At the time of my divorce, Louis C.K had yet to be exposed for indecent behavior.
My affiliation with Louis C.K. is both personal and fraudulent, the way all our imaginary relationships with celebrities are. I’m far from the only person on planet earth who experienced a minor or major personal tragedy and leaned on a cultural icon for the emotional support lacking in real life. Mine just happened to have an exhibitionist streak, inappropriately channeled.
When Louis C.K. joked that babies are like Etch-A-Sketches that you shake everyday, the metaphor was an epiphany: a statement about the rest of my life, post-marriage. All the plans my marital relationship had encompassed, blindly erased. In the aftermath of my divorce, I spent a rough summer adjusting those life plans. Louis C.K. provided the background music to the Etch-A-Sketch that had become my new life.
While I sweated out a painful summer sleeping on an army cot for one in a 9 foot by 12 foot room, drinking wine that tasted like petrol, I played Youtube uploads of Louis C.K.’s performances. And I played them nonstop. I fell asleep listening to his voice. I woke up and did 300 crunches every morning, listening to Louis C.K. begin his performance at the Comedy Store where he introduces himself as a “Mexican" demanding to be taken over the wall. He kept me laughing when I wanted to cry. He also kept me entertained so I didn’t come off the rails and start an indiscriminate dating spree with what Louis C.K. might have called a “blizzard of bad dicks.”
In a weird way, he helped me heal. He helped me stay light-hearted in a moment of deep depression.
And then he had to pull his pants down.
Several things struck me about Louis C.K.’s downfall.
Firstly, that it wasn’t quite the same as Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, or the same as Bill Cosby’s downfall, or the same as Brett Kavanaugh’s “downfall” — it was a weirdly absurd act that seemed to have no particular aim except to marry the erotic with the disgusting. While the crimes of the aforementioned notables concerned themselves mainly with exploitation and rape, Louis C.K.’s exposure did not seem to accomplish these things. Actually, he seemed really terrible at it, once calling a comedienne to apologize for the wrong crime, according to the New York Times’ reporting on the events surrounding Louis C.K.’s masturbatory rampage. No, Rebecca Corry had to inform him, that wasn’t me you shoved into a bathroom. He did not seem to remember that it was Ms. Corry that he had invited into his dressing room so he could masturbate in front of her. Louis C.K. lurches from one sexual assault to another with the aplomb of clown who can’t remember where he left his red nose.
Others in the industry echoed a similar sentiment. Dave Chapelle couldn’t help but crack a sheepish joke pointing out that Louis C.K.’s exposure was the least of one’s challenges when facing the career gauntlet of show business. “How the hell are you going to survive in show business if this is an actual obstacle to your dreams?” Everyone seemed to regard Louis C.K. as the sexual assault no one saw coming. Is this the reason that it went on so long? Or just our general cultural attitudes at the time that encouraged those industry insiders to look in the other direction?
Weirdly, Louis C.K. had already outed himself as a pervert — and we all thought it was pretty funny, until we realized those weren’t jokes. Louis C.K. left an abundance of clues that suggested his sexual proclivities were not run of the mill.
Strikingly, he gave an account of his first sexual experience in which he climaxes and farts at the same time. The description is flabbergasting and absurd and conveys a sense of Louis C.K.’s role as the archetypal “fool." Every rite of passage Louis C.K. conveys is touched with disgust and horror, making his very life the perfect amalgation of the concept, “cosmic joke.” He is, in essence, “The Fool" from the tarot, the mythological trickster who’s every well intentioned effort dissolves into failure, into the absurd — even at the expense of his career. The one intimate moment that our culture insists we hold as special, our first sexual act in which we are suddenly transformed into quasi-adulthood, was for Louis C.K a foray into the ridiculous, a flatuence ridden eroticism. How could any of us take him seriously?
