Leutz: Red, White and Offended

What to make of Louis C.K.?

by Peter Leutz | 1/31/19 2:05am


Earlier this month, Louis C.K. made his unintentional yet anticipated return to the public eye through leaked audio recordings of his newest standup material. The comedic genius, famous for a shocking style of humor saying what others won’t, did not shy away from his well-established, controversial public persona. Accompanied by the din of alarmingly extended laughter, C.K. stated, “You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot. Why does that mean I have to listen to you? How does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot, you pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I gotta listen to you talking?” Louis C.K. has made a career out of reminding Americans that, whether they like it or not, the First Amendment still exists: this performance was no different. The wider audience, however, is. 

For better or for worse, the American public, apparently with the exception of the hysterical fans heard in the background of the audio recording, can no longer stomach C.K.’s brand of humor. It seems the broader public has forgotten that comedians, by definition, are not supposed to be taken seriously. The American audience seems increasingly fragile and quickly offended. Given this new culture, C.K. was unsurprisingly eaten alive across social media platforms. Yet I find it embarrassing that, as the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting approaches, Louis C.K. is the person with whom people are upset. 

Louis C.K. is a comedian, one whom many already knew is far from a role model. Last year C.K. confessed to sexual misconduct allegations made by five separate women, and people are somehow surprised by his lack of taste in recent comments? But C.K.’s comments didn’t cross the line, because for comedians, especially comedians of C.K.’s particularly raunchy style, no such line exists. Regardless of how offensive they may be, C.K is protected by the first amendment. Furthermore, as a comedian, C.K.’s speech should be especially protected and contextualized for what is at least an attempt at comedy. As long as the audience keeps laughing, whether or not it eventually consists of only NRA card holders, C.K. will continue to make such jokes. As a die-hard fan of comedy, I acknowledge that, while C.K. may have missed the mark this time around, his best work is often found furthest over the “line” that again really doesn’t, nor shouldn’t, exist for established comedians.  

Demanding that Louis C.K. ease off of the offensive jokes for the sake of school shooting survivors also underestimates the strength of these young adults. In this case, I definitely have no problem standing in support of free speech when the victims of that speech have proved time and again that they can stand up for themselves. The greatest insult to school shooting survivors has been Congress doing nothing in the aftermath of a slaughter of their friends that could have been preventable with 21st century gun laws: common sense lawmaking that our government still can’t quite figure out. For the sake of the school shooting victims who C.K. made jokes about, direct your anger in a more productive direction. Nothing says more about modern American culture than outrage in response to a comedian’s insensitive dialogue on gun violence, yet excusing that same insensitivity when it is carried out on the basis of partisanship. 

The Atlantic’s Megan Garber accused Louis C.K. of masking comedy as tragedy. Garber is simply accusing C.K. of doing his job. For years, Louis C.K. has been stunning audiences into laughter with jokes that listeners know they probably shouldn’t be laughing at. If Louis C.K. was an actor, singer or any other type of public figure that is not a comedian, I would support people’s outrage. However, he is a comedian, and the longevity of his career has proven that there is even a market for this, a most menacing form of humor. I don’t support jokes about mass shootings, but I hope America’s fragile culture doesn’t choke out comedy that can often make us laugh about issues that would otherwise make us cry. Comedians seek to find humor in the everyday. The most appalling reality of his most recent set is that mass shootings have now become a part of that everyday. Listeners must remember that this most uncomfortable reality is not Louis C.K.’s fault. 

C.K.’s comments should be of little concern, so long as he stays on the mic. If his comedy is truly too offensive, his audience will fade. Such dialogue becomes truly problematic when it is shared with a sincerity that simply cannot and should not be expected to be attained behind closed doors at a late-night comedy club during open mic as a part of a stand-up routine or act. Asking Louis C.K. to be less offensive is like asking Pablo Picasso to use less blue.