Louis CK's behavior makes a lot more sense in retrospect
The recent news about Louis CK sexually intimidating five women (at least) hit me in a sensitive spot. I’ve been a huge Louis CK fan ever since seeing his stand-up special Chewed Up almost a decade ago. I’ve seen all of his stand-up specials. Louie and Horace and Pete (CK’s web-only miniseries) are two of my favorite TV shows. I even have a special affection for the movie Pootie Tang, a magnificently dumb movie he wrote and directed.
Of course, following CK’s career so closely, I couldn’t help but know of the allegations against him. If you happened to have been on the planet Mars for the past few weeks, CK confirmed the stories of five women who all said that they were forced and/or coerced into watching him masturbate (or in one case, listening to him masturbate on the phone). This wasn’t exactly a new story. Tig Notaro, among others, very publicly called him out on this before, in some cases years ago, but the allegations were never reported widely enough to gain any serious traction. Which is a big part of why I was able to enjoy CK’s comedy for so long. It’s not that I disbelieved the women’s accounts. But nor, strictly speaking, did I believe them. I didn’t let them occupy space in my brain for long enough to come to either conclusion.
That reflects poorly on me, I know. But it reflects poorly on our culture, too, because we’re trained to do this. The default setting for powerful creepers, both within showbiz and without, is just to ignore their doings until the number and/or seriousness of the allegations against them becomes overwhelming. Nevertheless, I feel badly to have so effortlessly slipped into this line of thinking.
I further regret to admit I might have found the allegations easier to discount, and done so decisively, were it not for two facts. Firstly, all the accounts were extremely consistent with one another and very specific in a way that would be difficult to make up. And second, to someone as familiar with CK’s comedy as I am, it was almost too easy to picture him doing exactly what they said he did. Louis CK is far from the first comedian to joke about masturbation. It’s a comedy standby. It’s universal, private, embarrassing, subject to taboo and religious sanction, and done with one’s pants off; it checks all the comedy boxes. But CK has made a reputation for himself as something of a masturbation joke specialist. The man’s got jacking on the brain. The true scope of his passion for wanking doesn’t become evident until you start collecting many of his bits on the subject in one place, like… say, 17 of them, which Anna Silman of The Cut was only too happy to do. (This list is far from comprehensive, by the way.)
Do me a favor and swallow your disgust for a moment, at least long enough to watch a few of these bits. All things considered, they’re still not entirely unfunny, right? I’ve seen most of them multiple times and they can still get me chuckling. But beyond that, they have several notable qualities germane to this discussion. First off, he almost never talks about just people masturbating. He’s usually talking about himself masturbating: his own habits and quirks, complete with the attendant gestures and facial expressions. Less often, he just talks about “our” masturbation habits—“us” meaning straight men.
Look at his gesticulations while he does these bits. The audience can really picture it. Take note of the twinkle in his eye, and the perverse giggle that creeps into the bottom of his voice when he does this. That’s real pleasure, right there. He laughs uncontrollably when he knows he’s making us imagine him honking his pud. He can’t stop himself. It’s a thrill.
This weird emphasis on masturbation as a subject is part and parcel of CK’s broader comedic persona as a lonely, awkward schlub, and it plays into our cultural anxieties and stereotypes on the subject. He approaches the topic from several different angles. There’s always the visceral goofiness of the act itself—the groans, the odd movements, the grotesque faces, the fluids—that he brings to life with the verve of a poet:
“Men don’t really have judgment, they have intent. They just want to spray the world with their cum, with their mist. [mimes ‘misting’]” —Louis CK 2017
There’s also a deeper level of humor in how the act fits into his broken psyche, as a source of sexual shame…
I jerk off way too much and it upsets me and I don’t know why. Maybe cause it’s so selfish, I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s bad, I know I’m hurting somebody somewhere… I was thinking the other day, that you can figure out how bad… how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11th you masturbated, like, how long you waited? And for me it was between the two buildings going down.” —Chewed Up, 2008
…as a manifestation of his essential narcissism…
“Now when I see a beautiful girl walking down the street, I’m like, ‘Hey, fuck you, I don’t give a shit. Ew. Go fuck somebody else, I’ll jerk off to you later, probably have a better time.’” —Shameless, 2007
…as a cold, compulsive attempt to soothe his dark impulses…
“…for guys it’s a release. It’s not complicated. We just need it. Women, it’s a fucking emotional thing … We need to cum, just because we need to… For guys, it’s something we need to do so we don’t murder people… maintenance, open the fucking valve every once in a while, please. The city should put a red tag on a dick that has a PSI level that’s unacceptable.” —Shameless, 2007
…as a reminder of the dumb animal urges to which he is a slave…
“Some things I’m sick of, like the constant, perverted, sexual thoughts. I’m so tired of those… It makes me into an idiot. Jacking off to morons, and ooh, look at my tits. Yeah, your tits are awesome. It’s a dumb part of life that I’m sick of.” —Live at the Beacon Theatre, 2011
…and most of all, as a reminder of his perceived sexual inadequacy. This is a big one. CK’s a huge fan of Woody Allen—almost any Louie episode contains stylistic touches hearkening back to Allen’s post-Annie Hall work—and he has a very Allenesque knack for exploiting his feelings of masculine inadequacy to comedic ends. (And look how that guy turned out. Birds of a feather, eh?) He has no end of self-deprecating bits about how fat and gross he is, how bad at sex he is, and how he’s only occasionally able to be funny enough to fool someone into sleeping with him. At one point he describes a woman he hooked up with waking up and reacting “like she’d raped herself with my dick”, and described himself as “her low point”.
