In a leaked audio of a set he did in December, comedian Louis C.K. is heard mocking people who identify as gender-neutral and criticizing student survivors of mass school shootings:
What are you doing? You’re young. You should be crazy, unhinged. Not in a suit, saying ‘I’m here to tell…’
You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot. Why does that mean I have to listen to you? How does that make you interesting. You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and then, now I gotta listen to you talking?
For reference, on February 14, 2018, a gunman killed 17 people and injured several others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Some survivors of the shooting have since become outspoken advocates for stricter gun laws. One survivor in particular, David Hogg, “has become the target of online conspiracies and threats ever since he emerged as an outspoken advocate for gun control,” according to The Washington Post.
School shootings are a reality in America — averaging one a week just in 2018 alone. That’s “57 times as many shootings as the other six G7 countries combined,” according to CNN.
In the set, C.K. also commented on young people who have specific gender pronouns, adding a comedic twist to a talking point that often appears on the feeds of right-wing youth propaganda organizations:
I’m so disappointed in the younger generation honestly because I’m 51 years old and I was 18 and in my 20s we were idiots. We were getting high doing mushrooms and shit…I was kind of excited to be in my 50s and see people in my 20s and be like these kids are crazy, these kids are nice…but they’re not!
They’re just boring. Fucking telling me you shouldn’t say that. What are you an old lady?…You should address me…as they/them because I identify as gender neutral. You should address me as there…because I’m a location…and the location is your mother’s cunt.
Given the scale and significance of Parkland’s tragedy, and the increased attacks against those who identify as non-binary/genderqueer in the U.S., it’s not surprising that C.K.’s choice of words upset large communities with substantial online presence. It was to be expected, as social media has unfortunately become one of the few ways marginalized groups can connect and receive support.
Nevertheless, what I find more interesting than C.K.’s angry comments, the blowback he received, and the blowback to the blowback, is the fact that misrepresenting the experiences of “young people” hardly makes him an innovator.
Contrary to the official story, I don’t think Louis C.K.’s bit was edgy or out of the ordinary for our current political climate. He was simply adding his twist on widely used narratives against non-binary people, gun control advocates, and the millennial generation. I’d even argue that the part of his set that was deemed most controversial was a hack job.
Being 51, C.K. fits right into a curious group of commentators I’ve analyzed in an article entitled “Brace yourselves! Male pundits in their 50’s are talking about ‘the Millennials’ again.”
In the piece, I describe how David Brooks, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who advocates for “anti-fragility” on college campuses, and Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, use their platforms and perceived credibility to subvert the experiences of the millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 1996, according to Pew Research Center).
As I explain in the article, the practice of knocking down progressive millennials is done in a variety of ways — what C.K. did was to simply exploit millennial and Gen Z bottom-up narratives for their comedic value, as opposed to using alt-right talking points (Brooks), advocating for “anti-fragility” (Haidt), or using linguistics to “prove” that “the ‘woke stuff’ millennials talk about was made up ‘20 minutes ago’” (Weinstein).
As someone who grew up with the stand-up comedy of George Carlin and Bill Hicks, I know there is comedic value in everything. C.K. himself has proven he can find a funny note in the oddest of things and the dearest of popular myths, which is what makes his comedy and TV shows captivating. However, Carlin always acknowledged the mechanism of propaganda; C.K., in this instance, simply spun right-wing talking points and made them sound funny.
Corporate media outlets did what they often do — dumb down the issue, manufacture its scale and scope, and profit from our collective attention—which is why the story was ultimately presented as a feud between “free speech warriors” and censorship SJW’s. Taken to the extreme, these divisions made it easy for political operatives and pundits to add their ideology and “talking points of the day” to the mix.
Things fell right into place—right-wingers utilized their network of “free speech warriors” to express their outrage (and in the process knock the #MeToo movement and safe spaces), while “the Left” trumped up its toothless identity politics rhetoric to earn anti-Trump brownie points. As expected, by taking extreme stands in either direction to leech off the short-lived virility of the “controversy”— and capitalizing on social media platforms’ tilt toward sensationalism — corporate media, pundits, and “digital influencers” used the opportunity to manufacture consent about their own talking points.
Take for example how Breitbart, a U.S. white-nationalist platform, used the story to boost its own propaganda regarding school shooting survivors that have become gun control activists. Here’s a quote from their recent “Defense of Louis C.K.”:
Only a fool or a woke millennial — but I repeat myself — would be so stupid as to imagine that when Louis C.K. spat out those lines about the Parkland shooting that the targets of his satire were the kids who died, or their grieving relatives, or the traumatized survivors. No. If those people felt hurt — and I’m sure they did — it was only because they were unfortunate collateral damage of Louis C.K.’s much more important satirical point: the way Parkland victims like David Hogg have exploited their personal tragedy for political gain.
Sure if you agree with the gun control lobby the survivors’ campaigning may be no bad thing.
But if you don’t — and a good half of America doesn’t — then this actually looks like a somewhat ugly development in our political culture: the way, apparently, if you’re a photogenic, articulate kid who has survived a school shooting, you now have carte blanche to lobby against the Second Amendment — and yet not be held to account because, hey, your youth and your victimhood renders you beyond reproach.
Notice the subtle propaganda in the quote — implying that C.K. is criticizing students, because “Parkland victims like David Hogg have exploited their personal tragedy for political gain.” When you use your platform to knock down targets of right-wing media, you will get recorded, and right-wingers will use you in their holy war against “leftists.” I believe that’s what happened in this case.
Such skewed statements illustrate why C.K.’s comments were appetizing to right-wing and alt-right operatives, and unnerving to a lot of people who might otherwise enjoy his work. It’s not because of first amendment rights or censorship. It’s because it was hacky comedy and a cheap shot against marginalized groups that have been under constant attack from the current administration.
I believe Louis C.K. should have the right to say whatever he wants during his routines, be it about millennials, Generation Z, shooting survivors, and other subsets of people. I also believe those affected by his bits should be able to put what he says in the context of our current reality. When marginalized groups are attacked by someone with a sizable platform — political pundits, moral psychologists, comedians, etc. — they have the right to point out where those sentiments are coming from and analyze them at face value.
In the case of Louis C.K., those sentiments didn’t originate from the “realm of comedy” —in fact, they are routinely used by many other 50-something white males with particular opinions about “kids these days.” Therefore, this issue has little to do with the essence of stand-up comedy and first amendment rights, and more to do with a society where bottom-up narratives are constantly subverted for profit and cheap laughs.
Comedian Sasheer Zamata devoted nearly five minutes from a set to discuss the controversy surrounding C.K.’s recorded set. Here’s a quote from The Vulture (an audio recording of Zamata’s set is available here):
Zamata went on to note that she believes comedians should be allowed to say whatever they want onstage, but it has to come with a real take. “You can’t just get up onstage and say blatantly racist, transphobic, victim-blaming statements without a punch line! Like, who are you — all of our uncles?”
Then came Zamata’s rework of the Parkland bit. “He says that the survivors of the shootings shouldn’t be spending their time talking to Congress about gun control. Instead they should be ‘finger-fucking’ each other. But who’s to say they’re not? They can do both! They’re teenagers — of course they’re finger-fucking each other!” she said. “They just know how to separate sex from work, which I understand is a hard concept for Louie to grasp. Which is ironic, because we all know how much Louie loves to grasp hard concepts.