Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and the Problem With Thin-Skinned Comedians
Actor Kevin Spacey, the week before Christmas, resurfaced for the first time since his #MeToo related downfall a year before, with a bizarre YouTube video in which he monologued for three minutes as his House of Cards character Frank Underwood.
The “Let Me Be Frank” video, which coincided with the news that Spacey had been criminally charged in Massachusetts with groping a young man, was mostly greeted with confusion, as well as mockery at what a bad idea releasing it was on Spacey’s part.
But what didn’t happen after the release of the Spacey video was any debate over whether or not it shows that Spacey is still a good actor, or whether the skills shown in the video indicate that Spacey’s acting style has changed for the better or worse since we last saw him. No one, from what I saw, concluded that Spacey has a right to pursue his chosen craft, and or that he’s been “censored” from doing so.
It’s clearly a settled point that Spacey will never act professionally again, and those questions are all so obviously beside the point that no one has even thought to raise them.
Art of the Comeback
But about a week later, another prominent #MeToo offender also resurfaced, and it’s fair to say the reaction has been quite different. And this says a great deal about how out of whack certain narratives have gotten, related to comedy and comedians.
Louis C.K., also in late 2017, was accused by five women, some of whom who were also comedians, of non-consensually masturbating in front of them, and then admitted that the accusations were true. There were also charges that C.K., through his manager Dave Becky, had acted to hurt the comedy careers of his accusers.
…some argued that C.K. hadn’t been away all that long, and there was something not quite right about a guy accused of non-consensual sexual acts showing up unannounced before intimate comedy club audiences
In recent months, C.K. had been making surprise appearances at comedy clubs, mostly around New York, in order to work out new material as he plotted a comeback. This had led to some controversy as some argued that C.K. hadn’t been away all that long, and there was something not quite right about a guy accused of non-consensual sexual acts showing up unannounced before intimate comedy club audiences. Then came that incident in which a suddenly viral clip from a 2011 HBO special showed the comedian repeatedly using the n-word, as Jerry Seinfeld looked on uncomfortably.
Then, a recording surfaced, over the New Year’s Eve holiday, of C.K. performing comedy a couple of days earlier in Levittown, N.Y. A two-minute portion of the performance leaked and was shared widely, in which the comedian complained about young people, mocked those who use nontraditional gender pronouns, and then launched a riff making fun of the Parkland survivors as “not interesting”:
A longer clip later appeared, featuring C.K. making fun of Asian men’s genitalia and launching into a lengthy defense of the word “retard.”
Some were offended by the material. Others speculated that C.K. might be repackaging himself to appeal to the right wing…
Some were offended by the material. Others speculated that C.K. might be repackaging himself to appeal to the right wing, under the cold calculation that Trump fans obviously don’t mind a guy with an established history of sexual harassment and might even be receptive to a comedian who was seen as having been abandoned by the cosmopolitan liberal audiences that previously made up his fan base.
The Wrong Question
I’m more bothered that we’ve moved immediately on to debating the quality of C.K.’s jokes, and skipped right past the question of whether he would be welcomed back in comedy clubs at all. Because there’s a very good case to be made that he shouldn’t.
I’m not the first to point it out, but in just about no other career field would a man who serially masturbated in front of co-workers without their consent have any hope of ever getting his job back. McSweeney’s illustrated this most hilariously last August, with its satirical piece arguing about the need to hire “Steve the Masturbator” back at the office.
“Letting Louis CK do comedy again is a basic workplace safety issue for female comics and women who work in comedy,” comedian Kath Barbadero wrote on Twitter. “If you hire him you don’t care about our well being and it’s as simple as that.”
McSweeney’s illustrated this most hilariously last August, with its satirical piece arguing about the need to hire “Steve the Masturbator” back at the office
Others have objected on the grounds that the routine, of the comic “working out” bits, was secretly recorded and released to the public before it was ready, which raises interesting questions about what sort of behaviors are seriously frowned upon in comedy clubs and which ones aren’t.
Why wasn’t this debate had in regards to Kevin Spacey?
Yes, it’s true that the offenses to which Spacey is accused are a matter of degree more serious than those of C.K., nor has the comedian been charged with a crime. There’s absolutely a double standard in that Spacey was accused of abusing men, while C.K. targeted women. And it’s also worth noting that while Spacey – in character, anyway – maintains his innocence, C.K. has admitted that the accusations against him are true.
As for the new material itself, my reaction, shared by some others, was to note just how lazy and hacky the jokes were, and how far below the comic’s usual standards they fell. There are few comic tropes lazier, after all, than the older guy complaining about kids these days.
… in this case he treaded into the kind of subpar, low-effort humor generally favored by lesser comics.
It’s not that C.K.’s material in the pre-scandal part of his career wasn’t ever dark or mean-spirited, it often was, but in this case he treaded into the kind of subpar, low-effort humor generally favored by lesser comics. Louis C.K., who two or three years ago was the most popular comedian in the world, has essentially traded his style for that of Steven Crowder, the “shocking” conservative comic who’s also barely known at all to the general public.
