A darker, grittier Louis C.K.

There has been something disturbing about the current season of Louie, an undercurrent of anger and even violence that lends Louie’s depressive misadventures a more sinister edge. One episode has him permanently injuring a woman he’s slept with when she insists on tickling him, and another features him tuning out what he believes to be rejection and venting his anger by destroying a piano with a baseball bat. He has recurring fights with his ex-wife, openly admitting that he’s too angry to contribute anything of value. Most alarmingly, he all but forces himself on his Hungarian girlfriend Amia (who cannot communicate with him in English) and a couple episodes later attempts to rape his old obsession Pamela — and regards it as a triumph when she very reluctantly consents to kiss him. To put it bluntly: what the fuck, Louie?! People still seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it doesn’t seem that he’s presenting his encounters with Amia and Pamela as anything to be celebrated — but he’s in very risky territory and the way he handles this in subsequent episodes will make a huge difference.

My most optimistic reading as of now is that he’s trying to enact a kind of internal critique of pathetic white male sexuality. Specifically, he’s showing how difficult it is for even the “nicest” and most “sensitive” guys to break out of the patriarchal habits of possessiveness and entitlement, and how vulnerable even the smartest and least stereotypically masculine men are to challenges to their masculinity. After all, he only forces the issue with Amia after getting continual ribbing from his friends, his ex-wife, and even Amia’s elderly aunt. The situation with Pamela is a typical Nice Guy scenario where he feels he has put in his time — but it has soured into resentment after she has denied him so long, so that he can’t respond positively to her offer to give romance a try. Yet once she’s opened the door, he has official “permission” that she can never revoke. He also seems to believe that Pamela’s habitual sarcasm (which is also clearly a threat to his masculinity) gives him permission to ignore her clear rejection of his advances.

This stew of insecurity, entitlement, and wounded, angry pride is all too familiar to me from my adolescent days. Seeing it played out in a grown man is alarming and sobering — and it shows how deeply engrained the habits of patriarchy are in essentially all men. Our society is so completely fucked that taking women seriously as autonomous human beings with their own preferences and priorities is only rarely the first pattern of behavior that is modeled for and inculcated in young men. Feminist men are almost always converts, and the potential for backsliding is always there. The question for me is whether Louie will continue to strike the painful balance where his behavior is both undeniably pathetic and undeniably scary.

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14 Responses to “A darker, grittier Louis C.K.”

  1. gerrycanavan Says:

    Given that the whole series (and this season in particular) seems to be happening in some sort of dream state, the toxic stew of American heterosexual-masculinity and its undesired persistence even in men who try to be feminists seems to me to be the whole takeaway. I trust Louis to land the plane.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    On Twitter, Kristin Rawls is making the case that he’s actually just a misogynist who’s trying to see how far he can push things while still being lauded, etc. I’m not sure what to think, but it’s worth taking that possibility seriously — could he be a new Woody Allen? There have been lots of sexual harrassment complaints.

  3. gerrycanavan Says:

    Or a new Hugo Schwyzer. But I don’t think it’ll come out that way.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In any case, he is subject to the “dangerous game” effect that we’ve discussed with Breaking Bad, etc. How many male viewers think Pamela is a capricious bitch who owes him sex?

  5. mattintoledo Says:

    I had the thought at his standup concert that a big part of his appeal as a comic is taking the kinds of deep down thoughts we all have and using them to great comic effect.

    Could this be a different side to this technique? An extension of the bit where he says straight women have to date the thing that’s most dangerous to them? If so, it’s bold to pursue that road in a character he plays himself that is often believed to have very autobiographical moments on the show.

    Then again, I haven’t seen some of the uglier stuff Adam mentions from this season yet. As a fan, though, I do hope he “lands the plane” as Gerry said.

  6. liamface Says:

    He has been very explicit that the perceived autobiographical elements are exaggerated, and described the character as nothing like him or so he hopes.
    Thinking about that though, it doesn’t solve anything. Is this character a condemnation of everything bad he sees in men, or is it an acting out of things he perceives as far from himself but is what he is really like?
    All I can say is, from my perspective, the humor only works if we are laughing at “Louie”, that is the character that he has most recently described as a “loser type” that is “not what I am like at all”. So the way the humor works suggests he thinks this dude is emblematic of some real social bullshit. Then again, people often want to ascribe to C.K. all kinds of ideological stuff, positive and negative, that i don’t know that he has thought through. Maybe he doesn’t know where this is coming from and maybe he would defend some of the stuff that is so hard about this season. hard to say.

  7. david cl driedger Says:

    Isn’t it fair to say that this will be the case of any comedian who is ‘successful’ in the Freudian sense of the relation between jokes and the unconscious and the parties required for its execution.
    “When the first person finds his libidinal impulse inhibited by the woman, he develops a hostile trend against that second person and calls on the originally interfering third person as his ally.” (this is of course in reference to one particular type of joke of course)
    Undeniably scary indeed.
    To what extent is it possible for a comedian to ‘take aim’ at a target (patriarchy) while still remaining faithful to what, according to Freud, gives the joke its power in the first place?

