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When harassment is a laughing matter The Comedy Cellar, as a new book details, defends the value of debate to an uncomfortable degree

Louis CK's jokes have coercion built right in them

Louis CK's jokes have coercion built right in them

September 28, 2020   5 mins

I took the Louis CK thing personally. In November 2017, standup comedian CK confirmed something that had been known for a very long time: that, when he was on his own with women, especially female comics, he would ask if he could take his penis out, then do so, and then masturbate in front of them. I’d first seen the rumour as a blind item five years earlier, but it was obvious who it was. So CK’s admission was both unambiguous, and pathetically late.

I took it personally, because CK’s comedy invited you to take him personally — especially on matters of sex, where he cultivated a schlubby intimacy, making himself an avatar of masculine weakness and compulsion. I took it personally because I liked him. I took it personally, also, because I had wanted it not to be true. The year after I read that gossip blog, I went to see him do his act at the O2. He was very funny. I especially enjoyed a long joke about dating.

“It takes courage to want to date, on both sides,” says CK, and the audience laughs. For men, that’s the courage to risk rejection; for women, the courage to risk whatever men might do to them. “If you’re a man, try to imagine you could only date a half-bear, half-lion,” he says, smiling, incredulous, adding in a tone of dopey hopefulness: “‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice!’” Oh, I hope this one’s nice. I guess that I – and every woman who trusted him when they went into a room together – was the punchline after all. I wrote an angry opinion piece about it for the New Statesman, in which I suggested he shut up for good. Yes, I took it personally.

CK took a year off after that. (Not because I’d told him to, obviously. Because everyone hated him.) His 2018 return to standup is where Andrew Hankinson’s compelling new book, Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t begins. If Don’t Applaud is one thing, it’s a biography of influential New York club the Comedy Cellar, told in reverse from CK’s comeback to its establishment in the 1960s by a Jewish immigrant called Manny Dworman. But the book isn’t one thing, because the Cellar isn’t one thing — or isn’t the thing it most obviously appears to be, anyway.

The Cellar’s business is charging people for a few hours of being made to laugh. But Manny Dworman’s club is also the realisation of a principle – a place where free speech is treated as the highest value. His son Noam, who has run the club since his father’s death in 2003, sees this as a manifestation of the Jewish intellectual tradition. What Manny wanted was a way to “discuss the current day version of holy books with the learned men”, and Noam is willing to defend the value of debate to an admirably uncomfortable degree. Even Holocaust denial, he says, should be put to the rhetorical test.

But this position is an embattled one. Offended punters – and the social media storms they can kick off when they share a punchline out of context – are an ever-growing issue to the running of the club. That issue of context explains the unusual way this book is written. Rather than slotting quotes into an overarching narrative, Hankinson has transcribed his interviews near-verbatim, including questions. In the acknowledgements he says: “at times that makes me sound sycophantic, narcissistic and silly. I felt that was a price worth paying.” He’s right. The sacrifice of authorial vanity gives this book warmth, honesty and a resistance to easy conclusions.

CK’s comeback causes Noam Dworman one of his worst headaches ever. There are a few audience walkouts. Staff are threatened on the subway. Someone tweets about firebombing the club. For Dworman, this shows people dehumanising CK, who paid for his disgrace by losing TV work and a feature film: “They can’t accept that he’s suffering, because the whole premise is that this is okay because he hasn’t suffered. And it’s not honest. Yes, he’s suffered enormously… Then you have to decide, is it enough?”

Is it enough? What does CK deserve for systematically harassing women? Has he apologised sufficiently to earn his career back? When Hankinson interviews the stand-up Bonnie McFarlane, she also talks about CK’s return to the Cellar in terms of justice – but in a slightly different way. She uses the word “penance”. CK used to be a beloved star. Now, audiences are more hostile to him. “Now Louis gets to feel what it is to be a female comic,” she says. “Like, people kind of hate you when you get up there. You’ve really got to prove yourself.”

From the Dworman perspective, free speech is about what you can say. But it’s also about who the “you” in that sentence is, and in comedy, it’s historically been white men. The black comedian Godfrey tells Hankinson about what he calls the “one negro at a time” rule, meaning there was only cultural space for one black star at a time; female comics describe the informal “quota” that used to mean only one woman got booked per show. And CK’s penis was one more obstacle women had to work their way around (so to speak) when they went to do their jobs.

In his 2017 confession, CK makes it clear that he knew his actions were about power. “These stories are true,” he wrote. “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was OK because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question.” But this still sounds disingenuous: did he really only learn it “later”? That seems unlikely, because so much of his material, like the “half-bear, half-lion” joke, is about power.

When harassment is a laughing matter

By Andrew Watts

Sometimes his jokes have coercion built right in them. His ability to handle an audience means he can carry them with him, into the helpless realm of discomfort and relief where a lot of the best comedy sits. His “of course… but maybe” riff is entirely about that, drawing listeners with him to unspeakable conclusions. When he gets to “of course slavery is bad… but maybe”, the laughter stops – this is too much.

But then he chides the audience: you laughed when he said children with peanut allergies are too fragile to live, you don’t get to bail now. And the audience surrenders to him in hilarity. It’s a great joke. Could someone who told a joke that good, predicated on the fact that people can’t say no to the most important person in the room, genuinely not have understood that asking women who admire you to look at your dick isn’t a real question?

“Funny” isn’t a universal value. It’s also about who’s in charge, which is of course the problem with freedom of speech as well. It’s a limited kind of liberty if only a certain type of person gets to exercise it. A project like the Dwormans’ is, inevitably, flawed and partial. Even so, it’s hard to end Laugh or Don’t Laugh without feeling some profound admiration for the Cellar. Maybe I was right in 2017, and CK should shut up for good. I won’t be going to see him again. But maybe it’s necessary, too, that there’s a place which can test the limits of the speakable and who gets to speak.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.


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