If November 2016 was a study in anguish for many, November 2017 is a study in contrasts. (Well, and anguish.) At the very time when, it seems, Americans have finally begun to take sexual predation seriously and impose meaningful consequences on men who abuse their power, the far right has shot off in the opposite direction like a dog with a ham in its mouth.
Sure, previously untouchable cultural behemoths like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. are watching their legacies crumble around them, but, in the same news cycle, Republicans are smashing their expensive coffee makers in defense of a man who is alleged to have sexually assaulted minors and the president of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct so many times that the accusations have their own Wikipedia page. Newton’s Third Law, I guess.
It has been particularly illuminating to watch the comedy community process the toppling of one of its sacred man-boys. Many people — myself included, at one time — consider Louis C.K. to be the greatest living stand-up comic, an astute, self-effacing, disgusting, loving dad who managed to win over not just the morning talk radio boys’ club but tougher crowds like feminists and art snobs (maybe because none of us listened to what he was saying to the talk radio boys’ club).
His 2013 HBO special “Oh My God” was praised for its frank acknowledgment of rape culture (acknowledgment may be a low bar, but it’s all we had in a pre-Cosby landscape). Louis C.K. called men “the No. 1 cause of injury and mayhem to women” and pointed out that for women, spending time alone with a man requires “courage.” I suppose he would know.
“Oh My God” came out a year after Gawker published a blind item alleging that a beloved comedian, widely whispered to be Louis C.K., had exposed himself and masturbated in front of multiple women without their consent. The special was, presumably, written in that intervening year, and in retrospect, it’s difficult not to read the “injury and mayhem” joke in particular as a shrewd calculation.
The same adept calculation saturates the statement that the comedian put out on Friday, a day after the allegations against him were made public. In his “apology” he mentions his anatomy multiple times, but the words “I’m sorry” not once. On the surface, he convincingly telegraphs contrition and a deep disgust at his own weaknesses, but disarming self-flagellation has always been his art. The careful message is “I, one man, made one mistake,” not “I, among many others, preyed upon vulnerable women in my industry, on purpose, because I am both a defender and a beneficiary of an entrenched system of oppression.” It’s easier to get your old job back if the power structure that gave it to you in the first place stays intact.
I am tired of calculation. If we’re having a reckoning, let’s have a full reckoning.
This week, the comedian Marc Maron, a friend and contemporary of Louis C.K., devoted his podcast’s opening monologue to the comedian’s transgressions and the gendered power dynamics in comedy. He acknowledged that comedy is a boys’ club and that he used to think female comics just needed to be funny and to “fight it out,” without realizing what else they had to deal with, specifically: “They have to deal with all of us.”
It’s among the most honest, cathartic admissions we’ve heard from comedy’s old guard, and I appreciate it. But I’m baffled by Maron’s apparent surprise at the structural inequality within his industry. A great many people have been pointing out women’s disadvantages in comedy for a very long time. Those people are called women. In return, we’ve been abused, discredited, blacklisted, turned into punch lines and driven out of the industry.
In 2012, Louis C.K. appeared on “The Daily Show” and said that “comedians and feminists are natural enemies” because “feminists can’t take a joke.” Jon Stewart nodded vigorously and agreed. Today, Stewart is being fawned over for acknowledging, in response to Louis C.K.’s fall, that “comedy on its best day is not a great environment for women.” Ten years from now, a female comedian friend texted me, a man will win awards for his documentary about all this.
If you believe us now only because your peers are facing professional ruin, that deserves its own reckoning. I’ll wait.
One of comedy’s defining pathologies, alongside literal pathologies like narcissism and self-loathing, is its swaggering certainty that it is part of the political vanguard, while upholding one of the most rigidly patriarchal hierarchies of any art form. Straight male comedians, bookers and club owners have always been the gatekeepers of upward mobility in stand-up, an industry where “women aren’t funny” was considered conventional wisdom until just a few years ago.
The solution isn’t more solemn acknowledgments from powerful male comedians. We have those. The solution is putting people in positions of power who are not male, not straight, not cisgender, not white. This is not taking something away unfairly — it is restoring opportunities that have been historically withheld. And if we address the power imbalance in comedy, in this art that shapes how people think, what jokes they repeat to their families, who they believe deserves to hold a microphone and talk out loud, other imbalances might follow.
There’s an old Louis C.K. joke that starts: “Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true, because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce.”
I know it’s hard, but this is the best thing that has happened to comedy in a long time.