For the last several years, an increasing number of celebrities and other powerful figures – mostly but not exclusively men – have been exposed for sexual assault and harassment. People call it the #MeToo “moment” and it’s fair to say the outing of Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator in the pages of the New York Times and New Yorker was a kind of tipping point. But it was a tipping point in a trend that’s been growing for years and many of the people exposed since Weinstein are people whose behaviour were the stuff of rumour for a while before. Sometimes, people ask me why I’m so willing to believe accusers when they speak out when it’s all just “he said, she said”, and there are a lot of reasons, but one is definitely that I’d been hearing things about several of the people recently exposed years before anyone came forward. I’m not some celebrity insider or anything. I’m just some guy from a small town in Ireland who’s never met a famous person I couldn’t fail to make small talk with before falling completely silent and walking away mumbling to myself, as Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon could attest if our encounter in a pub in Galway had been memorable in any way whatsoever. I’m not connected. But if someone had asked me to name sexual predators in Hollywood a year before the Weinstein story broke, I could have named at least a few of the men whose crimes were about to be dragged into the light: Bryan Singer, John Lasseter, Louis CK.
These past few years have raised a lot of challenging questions about how to relate to artistic works made, at least in part, by sexual predators. I’ve written about some of these questions before, and I will probably write about them again in the future. They’re not questions with easy, straightforward or final answers, if they have answers at all. An argument that might persuade you in one case could fail in another: when people say Woody Allen’s movies are inseparable from the man and his crimes, something about it just rings truer to me than when people say the same about the songs of Brand New, whose lead singer Jesse Lacey admitted to sexually exploiting teenage girls while he was in his twenties, and it’s hard to pin down why. Why can I listen to Brand New without guilt but just the thought of listening to Lostprophets, whose lead singer Ian Watkins is a convicted child rapist, turns my stomach? Why do Lostprophets songs turn my stomach when I was recently able to watch multiple episodes of Glee starring Mark Salling, who plead guilty to possessing child pornography before hanging himself, with minimal discomfort? The details differ, obviously, but all four of these men hurt children. What makes me want to take back Brand New’s music from its association with Jesse Lacey but not Lostprophets’ from Ian Watkins?
I’m not sure and may never be. Certainty may not even be the point. Perhaps constantly questioning ourselves and our judgement is the response these issues require. Not to the extent that we suspend judgement indefinitely and let ourselves off the hook from making decisions, obviously, but maybe a satisfying answer shouldn’t be the goal.
Let’s talk about Louis CK.
Louis CK was exposed as a serial sexual predator in an article in the New York Times on November 9, 2017. Multiple women accused CK of masturbating in front of them without their consent, a pattern of sexual assault that CK subsequently admitted to in a widely-criticised non-apology. The premiere of his film I Love You, Daddy, already controversial for its flippant attitude towards sexual abuse and coercion in the film industry, was cancelled by its distributor, The Orchard, and remains unreleased to this day; his long-time manager Dave Becky, one of the most powerful and influential people in the US comedy industry, dropped him as a client; FX cut all ties with CK, the man behind one of their most acclaimed series, Louie, as well as a producer and/or writer on Baskets and Better Things; he was replaced by Patton Oswalt in Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets franchise; Netflix shelved his upcoming comedy special, the second in a hefty production deal CK had signed, and TBS suspended and eventually cancelled production on an animated series co-created by and starring CK called The Cops. He stayed out of the spotlight for less than a year before performing a surprise stand-up set at The Comedy Cellar (the irony of CK springing his return on an unsuspecting crowd was noted). He’s since performed several shows with a new comedic style based around saying deliberately offensive things and whining about the money he lost because he was outed as a sex creep, a stark contrast to the self-deprecating, confessional humour that made his reputation. I’ve never been a fan of CK’s stand-up, but I watched the leaked video of a set he performed late last year and it’s wild just how quickly he sprinted into hack territory.
But, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And of course I had to throw in that little bit about how I never liked his stand-up anyway. One of the most irritating phenomena that’s always followed these kinds of revelations about celebrities is the person who loudly proclaims they never liked their work anyway. It’s self-indulgent posturing that takes cases of often serial sexual abuse and predation, and reorients them around the most important issue: me, me, me. People who do it are hijacking opportunities for serious reflections on our complicity with a corrupt and self-interested entertainment industry that facilitates and covers up the crimes of sexual predators and turning them into an opportunity to brag about how closely their aesthetic tastes hew with their moral instincts. I never liked him anyway, they say, and the implication is that they never liked him because their huge genius brains allowed them to intuit their moral depravity from their work as an artist. It’s pretentious, it’s tasteless, and it’s all bullshit. People lie about not liking stuff they loved (as long as they didn’t say so in public). They say “I never liked him anyway” when what they mean is “I’ve never actually seen any of his work, but now I get to exaggerate my ignorance and indifference into moral clairvoyance for brownie points”. But, mostly, the bullshit is in the implication.
