“God, I love being white,” said Louis C.K.
“Here’s how great it is to be white,” the comedian went on: “I could get in a time machine, and go to any time, and it would be fucking awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege.”
The bit, part of his 2008 special Chewed Up, was emblematic of C.K.’s approach: poking fun at the inequalities of American society, while simultaneously acknowledging the ways they benefited him.
Contrast that with a set he performed in December 2018, a little over a year after he admitted to masturbating in front of women without their consent. During the December appearance, apparently at a comedy club on Long Island, C.K. joked that Asian men are “all women” and poked fun at school shooting survivors and gender-nonconforming teenagers, according to BuzzFeed News.
“They tell you what to call them,” he complained of teens who use the pronouns they/them. “Oh, OK. You should address me as ‘there’ because I identify as a location. And the location is your mother’s cunt.”
Imagine thinking the best way to resurrect your career after admitting to sexual misconduct is to mock trans people and Parkland gun violence survivors. pic.twitter.com/SH7wDYe7kA— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) December 31, 2018
2018, during which his standup special and the wide release of his film I Love You, Daddy were canceled, seems to have wrought a change in C.K. Where once his comedy offered a fresh look at established power structures, he now seems set on ranting about kids today and their pronoun choices.
Fellow comedian Aziz Ansari has followed a similar trajectory. He once decried sexual harassment in his act — and addressed the issue in a nuanced way on his show Master of None. But in 2017, a woman told the website Babe.net that he had pressured her for sex — Ansari said he had believed everything that happened between them was “completely consensual,” and that he was “surprised and concerned” by her account. After the incident, his comedy took on a different tone: In a fall 2018 appearance, he made fun of online debates about cultural appropriation and complained that nowadays, “everyone weighs in on everything,” according to the New Yorker.
The bigotry in C.K.’s set is disturbing, especially coming from someone who seemed at one time to have a relatively clear understanding of how power works in America. But what is also striking about C.K. and Ansari’s post-#MeToo material is its banality. Before they were publicly accused, these men wrestled with thorny questions of identity and power in ways that, while not always satisfying, were usually thought-provoking. After the allegations, they began parroting tired complaints about political correctness.
Of the many people accused of sexual misconduct as part of the #MeToo movement, C.K. and Ansari seemed like they might be uniquely equipped to reckon with the allegations against them, perhaps even adding something to the public conversation around #MeToo. Instead, they have retreated into boring and offensive stereotypes, perhaps playing to those who never thought they did anything wrong.
We’re all worse off for their decision, missing out on the art C.K. and Ansari might have created if they’d been willing to really face their accusations, and robbed of the opportunity to see two intelligent and thoughtful men really wrestle with the implications of #MeToo. In a time when more and more of the accused mull their comebacks, it’s natural to wonder what real redemption — complete with an acknowledgment of harm and a commitment to atonement — might look like. Apparently, Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari will not be the ones to show us.
Louis C.K. used to talk about violence against women. Now he makes fun of genderqueer teens.
Before #MeToo, Louis C.K. was beloved by many for his often self-lacerating comedy. In his standup and on the autobiographical FX show Louie, he portrayed himself as a sad-sack weirdo disturbed by his own sexual urges — he once called himself a “prisoner” of “sexual perversion.”
C.K.’s work could be offensive, as when he complained that he missed being able to use a homophobic slur (and claimed, unconvincingly, that the way he used it had nothing to do with homophobia). But some hailed his comedy as feminist, and he showed a remarkable ability to mine humor from the dangers and biases women face — a difficult feat for a male comic.
“How do women still go out with guys when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?” he asked in a 2013 special. “We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women.”
But C.K. was also the subject of long-simmering sexual misconduct rumors — and in November 2017, four women told the New York Times that he had masturbated in front of them or asked them to watch him masturbate (a fifth said that he masturbated while on a phone call with her).
In a move that remains unusual among men accused as part of #MeToo, C.K. admitted to the allegations against him. “These stories are true,” he said in a statement to the New York Times.
“I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” he added. “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”
But as many have pointed out, the listening didn’t last very long. C.K. was back onstage in September 2018, less than a year after his pledge to step back. In an October appearance at the West Side Comedy Club in New York, he addressed the fallout from his sexual misconduct revelations, saying he’d been to “hell and back” and that he’d “lost $35 million in an hour.”
While many were critical of C.K.’s comeback attempt, West Side Comedy Club host AMarie Castillo told the comedy website LaughSpin that the comic “was so genuine and reflected on how weird his year was” in his October appearance. “Sounds to me he is owning up, acknowledging, and trying to figure it out,” she said.
But in a December set, he didn’t sound much like someone trying to figure anything out. In audio posted on YouTube, apparently from an appearance at the Governor’s Comedy Club on Long Island on December 16, C.K. poked fun at gender-nonconforming youth, Parkland school shooting survivors, and Asian men, among other groups. (The club was unable to confirm to BuzzFeed that C.K. was there that night, though multiple people posted on Instagram that they had seen him perform there.)
“You know why Asian guys have small dicks,” he said at one point, according to Patrick Smith and Amber Jamieson of BuzzFeed. “’Cause they’re women. They’re not dudes. They’re all women. All Asians are women.”
C.K. also said he thought it was ridiculous that the term “retarded” was now viewed as inappropriate, Smith and Jamieson reported. When some listeners appeared shocked, he responded, “Fuck it, what are you going to take away, my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”
C.K. has not responded to a request for comment from Vox.
Aziz Ansari once included a sexual harassment storyline on his show. Now he’s complaining about Twitter outrage.
