Louis CK deconstructs his own joke

In his 2013 HBO special Oh My God, the comic Louis CK describes an encounter with a resident of a building that he’d just moved into:

My first week in the building about a year ago, I went down to the courtyard for the first time, and I didn’t look too good, you know, it was a Sunday morning — that’s my least presentable hour.

The comedian places himself within the ‘storyworld’ of this joke very precisely: the exact location in his building; the hour of the day; how long he’d been living in the building; how long ago it happened. After a brief digression (about how dishevelled he looked) he begins the story a second time, this time focusing in even more closely:

So there I was, I’m sitting on the stone bench in this courtyard, and feeling a little out of place.

When setting up the story, Louis CK repeats the word “courtyard” a number of times which serves to anchor his character in this unusual and very particular space. He fills the story with visual details: the stone bench, the stains on his shirt, the “fancy doormen” who work in the building. And then his antagonist arrives, and he too is carefully located within the same story-space:

And then there’s this guy looking at me, I notice he’s looking at me from across the courtyard.

He zooms in on some specific visual details:

And he’s all spiffy looking, he’s got brown shoes. And he’s looking at me like “hmmm” — I could tell he was thinking I don’t live in the building. He thinks I just wandered in off the street and sat in the courtyard…

Again with the courtyard. All these details reinforce the actuality of the confrontation that unfolds, in that particular courtyard on that particular Sunday morning, between Louis CK and the “spiffy looking” man.

The man comes over in his brown shoes to the stained comic, and the encounter plays out. Here’s how Louis CK ends the narrative:

He didn’t say anything after that, because… well, the whole thing didn’t really happen. I mean, well… it’s not true but it’s as true as anything that does happen. I mean, really, any time anybody says anything to me, I decide what they said anyway.

All the effort Louis CK has spent on reinforcing the genuineness of this anecdote makes the sudden disavowal of the story so pointed. In a way, he’s flexing his own comic muscles by revealing how completely he can manipulate the narrative (and the audience into believing it).

He goes on to deconstruct the story he just recounted as fact:

The truth of this story — and I won’t lie to you again — but here’s what really happened. I was sitting in the courtyard looking like shit, that’s true, and the guy was looking at me, but then the rest of it I just made up in my head, just, an angry hateful… “rich dick, you probably want to kick me out, yeah, then here’s what I would say… and then, he would do this… I would say these three really cool things right in a row. And of course he set me up for all of them because I’m him too. It’s kind of hard to lose an argument when you’re both people and it’s taking place in your brain.

And then, in reality, he really did come up to me — and he said “are you new to the building?” — and I said “yeah, I just moved here” — and he said “oh, welcome.” He was so nice, he was incredibly nice. And he’s been for the last year he’s my favourite person in the world — he’s George, my neighbour George. He’s probably watching, I love George, he’s the greatest.

With a murderous crunch of the gears, Louis CK category-shifts the story he’s only just finished telling from fact to fancy, from history to fiction. From something that definitely happened on that Sunday morning a year ago in the courtyard of his new building, to something which “I just made up in my head”.

Louis CK insists, very sincerely, that after the ornate lie he’s just told, he’s now telling “the truth of this story”. Even though we completely trusted him the first time, and have just been told that he was lying all along, we now believe him again when he tells us “what really happened.”

In fact, he assures us that this time he’s definitely telling us “what really happened” in the same breath as telling us that it’s irrelevant what really happened because he’s going to make it up anyway. It’s giddying.

And even though there’s every reason not to believe him (he pretty much tells us not to believe him) we go right ahead and accept that the second version of events is the true one. Having whipped the rug from under our feet he gives us a new truth to cling onto: that the snarky antagonist is really “my favourite person in the world”. Never mind the implausibility of this statement, we’re swept along into accepting this new version of reality, in which: “I love George, he’s the greatest.” And we smile and get a warm glow and we believe again. We’re wrapped around his little finger.

It’s all about control. Louis CK has (as he tells us) complete editorial control of the anecdotes that he adapts and elaborates into material for his stage show: “I mean, really, any time anybody says anything to me, I decide what they said anyway.”  The comic himself is the arbiter of what’s true or what’s not. He’s God of his own joke-worlds.

And he has complete control over us. If the audience trusts that the comic has control of the situation, they’ll believe anything — happily. They’ll willingly suspend their disbelief, swallow layer upon layer of nonsense, and uncritically inhabit each new joke-world that is bubbled out into their brains:

“So there I was, I’m sitting on the stone bench in this courtyard…”

Oh, ok.

“No I wasn’t. I was lying. But I’m not lying now.”

Oh, ok.

“A man walks into a bar…”

Oh really? Ok, and what happened next?


Shortly after this piece was written, a New York Times article was published in which Louis CK was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment:

Even amid the current burst of sexual misconduct accusations against powerful men, the stories about Louis C.K. stand out because he has so few equals in comedy.

“He abused his power”, said one of his victims, speaking on condition of anonymity. The comedian Tig Notaro said she was standing in support of the women who had been harassed and sexually assaulted “to speak up against such a powerful figure.”

The way that Louis CK, when on stage, controls the reality of his audience, and the way by force of will he imposes his version of it (making us believe, making us laugh, making us trust) is not entirely unrelated to the way he would impose himself on women by masturbating in front of them. A kind of extroverted narcissism, as if to say “you’re part of my world now”.

Louis CK’s apology, released the day after the New York Times article, has been much criticised for being, among other things, oddly self-agrandizing; for example, it repeatedly mentions how “admired” he is in the industry:

The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.

The apology begins with this terse statement: “These stories are true.” In the past Louis CK had explicitly and repeatedly denied that the rumours of sexual misconduct were true:

“If you actually participate in a rumor, you make it bigger and you make it real.” So it’s not real? “No.” he responded. “They’re rumors, that’s all that is.”

Version of events #1: the stories aren’t true. After his victims come forward with their testimony, he gives us version of events #2. It’s same juddering gear change that we saw in his act, using almost exactly the same words: “The truth of this story…” / “These stories are true.”

But is the apology sincere? Are we meant to believe Louis CK is actually contrite, or is he just creating another fiction? Is the apology just another flexing of his reality-determining muscles?

 An article by the writer and filmmaker Jade Blair dismisses the apology as “a PR strategy”, calling it “a self serving statement of weasel words that masquerades as honesty”. And of the comedian himself, she says:

“Louis CK has a way of seeming truthful, and self-deprecating…”

Seeming truthful: this is Louis CK’s whole career in two words. On stage he creates his own reality, his own truth. He’s a master of control. So it’s entirely reasonable to wonder if the apology isn’t just another attempt to keep a grip on the truth. In slightly earthier language, the comedy writer Sarah Beattie sums it up perfectly:

louis ck, as a fucking professional comedian, is a fucking professional at manipulating his audiences. don’t eat his fucking shit sandwiches

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