Every Smart Thing Louis C.K. Said About Parenting Comes With an Asterisk Now
It would be nice to pretend I always hated the disgraced comedian. But, his thoughts about parenting moved me. Which is why it's so hard now.
When a public figure experiences a very dramatic public downfall due to sexual transgressions it is popular to profess that the latest damning revelation of the #MeToo era doesn’t affect you at all because you, perhaps sensing their immorality and sins with your finely tuned moral feelers, never liked the now-disgraced entertainer in the first place. But, when it comes to Louis C.K., that’s not an option for me. I wasn’t just a fan of his. I was a professional fan.
In the 21 years that I’ve been writing professionally about pop culture, Louis C.K. is the person I’ve spent the most time interviewing. And, like seemingly everyone else in the world, I gave individual episodes of his TV series Louie and his concert films the kind of gushing, effusive reviews that would probably embarrass the hell out of me if I were to re-read them now. Still, the fact remains, that I identified with C.K. deeply on a number of different levels, perhaps most intensely on the level of fatherhood. Obviously, C.K said some intelligent, poignant and new things about fatherhood. So, if we separate the art from the artist, are his parenting insights still true?
The answer is complicated.
When I first started gushing professionally about C.K’s genius on Louie in 2010, fatherhood still loomed a couple of years in the future for me. But as the son of a single father, that series rang true on a deep emotional level like very few portrayals of fatherhood before or since. For all of the show’s casual surrealism, there was an emotional core to Louie rooted in the creatively rich and almost perversely under-explored experience of single fatherhood. The uncertainty and melancholy and weirdness of being a schlubby dude on your own living a grungy bachelorhood was fused with trying to shepherd vulnerable young people through life’s gauntlet of never-ending psychological abuse. The series meditated on this and thought about what it was like to be a role model, teacher, therapist, and co-parent when you’re emotionally wobbly and feeling more than a little defeated post-divorce.
I was equally impressed by C.K.’s stand-up on parenthood. The discourse around fatherhood tends to be safe, benign, and sentimental. But C.K. was the opposite of that. He talked about fatherhood in ways that were raw, revelatory, real and devoid of undue sentiment or cliché.
Even today, I sometimes find myself remembering some bit or idea from C.K.’s stand-up or a joke from Louie and I’ll reflect fondly on it for a moment or two. Then I take a step back and the little nugget of comic wisdom becomes hopelessly tainted both by C.K.’s downfall and his unfortunate recent comeback attempt. The latter reached a nadir when leaked audio from a recent set revealed a disturbingly cranky, out of touch, seemingly reactionary jerk ranting sourly about the unbearable indignity of being asked to respect the chosen pronouns of the Genderqueer community and the dignity of kids like David Hogg trying to help save lives through their activism instead of finger-banging little Susie Homecoming Queen while doing mushrooms. C.K.’s conception of what the damn kids today should be doing has tragically replaced trying to tell grown-ups like himself what to do.
It’s as if there is an asterisk now beside everything C.K. has done and accomplished now (including, for those needing a reminder of just how much we fucking loved the guy before we started to hate him, his six Emmys and 39 nominations), a nagging element of shame and doubt that now follows him in his infamy. It’s like the asterisk next to baseball’s all-time home run record to indicate that Barry Bonds only beat Hank Aaron’s tally because he had attained an Incredible Hulk-like physique through the use of illegal steroids. Only in this case, we’re left with the nagging disqualification that while publicly performing the role of evolved single dad and progressive and warrior for creative and comedic truth in an industry full of cynical calculation and greed, C.K. was actually using his enormous power within the industry to keep his double life as a serial sexual harasser with a weakness for whipping out his cock in appropriate places from spilling into public view. This has the effect of maiming, if not entirely killing, his previously charmed career as one of our most acclaimed and respected artists.
To fellow comics who looked up to him as a role model and someone with a work ethic to envy and aspire to if never match, C.K. used to represent a pure creature, an artist in a field full of hacks and phonies. To dads, C.K. was someone to relate to and empathize with on a deep emotional level, a writer and comedian with unusual insight into the plight of single fathers and dads trying to keep it all together in the aftermath of ugly divorces. Now that pure, relatable figure seems much cloudier and more compromised. Fatherhood has long been a central component of C.K.’s comedy but these days it’s hard to think of C.K. as anything but a creep. We used to see C.K. through the endlessly flattering and forgiving prism of genius. Now we see him through the much less flattering and forgiving lens of creepdom.
Speaking of creeps, C.K’s fellow disgraced television auteur Bill Cosby personified dad humor and safe comedy rooted in the experience of fatherhood for multiple generations. For at least one hipster generation, Louis C.K. has been America’s weird but loving Single Dad Friend with issues. Man, if it turns out Paul Reiser is a pervert, we may have to re-think the whole concept of dad comedy as a whole.
C.K was brilliant playing a fictionalized version of himself on TV in Louie. He was equally skilled playing a fictionalized, cleaned-up version of himself in real life until the gulf between who he was in his secret life and the public persona as someone who obviously wrestled with demons but was nevertheless a figure of unimpeachable integrity became so vast that it made all of the truths inherent in his work, including, and particularly, those about being a dad, inherently seem at least a little suspect
Truth and authenticity were at the core of C.K.’s massive cult and his appeal. But we don’t believe him the same way we did anymore. That sense of disillusionment is particularly strong among dads who saw in C.K. someone who transformed their struggles into comedy and art but who now seems hopelessly mired in misplaced anger, self-pity, and bullshit.