Of course, all comedians exaggerate, and all comedians inhabit certain onstage personae which may or may not bear any relation to what they’re really like, but one gets the sense (especially now) that CK’s poor sexual self-confidence is way less of an act than he would like us to believe. Someone entertaining these feelings is likely to view masturbation as simultaneously a way to satisfy one’s sex drive without having to deal with these feelings, and as a painful reminder that those feelings are there. Honkin’ it both soothes and inflames the shame.
Well, as it turns out, despondency tied to feelings of sexual inadequacy is a powerful contributor to just this kind of behavior. Since the CK revelations came to light, along with reports of several other powerful men using the same assault tactic, there have been a million articles about the motivation behind jacking off in front of a woman. They’re not very insightful, on the whole. And for the most part, the type of person they describe isn’t anything like Louis CK. But hidden in the boilerplate pop-psychology are a few golden nuggets that hit home.
“’This type of behavior isn’t about sex,’ [sex therapist Alexandra] Katehakis said. ‘It’s about hostility and sexual inadequacy.’ …[S]tuck in cycle of addictive behavior, the exhibitionist is addicted as much to the shame as the sexual act.” —Brady MacDonald, L.A. Times 11/13/17
With that quote in mind, let’s take a look at this clip from Louie:
There are all sorts of effective avenues for making a counterargument to this woman, and Louie doesn’t use any of them. He doesn’t attempt to argue in favor of masturbation from a moral, or even a practical perspective, because he is, essentially, in agreement with her: deep down he thinks that masturbation is selfish and bad for you, because you’re meant to find another person to share sex with, and something’s wrong with you if you don’t. And for this reason, masturbating is a sure path to a depressed, lonely half-existence. Since he can’t find it in himself to rebut her on this point, he gets defensive and lashes out at her, weaponizing his own masturbation in the process. He (metaphorically (this time)) throws his dick in her face, hurting her by including her in his masturbation in a way that’s not welcome, intimidating and discomfiting her, and turning this act that symbolizes his own loneliness and stagnant sex appeal into a way to get revenge on the gender he holds responsible for it all.
Ms. Katehakis expands on these comments in an interview with Slate’s Angela Chapin, in which she said the following:
Yeah. I mean a lot of men who are stuck in these cycles of addictive behavior will say “I was as addicted to the shame as I was to the sex.” It’s about this cycle of “I’m a piece of shit, I do things that make me feel like a piece of shit, and therefore I have corroboration and evidence that I am indeed a piece of shit”… The behavior becomes this weird kind of tumbleweed where … somebody does stupid things and then it reaches monstrous proportions.
This could have come right out of a Louis CK bit. It’s spot on. Shame is his thing. If you transcribed all his routines and did a Ctrl+F on “I’m a piece of shit”, I’m guessing you’d get at minimum a full page. And the “weird tumbleweed of doing stupid things and it reaches monstrous proportions”? That describes the plot of at least a third of the episodes of Louie and at least two-thirds of the episodes of Lucky Louie. We tend to think of sexual predators as charming, confident masterminds; but very often they’re shamefaced dopes who follow a dark impulse once, find themselves unable to stop doing it, and spend their days continuously amazed they haven’t been exposed yet.
Another illuminating comment comes from Dr. Prudence Georguechon, former president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, as reported by Jen Christensen and Sandee Lamott of CNN:
“It could also be a kind of strange plausible deniability,” she said. “It’s a kind of disavowal, a kind of pernicious defense mechanism that allows a man to know that he did something on one level, but they are essentially telling themselves a story that they are not doing anything so bad. He could think to himself, ‘Well, I didn’t rape anyone’.”
