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Louis C.K.’s self-deprecating comedy let him control the narrative — until now

His masturbation jokes seemed like a form of self-criticism. It wasn't enough.

Louis C.K. at the Peabody Awards Ceremony in May 2017
Louis C.K. at the Peabody Awards Ceremony in May 2017.
Brad Barket/Getty Images for Peabody
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

“The constant perverted, sexual thoughts,” Louis C.K. said in a show at the Beacon Theater in 2011. “I’m so tired of those.”

Making masturbation gestures, he described walking into a library and asking for a book on Abe Lincoln, only to be distracted by the thought of wrapping the librarian’s hair around his penis. Women may claim to have perverse fantasies, he said, but they don’t know what it’s like for him.

“You’re a tourist in sexual perversion,” he said. “I’m a prisoner there.”

Jokes like this have long been a big part of C.K.’s work — as Anna Silman notes at the Cut, masturbation has always been a major topic for him. And even as rumors swirled around C.K. — rumors that have now given way to on-the-record accounts of sexual misconduct — the comedian has included situations in his work that come uncomfortably close to the allegations against him. His jokes can sometimes look like a form of self-examination, even self-criticism — but so far, C.K. has never directly addressed women’s reports that he masturbated in front of them without their consent. Given this, his long history of joking about similar behavior starts to feel less like an attempt to reckon with the allegations against him and more like an effort to defy those who would criticize him.

C.K.’s work seemed to address some of the allegations against him — but in a way that let him control the narrative

Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley, and Jodi Kantor mention several masturbation jokes in their New York Times story on women who say C.K. masturbated in front of or otherwise harassed them. Silman details 17 such jokes and bits. One example: “I jerk off way too much and it upsets me and I don’t know why,” C.K. said in his 2008 special Chewed Up. “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.”

That was six years after the comedians Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov say C.K. masturbated in front of them in a Colorado hotel room, and five years after writer and illustrator Abby Schachner says he masturbated while talking to her on the phone.

Masturbation also comes up in C.K.’s film I Love You, Daddy, whose release was canceled on Friday in the wake of the Times story. In the movie, a character played by Charlie Day simulates masturbation in front of one played by Edie Falco, according to Joe Berkowitz of Fast Company. I Love You, Daddy centers on a TV writer, played by C.K., who has to decide how he feels about allegations of sexual misconduct against his Woody Allen-like hero — after that hero starts a relationship with his teenage daughter. Even before the Times story broke, the parallels were uncomfortable — “although Louis C.K.’s film wasn’t made just to humanize Woody Allen,” Berkowitz wrote, “its attempts to do so come at one of the worst times imaginable.”

Like C.K., Allen has frequently included situations in his work that mirror the allegations against him, as when his character in Manhattan dates a 17-year-old girl. In Allen’s upcoming movie A Rainy Day in New York, Jude Law’s character is accused of having sex with a 15-year-old. A number of Allen’s films have featured relationships between older men and younger women, as Max Cea notes at Mic. While such relationships are fairly common on film, they’re notable in Allen’s case because of his history — his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, his ex-partner’s daughter who is more than 30 years his junior, and the fact that his daughter, Dylan Farrow, says he abused her when she was 7.

In Allen’s films, large age differences in relationships often receive minimal comment, as though they’re normal. C.K., for his part, has never presented himself or his behavior as normal in his act. His routines drip with self-loathing and self-mockery. In a 2011 episode of his TV show Louie, C.K.’s character has a televised debate with a Christian anti-masturbation activist. It seems like the joke is on her until she turns to C.K. and says, “You masturbate, and you’re alone. You asked me, Louie, have I ever been married. Now I ask you: Have you ever been happy?” Louie looks down, chagrined.

In another bit from the same episode, Louie masturbates to a fantasy involving a woman, an elevator, and a “bag of dicks.” The scene is supposed to make Louie look gross, weird, and pathetic — he doesn’t even get to have an orgasm. C.K. has been praised for his unflinching takes on sexism, racism, and fatphobia, but he’s never presented himself as a healthy or well-adjusted person — instead, the version of himself he plays on TV and in his standup has long been screwed-up, compulsive, and broken.

Comedian Rebecca Corry told the Times that in 2005, C.K. asked if he could masturbate in front of her. When she said no and mentioned his wife and child, “his face got red,” she said, “and he told me he had issues.” It’s possible to see some of C.K.’s comedy as an effort, in some way, to address those issues, to make his compulsions part of his art.

What makes this reading unsatisfying, though, is the fact that C.K. has never addressed the rumors — or, now, the reports — of his misconduct outside of his art. As Vox’s Caroline Framke notes, he has consistently refused to discuss the allegations against him. “That’s nothing to me. That’s not real,” he told Vulture in 2016. “I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after.” “Louis is not going to answer any questions,” C.K.’s publicist told the Times.

But masturbating in front of people without their consent is not a personal problem that can be dealt with through introspective comedy. It’s a hurtful act perpetrated against another human being. Wolov and Goodman told the Times their careers had been stymied by their experience with C.K.; Schachner said that for years after her phone call with him, she felt angry, betrayed, and ashamed. If C.K. has harmed women in his life, nothing he says in his act can make up for that.

What’s more, some of C.K.’s masturbation bits take a disturbing turn. “When I see a beautiful girl walking down the street, I’m like, ‘hey, fuck you, I don’t give a shit,’” he said in a 2007 special. “Go fuck somebody else, I’ll jerk off to you later, probably have a better time.” And at the end of his debate with the Christian activist, Louie gets defensive and angry. “I’m a good citizen, I’m a good father, I recycle, and I masturbate, and I’m proud of it,” he says. “Later I’m going to masturbate and I’m going to think about you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” His self-mockery and introspection only go so far, it seems, before they turn into defiance — and a somewhat predatory defiance at that.

You can read some of Louis C.K.’s work as an effort to deal with inner demons. You can also see it as a middle finger to anyone who wants to call him on the longstanding rumors about his conduct. Before anybody criticizes him, he’ll criticize himself — but in a way that still leaves some of his power and ego intact.

For a long time, Louis C.K. was able to redirect questions about his behavior to his work, to the version of himself he chose to portray — someone who was messed-up and compulsive, but also unrepentant, even brave in the way he stood up for his own darkness and other people’s. But C.K. no longer controls the narrative about himself — not when women are talking on the record about him. He can continue to allow his work to speak for him, but it will never speak for them.

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