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The Internet outrage cycle is never-ending. Sometimes it is valid, and sometimes it is not. Either way, you can’t escape it.
The latest proof of this comes courtesy of Louis C.K., whose monologue on the season finale of Saturday Night Live elicited a bevy of strong reactions, particularly regarding his comments on child molesters. “There is no worse life available to a human than being a caught child molester. And yet they still do it!” joked C.K. “Which from, you can only surmise, that it must be really good. I mean, from their point of view.”
He then went on to compare molesting children to eating a Mounds bar.
As the audience audibly grew more and more uncomfortable, the comedian quipped, “How do you think I feel? It’s my last show, probably.” The line retroactively feels ominous, considering he shot a promo with cast member Kate McKinnon wherein she told him the same thing.
It’s clear that C.K. definitely knew what he was doing when he launched into this monologue. “All right, we did it. We got through it,” he said when it was all over, prompting massive applause from the audience. Whether he could’ve predicted the visceral reaction online, however, and whether he would’ve cared, is another story.
As comedy has gradually started to become more inclusive, and we as a society begin to redefine what are and are not acceptable standards for humor, C.K.’s latest SNL appearance stands firmly at a crossroads. Talking about child molesters to push buttons alone is pointless, but child molestation shouldn’t necessarily be off limits in comedy.
This incident happened at an interesting time for SNL, which saw a different child molester sketch go over poorly just a mere matter of weeks ago. And that wasn’t its most controversial moment of the season either. That title, until C.K. came along, probably belonged to the monologue Chris Rock delivered back in November. Several of his jokes about 9/11 and the Boston bombing (“You finally get to the finish line, and somebody screams ‘run!’”) were not well-received. The funny part is that these moments have come at a time when Saturday Night Live, which celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, has been widely derided for losing its edge.
C.K.’s latest SNL appearance stands firmly at a crossroads.
Although SNL is in a decidedly weakened state, it would be a mistake to equate edge with pure shock value. This happens in comedy routinely. There’s also a much lazier strain of “edge” out there, which assumes anything offensive is automatically funny.
The difference, in what C.K. and Rock did, comes down to how you frame certain jokes. C.K. wasn’t trying to crack wise at the expense of child molestation victims. Instead, he was making a point about the sheer insanity of child molesters’ pathology. It’s worth mentioning that he turned his microscope inward during the monologue, too, for a similarly dark take on the ingrained racism he has a tendency to engage in simply by virtue of being white. (C.K.’s father was born and raised in Mexico, however, and C.K.’s first language is Spanish.)
As always, the joke’s target is not a group of minorities, but C.K. himself, and the effects of institutionalized prejudice.
Rock likewise sought to explore the pathology of his subject, as opposed to making light of the situation. He’s correct in that it takes an incredible amount of evil and hatred to commit such a heinous act. But the reaction his monologue received was met with such anger, it quickly became evident that people didn’t want to talk about the Boston bombing at all.
C.K. wasn’t trying to crack wise at the expense of child molestation victims. Instead, he was making a point about the sheer insanity of child molesters’ pathology.
The inverse of this method manifests in jokes such as the one Dane Cook made the day after the Dark Knight Rises shooting in Aurora, Colo. Cook didn’t want to engage in a conversation about pathology or societal ills, he had no larger point to make. He just saw a timely way to capitalize on a tragedy, and he took it.
C.K., meanwhile, has always been focused more on ideas and patterns of behavior in his comedy. In many ways, he’s less interested in finding the humor in the way people act, and more interested in finding the humor in why people act the way they act. Take a look at a 2013 appearance he made on Conan where he talked about smartphones, for example. “I think these things are toxic, especially for kids… they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy,” mused C.K.. “They look at a kid and they go, ‘you’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write ‘you’re fat,’ then they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that.’”
He went on to dissect the harmful effects phones can have on adults too: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.” These type of thoughtful rants, which C.K. has become known for throughout his career, have cemented his status as a philosopher. Not that he’s the only comedian to ever earn such a title. George Carlin was frequently lauded for similar reasons. This was a guy that got paid to talk—who had the audacity to declare that, “by and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” Like C.K., Carlin also pushed boundaries to explore what we could learn when we question what we think we know about the world.
This is why it becomes difficult to definitively decide what topics are and are not OK to joke about. Take, for instance, the discussion that has surrounded rape jokes over the past few years. In a Jezebel piece from 2012 called “How to Make a Rape Joke,” Lindy West both defended the right to make rape jokes, while also establishing several rules which qualified how to go about it. One of the jokes she cites in the piece as working comes from C.K., of whom she writes:
“The oppressors never win at the end of his jokes. That’s why it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt that this joke is making fun of rapists—specifically the absurd and horrific sense of entitlement that accompanies taking over someone else’s body like you’re hungry and it’s a delicious hoagie. The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare.”
West also asserts that “Louis CK is possibly the greatest comic in the world, but that does not mean that he is always right.” However, what she sees as his saving grace is an ability to step outside of a joke and look at context. “I guarantee you he puts himself and his audience through at least this level of scrutiny on every joke,” she concludes. “That’s why the jokes are good.”
As he demonstrated on SNL, C.K.’s jokes are also good because he doesn’t excuse his role in them. Besides merely exploring the frequently fraught relationship between comedians and their audience, he has also explored his own limited understanding of race, sexuality, and gender. As a straight white guy, C.K. basically seems to understand that there’s only so much he can add when covering these topics. But that lack of understanding is also what makes his comedy feel real—he doesn’t have all the answers.
The most interesting storylines on Louie force C.K. to deal with his own entitlement and privilege. Once again, we see that what C.K. is interested in is pathology, including his own. It’s only in this context that his comedy works.
And in comedy, context is everything. More often than not, it is the difference between creating brilliant satire and taking cheap shots. When Rock jokes that, “all bullets should cost $5,000… ‘Cause if a bullet cost $5,000 there would be no more innocent bystanders,” he’s not making fun of all the innocent bystanders who have lost their lives to gun violence, he’s poking holes in a system that makes it so easy to get guns in the first place. To the same end, when C.K. talks about the mindset of pedophiles and rapists, he’s not making a joke out of their crimes, he’s deconstructing the psychology behind what makes these people commit such heinous acts.
Sometimes it’s hard to see a comic’s material in the same light after certain details of their personal life are revealed, especially if their work contains a particular philosophical bent. This is certainly true of Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. Even C.K. was recently accused of disturbing acts, which, if they turn out to be true, will make it difficult to look at his work in a vacuum.
But it would be a disservice to everyone if comics could no longer talk about controversial topics altogether. We need people who are willing to explore the minds of pedophiles, murderers, and rapists. We need thinkers who are willing to tackle these subjects and their pathologies. And we need artists who are willing to ask uncomfortable questions about the darker side of human nature, so we can better understand that darker side ourselves. The best thing art can do is to make us feel less alone, and the more we understand about why horrible things happen in this world, the less alone we’ll be.
This is a lot of responsibility to put on your average comedian. But Louie C.K. is not your average comedian. He’s the kind of comedian willing to ask the uncomfortable questions, so you don’t have to.
Screengrab via NBC.com
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.