It’s the newest and probably least fun genre in cultural criticism: writing the career obituary of someone you really liked, who, in a seeming instant, gains near-universal recognition as a terrible person.
The end of Louis C.K. — who, at 50, is alive, but in a sense dead to us now — is a difficult but necessary loss. Accounts of his perversions and abhorrent behavior toward women who were his peers and admirers (including the stories of how he exposed himself and masturbated in front of them) have been rumored for years and were solidified this week with the New York Times’ bombshell, on-the-record story of sexual misconduct.
On Friday, C.K. released a long and passively remorseful statement confirming that the stories are true. “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” he said. “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”
An opportune disappearance, perhaps for good. No glitzy premiere of his icky-looking new movie (“I Love You, Daddy”) that has now also lost its distributor, no appearance on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show.” C.K.’s television home, FX, cut ties with him Friday, canceling all his production deals; HBO scrubbed his work from its on-demand archive; Netflix, already neck-deep in a Kevin Spacey problem, canceled plans for C.K.’s next comedy special.
We are again left to wonder: Do our good memories and experiences of the original material also no longer exist? Will we be haunted by the idea that FX’s Emmy-winning dramedy “Louie” was — despite those sharply executed moments that explored gender, sex, mortality and the human condition — merely a gigantic work of overcompensation by a guy who wanted to be seen as an enlightened satirist, even as he knew, not very deep down, that he was behaving like a pig?
A certain piggishness was always part of his act, wasn’t it? (“Pig” is even part of the title of his production company, Pig Newton.) It was seen as a feature rather than a fault, part of his miserable schlub humor, a man giving voice to some of the darkest and sickest thoughts a person can have. What was also there, especially in “Louie,” was a river of self-loathing, an essential tool for today’s comedy. When a guy keeps telling you, even in jest, what a piece of crap he is, it’s interesting how willing we are to accept this as a keen and self-aware attribute. How can he be a true jerk if he’s so hilarious and so open about being a jerk?
Onstage, he articulated all this in a way that turned such subjects (pedophilia, necrophilia, chronic onanism; but also marital strife, loss of libido, body-image issues) into a kind of perverted, guy-centric gold. He is far from the only comedian to mine this territory; the comedy biz, after all, has for decades prided itself on how well one can tell a drawn-out joke about a family that performs acts of incest as a stage routine (What do you call your act? The Aristocrats!). C.K.’s stage persona made it more than okay to laugh about almost anything.
Not everyone was laughing — this we always knew. Several years ago, as “Louie” gathered raves and awards, there were other comedians, fans and members of the pop-culture cognoscenti who kept having frustrating debates over questions that shouldn’t be that hard to answer, such as: Are women as funny as men? Can a rape joke ever be funny? (I dare you to attempt any answer but “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second.)
C.K.’s answers to those questions, as he became more successful, was to collaborate with women; to sing their praises and co-produce their shows (Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” on FX; Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” on Amazon). These sincere efforts are contradicted by new information, which is why it’s extra painful to hear what he was like behind closed doors. To experience almost any form of popular culture is to be continuously and often painfully reminded that there’s a real person behind the famous performer, a person who can have serious flaws and the selfish impulse to harm others.
In “Louie” it was always apparent that the show was about a man grappling with the ways that the world is good and bad. Louie makes progress in his understanding of women by sharing the duties of raising his two young daughters as a single dad, which, in hindsight, puts him in league with those politicians who express disgust at harassment and gender inequality by pointing out that they are the fathers of daughters, as if that’s the only way such matters could possibly get through to a man.
So, is this goodbye? C.K.’s statement Friday, filled with everything but “I’m sorry,” could almost read as a treatment for that long-overdue new season of “Louie” that seemed as if it would never come. (The show has been on hiatus for nearly three years.)
The arc is clearly there: Louie’s behavior costs him everything, including some of his dearest friends, and he must scrape his way up from rock bottom, by listening rather than talking. Part of me wants to say I’m eager to see that show. But the far better part of me would rather see shows made by people who don’t assault and humiliate the people around them.