Is there any precedent for the outpouring of loathing and contempt from former admirers and peers that landed on Louis C.K. as 2018 ticked to a close? Fellow comics and comedy writers broke an unwritten rule and attacked one of their own, joining the usual Twitterati and culture cops in a rage-fueled online stoning. A bit C.K. had performed at a Long Island night club on December 16, with no intention that a national audience hear it, and that leaked online without his permission, was mentioned on the front page of the New York Post and New York Times.
“You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot,” C.K. said. “Why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I’ve got to listen to you talking?” C.K. also made fun of hypersensitive, scoldy, uptight young people and their pronoun posturing.
The response from Andy Richter, Judd Apatow, and other comedy pros was to label this routine “hacky,” “lazy,” “shallow,” “easy,” and “fishing in a barrel.” (I think that last one is supposed to be “shooting fish in a barrel,” Andy, it’s important not to mangle the clichés you use.)
But what C.K. said isn’t hacky. A hack does a bit on how the Starbucks menu is too confusing or how women gain weight after marriage. And anyway, a hacky routine isn’t worth mentioning, much less getting upset about. “Parts of a comedy routine performed in an obscure club two weeks ago bombed” is not news. To mock the Parkland kids in even so mild a way as to suggest they have no expertise on gun control is to venture into a high-voltage area. It’s the opposite of “hacky.” It is in fact “edgy.” The edge in question is the frontier where “things that can be said” meets “things that cannot be said.” It’s where “funny” meets “offensive.” It’s where the audience will laugh while thinking, “I can’t believe he said that.” It’s where most of the top comics have wanted to live ever since Lenny Bruce inspired outrage for “mocking Jackie Kennedy.” (Actually the bit in question suggested that Mrs. Kennedy was guilty merely of being human, of trying to flee the limousine where her husband had been shot, rather than bravely seeking help. This was an edgy thing to say in 1964 but hit home because it was likely true.)
C.K.’s comments on youth weren’t hacky and trite either, because their premise wasn’t a kids-these-days cliché but something close to the opposite. He was pointing out that (first time in recorded history!) kids these days aren’t adventurous enough, aren’t frivolous enough, aren’t freewheeling enough. Somehow every kid these days wants to clamp down on others, aspires to be a cultural vice principal or a language Niedermeyer. That’s funny.
C.K. was not “punching down.” The Parkland kids are national heroes. They have been on the covers of magazines and dominated the conversation for weeks. They led a nationwide march. They logged countless hours of adulatory coverage on the television shows. They starred in a CBS documentary, 39 Days, and in a longish segment in the latest Michael Moore movie. Their views on matters unrelated to having been present at a school shooting are eagerly sought. Their youth isn’t a source of vulnerability but is central to their power in a youth-worshipping culture (that doesn’t much revere dumpy, balding, middle-aged white guys).
David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez have 2.5 million Twitter followers between them. Many of the Parkland kids were invited to sing “Seasons of Love” on the Tonys. C.K. wasn’t. They aren’t as rich or as famous as he is, but culturally speaking, they are lions and he is a masturbating rodent. C.K. is so loathed that the occasion of his venturing out of his apartment once to speak at a comedy club for 15 minutes inspired this New York Times headline: “Louis C.K. Slithers Back.” The attached column labeled him a “malignancy” and suggested he should work in a Gap rather than comedy.
The tone of Andy Richter and Judd Apatow’s tweets was not that they were disappointed that C.K. had done a bit that wasn’t funny at a show neither of them had attended. No, Richter and Apatow are outraged. And outrage is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Comics don’t want to admit they’re outraged. Because outrage traditionally makes you a butt of jokes, a bit like the teenaged pearl-clutching brigade C.K. mocked.
What is driving this episode of cultural citizens’ arrest is that the Parkland kids are untouchable. They can’t be made fun of. They are . . . icons. Comics can’t say that because labeling the Parkland kids sacred cows would acknowledge the existence of sacred cows. And they want to reserve the right to barbecue everybody else’s sacred cows. Jesus Christ is worshipped by even more people than Emma Gonzalez, but no comic wants to abandon the right to mock his story. (And if attacking a dead guy who was crucified at age 33 for speaking his mind isn’t “punching down,” what is?) Louis C.K. went after icons. That makes him iconoclastic. And iconoclastic was a great compliment. Still is. Mocking the Parkland kids is taboo. And taboo-busting was a great compliment. Still is. C.K. was being transgressive. And transgressive was a great compliment. Still is. One almost begins to entertain a rumor of a hint of a suspicion that the culture cops don’t approve of transgression per se, but only of the transgression of boundaries cherished by people they don’t like.
The prototypical C.K. routine will be shocking (in that it ventures without euphemism into an area we don’t like to talk about), subversive (in that he stakes out a contrarian position), and funny (because its premise is nevertheless true, or at least true-ish). If you don’t agree with the premises, you’re not going to find them funny. But the premise of his Parkland bit is that surviving a school shooting doesn’t make you an expert on any public-policy question. This is not only true, it’s obvious. C.K. is doing the same kinds of bits he has always done.