  8. danbarber Says:

    Seems to me the question is that of whether Louis is offering an analysis or a (positive) exemplar — my take would be that it should be the former. That is, Louis is an analysis of the white man, and on some level his whole work (standup and the show) is about pushing to the limit the audience’s desire to redeem / recuperate him through his willingness to show (in ever smaller ways — this is the “pushing the limit” aspect) his awareness of how bad he is.

    In other words, and rather bluntly: can a white man be a “good guy”? That question seems to be pretty much the entirety of Louis’ work … and his move is always to show how he is *not* a good guy *but* is aware of it … and so the question then becomes, “can a white man, given that he is *not* a good guy, *become* a good guy through awareness of his not-being-good?”

    Thus the question of “autobiography” is central and a distraction from the real issue:

    Central, because being a good guy, in this sense, pretty much boils down to knowing how (or i’d say, having the positional capacity) to tell a story of one’s self.

    A distraction, because, ultimately, the problem is the structure of white supremacy / patriarchy, such that all stories of one self as a white man are (recuperative) narratives of white supremacy / patriarchy.

    So, to me, the question of whether or not Louis is going to “show / confess” that he knows he is wrong is pretty much moot — or, more precisely, asking this question, or looking for and hoping that he *will* show / confess that he is a good guy (and this includes his doing it) precisely *is* white supremacy / patriarchy. In other words, white supremacy / patriarchy = investment in whether Louis is a good guy / gets it (regardless of the outcome … the show goes on)

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (Or to put it more briefly, the structure of white supremacy is the structure of Christianity.)

  10. danbarber Says:

    Or, to cite one of my favorite remarks, from Asad: “a ‘bad conscience’ is no bar to further immoral action, it merely gives such action a distinctive style.”

  11. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    And yet, and yet… If L.C.K. confesses his guilt, he perpetuates the system of white supremacy, but this logic of “you’re ok if you’ve done the wrong thing so long as you feel guilty and repent” depends, I would argue, on the logic of original sin. That is, the sin of which you repent is not really your fault to begin with: it’s just your (biological) nature. That’s why your repentance really amounts to nothing more than affirming the systemic evil you acknowledge you are (by birth) a part of. So, Dan is right: so long as we read L.C.K. as “white man” (and as long as he presents himself that way) he is reinforcing the natural givenness of “white man-ness.” And if it’s just natural to be a bigoted rapist, then (1) how can we really blame any white man and (2) L.C.K.’s “good-guy-ness” and confession of guilt may save him, but it leaves the victims of “white-man-ness” with no hope of redemption, at least until biology itself (original sin) has somehow miraculously been transformed. And to connect this to the logic of Christianity: Isn’t L.C.K’s playing up his “white-man-ness” the very opposite of when a Jewish comic plays to the stereotype of the Jew (God-killer: “We killed Jesus because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him”–Lenny Bruce)? I mean, L.C.K. is not overturning the stereotype, but reinforcing it (so the Christian who confesses his sin is asserting the naturalness of sin), but the Jewish comic who plays up his “Jewishness” is not asserting the natural givenness of Jewishness, but laughing at the absurdity of that idea (what idiot would actually ask to be persecuted for murdering God?, “his blood on our heads and our children’s heads”, so to say, “Yeah, I’m down with that” is at least to destroy the stereotype that Jews are smart.) If your humor attacks the logic of inherited sin, if it’s premise is “this shows you what sort of schmocks you think we are” then it’s “Jewish” humor, but if it’s “this shows you what sort of schmocks we were born to be,” then it’s “Christian” humor. So Shylock is a great Jewish humorist: “you think I am a carnal Jew who is only interested in the letter of the law, I’ll make you feel what it’s like to be carnal and turn you into the most expert literalist, even better than me, in order to defend yourself.” Unfortunately, Portia was an even better Christian humorist (and she is really funny!): “We can’t help being as profit-minded and conniving as (we think) you are, but at least we can be forgiving (when it doesn’t cost us anything).”

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Hence the enduring superiority of Larry David over Louis CK.

  13. Will Says:

    I thought y’all were fretting needlessly. The past few years have seen CK’s stand-up and then the 4th season of his show conspicuously engaging the fact that women live in a world colored by an ambient threat of sexual violence. I don’t follow his career all that closely, but I assumed this was at least partially catalyzed by the incident that found him running PR damage control for sending Daniel Tosh a friendly tweet amid backlash against the latter’s targeting of a female heckler with gang rape-themed taunts, a controversy which CK (purportedly) wasn’t aware of at the time.

    Given how many risks he’d taken with his protagonist’s frankly upsetting displays of coercive sexual aggression and violent frustration, I too was pretty confident that CK would, you know, land the plane.

    But then I saw tonight’s episode. This sums it up pretty well (no plot spoilers):


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