Friday Donuts: Does Enjoying Something Made By a Bad Person Make Me a Bad Person?
Is it OK to watch Louis C.K., or am I ignoring my cancelation responsibility?
Louis C.K. has a new self-released stand-up special sardonically titled Sorry. It’s the comedian’s second special since the 2017 reports of his masturbating in front of non-consenting women disappointed fans, spoiled the release of a movie and prompted a lengthy apology letter in which he promised to “step back and take a long time to listen.”
Two years later, C.K. released his 2019 special Sincerely in which he downplayed his sexual and workplace harassment and suggested he had consent from his victims. As Slate’s Matthew Dessem wrote then, “the smart move would have been preceding it with actual apologies—but addressing his misconduct while framing it so disingenuously is worse than not bringing it up at all.”
Now in this latest special — the giant SORRY marquee behind him notwithstanding — it’s apparent that Louis C.K. has no interest in addressing his misconduct. To be fair, it would be strange for the comic to apologize in every special he releases as he attempts a comeback. This one can be purchased for $10 on his website, which also features merchandise such as hoodies, T-shirts and keychains. And though the Louis gear didn’t interest me, I did find myself compelled to fork over the ten bucks and check out his new hour.
To be honest, I didn’t think much of it. Whatever your opinion of Louis C.K., there’s no denying he’s one of the most skilled stand-up comics of his generation. He did a bad thing (and I don’t say it that was to belittle the misconduct, only in the interest of keeping it moving) but does that mean I can’t enjoy something he makes arguably better than anyone? Does doing so make me a bad person?
If certain corners of the internet had the final say, it appears the answer would be Yes.
Admittedly, I was a big Louis C.K. fan before the 2017 New York Times story, and was crushed upon learning of his inexcusable behavior. Few comedians (or public speakers, for that matter) can put a lens to human behavior with the same sharpness and imagination as C.K., and so I was interested to hear his thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic and social and racial reckoning that has dominated the last couple of years. Also, I wanted to hear what he had to say after reflecting on his own experience, as he promised in 2017.
Now, some might respond by asking why I’d want to hear his thoughts on those matters. After all, Louis C.K. is hardly a role model. But what I’m looking for from C.K. is not a role model. I’m looking for a laugh.
In Sorry, Louis C.K. returns to the well of his old bits: Challenging the audience with, um, creative ideas to solve pedophilia, re-purposing racial slurs and making fun of a younger generation complete with his valley girl voice. It’s not the best of C.K., but it’s a solid B by his standards. For me, that was worth $10. And that’s all this special was — purely transactional. I pay this money, you make me laugh.
For some who paid for the special, it wasn’t quite as easy to separate the comedic material from the comic’s past. Wrote the Daily Beast’s Kyndall Cunningham (bolding by me):
At his most acute, C.K. still manages to underscore the ridiculousness of our collective flaws as a species in a casually hilarious way that unfortunately made me chuckle a few times, including when he lampoons our apathy toward isolated tragedies that’s recently been upended by a global pandemic or society’s cruel treatment of fat people.
And for many others, the fact that Louis C.K. managed to release a special (and that Dave Chappelle’s recent transphobic special manages to remain on Netflix) has become a talking point to resurrect the extremely online argument of Cancel Culture.
“So Louis C.K. has a new special out, Sorry, that he is selling online,” a Twitter critic wrote. “Quit whining about cancel culture, because it’s a myth.”
First of all, this is not how canceling someone works. The crazy thing about the internet is that anybody can make anything and put it online at any time. For example, you can buy socks with Jim Carrey’s face on them, if that’s something you want. Or someone like me can start a newsletter. Or a standup comic can film his own special and release it on his own website. The canceling is not preventing something from existing, it’s preventing it from being consumed.
Which brings things back to me. While one person’s money won’t determine C.K.’s fate or the success of his special in much the same way one person’s vote won’t elect the president, it could be argued there is a similar social responsibility. After all, if everyone thought their vote didn’t matter, our democracy would crumble. Am I, then, socially responsible to boycott Louis C.K.’s content?
Let’s say I am. What does that accomplish? Does it hurt his bank account? I suppose, but only on the same scale of how me returning something to Amazon impacts Jeff Bezos. Does it let him know I’m angry with him? Not directly. Does it do anything for his victims? You’d have to ask them, but I can’t see how it would in any material way.
I know I’m not the only one grappling with this question of cancelation responsibility, and it’s certainly not unique to C.K.’s situation. Watching a Woody Allen film or listening to Michael Jackson elicits the same struggle to compartmentalize art from artist. If we’re being frank, it’s easy to write off Mike Lindell and Jussie Smollett because selling over-priced pillows and playing a role on a short-lived TV show doesn’t take nearly as much talent as making, say, Thriller or Annie Hall.
Louis C.K. is closer to Jackson and Allen on the talent spectrum than Lindell and Smollet. Going back to Chappelle for a moment, my biggest issue with his newest Netflix special The Closer isn’t that he dared broach the topic of gender identity, it’s that it wasn’t funny.
The best comics — as Chappelle had once been — toe the line and make you uncomfortable, but then pull you back in with their wit and observations. They use humor as a way to understand the world and our place in it. But when a standup comic takes aim at a population — as Chappelle did with the LGBTQ community — and isn’t funny, well, it’s just mean.
In Sorry, Louis C.K. touched on specific communities — fat people, Black people, Jews, transgender and gay people — and did so with more dexterity than Chappelle. Again, this was not peak Louis, and I could have done without the unamusing joke about a Black woman buying bananas. But I also didn’t find any shots outside the norms of typical standup comedy. At one point C.K. even remarked he wished people could have been more accepting of gender fluidity when he was a kid. Chappelle, in contrast, joked about punching a transgender woman in a club.
So when Chappelle comes out with his next special, I’ll be reluctant to watch it. It’s the same reason I don’t care for Chris D’Elia. Even before the allegations of soliciting underaged girls, he just wasn’t very funny. D’Elia is more of a Lindell on the talent spectrum.
At his best, Louis C.K. could still be one of the funniest comics around. His recent special showed glimpses that he could get back to that level, and I’ll watch his next one to see how close he can back to the top after throwing himself from the mountain four years ago. I’m not rooting for him, and I’m not rooting against him. It’s just a journey that interests me and, occasionally, makes me laugh.
Does that make me a bad person? I still don’t know.
And now, the donuts
🍩 Further reading: A good perspective by Slate’s Lili Loofbourow on what Louis C.K.’s special is truly missing.
🍩 Trending: Chris Martin this week said Coldplay will stop making new music in 2025, which is a shock because I didn’t realize Coldplay was still making music.
🍩 Sunday pick: The Dolphins go into New Orleans as 1.5-point favorites. Miami had previously been a 3.5-point dog, but the line shifted after the Saints lost their top two quarterbacks to the COVID-19 list. So now rookie quarterback Ian Book will make his NFL debut. The way the Dolphins defense has performed, I like them to go into the bayou and get the win.
🍩 What I’m drinking: A Makers Mark old fashioned at Cantina La Veinte, complete with chips and guac.
Cheers, be safe and Merry Christmas!