Louis C.K. is back. In November 2017, after a New York Times article detailed several sexual harassment allegations against the comedian, he released a non-apology in which he admitted to the accusations. Although these allegations had been circulating online as early as 2012, it took another five years for the public climate to swing in favour of the women speaking out. Among this wave of accusations and public outcry, C.K. removed himself from the public eye.
In August of 2018, less than a year after the allegations went public, Louis C.K. made an unannounced appearance at the Comedy Cellar in New York, where he immediately fell back into his usual routine, even including a riff about rape whistles. In the few months of his absence, YouTube videos such as “Louis C.K. – A True Comic Genius” had racked up a million views, quite apart from his many defenders on Twitter. While his first appearance at the Comedy Cellar incited controversy, and subsequent drop-ins were met with a few walk-outs and hecklers, his performances continue. Louis C.K. already is back, whether we like it or not.
The question therefore is not whether he is coming back or whether he should, but what to do now that he is. If artistic talent supposedly supersedes any ramifications for the artist’s reprehensible behavior, one approach would be to consider whether Louis CK is, in fact, a “True Comic Genius”. Is Louis C.K. as provocative, as unique, as groundbreaking as we are told he is?
Part of a tradition of stand-up comics in the vein of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, CK is certainly competently vulgar. However, Bruce’s vulgarity, coupled with his Jewish identity, drew the ire of contemporary peacekeepers, and his 1964 trial on obscenity charges is still considered a landmark moment in discussions around freedom of speech. Carlin’s 1980s sermons against the Catholic Church were among the first of their kind in comedy.
Louis C.K. is performing the same provocative style, with no one to punch up against. He is at his funniest when he speaks about his ageing body, time being the only enemy left to a man atop the sociopolitical food chain. Many of his other bits of observational comedy about gender and race, previously widely read as daring, now leave a bitter aftertaste in light of C.K.’s admission to having harassed several women.
Someone who proves that people who do not face any structural oppression can, in fact, be funny without being offensive or boring is John Mulaney. His sets, conventional from a formal perspective, draw on a vintage, music-hall aesthetic, which is bolstered by his talent with imitations. Additionally, his keen awareness of word choice renders his anecdotal, observational comedy both specific and charmingly absurd. Mulaney, aware of the problem of punching down, largely avoids political content.
Currently, the best observational comedy, political and otherwise, is being made by younger comics who are as hilarious as they are formally daring. A second approach to C.K.’s return, then, is to support talented, innovative comedians whose careers are made most difficult by a climate of sexual harassment and suppression of certain voices in comedy.
Among these is Catherine Cohen, a Brooklyn comic and self-described “obnoxious wench”, who performs hybrid sets of stand-up and musical comedy, wherein she croons lines as iconic as “boys never wanted to kiss me/so now I do comedy”. Or Chris Fleming, whose live shows are as multi-medial as his YouTube videos, where he intersperses samples of the Dave Matthews Band with performances as a gender-bending “he-niece of Lucifer”, or green-screens himself into a football stadium during an otherwise classical stand-up monologue about Anxiety.
What these comedians have in common is an ironic approach to how their identities shape the reception of their work. Their sharp eye for hyper-specific observational comedy easily trumps the generalisations of C.K.’s grouchy old man persona. Where he removes himself from the ridiculous, mocking what he does not understand, they mock what they do, but wish they didn’t – from anxiety over sexism to hipsters. This interest in undermining the ego of the Comic Genius pervades their bodies of work. The way they self-consciously emulate one-(wo)man shows to underline the egotistical tint of any stand-up set. How they collaborate with performers across different genres. Their interdisciplinary talents, from musical composition over graphic design, TV writing, podcasting, sketch comedy, and dance, to the way they market their own work online – it’s pure genius. Maybe that YouTube video’s title is right. The way to respond to Louis C.K.’s return, and to approach comedy at large, is to support True Comic Genius.
03/1: The article formerly read that Mitra Jouhari created a dance routine to Beyoncé’s ‘Love on Top’ – in fact this was devised by Sunita Mani.