It’s worth noting here that forced masturbatory exhibitionism is the only thing Louis CK has been accused of. All five women were clear on that point. For the other men recently revealed to have done this (Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, Brett Ratner, and others, there have been so many lately), it was just one implement in a big horrifying toolbox. They did other stuff when they could get away with it, up to and including forcible rape.
Not so with Louis CK. Somehow, that fits. I wouldn’t be surprised if he never did anything but that. Not because I think he’s incapable of anything else, but as has been established, honking is his main area of interest.
The New York Times story that finally forced CK to confess had an accompanying commentary video that went as far as to suggest that CK’s famed candor about his wanking was a sort of mask or front to throw people off the trail of what he was doing. There’s perhaps a grain of truth to that, but I don’t think it was that calculated. It’s not for the greater world’s benefit that he talks about masturbation so much; it’s for his own. I’ll explain what I mean about that in a second.
I posit that at some point, maybe in the distant past, Louis CK became really distressed by how much he liked to whack it. He thought he shouldn’t do it so much, and came to believe something was broken inside him that made him do it so much. And he found a way to displace his discomfort by making other people, particularly women (who are “making” him do it by not fucking him), uncomfortable about it. He’s rightly esteemed as a master of cringe comedy. He knows very well how to cause and exploit discomfort, and he loves to create scenarios you have no idea how to react to. It’s the key to his comedy, and also the key to the utility of exhibitionism as an assault tactic. It’s not rape per se, because there’s no touching going on, but there’s definitely a line crossed, and the victim doesn’t know exactly what to do. The victim might not even be able to put into words exactly what was done to her. It’s confusing, and disorienting, and difficult—not just traumatic, but quite literally difficult—to discuss.
So we see now that CK’s wanking routines and his sex crimes spring from the same impulse. Hypothesizing that one may have preceded or even occasioned the other is an unproductive chicken-and-egg exercise. But just because they come from the same source doesn’t mean they serve identical purposes. Louis uses masturbation-themed comedy as a way to make the topic absurd and ridiculous, so he can ignore the real hurt that he’s causing by doing it. You may say that making this connection now, in hindsight, is a lot of facile Monday morning quarterback amateur psychology, and I can’t disagree entirely with that assessment, but tell me what the hell else this scene from Louie could possibly have been about?
Yup. By the way, I had to post this clip myself, because for some reason, you can’t find it on YouTube anymore. Funny, that. Chloe Sevigny’s character—a kooky bookstore clerk who tasks herself with finding a woman Louie went on a memorable date with—depicts more or less exactly what Louis did to those five women in real life. One has to remember, he’d been doing it for decades by the time this episode aired. That had to be on his mind while writing this scene. The reactions are all there: shock, bewilderment, embarrassment, disgust. But she’s the butt of the joke, and because the gender and power dynamics are reversed from how it happened in real life, the whole scenario comes off as more of a “women be crazy” ridiculous fantasy, instead of the crime it literally is. How could what I did be that bad, Louie seems to be saying, if people laugh at stuff like this?
So that’s the conclusion that I’ve come to. What does one do with all this information? I don’t know. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we put bodycams on any standup comedian who jokes about jacking off. I don’t want to do anything that would put anyone under suspicion for making a joke about anything. I don’t want to put up any sort of untouchable area in comedy, because comedy has always been about transgression, crossing lines, and busting taboos. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do at all.
Well, I do know that we need to nip creeps in the bud, and much more readily believe women who come forth with sexual harassment stories, and much more readily fire the fuckers responsible, et cetera. That’s just a given. But there’s something much less evident that I think we need to be talking about and keeping in mind when we make art. Fretting about sexual inadequacy and loneliness is completely normal, and believe it or not, I know personally how these themes can burrow into a man’s brain and demand release. Jokes are often a very healthy way to process these feelings. But they’re not as harmless as we would sometimes like to believe. Too often, in our culture of male entitlement, these feelings curdle and metastasize into resentment or outright hostility against women. We’re in the age of the “Men’s Rights Activist”, red pills, Men Going Their Own Way, Elliot Rodger, alphas, betas, and cucks; and yes, Louis CK. These are all manifestations of sexual anxiety turned sour. We need to find a way to talk and joke about being undersexed in a way that doesn’t so easily encourage men to shift the blame for their state onto women. And we need to stop talking about male masturbation as a shameful refuge for the horny and unloved. The safety of women may, in some cases, depend on it.