Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 2

Read Part 1, on the fraught expectations around reexamining the artistic works of bad people, here. 


“There were some changes in how certain shows are classified this year. For example, Orange is the New Black is now technically a drama, while Louie is now technically jazz.”

– Andy Samberg, 2015 Emmys Opening Monologue

The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism. It’s hard to say why, though I have some theories: a lack of historical literacy, particularly with younger critics; an increase in critics, especially reviewers and recappers, using broad language and easy shorthand due to the punishing deadlines demanded by a hectic 24/7 online publishing environment; a growing tendency towards a mindset of critic-as-advocate in a crowded pop culture marketplace, which encourages critics to overstate the virtues of works of art they want to support in the hopes it will persuade more of their audience to give them a shot. Probably there are other reasons, but I like my theories because of all the first-hand evidence I have. I’ve called movies and TV shows innovative out of ignorance, expedience and a desperate want to convince other people to like the things I like so I have someone to talk about them with. Sometimes the truth – that something is “merely” fresh, interesting or novel – can seem a bit lacklustre. But “innovative” is a word with some heft behind it: not just new, but so new it represents a major break with the old way of doing things.

But artistic innovation is rare, and only gets rarer the longer a medium is around. Every medium has its limits, and while its early days will be a flurry of invention as artists create the basic vocabulary of material, structure, form, etc. eventually most things an artist can possibly do with paint on canvas or light on film will have already been done. Irmin Roberts, an uncredited second-unit cameraman (or cinematographer, sources vary), invented the dolly-zoom in 1957 during the making of Vertigo, and that was the first and last time a dolly-zoom was innovative. People have used them in new and interesting ways since then – the reverse dolly-zoom from Goodfellas melts my face off to this day – but it was innovative once. It opened up the medium to new possibilities once.

Maybe this seems pedantic, and it would be if “innovative” was a perfect synonym for “fresh” and “new” and “original”, but the concept of innovation is an extremely loaded one. It’s no surprise the term has grown in use over the last few decades given the valorisation of “innovation” spread by Silicon Valley and its pantheon of “visionary geniuses”, each as mythical as the last. But it’s exactly in that source we should see the danger in throwing it around so loosely. Technological innovations are constantly credited in the public imagination to people who did not create them, treated as the breakthroughs of singularly brilliant minds whose sole role, very often, was owning the companies where the workers who actually created the innovations were working at the time. Even to credit those workers is usually too simplistic, because their breakthroughs are frequently just the final step in a years- or even decades-long process of inquiry, research, design, testing, etc. that likely involved dozens if not hundreds of people who deserve recognition for their contributions. But they don’t get it. Even the one who makes that final jump doesn’t get it. Irmin Roberts invented the dolly-zoom and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism, and it wigs me out. It’s such a bold claim to make: not just something you’ve never seen before, but something no one has ever seen before. And even when you’ve correctly identified something as innovative, if you’re not careful, you can credit it in such a way as to bury the contributions of people without whom it would not exist. It’s not a word to be used lightly, not when criticism is often where the history of an art form – or at least the dominant narrative of that history – is written.

Let’s talk about Louie.

Continue reading “Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 2”

Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 1

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.

Continue reading “Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 1”

Rape Jokes: The Michael Scott Story

The American version of The Office is a much lighter, goofier show than its BBC counterpart. Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s original show is cynical and essentially misanthropic, such a pure distillation of cringe comedy that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Although the NBC version started as an almost beat-for-beat remake, it quickly became a radically different show: warm and pleasant, with characters who seem like nice people. The BBC show is painful, exquisitely so; the American remake is a go-to comfort show for many.

So it’s kind of weird that it’s in the American version that the main character gets raped.

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The Best of The Sundae #3

It’s been a banner year for The Sundae and we’re only halfway through. We got a shout out from Todd in the Shadows, took the New Zealand drag community by storm and did an objectively better job of rewarding the best films of 2018 than the Oscars by sheer virtue of not nominating Bohemian Rhapsody for anything. We also wrote some really good shit. And, for the first time ever, our best-of round-up contains two pieces from a pair of fantastic guest contributors.

So, if you’re a long-time reader, revisit some of our greatest hits. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might have missed. If you’re a brand new reader, take a chance on something a little different. And, if you like what you see, drop a tip in the jar so we can continue our mission of publishing independent cultural criticism unbeholden to the hot take cycle, and destroying the Walt Disney Company.

Here’s the best of The Sundae so far. Again. (Again.)

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Cancelled Too Soon: One Mississippi

This article is part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, Manhattan.