Of course, Louis C.K.’s history of disgust and eros is rife throughout his comedic acts. He describes first exposing himself to a woman with Down syndrome when they were both children. He talks about a phase in which he stole tampons for no particular reason. In this hilarious, horrifying comedy bit in his performance at the Beacon Theater, Louis C.K. describes himself as wanting to be “the Willy Wonka of perverts.” He talks about a fantasy in which he gives his dead body over to the public so they can be alone with the carcass and do whatever they want with it because “Sexual perversion is a problem. You can’t stop it. You gotta do what you gotta do.” Do tell, Louis, do tell.
In pondering the problem of Louis C.K., and reading the accounts of the women who were trampled over in their efforts to follow their careers like responsible adults — with hard work and ambition — women like Rebecca Corry, Abby Schachner, Julia Wolov, and Dana Min Goodman, I recognized myself as an audience member to Louis C.K.’s unfolding drama.
This wasn’t funny anymore. We were all playing parts, some with major or lesser roles. As an audience member, our part, collectively, might be the most important. Because without our participation, the performer in question does not survive. There is no comedy, and no drama, without all of us intertwined. What Louis C.K. had done was not only sexual crimes against women. He’d invited us all into it. Each time he cracked joke, and we laughed, we were complicit in something larger. Each time someone paid a ticket and sat at his show, they were funding hidden desires.
That was where the real shame lived and died: and it wasn’t with Louis C.K., it was with all of us, the bystanders, the audience members, the fans.
There is a scary nuance to the world of entertainment and the concept behind what it is to be “used.” Dave Chapelle, in his careless line mentioned above, brought to light a wider problem in the world of entertainment, beyond our objections to a full frontal show of a red headed man’s dick (that, according to him, looks like a pig’s tail.) In the world of entertainment, comedy or otherwise, your value is only if you are being used — used by your co-workers, used by your boss, used by the corporation who bought rights to you, and inevitably, being used by an audience for emotional relief, the way I used Louis C.K. to help me get through a divorce: for my complete, emotional edification.
The thing I always enjoyed about his comedy, before it became something on order of a dirty secret, is that he had a funny way of turning a difficult subject inside out. He gripped the tiger by the tail and managed the risky business of letting it go without getting bit, whether the subject was race relations, gender, marriage, or the culture at large.
But now that the stage is empty, there is no one left to turn the conundrum that is Louis C.K. and his downfall inside out. Prior to the incidents that came to light, he seemed to write his own future, joking that his fame would not last much longer, and in one interview, musing that if his life were swapped with that of a homeless man’s, he could simply work his way to the top again, on the sheer force of his talent.
When I got divorced, I had to work my way up from a new bottom. I’m doing well for someone with a situation not in their favor. Where is Louis C.K. now that he had made us all supremely uncomfortable? Where is his “bottom”?
I wanted to wrap this essay with a cutting observation, an epiphany that would ultimately make liking Louis C.K.’s comedy and acknowledging his crimes as compatible events. But they are not. It remains the weirdest of betrayals — to feel second-hand shame for someone who apparently has none.
Instead, I went to Louis C.K.’s website. I remembered one interview in which he related he had an email address that people would send him hate notes through every now and again.
If he ever had one, he effectively shut it down. But it doesn’t take a genius to type in his first name with @ his domain, and voila — I hit SEND:
You got me through a divorce in 2017 until it finalized in 2018, and I started to write about it. This time period coincides with the obvious in your life. And so I went back through all your comedy routines, but this time it was different. The time before, I was just trying to escape my own hurt. This time, I was trying to find yours.
I wrote an essay I can’t quite finish. I wanted to talk frankly about sex and sexual experience. And what exposure means — as a person who performs before the public, no one thinks twice about using your comedy for their own edification. Is it any different from masturbating in front of someone else?
Last time I checked, Louis C.K. was repeatedly selling out shows on the comedy circuit. I suspect like the hypothetical alternate universe, homeless version of himself, he is slowly climbing his way back upward.
To date, there has never been an answer to my email.