Lenny Bruce 2019
But some had a different reaction to the new C.K. routine, which was to plug it into an emerging narrative that’s gained traction, among comedians and followers of comedy, over the last few years. It’s the idea that comedy is under siege, from woke types, the “Twitter mob,” and the “PC police,” and that comedians are forever in danger of having their careers derailed by an errant accusation of racism or sexism. These changing attitudes and mores about racism and sexism are seen, from this court, as nothing less than an existential threat to comedy itself.
This idea has been spread by comedians from Michael Che to Adam Carolla, and articulated in the 2015 documentary Can We Take a Joke?The idea is that comedians are unique, important, and special truth tellers, and that any attack on any comedian is in fact a hostile action against free speech itself. I call it the “but he’s a comedian” defense. And always, ALWAYS, this line of argument leads to comparisons to Lenny Bruce, the comedy legend who in the early 1960s was arrested for his jokes and hounded by the government to an early grave.
One guy came right out and said it:
…this line of argument leads to comparisons to Lenny Bruce, the comedy legend who in the early 1960s was arrested for his jokes and hounded by the government to an early grave
Like most things involving the fabled “PC police,” this narrative has been widely overstated. Criticism of jokes on Twitter is not censorship – it’s criticism. The list of comics whose careers have been ended by Twitter outrages is short, if not nonexistent. The list of comedians who flout PC norms and have had their careers nonetheless take off in the woke era is much longer.
The PC Police isn’t actually the police, and doesn’t really have the power to hurt anyone, beyond subjecting them to criticism. And an objection raised to someone’s jokes isn’t remotely comparable to anything that happened to Lenny Bruce. No one in America has been arrested for their comedy at any time in the recent past.
The idea seems to be to establish a standard in which any criticism of comedians or jokes is strictly verboten. Which isn’t quite the position of free speech absolutism that these people think it is.
There’s been some pushback on this in the comedy world, including by someone who’s not always the most reasonable when it comes to this kind of stuff, Ricky Gervais:
“Please stop saying ‘You can’t joke about anything anymore,’ Gervais wrote on Twitter December 31. “You can. You can joke about whatever the fuck you like. And some people won’t like it and they will tell you they don’t like it. And then it’s up to you whether you give a fuck or not. And so on. It’s a good system.”
The idea seems to be to establish a standard in which any criticism of comedians or jokes is strictly verboten
But too many comedians, and comedy stans, DO give a fuck, and have much thinner skin than they ought to.
But it’s especially ridiculous to fit Louis C.K. into this narrative, for a simple reason: C.K.’s career wasn’t derailed by offensive jokes. It was derailed because he masturbated in front of female comics, many times, over a period of several years. He also lied about it, and took steps to retaliate against his accusers by hurting their careers. Sure, his jokes have gotten worse, but that’s not why he’s in the spot he’s in.
A Fan Betrayed
Unlike those who say today that they never thought C.K. was all that funny, I admit that I’m a longtime fan of the comic. In fact, I’d say that for a relatively lengthy period of time, he was my favorite working comedian. I watched every one of his specials, from the early 2000s until last year. His FX show, Louie, is up there with the best of television this decade. I was even one of the few people who saw his cancelled 2017 movie, I Love You Daddy.
It’s true that C.K.’s work was often dark and disturbing, and skirted various lines of propriety; this is the comic, after all, who built multiple specials around the notion that he hated, his then, wife, and she hated him. But it was always funny, and honest, and the key was, it was self-deprecating. One got the sense that there was an underlying decency to the man, and part of what was so disappointing when the revelations came out last year was that the decency wasn’t really there. That’s much less of a disappointment, to me, than Louis making a late-career switch to hackery.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the primary victims of the C.K. story are his disappointed fans – clearly, his actual victims are more worthy of our sympathies. But Louis isn’t the victim either, nor are comedians whose jobs have gotten harder because social mores have changed.
A #MeToo lesson
I’ve noticed that way too many people, in the #MeToo era, want to take the easy way out, and just pretend like their guy wasn’t really accused.
Accusations against a politician you like or his campaign? It must be a setup, as I’ve heard from supporters of candidates as disparate as Al Franken, Roy Moore, and Bernie Sanders, as well as two of the last four presidents of the United States. Accusations against an actor or television performer? It seems the likes of Ryan Seacrest and Chris Hardwick are way too important to way too many TV networks to suffer any consequences for credible accusations. Just wait for the justifications that’ll fly when it comes time for a running back-needy NFL team to sign Kareem Hunt.
Just wait for the justifications that’ll fly when it comes time for a running back-needy NFL team to sign Kareem Hunt
And now we have Louis C.K., whose comedic voice is apparently way too important to let fall silent for more than a year, despite years of sexual misconduct allegations which he’s admitted are true. It seems to be the unanimous opinion of every comedy club owner and booker in the New York area that he deserves a full, immediate comeback, and that his subpar, Dennis Miller-like new style is just too necessary.
So what if he sexually harassed a bunch of women? He’s a comedian! In reality, Louis C.K. is absolutely no more deserving of continued access to a public microphone than Kevin Spacey is.