One Mississippi is a semi-autobiographical sitcom that debuted on Amazon in 2016, based on and starring comedian Tig Notaro, who catapulted to fame when Louis CK commercially released an impromptu stand-up set she performed just after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. Notaro plays a talk radio host called Tig Bavaro, who similarly develops breast cancer and loses her mother within a few months. While in her hometown of Bay St. Lucille, Mississippi following her mother’s funeral, Tig records her radio show with local producer Kate, with whom she develops a mutual attraction, even though Kate is ostensibly straight. (Kate is played by Notaro’s real wife Stephanie Allynne. They met while shooting a movie and Allynne did not date women before Notaro.) Tig gets a stomach infection that nearly kills her and requires a faecal transplant to treat. She has a brother with a French first name (Renaud/Remy) and a very reserved stepfather she has trouble connecting with. All of this is lifted from Tig Notaro’s life, albeit with names changed, events moved around in time a little and more dramatic character arcs.

But, so far as Notaro has said, the central dramatic fact of One Mississippi is fiction: Tig Bavaro was sexually abused by her grandfather as a child. It’s not the only thing the show is about, by any means, but it’s the axle the central story revolves around, the source of the core dramatic conflicts in the Bavaro family. Tig’s grief and illness are just a starting point – the narrative arc of the show’s two seasons is about sexual abuse and rape culture more generally, and each season ends with Tig taking a step towards processing her feelings about it. One Mississippi received widespread critical acclaim, and rightly so, with much of the praise, especially for season two, directed towards its portrayal of sexual violence and how society enables it.

It’s a very dry, very funny show, even with its often-dark subject matter, but it’s not a black comedy. Tig sometimes makes blackly comic jokes, and there are a couple of Scrubs-esque imagination spots that go very dark, but the tone of the show is mostly pretty relaxed and light, even if there’s narrative tension building up under the surface at all times. When it swings into the dramatic, you feel the shift, you know it’s accelerating, but its resting speed is a nice, gentle hum. I’ve rewatched One Mississippi from start to finish several times and I just enjoy it more and more. It’s somehow both a fun, easy watch and a show that makes me cry several times per season.

One Mississippi was cancelled after its second season in galling circumstances.

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Gutless, Spineless, Gormless, Directionless, Neurotic, Underachieving, Cowardly Pile of Smeg

In the long and strange history of Red Dwarf – spanning thirty years and two television channels, surviving the departure and return of one of its leads, the permanent departure of one of its creators and fifteen years of being terrible before suddenly, inexplicably, blessedly becoming good again – it’s always been, at its heart, an odd couple sitcom. It takes extreme versions of the Felix and Oscar archetypes and drops them into a high-concept sci-fi premise. Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a disgusting slob, is the last man alive after spending three million years in stasis aboard the Red Dwarf mining ship. Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), an anal-retentive coward, was one of Lister’s crewmates, who the ship’s computer revives as a hologram to keep Lister company. The computer picks Rimmer because he’s the person Lister exchanged the most words with in his time on Red Dwarf, not factoring in that all of those words were antagonistic.

Even as Red Dwarf became more and more of an ensemble – there’s Cat (Danny John-Jules), the end result of three million years of evolution from Lister’s pregnant cat, Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), a service robot the Red Dwarf boys rescue, and the ship’s computer Holly, who is sometimes Norman Lovett and sometimes Hattie Hayridge and sometimes entirely absent for seasons at a time – the dynamic between Rimmer and Lister remained the show’s beating heart. (Which is one of the many reasons the season where Rimmer leaves sucks.) They bicker endlessly, and are at times astonishingly cruel to one another. But the arc of the show is their becoming best friends: not because either of them “develop” or become better people, really, but because they get to know one another inside out. They are, after all, the only two human beings left, even if one of them isn’t technically alive.

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Leave It on the Canvas

You don’t really find out about professional wrestling anymore, the way you might find out about a sport you’ve never heard of, like jai alai, or a niche art movement, like glitch art. You just grow up knowing what it is.

It’s been around for over a hundred years, and it’s enjoyed the world over, but wrestling broke out in the 1980s in the United States as a television product. Several wrestling companies launched TV shows – mostly regional, though a few aired nationally – and professional wrestlers reaching a bigger and bigger audience soon became bona fide pop culture icons: André the Giant, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and, of course, Hulk Hogan.

By the end of the eighties and throughout most of the nineties, wrestling came to be dominated by two companies, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Eventually, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the WWF won the war, bought out WCW and now has such a stranglehold on the industry that the WWE (as it’s now known) is practically a synonym for professional wrestling as a whole. Even though most of the names in that list of wrestling legends came up in companies other than the WWE – Ric Flair didn’t work there until he was in his forties – most people couldn’t name a promotion other than the WWF/WWE. But they all know the WWF/WWE. I’ve never had to explain to someone, of any age, what I mean when I say I like wrestling. I just say “you know, like the WWE” and they get it immediately. Sometimes, when it comes to people in their sixties or seventies, I’ve had to clarify that the WWE is the same thing as the WWF, but, other than that, everyone gets it. Or, at least, they think they do.

