Wide Angle

Louis the Reactionary

Where is the comedian’s angry new material coming from?

Louis C.K.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

The sexual misconduct Louis C.K. has been accused of, and admitted to, is far from the worst stuff the #MeToo movement has unearthed. In a field of abusers that ranges from serial rapists to photo-op gropers, C.K.’s behavior falls squarely in the middle.

While C.K. isn’t Harvey Weinstein, the accusations against him felt particularly dispiriting because he’d always acted like he knew better. It wasn’t just that he said “the right things”—that he recognized that Donald Trump was an “insane bigot” or that he noted in his stand-up that men are “the No. 1 threat to women.” It’s that when C.K. said the wrong things, as he revealed in his stand-up and on his eponymous TV show, he made sure we all knew that he knew what lines he was crossing.

Now we know that while he was making a show about what a decent, thoughtful guy he was, he was also lying about his repeated victimization of less powerful women in his industry. Still, as Anna Silman wrote in the Cut earlier this week, his fans held out hope that he would find a way to redeem himself, that he might be the one prominent abuser who could own up to his actions, make some kind of restitution to the women he violated, and come out on the other side a better person. When I wrote that his apology for his misdeeds fell short, several fans of comedy in general and C.K. in particular told me I was wrong, that it was better than any other alleged abuser’s apology in the same way C.K.’s comedy was smarter than most dick-swinging male comedians’ work. Self-awareness seemed to be the key.

C.K. has always transgressed standards of politesse, but that impulse emerged, it seemed, from a spirit of honest self-examination. In one representative stand-up riff from 2013, he admitted to dwelling on unsavory (some might call them “un-P.C.”) thoughts. The bit was funny because it started from a place of shared morality—of course slavery is bad … but maybe we should all recognize “there’s no end to what you can do when you don’t give a fuck about particular people”—and ended on a note of shared responsibility, drawing dark humor from the human capacity for compartmentalization. “You can have candles and horses and be a little kinder to each other,” C.K. said, referring to the often-horrifying labor practices that abet the production of modern smartphones, “or let someone suffer immeasurably far away just so you can leave a mean comment on YouTube while you’re taking a shit.”

After listening to the recording of a recent racist and transphobic C.K. performance, it’s clear that the comedian’s new material comes from a different place. When he says Asian men have small penises because “they’re all women” and mocks nonbinary people who use they/them pronouns—“You should address me as ‘there,’ because I identify as a location. And the location is your mother’s cunt”—he’s not grappling with his own moral compass or making a comment about human frailty or hypocrisy. He’s just being a dick and redirecting his anger from the worthiest of targets—including himself, given that he blew up his career by harassing women—toward the people it’s easiest to malign. This material isn’t transgressive. It’s mean-spirited and cheap, and it gives bigots permission to take easy shots at communities they love to hate.

The transformation C.K. appears to be going through isn’t altogether uncommon. Aziz Ansari, who was accused last year of alleged sexual coercion and ignoring a woman’s objections during sex—Ansari responded by saying that he believed the encounter in question was “completely consensual”—returned to the comedy scene after a short break with a set that dismissed progressive activism as performative and erratic. Coming from the artist who in his work had routinely commended feminist principles and cast scorn on sexual victimizers, it was a shock. Coming from a man who’d just been exposed and humiliated for alleged sexual misbehavior by a crowd consisting mostly of progressives—even as he was loudly supported by many prominent others—it made a depressing kind of sense.

Stories like C.K.’s and Ansari’s are catnip to the kind of people who consider themselves courageous crusaders for free speech and against political correctness. One of the most-read articles ever on Quillette, a Jordan Peterson–approved haven for followers of the reactionary group of writers known as the “Intellectual Dark Web,” is a piece titled “I Was the Mob Until the Mob Came for Me.” It’s a personal essay from an anonymous man who writes that he used to work in “the social justice industry” until an allegation of misbehavior got him “publicly shamed, mobbed, and reduced to a symbol of male privilege.” He once used his “mid-sized Twitter and Facebook platforms” to call people out for having bad opinions on “LGBT rights, rape culture, and racial injustice.” Now, he writes, “social justice is a surveillance culture, a snitch culture.”

When a member of the so-called social justice mob—or one of the mob’s less dogmatic political allies, like C.K.—turns against his fellow mobsters, some take it as evidence that progressive social movements (feminism, the Movement for Black Lives) are grounded in hate and that the whole project of rooting out discrimination and insisting on dignified treatment for marginalized communities is a farce. Quillette has called criticism of C.K.’s new routine a “war on comedy,” one being powered by “the ever more powerful social media guns of the Social Justice Left.” That interpretation was echoed this week by Tucker Carlson, who complained on his Fox News show that “comedy is dying” because “a mob of angry children is suddenly in charge of the country,” silencing people on social media and dragging the names of good people through the mud.

These statements wouldn’t have felt out of place in C.K.’s new stand-up set. In less than two years, the comedian went from calling Trump a “dirty, rotten, lying sack of shit” to sounding like an aggrieved right-winger. All it took was being confronted with his own despicable behavior and the harm he caused others to shift the thrust of his comedy from punching up and in to punching down and out. Despite his initial apology, C.K. isn’t mad at himself for abusing women, having his employees and allies stunt their careers to keep them silent, and lying about his behavior for years. He’s only mad at the people who held him accountable.

This dynamic was made explicit by Jamie Kilstein, a self-identified feminist who co-hosted the liberal podcast Citizen Radio until he was hit with several allegations of sexual and emotional abuse in early 2017. (Kilstein said the accusations were the product of an ex-girlfriend looking for “any girl who has been pissed off by me before,” and “a good majority” of a Jezebel article about them “wasn’t even fucking true.”) A few years earlier, Kilstein had loudly decried Daniel Tosh and other comedians for joking about rape. But once he was accused of mistreating women, he went on Joe Rogan’s podcast to rebrand himself as an ex-feminist and complain about all the jokes he couldn’t tell and thoughts he couldn’t share when he was inhabiting the role of a “male feminist.” Perhaps Louis C.K. has been freed from similar shackles by the public airing of his abuses.

It’s also worth considering whether audiences gave C.K. a pass on some dubious comedy—or overlooked evidence that he didn’t have as deep an understanding of morality as he got credit for—because of his reputation as an emotionally astute intellectual. As Slate critic Willa Paskin wrote when the first named allegations against C.K. came out, some of his Louie storylines can be read as sendups of sexual consent as a concept, rather than the sensitive explorations they were made out to be by most critics at the time.

Since the #MeToo movement gained traction, those who find themselves on the wrong side of narrowing boundaries of acceptable behavior—or, at least, behavior that most women used to keep quiet about because peers and employers would sweep it under the rug—can either choose to reflect and repent or go full reactionary. C.K. professed that he would do the former, taking time out of the public eye to learn about the harms of sexual abuse and consider why he felt compelled to sexually humiliate women without their consent. His fans and fellow comedians were rooting hard for him; if anyone could have phoned a friend for help devising a solid plan of penitence and eventual return, it was him. And as a talented performer accustomed to examining questions of sexual consent, the human mind’s dark impulses, and his own failings, he’d have been plenty able to come up with a new set that cast himself as the punchline.

But C.K. took an easier route: He modified his comedy and his intended audience rather than his behavior. There is a welcoming, lucrative market out there for writers and entertainers willing to trash feminists, left-leaning activists, trans people, and alleged survivors of sexual assault. It’s a community that allows anyone to regard himself as a brave warrior for decency so long as he insults the widely insulted. All it takes for a publicly scorned man to join is a willingness to abandon the principles he probably didn’t hold too dearly in the first place.