Ansari’s comedy has always been more lighthearted than C.K.’s, but he hasn’t shied away from difficult topics. In a 2015 Netflix special filmed at New York’s Madison Square Garden, he asked women in the audience to raise their hands if they’d ever been followed by a “creepy dude,” according to Eren Orbey at the New Yorker.
“Yeah, that’s way too many people,” he said when hands went up. “That should not be happening.”
The second season of his Netflix show, Master of None, also included a storyline about sexual misconduct. Ansari’s character, Dev, teams up with celebrity chef Jeff Pastore (Bobby Cannavale) for a show called Best Food Friends. But Dev is forced to make a choice when a female crew member reveals that Chef Jeff repeatedly harassed her. The episode, which aired before #MeToo gained steam in fall 2017, felt true to life, as Isha Aran pointed out at Splinter, “from the fears victims face in going public to the misogynist skepticism they’re met with when they share their stories.”
But in January 2018, a woman going by the name Grace told the website Babe.net that Ansari had repeatedly pressured her for sex while the two were on a date. She called it “by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.”
“We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual,” Ansari said in a statement on the allegations last January. “The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.”
“I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture,” Ansari concluded, presumably referring to #MeToo. “It is necessary and long overdue.”
By fall 2018, however, his tone sounded different. In a Connecticut stop on his “Working Out New Material” comeback tour, he complained about Twitter users debating whether a teenager’s prom dress constituted cultural appropriation, according to Orbey.
“Everyone weighs in on everything,” he said. “They don’t know anything. People don’t wanna just say, ‘I don’t know.’”
He also decried “the destructive performativity of Internet activism and the fickle, ever-changing standards of political correctness,” according to Orbey. He compared left-wing Twitter users to Trump supporters (“at least with the Trump people,” he said, “I kinda know where they stand”) and accused them of competing with one another in a game of “Progressive Candy Crush.”
“One might have hoped that, nearly a year later, [Ansari] could find a way to reckon with one of the movement’s messiest lessons: that even men who wish to serve as allies of women can, intentionally or not, hurt them in private,” Orbey wrote. “Instead, like other men who have reëmerged in recent months, he seems to have channelled his experience into a diffuse bitterness.”
Ansari has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.
If C.K. and Ansari can’t reckon with the allegations against them, can anyone?
Allegations of sexual misconduct against C.K. and Ansari hit fans hard in part because of the thoughtful nature of their comedy — these were supposed to be the good guys.
The accusations prompted fans and critics to reevaluate both men’s work. At Splinter, Aran notes that despite its sexual harassment storyline, Master of None’s second season displays some underlying misogyny. Dev’s relationship with love interest Francesca, in particular, sends the message “that a woman’s initial reluctance can be chipped away at, that indifference is a wall to be torn down.”
C.K., meanwhile, had been telling masturbation jokes for years. As Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley, and Jodi Kantor reported at the New York Times, “he rose to fame in part by appearing to be candid about his flaws and sexual hang-ups, discussing and miming masturbation extensively in his act — an exaggerated riff that some of the women feel may have served as a cover for real misconduct.” His film I Love You, Daddy, which was initially scheduled for release in November 2017, dealt with a relationship between a famous filmmaker and a 17-year-old girl.
And C.K.’s December set does recall some of his earlier work — the man who complained about teens today and their pronouns is clearly the same one, for instance, who expressed nostalgia for a time when he could use homophobic slurs without being criticized.
Still, C.K. and Ansari were somewhat unusual as male entertainers willing to delve into issues of power and privilege and talk about the ways men hurt women.
That’s what makes their current material so surprising. Ansari and C.K. aren’t just avoiding the subject of #MeToo — they’re going in the opposite direction, complaining about political correctness and outrage culture when their comedy once sent the message that women were absolutely right to be outraged.
Their new work is reactionary — crude jokes about Asian men wouldn’t be out of place at a Trump rally — and it’s dated. C.K.’s complaints about they/them pronouns aren’t just offensive; they’re also tired, well-worn platitudes parroted by everyone from psychologist Jordan Peterson to TV host Piers Morgan. C.K. may think his new material is edgy, but his rant about young people today sounds like it could come from Grandpa Simpson.
Some have speculated that C.K. is consciously courting a more right-leaning audience with his new material after losing the trust of his previous fans, and it’s certainly possible that he and Ansari are pivoting to please the people who were eager to explain away the allegations against them — those who think sexual misconduct only matters if it rises to the level of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, or who believe that men who are accused deserve swift and unconditional forgiveness.
Whatever the case, the trajectories of C.K. and Ansari are doubly disappointing — first, because men whose work had a feminist bent were accused of hurting women, and second, because they let those accusations destroy the nuanced social awareness their earlier work displayed. Apparently, C.K. and Ansari were only interested in challenging the status quo when they remained unchallenged — once women spoke out against them, they performed the comedic equivalent of packing up their toys and going home.
That’s sad for all of us. We don’t get to see the comedy these men could have created if they’d wanted to face, rather than flee from, our current moment in history. And we don’t get to see two thoughtful entertainers bring their talents to bear on a project that matters to all of us — figuring out what it should look like for men accused as part of #MeToo to apologize, atone, and move forward.
Ever since the #MeToo movement gained mainstream attention in 2017, there’s been a lot of talk about what accused men can do to redeem themselves. Now, more than a year in, it’s certainly possible to imagine some of the accused truly reckoning with their pasts — Dan Harmon’s apology for sexually harassing a writer on his show offers a view of what that might look like. But it’s hard to hold out much hope for such a reckoning on a large scale when two men who seemed like they, of all people, might be able to look deeply at their own behavior have instead chosen to pander to those who would excuse them.