Louis C.K.’s of­fenses were an open se­cret in comedy.

Co­me­dian Kath Bar­badoro did a bit about Louis C.K., but only af­ter he’d left the room

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @kath­bar­badoro Kath Bar­badoro is a co­me­dian and writer based in New York.

Idon’t know ex­actly when I first heard the ru­mors about Louis C.K., but this is be­cause of how fre­quently I heard them re­peated — not with the hushed tones and gripped el­bow of a wor­ried girl­friend’s warn­ing, the way such in­for­ma­tion is usu­ally shared, but in jokes, told to co­me­di­ans by co­me­di­ans.

“You’ve got to hand it to Louis C.K. Ac­tu­ally, there’s no need to hand it to him, but could you at least watch?”

“That guy’s so de­praved he makes Louis C.K. watch him jerk off.”

“Where is Louie go­ing up tonight? I wanna go watch him mas­tur­bate.”

I’ve been a stand-up co­me­dian since 2011, and since at least 2012, when Gawker pub­lished a “blind item” strongly in­sin­u­at­ing that Louis C.K. mas­tur­bated in front of non­con­sent­ing women, co­me­di­ans have joked about it with each other. In all those years, no one was ever will­ing to put their name be­hind an ac­cu­sa­tion, and as a new comic start­ing out in Austin, a sec­ond-tier comedy mar­ket, ev­ery­one I knew was sev­eral de­grees re­moved from even speak­ing to Louis C.K. for longer than a minute or two. But the fact that you couldn’t dis­cuss any as­pect of his life or work with­out some­body crack­ing a joke about his sup­posed com­pul­sions speaks to how wide­spread the ru­mors were: Ev­ery­one gen­er­ally thought he was up to some­thing, and it was a joke we were all in on.

Stand-up is the an­i­mat­ing force in my life. I’ve spent the bet­ter part of my 20s skulk­ing around half-empty bars, drink­ing a sin­gle glass of the cheap­est beer avail­able and wait­ing to get on­stage for the three or four min­utes that I’d ar­ranged ev­ery­thing around. I’ve made not only all of my friends here, but all of my ac­quain­tances, and all of my (hope­fully few) en­e­mies. And all of these peo­ple had heard the ru­mors about Louis C.K.

In Jan­uary, he hap­pened to drop in at an open mic where I was sched­uled to per­form. He had up­com­ing shows in town and wanted to work­shop some ma­te­rial for peo­ple who hadn’t paid $50 a ticket. This phe­nom­e­non is one of my fa­vorite things about stand-up: It doesn’t mat­ter how famous you are or how long you’ve been do­ing it, a new bit is a new bit. Your bat­ting av­er­age gets bet­ter over time, but there’s still a chance some­thing that killed you when you thought of it will be to­tally mean­ing­less when it’s out­side your brain. This means that some­times peo­ple like Louis C.K. show up at a $5 open mic night in Austin to try some stuff out.

All of us per­form­ers were be­side our­selves with ex­cite­ment. If you’re a co­me­dian, and es­pe­cially if you’re a white mil­len­nial co­me­dian, you love Louis C.K. His set was great. All of his jokes were about an­i­mals — moose, gi­raffes, goats — and many of them ended up in his “Satur­day Night Live” mono­logue in April. The au­di­ence was daz­zled; they laughed and hollered and so did we co­me­di­ans, gath­ered in the back. In typ­i­cal Louis C.K. fash­ion, the jokes ranged from philo­soph­i­cal to touch­ing to ab­so­lutely dis­gust­ing. Mostly dis­gust­ing. I loved it. My boyfriend at the time had come to the open mic with me, and I felt like my prox­im­ity to such a uni­ver­sally re­spected celebrity le­git­imized my mod­est comedy ca­reer in his eyes. Then I felt sick: I knew — like ev­ery­one did — what he had done to women. But I was still laugh­ing.

As we’ve all come to un­der­stand since the al­le­ga­tions against film pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein broke, power in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try is in­tensely un­equal. I was a no­body. Louis C.K. was the supreme some­body. As I pre­pared for my set, I tried to calm the queasy part of my­self with ra­tio­nal­iza­tions: What was I sup­posed to do, tap him on the shoul­der and ask if he re­ally jerked off in front of un­will­ing women? I didn’t have any first- or even sec­ond­hand sto­ries of mis­deeds, just the re­ceived knowl­edge of the comedy world and a cou­ple of vividly told blind items. Sure, a lot of Louie’s ma­te­rial deals with his lack of im­pulse con­trol. Sure, he’s ex­plored sub­jects like sex­ual as­sault and com­pul­sive mas­tur­ba­tion on his TV show. But is it fair to judge his art so lit­er­ally?

I was sched­uled to per­form two or three peo­ple af­ter Louie, and he was gone by the time I got on­stage. I knew that all any­one in the au­di­ence was think­ing about was him. I knew I had to ad­dress his drop-in, and I knew I had to say some­thing about how un­set­tled I felt by see­ing him — but I also knew that since he was no longer in the room, it couldn’t mean much. If he’d still been there, I doubt I would have said anything.

“Louis C.K. at our open mic! Can you be­lieve it?” I said, as I took the mic from the stand. “I guess it just goes to show you that stand-up is a per­for­mance art — you have to try new jokes for an au­di­ence no mat­ter what. If you don’t do it in front of peo­ple, it doesn’t count. Un­for­tu­nately, Louie also feels that way about mas­tur­ba­tion.” The comics in the back roared, but the au­di­ence stared at me blankly. I was baf­fled. I hung out with comics, and since they had heard the ru­mors, I’d as­sumed ev­ery­one had. Clearly, that was wrong.

The in­sid­i­ous thing about an open se­cret is that it al­lows you to as­sume that all peo­ple have ac­cess to, and can be pro­tected by, the same in­for­ma­tion — that the open­ness of the se­cret does the work so you don’t have to. It makes you feel that know­ing is the same as do­ing. This is an as­sump­tion of con­ve­nience, and it’s one I’m sure many peo­ple in en­ter­tain­ment made about Louie. I’m sure it’s one peo­ple make about ev­ery pow­er­ful man with a cloud of whis­pers hang­ing over him. I don’t know what some­one in my po­si­tion can do, but I know I don’t feel like I did enough.

Co­me­di­ans are a fa­mously mal­ad­justed group. You use hu­mor to deal with anything that makes you even slightly un­com­fort­able. C.K.’s habits were a big in­side joke, and ev­ery­one was in on it. But it wasn’t funny, and jok­ing about some­one when they leave the room isn’t the same as holding them to ac­count. I told ev­ery­one but the one per­son I needed to tell.

GETTY IM­AGES

Co­me­dian Louis C.K. hosted an episode of “Satur­day Night Live” this April. Sev­eral women have ac­cused him of sex­ual abuse.

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