Why we can’t separate Louis C.K. from his art

Louis C.K. has an unforgettable bit about death. Wondering why people ask to donate their bodies to science after they die, he promises that he’ll give his to a higher cause: Sexual perversion.

“There are people out there who have sexual compulsions and they can’t control them–they go and they bother alive people,” he says, imagining a fun house for people to do whatever weird stuff they want to do with his dead body. “[You want to] jack off with the cartilage of my ear? Whatever is your heart’s desire,” he promises. “I want to be the Willy Wonka for perverts.”

The joke mocks the elaborate plans people make for after death. It also tells us so much about the long-beloved comedian, and why it’s impossible to isolate his work from how he views sex and treats women.

A story published in the New York Times (paywall) today (Nov. 9) contains allegations from five women who say he “crossed a line into sexual misconduct.” In one case, he allegedly trapped two comedians in his hotel room, got naked, and masturbated in front of them. In another, a comedian said she heard him masturbating during a professional phone call. Louis C.K. declined to comment, and now rumors that go back at least five years finally have names and faces behind them.

The problem for those who love his work

What looks like just another in a long string of men in power revealed as abusers of that power, the allegations against the stand-up—who is also noted as a writer and producer—also present new ethical questions for his supporters. Through his body of work, and through the business model he built to protect himself from oversight, C.K. has created a separate level of complicity for his viewers.

Any casual observer of his stand-up act, TV shows, or movie knows that even Louis C.K. thinks Louis C.K. is a creep. The comedian’s fans have watched as he: tries to masturbate while listening to a radio report of genocide in a fictional African country; says he’s unable to hear a news anchor say “Libya” without trying to masturbate onto the TV screen; says he wishes he could get a book out from the library about Abraham Lincoln without wishing the librarian would wrap her hair around his penis; talks about why teenage pop stars are a bad idea because “folks are jackin’ off to them.”

C.K.’s entire reputation is staked on his being a prisoner to his own depravity. In a bit from 2011, he says, “Just the constant, perverted sexual thoughts, I’m so tired of those…That’s really a male problem, not being able to control your constant sexual impulses,” he says, then adding, to women rhetorically: “You have no idea. You get to have those thoughts. I have to have them. You’re a tourist in sexual perversion; I’m a prisoner there.”

C.K.’s new movie, I Love You, Daddy, was due to be released in select US theaters Nov. 17, with the New York premiere scheduled for tonight. It’s a clear provocation in this vein. The trailer shows Chloë Grace Moretz as his character’s 17-year-old daughter, who starts a romantic relationship with her father’s hero, a 68-year-old director, played by John Malkovich. Reviews compare the film to Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan, about the relationship between a 42-year-old played by Allen and his 17-year-old girlfriend, later mirrored in some sense by the real-life marriage between Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime companion Mia Farrow. (The premiere of I Love You, Daddy was cancelled just ahead of the Times story.)

Being disarming about being disgusting

Louis C.K. has succeeded because he is so open about being unacceptable. By saying so, he’s implicitly “working on it.” He admits guilt from the get-go—which means the people who watch Louie and buy tickets to his shows, have all chosen him, not in spite of potential for abhorrent behavior, but because of it.

This is complicated further still by C.K.’s unique business model, in which his fans pay him directly to receive many of his shows, like the ambitious self-financed series, Horace and Pete, which he released last year. He’s used the platform to help other comedians: In 2012, he distributed Tig Notaro’s comedy special on his site, asking fans to pay $5 for a direct download, with C.K. keeping $1 and giving Notaro $4 for each sale. (Notaro tells the Times now she worries she was used by him to bolster his image.) According to his site, he made enough from sales of Horace and Pete to more than cover the $4.5 million he sunk into the project, with enough of a profit that it allowed him to make I Love You, Daddy. Eventually, he said, he’ll make the movie available on his site, alongside his show and other specials.

The knot of engaging with Louis C.K.

This makes it impossible to passively engage with a man accused of harassment, to be weakly complicit or willfully ignorant. It’s not like turning on the TV and passively receiving a showing of Annie Hall that’s already on cable and paid for, and it’s not like unknowingly buying a Harvey Weinstein movie on iTunes, because the producer’s face isn’t plastered on a thumbnail image. Without any intermediary between the viewer and C.K.—no other producers, actors, or pocketbooks—the viewer has to look the accused right in the face to sign up.

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Screenshot louisCK.net

What you buy when you buy Louis, is Louis. And crucially, whom you pay is Louis. The very thing C.K. was hoping would cut out overhead and creative oversight is the very thing that will make it even harder for fans to excuse their engagement.

In the Netflix special C.K. released in April, he ends with an extended bit about how he can’t help but get turned on by the film Magic Mike, about male strippers. As he wonders if this means he might be gay, he says, “If you’re looking at the best dick ever, and you’re not sure you want to suck it, just put it in your mouth and then decide.” You can read this generously—he is vulnerably wrestling over sexual thoughts he doesn’t want to have—and you can also read it cynically—he is trying to escape culpability by making his sexual aggression equal-opportunity, and in doing so he’s normalizing it, apologizing for it, and, indeed, getting paid for it.

Whichever side you stand on, you have no choice but to confront the gray and to see he’s talking about himself, and he’s also talking about you. He’s inviting you to feel the same as he does, and to tell him, “It’s OK.”