You can’t tell someone is a bad person from looking at their work as an artist. Yeah, Louis CK made a film that many interpreted as apologetics for sexual predation, itself inspired in large part by a Woody Allen film about a man who has a sexual relationship with a teenager. But lots of people who aren’t sexual predators have made films that do that too: the whole point of the concept of rape culture is that dangerous, inaccurate and unjust ideas about sexual abuse are baked so deeply into our cultural norms that we have to make a conscious, active effort to reject them. It’s an explanation for how even the most well-intentioned among us can promote toxic notions about sexual violence even when we don’t mean to do so. Even when people do immoral things in the course of making art, it’s generally not apparent: you might be able tell a real chicken was crushed to death between two actors in Pink Flamingos, but nothing about Sausage Party tells you that its workers were abused, though they were. You can watch Clownhouse a hundred times and never know its director, Victor Salva, raped its 12-year-old star.[i] If you didn’t like Louis CK’s stand-up before his crimes were exposed in the New York Times, it’s not because you deduced from his jokes that he’s a sexual predator, it’s just because you didn’t like it. It’s not impressive to not like a piece of art. “I never liked him anyway” is the battle-cry of the most boring people in the world.
One of the most important activities in art criticism is returning to art. You might call it reevaluation, reconsideration or reappraisal, but those terms sometimes carry an assumption of adjusted opinion, even though it’s no less legitimate to come back to something you used to like or hate and find you still like or hate it. What matters is remaining in dialogue with the past and challenging the present: testing your convictions, opening yourself up to a new experience of something familiar, and maybe even offering a brand new perspective on something that’s already been talked to death or received only superficial examination to date.
Louie debuted on FX on June 29, 2010 and quickly became one of the most acclaimed TV shows of all time. It aired five seasons, won a bunch of awards, then went on extended hiatus in 2015 while Louis CK focused on other projects. Since his exposure as a serial sexual predator, some of the critics who once lauded CK, like Matt Zoller Seitz, have at least attempted to grapple with how their idolisation of him may have contributed to the environment in which he was able to prey on women for so long without consequence. That’s work that needs to be done – in TV (The Book), co-written with Alan Sepinwall, Zoller Seitz’ essay on Louie compared CK’s genius on television to Woody Allen’s on film without even alluding to the other comparison one might make. But even if CK wasn’t an abuser of women, we’d need to return to Louie and the critical discourse surrounding it.
The way critics talked about Louie, and consequently the sitcoms that followed it, was crazy. People who wanted to talk about the rise of prestige dramas would always list The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but people who wanted to talk about the rise of prestige comedy would just list Louie. The century was divided into pre-Louie and post-Louie and the decade’s TV comedies were described as either following or rejecting it, because the notion that sitcoms could exist outside a dialogue with Louie was barely thinkable. I’m only kind of exaggerating how much it saturated critical writing about sitcoms, and not exaggerating at all how suffocating it felt, especially if you disagreed.
I didn’t watch Louie until November, 2016, when it was a year into its hiatus and I’d already been aware of the accusations against Louis CK for some time. Back then, I was more enamoured with the idea of taking a work on its own merits without concern for its creator, or at least more convinced doing so was straightforward. I probably couldn’t have picked a worse show to approach with that mindset: one of the most common responses to the idea that you can’t separate art from the artist is that lots of art, especially film and television, is the product of collaboration among dozens, even hundreds of artists, but Louis CK directed and starred in every episode of Louie, edited the first two seasons on his own and only shared a writing credit on nine of its sixty-one episodes, mostly with co-star Pamela Adlon. (Adlon also produced the show and went on to co-create and co-write Better Things with CK before cutting ties with him when his assaults were reported. Adlon also fired Dave Becky as her manager and as a producer on Better Things.) CK portrayed a fictionalised version of himself (Louie, with an “e”) on the show and, most uncomfortably, wrote an episode in which his character attempted to force himself on Adlon’s.
I really enjoyed Louie, and I’d still call it a good show, even if the guy who made it is a piece of shit. The three-part “Late Night” arc from season three is easily among the best things I’ve ever seen on television and features a career-great performance from David Lynch, whose acting ability has been criminally unappreciated for far too long. I didn’t think it was the greatest television show of all time and, after reading so much about its innovation and influence, I was shocked to discover how many of its alleged innovations were old hat and how little of its influence I recognised in all the shows I’d seen that were supposedly made in its image. I felt short-changed, not by the show, but by the idea of the show created by critics. Just over five months after I finished it, two months after The Sundae launched, I cracked open the spreadsheet where we keep track of all our post ideas and entered the outline for the first iteration of this essay, “Deconstructing the Myth of Louis CK”. Just over six months later, the rumours of CK’s pattern of sexual assault were confirmed. I deleted the idea from the spreadsheet a while later.
I still think critics need to return to Louie. I still want to return to Louie. But, for the longest time, it’s felt kind of pointless, not because the work’s been done elsewhere – it hasn’t – or because the point is moot since the consequences of CK’s actions finally caught up with him, albeit briefly. Louis is not Louie, no matter how much creative control he had. I really, truly, fundamentally believe art belongs to its audience (including its potential audience, i.e. the entire human race) and that’s not a “get out of jail free” card for grappling with considering the relationship between a work of art and the artists who created it. It’s a “go straight to jail” card – the collective ownership of art necessarily entails the collective responsibility to examine the morality of art, of both its content and its context. Criticism, for me, is one of the ways we execute that duty, and as far as reexamining the ethical implications of how critics wrote about both Louie and its creator, several critics have made visible, public attempts to start that work.
