Louis C.K.'s Parkland joke is what happens when comedy fails

On Christmas Eve, Kevin Spacey made what appeared to be the most tasteless comeback attempt of 2018. ...

Posted: Jan 2, 2019 4:11 PM
Updated: Jan 2, 2019 4:11 PM

On Christmas Eve, Kevin Spacey made what appeared to be the most tasteless comeback attempt of 2018. In a video he posted on Twitter called "Let Me Be Frank," he gave a weird speech in the character of his also-creepy "House of Cards" character Frank Underwood, about how we "trusted him, even though we knew we shouldn't." He is currently facing charges for indecent assault and battery, which involve allegations about which he has not responded to requests for comment.

As if that was not enough, and with less than 24 hours of 2018 to spare, audio footage of an also-horrendous new set by Louis C.K. was leaked to YouTube. In the space of just a few minutes, he can be heard viciously mocking the survivors of the Parkland high school shooting, as well as trans and non-binary people. The set, reportedly from a performance earlier in December, was swiftly condemned, but presumably also provided some comfort for anyone concerned that #MeToo irrevocably wrecks men's lives.

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(In the interests of fairness, I should also mention that Spacey attempted to skip his forthcoming hearing in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and that request was denied on New Year's Eve.)

There's a lot to unpack here. But besides the obvious laziness -- not to mention cruelty -- of a famous comic's attacking vulnerable targets under the guise of being daring or provocative, one of the most standout elements of Louis C.K.'s new material is its shallowness. In a move that sparked social media outrage, he dedicated a portion of his set to complaining that modern teenagers -- like the Parkland kids -- are too "boring," not "crazy" or "unhinged" enough. He stressed that he, an absolute legend you understand, was off doing "mushrooms and sh*t" when he was young, and had looked forward to seeing "crazy" kids once he was in his 50s.

For a man whose career is apparently built on wit and insight, it seemed to escape his notice that he, an older guy who rebelled as a kid, was joking that he's now unhappy that the behavior of young people didn't fall in line with his expectations or desires. Which is pretty much the definition of rebellion.

Louis C.K. seems determined to sidestep self-examination. Ever since the leak of his set, he's been whining on Twitter about "oversensitivity," saying things like "there is no pleasing a woman," and cursing everyone who disagrees with him. He is happy to bemoan others' lack of good humor in response to his baiting, but lashes out when people don't "get" him.

Ricky Gervais is one of several comedians who have commented on the Louis C.K. leak (he didn't name him, but it seems safe to assume the reference), tweeting: "Please stop saying 'You can't joke about anything anymore.' You can. You can joke about whatever the **** 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 **** or not. And so on. It's a good system."

It's not that good a system, though. The problem with the argument that you can joke about what you like as long as you're cool with people's reactions is that it's not a system that would realistically sustain itself if everyone took advantage of it, because barely anyone would actually keep their cool. It also just assumes a level of entitlement and disregard for the feelings of others which -- mostly -- is the station of wealthy men for whom processing constructive criticism is almost always too much effort.

The flaws in this system are why Louis C.K. made rape jokes in his first comedy set after his #MeToo revelations, it's why Aziz Ansari's bemoaned excessive wokeness in his, and it's why Kevin Spacey tried to duck his sexual assault hearing, but felt no shame making a "comedy" video about it. Nine times out of 10, these men will make the choice to ignore anything that doesn't fit their playbook. It's a system that does everything to protect the powerful, confident, and mediocre, and nothing to encourage the evolution of quality work.

The obtuseness of his actual content aside, I reckon Louis C.K. knows exactly what he's doing. Unless he is profoundly stupid as well as profoundly unpleasant, I think he intends to cause offense, because the action-reaction plays into a convenient narrative. In order to perpetuate a view that he is a misunderstood or maligned genius who has every right to carry on working, he must carry on working, and ride out the criticism as the inevitable result of a world unable to appreciate his offerings. He can continue to pass off formulaic jokes as brave, and any backlash as oversensitivity.

Many would agree that Louis C.K. made funny, intelligent comments in the past. But it will remain impossible for him to say anything interesting or insightful about topics he's burned his hands on in the future, while there continue to be no meaningful consequences when he gets it so awfully wrong.

It's possible to make funny jokes about painful subjects -- whether it's necessary is a different question -- but not if one's examination of those subjects is entirely superficial. If Louis C.K. assumes that his right to comment rests on the fact that he is a comedian, that right is surely rescinded when his jokes are so patently unfunny. When dark humor isn't funny, it's just dark.

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