Brow Beat

Louie Was Propaganda for Louis C.K.’s Decency. How Does It Look Now?

Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon in “Pamela, Part 1.”


With Thursday’s story in the New York Times, in which multiple victims came forward with their own stories and added to years of rumors that Louis C.K. masturbated in front of women without their consent, C.K. has been shown to be another powerful man who abused and used less powerful women as a matter of course. The accounts shared with the Times by Dana Min Goodman, Julia Wolov, Abby Schachner, Rebecca Corry, and an anonymous woman are gross and disturbing. They are also tremendously disappointing: C.K. has occupied a unique spot in the cultural firmament because, unlike all those other thoughtless brutes, he seemed to have thought so deeply about brutishness. In Louie, his heretofore critically acclaimed and beloved surrealist, semiautobiographical semicomedy, he created and explored ambiguous circumstances with a keen understanding of social dynamics—and the ways that power and gender, in particular, affect them. Rather than abnegating the series’ acuity, the revelations give it a sickening edge: Louie was a kind of propaganda piece for the decency of Louis C.K.

Louie is not haphazardly interested in questions of consent, assault, sex, and masturbation. It is utterly fascinated with them. C.K.—whose upcoming (or is it?) movie I Love You, Daddy is shot in the style of Manhattan, features an older predatory director, and has a scene in which one character wonders why no one just asks the suspected predator if he’s a predator—is clearly compelled to think through his perversions in his work. That’s the stand-up comic’s M.O. But now that we have a fuller picture of those perversions, it appears he was airing them on Louie for years.

To look back at Louie is to see dozens of storylines that relate to descriptions of C.K.’s behavior. There are minor moments, as when Louie walks into a stranger’s apartment intending to help and is taken for a rapist, and cacophonous ones, as in the second season episode “Come On, God,” when Louie appears on Fox News to debate a spokeswoman for Christians Against Masturbation. His opening defense of the practice, painfully glib now, is “Well, it’s easy, it’s fun, and nobody gets hurt.” His closing line once seemed childishly petulant and is now awful and menacing: “I’m a good citizen, I’m a good father, I recycle, and I masturbate. … And later I’m going to masturbate and think about you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

There’s another sequence, one that had long been one of my favorites, in which Louie’s date (Melissa Leo) goes down on him and then forces him to go down on her—first by verbally abusing him and then, when that doesn’t work, by smashing his head into the side of a car. What I admired so much about the scene was how complicated it was, how it considered the ways sexual expectations could and could not be mapped onto gender. It took a lame setup (“What if a woman tried to rape a man?”) and came up with something fascinating. Now, I wonder if it wasn’t inspired by curiosity but by guilt or, worse, self-justification. Similarly, there’s a scene in which Pamela Adlon comes onto Louie while he’s wearing a dress and he says no, and then it’s implied they have sex anyway—is that another fascinating reversal of gender, or just a creepy wish-fulfillment about what no really means?

There is an even more flummoxing scene in Season 4’s “Pamela: Part 1,” in which Louie comes home to find Adlon asleep on his couch. Her first remark to him is “Please don’t start jerking off. I’m awake.” Then Louie, who is almost twice her size, tries to kiss her, holding her arms down, dragging her through the room, even as she says, “No, I don’t like it!” and “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid! God, you can’t even rape well!” Louie corners Pamela in the door and tells her to look at him. He knows she’s interested in pursuing something with him, and he’s going to take control. She begrudgingly permits him to kiss her, though she grimaces the whole time. When it’s over, she leaves, and he pumps his fist.

When that episode aired, James Poniewozik, then writing for Time, talked about the horror of that scene: “It looks terrible. It feels terrible to watch. … And there’s no reason to doubt Louis CK meant it to look and feel precisely that terrible.” He then went on to say that how the series followed that episode would matter:

If you don’t follow up on what happened, you can trivialize it. If you do follow up, yes, it can be bold and socially valuable to show that audience that, look: guys who do this sort of thing don’t walk around with labels on their forehead … They can be fathers and mensches; they don’t see themselves as bad guys, and we most often never see those few moments that would change our view of them. But now we have seen it; we can’t unsee it. Can we just live with it? Where do you go from there?

That’s a powerful way to read that sequence, but the show didn’t follow Poniewozik’s advice. In the next episode, C.K. and Adlon are dating, and Louie has backed off of the idea of Louie as a predator or threat. That entire fourth season, one that explored all sorts of aspects of Louie’s toxic masculinity, ended with him in a swoony relationship with Pamela, exposed and naked in a bathtub. At the time it seemed, if not ideal, then not unexpected for the show to back off Louie’s toxicity. We—critics and his audience—gave C.K. a benefit of the doubt he didn’t deserve. We let ourselves believe Louis behind the camera was better than Louie in front of it.

As part of a stand-up special, C.K. once asked men to comprehend what dating men is like for women: “Imagine that you could only date a half-bear, half-lion. ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice.’ ” This observation is no less true now that we know what C.K. has done. It may be less funny, because we know that it comes from a deeper, more intimate knowledge of male aggression. But what really creeps me out about it is the way that C.K. so comfortably inhabits the role of feminist comedian, the guy who’s willing to say that men are bear-lions, who comprehends women’s fears. This sort of subtle self-aggrandizement seems to me to be all over Louie the way the show burnishes Louis C.K., often at the expense of Louie, as a guy who gets the complexities of male and female experience.

This all may make it sound like I think we should trash Louie, just toss it away. If that’s where you are right now, I wouldn’t try and convince you otherwise. I don’t know quite where I am with it, except that I’m sure that the only bad option is not to think about it. The revelations, as damning as they are, don’t make the show worthless, though they do make it a very different kind of document. It’s no longer an honest consideration of a man and all his foibles, but a dissembling, secretive one—which might, in a way, make it even truer than it was before.

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