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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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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The Best of The Sundae #2

It’s been over a year since we first took a look back at our work and picked the best of it for your easy reading pleasure. A lot has happened since then. We’ve gone through two whole Oscar and Emmy cycles. We each had an essay published in Bright Wall/Dark Room – Dean on Blade Runner and Ciara on Weekend at Bernie’s II. Marvel fired James Gunn due to an alt-right smear campaign and now he’s writing Suicide Squad 2. We were shortlisted for an Irish Blog AwardJonathan Chait got BOFA’d.

But, most importantly, we kept writing and publishing, and now we have even more stuff to choose from for our second best-of round-up. So, if you’re a long-time reader, here’s an invitation to revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. And if you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.

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

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Behold the Man Who Is a Bean

Night on a deserted street in London. Saint Paul’s Cathedral shines on the horizon. A beam of light shoots down from the sky and expands into a spotlight. A man falls from above and lands smack on the ground. He wears a tweed jacket and red tie, brown slacks and a white shirt. An angelic choir begins to sing in Latin.

Ecce homo qui est faba.

“Behold the man who is a bean.”

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A Mid-Life Crisis in North Dakota

Dennis Reynolds is a bad man. All the characters on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are awful people – it’s kind of the premise of the show – but Dennis still stands apart. Like the rest of the Gang, he’s all narcissism, bigotry, and rage, ready to explode at any moment at anyone he perceives to have crossed him. Once, when a guy called him a narc, Dennis’s revenge was getting the guy to chain himself to a tree overnight during a storm while Dennis slept with his girlfriend, and that’s pretty mild when you’re grading on the Dennis curve of bad behaviour. He’s a prolific rapist, and he might be a serial killer.

He’s also one of the best characters in the history of TV.

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What About Me? What Am I Going To Do?

Rewatching The Inbetweeners in 2018 has been full of surprises. Mostly, I was taken aback by how evocative it is of its time. I rarely think of the late 2000s as having any kind of distinct culture – it seems most of the time that we haven’t had a decade, in a cultural sense, since the 1990s – but The Inbetweeners looks and feels like a show made very specifically between 2008 and 2010, like a weird kind of time capsule. The cringe comedy, the music choices (remember The Wombats?), an honest-to-God reference to Crazy Frog. There’s some stuff that hasn’t aged well – the voiceover narration always struck me as gratuitous, but I think I’d blanked from my memory how every episode ends with basically a highlight reel – but mostly it made me feel very fond. I love teen movies and shows, but rarely because they remind me of my own teenagehood outside of the broad emotional strokes. The Inbetweeners feels like a show about kids that I grew up with: there’s a relentless ordinariness to it, and a disgustingness that feels, watching it as an adult, surprisingly, sweetly innocent.

The Inbetweeners follows four teenage boys in some anonymous small suburban town in England: Will, a posh ex-private school wanker moved to a comprehensive after his parents’ divorce; Simon, who initially seems like “the normal one” but quickly reveals himself as probably the most fucked-up of all, short-tempered, needy and incredibly sensitive; Neil, who is basically a complete idiot but probably the most together of the four when it comes to actually interacting with other people; and Jay, self-appointed sex expert and pathological liar. They want to get drunk, and pull a girl, but mostly just hang around, talking shite.

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Fleabag, Can’t Cope Won’t Cope and The Case for Self-Denial

Here’s a terrible advertisement for Diet Coke:

 

There are so many things I hate about this ad. That it contains the term “ath-leisure.” The background music. That it’s painfully obviously a line-for-line recreation of an American ad, because no English person would use the phrase “yurt it up” (the American version, for the record, was directed by my old nemesis, Paul Feig, for some reason).

But the thing I hate the most about it is “If you want a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.” Life is short, is the ad’s premise, so do more things you want to do: live in a yurt (whatever that is), run a marathon (though it backhandedly suggests you probably shouldn’t bother), drink a Diet Coke. But drinking a Diet Coke isn’t like living in a yurt or running a marathon, because Diet Coke is bad for you. The actress in the ad says that it makes her feel good, which it might for a moment. And according to the ad, that doesn’t just mean it’s okay and you shouldn’t feel bad about it, but that you actively should drink Diet Coke, whenever the thought occurs to you.

The thing I hate the most is that the ad treats all wants as basically the same. That pursuing all those wants amounts to making the most of life, or being true to yourself.

But, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, that thought has a brother: that if you do not pursue all your undifferentiated wants, you aren’t making the most of life, and you are not your authentic self.

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