Reflecting on the downfall of Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle is puzzled. In his superb new hour of stand-up comedy, The Bird Revelation, from Netflix, he notes, “One lady said, ‘Louis C.K. masturbating in front of me ruined my comedy dreams.’ . . . I dare say, Madam, you may have never had a dream. Come on man, that’s a brittle spirit.” Let’s compare, say, Martin Luther King’s dream, Chappelle continues. “You think if Louis C.K. [masturbated] in front of Dr. King, he’d be like, ‘I can’t continue this movement! I’m sorry but the freedom of black people must be stopped! I didn’t know this [fellow] was going to pull his [genitals] out and [masturbate]!”
C.K. and Chappelle, who has also just launched another excellent Netflix special called “Equanimity,” are the two most essential stand-ups of the era. They explore very much the same territory: observational comedy with a confessional frankness, an eagerness to interrogate themselves, to turn the stage into a therapist’s couch. Jerry Seinfeld, who in dollar terms must be the most successful joke-teller in the history of the world, last September launched his own Netflix stand-up set, retelling bits from the 1990s, and given what Chappelle and C.K. have done, it was like watching a 1955 Buick at the Daytona 500. Seinfeld’s riffs on breakfast cereal once seemed brilliant. Now they’re feeble. What, we want to know, is it like to earn hundreds of millions of dollars? To buy Billy Joel’s Hamptons estate? To work with Larry David? To date a 17-year-old when you’re 38? Seinfeld won’t do the work that makes for genius stand-up today. He won’t even open the door to his soul, let alone rummage through its contents trying to make sense of the whole mess.
C.K. did, and it would be a shame if his sexual misdeeds ended his career. What he did in the presence of several women was disgusting. But more than anything, it’s pathetic. Chappelle notes, “All of these allegations were terrible, Louis’s was the only — I shouldn’t say this but f*** it — his allegation was the only one that made me, like, laugh.” Since the flood of revelations about appalling sexual behavior by high-profile men began in October, we as a culture have been chucking all of these men into the same bin of sexual deviancy. But rape is not the same thing as trying to kiss someone you’re having drinks with, or pinching a bottom, or exposing yourself. In what other area of misbehavior would we demand the same extreme punishment for such widely varying acts? Harvey Weinstein deserves to be kicked out of the entertainment industry. C.K. doesn’t.
What C.K. did doesn’t appear to be illegal. It isn’t assault. But it is repulsive, and he shouldn’t go unpunished for it. In fact, he has been harshly sanctioned. “They took everything from Louis C.K.” Chappelle says in The Bird Revelation. “It might be disproportionate. I can’t tell.” C.K. was booted from several television projects, his (very good) movie I Love You Daddy was withdrawn from theaters on the eve of its release, and HBO removed his programs from their streaming service. Is C.K.’s comedy no longer worthy of our notice? HBO should let its viewers make that decision. Being presented with the mere option to watch a Louis C.K. stand-up special should not give anyone the vapors. Happening across a thumbnail for Lucky Louie should not cause anyone’s comedy dream to die. Chappelle again: “One of these ladies was like, ‘Louis C.K. was masturbating while I was on the phone with him!’ [Lady], you don’t know how to hang up a phone? How the [heck] are you going to survive in show business if this is an actual obstacle to your dreams?”
The Bird Revelation is, I think, the first example of a significant work of popular culture to grapple at length with what the New York Post dubbed the “Pervnado.” Chappelle, who spent a period in South Africa after he walked away from his Comedy Central show in 2005, has a typically ingenious approach to the sex scandals: He suggests a recrimination-free truth-and-reconciliation process such as what followed the fall of the apartheid regime. He tells women, “You got all the bad guys scared” but cautions, “fear does not make lasting peace.” Comparing the subjugation of women in Hollywood to the subjugation of blacks in South Africa, he says: “If the system is corrupt then the people who adhere to the system . . . are not criminals. They are victims. And the system itself must be tried.” He envisions a collective unburdening: “Everybody says what they did. Tell ’em how you participated.”
Yet that isn’t what is happening. Men who would like to be supportive, he says, are being shouted down: “Ben Affleck tried to help. ‘Hey, what happened to these ladies is disgusting.’” But the response, Chappelle adds, was, “Oh . . . you grabbed a [breast] in ’95!” So Affleck essentially said, “All right, fellas, I’m out,” the comic concludes. The sex scandals are causing emotions to run hot in Hollywood, and elsewhere. When things calm down, it’ll be much easier to differentiate the vastly different levels of wrongdoing within the catchall category of sexual misconduct, and to acknowledge that not every perversion merits total banishment.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.