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I'm in the new Louis CK Documentary: Here's Why
There’s a new documentary about the Louis CK scandal called Sorry/Not Sorry. To be clear: I haven’t seen it yet and don’t have an opinion on it. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a couple weeks ago to – from what I gather - a mixed reaction. Among the knocks against the movie are the fact that almost none of the comedians who criticized him at the time agreed to appear in the film. In fact, the only two whose names I recognized in the reviews are my friend Jen Kirkman and myself.
When a producer first contacted me about the possibility of appearing in the movie, my initial instinct was to say no. This was for a few reasons: the first was that I didn’t want to make it appear as if I was making other people’s salacious stories about myself. Second, I had already been burned once before by commenting about Louis (more on that later). Third, I was kind of scared. Not scared of Louis or retribution or anything, just scared of sticking my head out of the sand and talking shit about a peer. It just felt kind of… bad.
I suspect most of the other comedians they approached felt similarly to me. What is the upside in dredging up an old scandal featuring one of the (still) most popular working comedians? Louis didn’t emerge unscathed from his notoriety but he definitely emerged. He’s still playing massive venues. He won a Grammy a couple years ago. Louis CK is doing fine. So why agree to wag a finger at him all over again? What was the point?
In my case, the point was that I couldn’t live with my own hypocrisy. A couple years before, I’d written a book about modern manhood called A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to my Son, in which I’d talked about what I believe it means to be a man. In that book, I’d made the argument that all people have a responsibility to their own morality. If you believe something is the right thing to do, it is always better to do that thing. As somebody who has spoken up about the shitty things men sometimes do, I felt like it was my responsibility to speak up here, even though the man in question was a peer.
I’ve known Louis for almost 30 years. I met him when my friends and I used to host a live comedy show in NYC called Stella, in which Louis often appeared. I wouldn’t say we were ever close, but we were friendly enough, and I always looked forward to his sets, which were often bizarre and highly sexual. One riff that stands out in my memory was Louis pantomiming having sex with a raw chicken breast. It was gross, but funny. And that was how I thought of Louis – gross but funny.
People probably don’t remember the erratic nature of Louis’s rise through comedy. He used to make absurd short films. He co-wrote and directed the bomb Pootie Tang with Chris Rock. He had a couple short-lived television projects before Louis hit on FX. My point is that it wasn’t at all clear that Louis was going to become the voice of his generation. It wasn’t clear that Louis would even have a career. But he figured it out, meaning he figured out how to become Louis CK.
I was a huge fan.
Louis’ scandal broke in the beginning of the MeToo moment and he got lumped in with actual sex criminals like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. I never thought his behavior sunk to their levels, but he clearly violated personal and professional trust with other comedians, and the furor around Louis was intense. He said somewhere that, overnight, he lost thirty-five million dollars. I don’t doubt it.
To his credit, he didn’t deny the charges against him. He admitted to them, saying “I’ve brought pain to my family, my friends, my children and their mother. 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.”
The “long time” didn’t last very long. After only a few months of exile, Louis dropped by (I think) the Comedy Cellar and did a surprise guest spot. The appearance drew the attention of the media. I wrote a series of tweets saying that, while I didn’t necessarily care about Louis’ fate specifically, I thought it was important that men embroiled in these bad-but-not-illegal scandals figure out a way to work their way back because if we’re going to make progress on this front, we have to find a way forward through some kind of reconciliation process or else the larger movement will suffer because men will be unwilling to come forward. The backlash against me was immediate and intense. I felt horrible about it, but I thought (and still think) that the essential point was correct.
Regardless, Louis let me down. I thought that he had a unique opportunity and a unique ability to discuss his own failings in a way that might bring people together. After all, his entire schtick is talking about what a bad human being he is. Why not incorporate this experience into his act and turn it into something more meaningful than an embarrassing masturbation scandal? Who was better positioned than Louis to alchemize this incident into something potentially helpful and healing for people? He didn’t do that.
Instead, he never addressed the scandal in a meaningful way to the public. To be clear, I don’t think Louis had an obligation to apologize or make restitution to anybody other than his victims, but he had an opportunity to make something consequential out of his experience. He tacked the other way and his work grew defensive, even hostile. His recent special was entitled Sorry. It’s hard to read that title as anything other than mocking. Mocking of his victims and his critics.
When I got approached to appear in the documentary, I felt torn. On one hand, I’d already been ripped apart for talking about this once. There was no upside to talking about it again. No point in rehashing an old scandal. No reason to be a Boy Scout. On the other hand, as I said, I would have felt like a coward and a hypocrite for saying no. So I said yes.
I don’t judge anybody else who said no. It was just something I had to do for me and my kids. I’m not a moralist. I don’t care who fucks who. What I care about is consent and that Louis abused his position even if – and I believe this to be true – he didn’t think that’s what he was doing. I care that he lied about it until he couldn’t lie about it anymore, and that he gaslit the women involved. I care that he handled his return in such a cavalier, insensitive, and inartful way. Also, I care about the MeToo movement and I want people who have been abused in some way to feel like other people will have their backs. So I said yes.
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Now the movie’s been released to lukewarm reviews and Louis CK is still selling out big arenas and making millions and Russell Brand is now facing accusations of sexual assault and rape and chances are he will survive his scandal, too. Because people will do bad things unless they believe there will be lasting consequences for their actions. Also, what I’ve learned is that these stories don’t just affect the people involved. They create ripple effects. The way we treat abusers and victims now has a tremendous effect on how we treat them in the future. Our response to them now will encourage or dissuade people from coming forward later. I wish Louis had done better. I hope others do better in the future but I kind of doubt it.