documentary filmmakers seemed to come from a sense of similarly felt passion for his own art… C.K. has many golden statuettes now, but he won his first back in 1999, with the rest of the writers on ‘The Chris Rock Show.’ Maybe he felt exactly the same way about his.”

I am frustrated with myself. I wanted Louis C.K. to be a good guy. I thought he was smart — I still think he’s smart — and if I get over the images that come to mind when I see his face, I might even enjoy revisiting “Louie,” a show that is in fact responsible for much of half-hour comedy’s innovation over the last several years. But I’m more frustrated with him. C.K. asked for this kind of trust, from critics and viewers and fans. His stand-up persona was himself; he was synonymous with the character he put into the world, like Woody Allen before him. He joked a lot, and quite specifically, about gender and sexuality; “Louie” is full of vignettes that play like fever dreams about the subtext of gendered interactions, and he often was not afraid to portray himself as the bad guy. But all this says to me is that he knew better. He knew better, and he said so in a thousand different ways over the course of his career. It’s that part of it that stings. Self-awareness is an exacerbating factor, not a mitigating one.

After reading his statement — which is less an apology than a self-aggrandizing confession — I found myself wondering if that is what drove the desire to get off by humiliating women around him; that tension between knowing he could be the most aware and “woke” guy in the room, and an unquenchable desire within him to satisfy the selfish beast within. It’s a tension that gets played up a lot in his comedy. In 2013’s “Oh My God,” he riffed for several minutes on an “of course… but maybe…” construction, which invited the viewer into both an agreed-upon general principle of how things should be, and then undercut it with a petty frustration that arose out of trying to follow that principle. The most famous example is about kids with peanut allergies: “Of course children who have nut allergies need to be protected…. But, maybe, maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die.”

It’s a hilarious (if controversial) bit, but you can see how it might start muddying the waters quickly. Of course you should recycle, but maybe separating our recyclables is enough of a tedious pain that we can just skip it. Of course we should avoid dropping sexual innuendo in conversation, but maybe comedy is about being honest about whatever weird monster you are on the inside. Of course we aren’t supposed to masturbate on the phone, but maybe if you can get away with it, and it’s fun for you, then it’s justifiable. I always thought C.K. ended up on the side of the “of course.” It turns out he was more than happy to end up on the side of the “but maybe.”

I was taken in. I have written numerous laudatory commentaries on Louis C.K.’s shows and appearances, and they are all out there for the public record, and I’m going to have to live with that. It does not escape my notice that a seal of approval from feminist critics or comedians gave him a shield from accusations of misogyny; I have to live with that, too. The comedian Tig Notaro, a former collaborator, expressed the same fear to the New York Times: “He released my album to cover his tracks.” His apology hit me as false for this reason: I feel used, and at least for right now, I can’t trust his purported self-awareness, his admissions of responsibility. Even if it is in good faith — and I hope it is, for his sake — I don’t know what good faith looks like anymore with C.K., who so skillfully used image to create a cover for his behavior.

In my most charitable reading of C.K.’s story — a reading he doesn’t deserve, and hasn’t earned — I see an artist who knew there was something dangerous in the way he conceptualized sexuality, and in fits and starts tried to approach that difficult topic through his work. I see an artist who became suddenly more relevant after his daughters were born, probably because he did start to understand the female experience a little more clearly. I see a man who needs more therapy. I see a body of work that speaks to the uniquely human tension of trying to be better than you are, and carrying the shame of existence like a yoke over your shoulders. It just so happens that his art was even more aspirational than I realized.

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