I’ve been meaning to put in my two cents regarding the recent Louis C.K. controversy. I’ve procrastinated on it because there’s a lot to say, and it’s overdue that I come out and say it.
If you haven’t heard, Louis C.K. did a set in the recent months in which he mocked the survivors of the Parkland shooting. The set had been recorded unofficially and without permission by an audience member, who then posted it online. The media jumped on the routine, the one clip being played repeatedly in news stories that condemned Louis for his insensitivity.
I refused to listen to the joke until I could hear the entire routine. As expected, the internet soon provided. I was certain that, when taken in context, the joke would prove to be above reproach. I even texted my friends the link to the routine with the cocky message, “I haven’t listened to it yet, but I will shortly, and I expect it to exonerate our boy. Context is everything, knowledge is power, comedy is subjective.” Then I listened to the full recording.
I didn’t like the joke. I thought it was awkward, I thought it was forced, I thought it was in poor taste. It felt like shock-value for its own sake. Additional material followed in which Louis clarified that countless people die daily that go completely unsung. This larger observation did not, in my opinion, make the joke better.
Coincidentally, my two sibling and I each heard the routine with varying degrees of foreknowledge. My sister had heard the joke on the news before getting to hear the full set. I heard the set knowing what the subject of the joke was, but not having heard the clip. My brother listened to the whole routine without any knowledge of what the controversial material was, only that there had been controversy. We’re all huge Louis fans. None of us had much love for the joke.
I could deconstruct the joke and explain why I felt it didn’t work, but it’s irrelevant. The fact is, the joke is still being judged out of context. The context in which it was told is one where none of us should have been present; that routine was a work-in-progress intended for a very small audience. Comedians workshop their jokes for weeks and months before considering them finished. They go to small clubs and try radical material. The owner of the club where Louis performed the routine stated that comedians often experiment at his establishment, and that recordings are prohibited. “Nobody wants their material being heard before it’s totally 100 percent polished,” the owner said. “That’s basically what he was doing.”
An important skill of comedy is knowing your audience. Louis’s intended audience was not the world at large. It was an intimate crowd in a small comedy club, a crowd that was used to hearing experimental material—an audience that, by the sound of it, was having a wonderful time. Had Louis continued to work the set without outside interference, I guarantee that when it came time to record any special, half that material would have been gone. I’ve seen videos online of Louis trying things out that never made it to album or screen, while other material was heavily revamped. The Parkland joke might have been excised altogether or else reshaped into a bit that had more meaning to it. After all, this is a man who has taken topics such as rape and child molestation and found ways to comment on them in a context that was hysterical.
And much of the bootlegged set IS hysterical. The first half had me in stitches. The second half is where things got rougher. Some of it made me guffaw, some of it made me cringe. It wasn’t ready for the world.
I’ll tell you what I find more offensive than the joke itself: the media’s blatant emotional manipulation. Showing footage of the Parkland shootings over Louis’s words is cheap, Michael Moore heartstring-pulling; as if anyone needed to be reminded of what the Parkland shooting was. Many commenters can’t help but bring up Louis’s previous sexual controversy. Multiple articles and videos criticize Louis’s return to comedy “less than a year” after stating “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” And indeed, for a while he wasn’t heard from. Only recently did he start putting himself out there again. How long, exactly, do these critics feel is an appropriate length of time for a comedian NOT to perform comedy—to do his actual job? Apparently “less than a year” isn’t a satisfactory hiatus.
And yet those critics wouldn’t even be thinking about Louis right now had some asshole not leaked the material online. Said asshole, presumably the man who can be heard cackling and making commentary throughout the routine, probably didn’t know his actions would have a negative impact. He thought he was just sharing the laughs.
What he actually did was betray a trust. You don’t judge an incomplete work of art. Louis C.K., a man whose career has been defined by pushing boundaries, was testing his jokes. Every comedian does this. Your favorite comedian has thrown away more awful jokes than you’ve heard them tell funny ones, some of them probably offensive. Comedians and, for that matter, all artists walk the line of good taste. Some of them keep far to the safe side of it, some deliberately jump well over it. And of course, comedy IS subjective. That’s why it needs to be worked and reworked to make it as far reaching as it can possibly be. So not giving the man the opportunity to present his material to us in its best form is truly unfair.
I ask you to think of this: had some jerk not bootlegged that set and leaked it online, no one would ever know about the joke. There’d be no uproar. Survivors of the Parkland shooting wouldn’t be outraged—understandably so—about a joke that was never intended for their ears. And maybe the joke would have never been told again. It’s very possible it would have been cut from the larger routine. And if it wasn’t? Well, maybe then people would have the right to judge the man’s work so harshly. Then, at least, we would know that he felt that the joke was acceptable to present to the world, and we could have reacted accordingly. That’s all academic now. People didn’t give him the chance.
I hope you come back from this Louis. I really, really do.