Most of us spent the afternoon before New Year’s Eve eyeing unopened bottles of champagne or browsing “Best of 2018” listicles. Comedian Louis CK, I imagine, spent it on social media observing his own name climb online “trending” sections for all the wrong reasons…again.
On the last day of the year, somebody leaked a video on YouTube of Louis performing a new routine in a Long Island comedy club earlier in December. The most controversial segment—and the one that is responsible for all the social media furor—was a rant on why kids these days are “boring.” Louis jokes that in his day, kids were “finger-f*cking each other and doing Jell-O shots” and that today’s youth, in comparison, are far too uptight. He mocks the Parkland School Shooting survivors, saying, “You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot.” He also attacks gender non-binary people, exclaiming, “You should address me as ‘there’ because I identify as a location.”
In the audio clips, Louis’ jokes prompted laughter. In contrast, his followers on the internet were anything but amused. Other comedians panned the routine, calling the set “hacky” and “shallow.” The Parkland survivors and their families took to social media to express their disappointment in the comic. As many were quick to point out, Louis’ new jokes seemed especially tone-deaf given the context of recent events.
This return to the stage a year later demonstrates little self-reflection at all. If anything, it shows Louis CK as more ignorant and spiteful than ever.
In November of 2017, Louis admitted to sexual misconduct allegations from several women, and he apologized by promising to “step back and take a long time to listen.” Yet this return to the stage a year later demonstrates little self-reflection at all. If anything, it shows Louis CK as more ignorant and spiteful than ever.
Alongside the social media backlash, Louis CK was also met with a small but vocal army of defenders. Many from this group asserted that unlike other comedians, Louis is known for his provocative humour. What entitles these liberal safe-keepers of comedy to suddenly police what is okay to laugh at? After all, comedy has always been about offending the powerful. Think Ancient Grecian satires and court jesters in the Middle Ages! Louis CK is only doing what Jonathan Swift was doing, who was only doing what Aristotle was doing, who we can only presume stole jokes from Noah or Adam.
As a consequence, when watching a comedian perform a standup routine, we must be mindful of what—or who—is the punchline of a joke.
I understand these defenders. As a former fan of Louis CK, I can see why his critics being quiet until now may seem hypocritical. After all, this is the same man whose career has mostly revolved around masturbation and excrement jokes; he has never been a model of appropriate behaviour. Still, there is a difference between Louis’ usual scatological humour and the barbed vitriol aimed at school shooting survivors and gender non-binary people in his most recent set. The former is essentially harmless and mostly self-deprecating; the latter ridicules people already facing scrutiny in both the media and everyday life. Even though the leaked jokes were still being workshopped and are therefore subject to change, a veteran comedian should know better than to pursue such vulnerable targets, even in a draft.
The maelstrom of tweets and thinkpieces surrounding the Louis CK controversy will soon subside. As the world of entertainment shifts its focus to yet another outrage, hopefully we can glean more long-term lessons from this New Years’ ordeal. Our choices in comedy still reflect our more serious values. As a consequence, when watching a comedian perform a standup routine, we must be mindful of what—or who—is the punchline of a joke. This principle still applies when said comedian’s humour is known to tiptoe across the boundaries of politeness, and it absolutely applies when the comedian already has a history of malicious behaviour.
Not only are his jokes a complete betrayal of the self-reflection he promised to undertake, they are also irresponsible and lazy.
Louis CK’s leaked routine evokes a type of hatred that cannot be reconciled with the excuse of it being his usual brand of edgy humour. Not only are his jokes a complete betrayal of the self-reflection he promised to undertake during the previous year, they are also irresponsible and lazy. In this new year, let us resolve to be more empathetic, even when we are laughing at something profane or provocative. As for the disgraced comedian? I hope he takes some time to reflect—for real this time—lest he loses more than this disappointed fan.