I didn’t watch a lot of wrestling growing up, if I’m honest. I watched it with my cousins sometimes, I saw it on the TV flicking through when we got cable in my teens, I played WWE/WWF video games. But I wasn’t a wrestling fan. I knew about it, because it was everywhere. I knew the Undertaker, and Kane, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Triple H, and the Rock. I could sing Randy Orton’s theme music probably ten years before I ever saw a full Randy Orton match. But I didn’t watch wrestling growing up and I didn’t get into it properly until a few years ago, mainly because it felt alienatingly dense. It’s similar to why I’ve never read a lot of superhero comics. It comes burdened with this history of characters and conflicts, relationships and storylines, styles and trends, and so on, until the idea of getting into superhero comics just sounds like homework. But, in the end, I did become a wrestling fan, and the twist is that it’s not like superhero comics at all. I tried to follow just one mainstream superhero comic, Ms. Marvel, and it became a huge chore almost immediately. But wrestling hooked me.

Because, despite its name recognition, WWE is not all that wrestling is. It certainly aspires to be the only game in town, but there’s a whole world of wrestling beyond the grip of Vince McMahon. Last year, I decided to stop the flirting and commit to wrestling as one of my interests. I watched a lot of wrestling and spent a lot of money and even spent four months as an editor on a women’s wrestling website.

Here’s what I learned.

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Netflix and the Obama Legacy

When Netflix announced last year it had entered a production deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, trading as Higher Ground Productions, the response from the right was predictable. Tons of extremely online conservatives who’ve spent the better part of a decade criticising every single thing that Obama does just because he’s Obama tried to start a boycott. Extremely online liberals and leftists made fun of the extremely online conservatives, but rarely commented on the deal itself, save the occasional prediction the shows would probably suck. And most people didn’t hear about it or didn’t care.

It was all very predictable, yet also confusing. I’m an extremely online leftist and when I heard Netflix had signed a deal with the Obamas, I was disgusted, so I thought the extremely online left response would be to make fun of extremely online conservatives for coming up with an incorrect explanation for their correct conclusion this news was messed up. But no one else seemed disgusted, so I waited to see if maybe some disgust would develop, but everyone just forgot about it, and now it’s a year later and I’m finished waiting, so here’s why you should be disgusted by the Obama-Netflix deal.

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It’s Not Your Art, It’s Ours

Last month, James L. Brooks announced that The Simpsons had decided to pull “Stark Raving Dad”, its classic episode guest starring Michael Jackson. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Brooks said that he and fellow producers Matt Groening and Al Jean agreed to stop airing the episode in reruns, drop it from the show’s streaming service and cut it from future DVD releases. HBO/Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland has brought renewed attention to the accusations against Jackson of serial child sexual abuse, and many have had to answer difficult questions about how to relate to Jackson and his work. Brooks et al. apparently felt this was most appropriate for a show that had collaborated with Jackson.

“I’m against book-burning of any kind,” he explained. “But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”

Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, most people would instinctively concede that the producers are perfectly entitled to do with their property what they will. But that’s exactly where they were one hundred percent unequivocally wrong.

The Simpsons doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.

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The Rise and Fall of Last Week Tonight

This article is part of the Rise and Fall series, taking a look at shows that were once great and are now not. Previously, Brooklyn Nine-Nine


Every week, a new Last Week Tonight video shows up in my YouTube subscriptions page – the main story John Oliver covers in the show is uploaded to YouTube the next day – and every week, I dutifully watch it. It’s always disappointing. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to focus on something ultimately trivial or obvious, like his recent piece debunking psychics. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to cover something important but without a point of view or anything to illuminate, like his recent piece on automation. Sometimes because it’s so frustrating that it makes me genuinely angry, like his recent Brexit update that in twenty-plus minutes tossed off the Irish border in a line.

I ask myself all the time if Last Week Tonight changed or if I changed. The answer is a little of both, I’m sure, but I can pull up one of his old segments from 2014 or 2015 every so often, and they’re so, so much better than anything Last Week Tonight is doing now that I can’t understand how anyone can talk about John Oliver like he’s still the king of late night – unless it was a comment on the barrenness of the field, I guess. Last Week Tonight may have always been flawed, but it once was entertaining and informative. It once felt like a thing of value.

Now it sucks.

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