But I haven’t seen much reconsideration of his work’s aesthetic value now that the cult of his genius is shattered. The issues are not unrelated obviously, but the question of whether Louis CK deserved the worship he once enjoyed among TV critics is separate from whether Louie deserved its acclaim. The former is more urgent, with more immediate and tangible moral stakes, but if criticism means anything at all, if the intellectual history of popular criticism matters even a little, we still need to get around to it eventually. Ironically, far more than Louie itself, the critical discourse around Louie, the way that critics talked about it and theorised it, has been profoundly influential on a generation of critics. It demands reevaluation. Even if you don’t think the issues around it are as deep as I do, even if you think critics mostly did a good job at understanding Louie, judging its quality and situating it in pop culture history, we need to at least check their work.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve felt caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to approaching this issue. If I say I was planning to write an essay saying that critics had overpraised the work of Louis CK before November 2017, there’s a serious risk that anything I say is just gonna sound like a long-winded version of “I never liked him anyway”. But if I pretend I only decided to write this essay after November 2017, whether I say so explicitly or just leave it implied, there’s a serious risk that anything I say will seem like it’s motivated by the exposure of his crimes. I’ve been afraid people will read any criticism that tries to downgrade his acclaim as me just taking intellectually unserious pot-shots at an easy target, or worse, as an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the controversy and profit by the suffering of his victims. It doesn’t even matter which one is the lie. Either way, it’s easy to see how my criticism could be read in bad faith, how the context would give people license to dismiss what I’m saying, regardless of whether I’m right or wrong.
It’s not just about Louis CK either. You could swap in any number of names – Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bryan Singer, Jesse Lacey, John Lasseter, TJ Miller, Asia Argento, Luc Besson, Junot Diáz, James Franco, Morgan Spurlock, Matthew Weiner, Jeffrey Tambor, Lars von Trier, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein – and find yourself in the same trap. It’s not quite as fraught as praising artistic work by a sexual predator, I’ll admit, but, even if no one is gonna accuse you of being a rape apologist, just the risk that writing it will be a huge waste of time is a strong disincentive not to bother. And the truth is I don’t really know what to do about it. I can offer as many or as few caveats and qualifications as I want – obviously I’ve chosen “many” – but it won’t stop people from doubting my motives in writing about Louie, consciously or unconsciously. I’ve had these thoughts myself reading criticism of work that I found ungenerous or superficial. I don’t even think I was wrong every time I thought that, yet I’ve written this whole essay about how aggrieved I feel that anyone would think it of me.
It’s tempting to impugn people’s motives when their criticism is probably just bad, and possibly just bothering you because it makes a point you don’t care to hear or raises issues you don’t want to contemplate. I understand that. I do those things all the time. It’s so much easier (and so much more fun) to accuse others of bad faith than make the effort to tease out their errors or confront our own. But it’s important we try to overcome the temptation. If we don’t let critics writing in good faith return to the works of artists who’ve been exposed for wrongdoing, there’s only two possibilities. One, only those critics who are writing in bad faith will do the work. Or two, hardly anyone will write anything at all. In that case, the main body of criticism about these works – what’s left to stand for future readers to draw from – will almost exclusively be by people who have not grappled with the moral context of their creation.
That’s bad for criticism and bad for culture. I see good critics getting attacked all the time on social media for writing challenging things about uncomfortable topics. I’ve seen critics who are survivors of rape and child abuse get called rape apologists and paedophiles for writing positively about films and TV shows that don’t present sexual violence and trauma in the most simplistic, straightforward way possible. (Conversely, I’ve been called a paedophile for writing negatively about how poorly The Flash handles incestuous undertones in its main romance.) I don’t even agree with those critics half the time, but it’s fucked up that we can’t let them be merely wrong, we have to call them monsters as well. The #MeToo movement has barely scratched the surface of the corruption and violence that lurks in the entertainment industry and we’re gonna have to keep grappling with these issues for as long as we’re here. It’s not like the world is gonna run out of assholes anytime soon.
This discussion isn’t over and it probably never will be. I don’t anticipate any final answers to bring clarity. The struggle to figure it out might be all we have. No one who struggles honestly with these questions will always struggle perfectly. We’ll make mistakes along the way. But we have to try to trust other people to not have hidden agendas and corrupt motives just because of their opinions, to believe they’re trying just as hard as we’re trying to talk sincerely and productively about art. It’ll be tough – impossible, really – but if art is worth anything, it’s worth taking seriously.
Next time, let’s talk about Louie.
[i] Salva’s career, it will not shock you to learn, suffered limited consequences. He’s made nine films since he was released from prison, including Powder and the Jeepers Creepers trilogy. You might point out many of his films got pretty limited distribution, particularly later in his career. Not that the film industry is a meritocracy, but, as someone who has seen Jeepers Creepers 2, his declining fortunes seem more like a result of his being a dogshit director.