For a while there, Louis C.K. was Your Dude: A profane, relatably semi-pudgy real-talker who understood the way your kids drove you nuts, who called out the joylessness of our digital era, and who was baffled by everything from modern love to modern drugs. The 50-year-old comedian-writer-director got you, and a lot of your friends too; as a result, for the last decade or so, he enjoyed one of the most remarkably sustained sprints through the pop-culture mainstream (or what remains of it). There were Emmy wins and adoring cover stories, film roles and SNL stints. Yet throughout it all, he was still your dude—a lot richer, perhaps, and a bit more polished, but still as recognizably messy as the millions of people who’d bought his $5 stand-up show or watched this spring’s Netflix special the minute it went up.
And now, C.K. is the subject of a just-published New York Times story, documenting a 2002 incident in which he allegedly masturbated in front of two female peers. The story also alleges other encounters that point to a long-running pattern of cruel, harmful behavior on C.K.’s part, and includes first-person accounts from colleagues who were fearful of the repercussions they’d likely encounter for speaking out.
The C.K. revelations are the latest to surface since the Times issued its detailed Harvey Weinstein report last month. But for fans of the comedian, the accusations—which have been discussed online for a while now—likely carry a distinctly personal sting. The other high-profile men who have been named in instances of sexual assault and/or harassment existed, for the most part, completely out of view from the casual culture lover: Amazon’s Roy Price was a behind-the-scenes studio exec; Harvey Weinstein had long ago lost his ’90s-era indie-wizard notoriety; and James Toback was so obscure, he reportedly carried around DVD copies of his movies, so that he could use them as part of his pick-up con. Only Kevin Spacey maintained brand-name awareness, yet he was always one of Hollywood’s least knowable stars, partly because of his strategic coyness with the press, partly because he played so many aloof creeps and schemers. His charisma was always a byproduct of his on-screen chilliness.
But Louis C.K.? He seemed so warm-blooded, so on-the-level, partly because his career had been bolstered by a deep connection with his fans. In 2011, he self-released his Live at the Beacon Theater special for just $5 on his website, making a million dollars in less than two weeks (much of the money, C.K. noted, wound up going to staffers and charities). The Beacon special wound up winning an Emmy, but more importantly, it earned C.K. a reputation as an accidental, self-employed mini-mogul, one who wanted you to feel like a part of his small empire.
The success of the Beacon special didn’t convince C.K. to abandon the studio system altogether—by then, he had a hit cable show (Louie), and was earning supporting roles in studio films like Blue Jasmine and American Hustle—yet it did seem to liberate him from standard showbiz protocol. He used his website to put out more comedy specials, a long-abandoned feature (Tomorrow Night), and Horace and Pete, a self-financed, secretly produced TV series that won him Emmy nominations. All of these releases were heralded with earnest, self-mocking emails from Louis himself (“Hi again from Louis C.K.”, “An oops from Louis C.K.”), and, while promoting them, C.K. would sometimes agonize, albeit half-jokingly, about how much money he’d spent on them. He was doing this all for you; how could you not love him for it?
That performative fumbling had also long been a part of C.K.’s comedy. Louie, his 2010 breakout hit, presented itself as a kinda-true-life travelogue, one that followed C.K. as he inexpertly navigated the dumb, deflating worlds of parenting, friendship, and sex (many of the early episodes could best be synopsized as follows: “Louie tries to do something semi-good, but then semi-fucks it up, and it mostly turns out okay.”) And while he’d recently upgraded from t-shirts to suits for his stand-up specials, much of the comedy that marked his mid-’00s rise found him taking workaday experiences (being married, being a dad, being a slob) and digging into all the profound disappointments and stupid joys they could yield. He could articulate ideas you’d come this close to coming up with yourself—only in a way that was funnier and smarter, even if he was just talking about being an overweight slob.
So, when the first waves of rumors began to circulate about C.K.’s backstage behavior, a lot of fans didn’t want to believe them: That’s not the dude I know. Because if those rumors were true, it meant the honesty that had seemingly been a benchmark of C.K.’s life and work had been its own lie. The I’m-such-a-mess confessions? The self-flagellating screeds? If those rumors were true, it would mean C.K.’s career was one long-running, multimedia misdirect—a way to dupe us all into believing we knew the real Louis C.K., while also giving him a kind of shining-knight cover that allowed him to do whatever he wanted. It’s a similar strategy to the one employed by Weinstein, who allowed, and even encouraged, tales of his verbally abusive behavior to circulate within the press—knowing that they would feed the rumor mill, satiate some of his critics, and discourage us all from looking for deeper trouble.
It’s an effective ploy, and C.K. got away with it for years—until now. The alleged incidents in the Times piece don’t constitute some minor oops from C.K.; they’re deliberate acts of harassment and disempowerment, enabled by those with a vested interest in his profitability. Yet unlike, say, Weinstein or Spacey—the latter of whom is so noxious, he’s literally being deleted from his next movie—the comedian doesn’t need the machinations of major studios or booking agents in order to continue working.
There will be outcries and severed relationships, to be sure, and his next writing-directing effort, I Love You, Daddy, will likely exist as little more than a distasteful curio (if it even gets released at all; the movie’s New York City premiere was canceled on Thursday). Still, C.K. spent years building up a database of fans who were eager to support him directly—and there’s always a chance some of them could embrace him again, in spite of the behavior he’s exhibited. Ultimately, it will be up to his supporters to determine C.K.’s fate: They can, of course, give their dude another chance, and make him some sort of misbegotten Patreon saint. Or they can turn their back on him altogether, leaving him to pleasure nobody but himself.
We asked a group of experts what Silicon Valley can do about online harassment.