Having spent my entire professional life in comedy, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that humorists are moralists. I am thinking of my 33 years as an Editor at MAD Magazine when I had a regular outlet to express my deeply felt moral outrage over every President from Reagan to Trump. We mostly liked Obama at MAD, but we still made fun of him and took him to task when he pissed us off.
George Carlin was liberal, but he made fun of feminists, environmentalism and political correctness. The greatest stand-ups, most all of whom are liberal, understand that satire is a non-partisan art form because hypocrisy, corruption and foolishness are not limited to any one political party or ideology. That said, Rush Limbaugh is no Chris Rock.
At MAD, it was always self-evident to us that there was no point in making jokes at the expense of the homeless, the terminally ill, victims of disasters and tragedies, or the politically powerless. That’s why the Marx Brothers never made a movie in which they caused mayhem at a soup kitchen. The upper-crust assholes of high society made for a much more deserving target. Likewise, when the Three Stooges were cast as plumbers called to fix a leaky faucet and ended up flooding their clients’ house, the homeowners were not humble and impoverished immigrants, they were pompous and rich American fat cats.
This brings me to Louis C.K., a more talented and successful humorist than I ever was or will be, albeit one credibly accused of forcing female co-workers to watch him jerk-off. C.K., who not long ago sold-out Madison Square Garden, is currently attempting to revive his stalled career by playing comedy clubs. Yesterday, a recording of a recent performance of his was posted online that will likely prove to be the most damaging to a comedian since Michael Richards’ infamous racist tirade in 2006.
For reasons known only to him, C.K. decided that the student survivors of the mass shooting at Parkland High School were ripe for satire. He compares them unfavorably to the high-schoolers of his youth, who in his own words were “idiots, getting high and doing mushrooms.” So, what’s his problem with the Parkland kids? As he put it:
“They’re going to testify, in front of Congress, these kids? What the fuck? What are you doing? You’re young, you should be crazy, you should be unhinged, not in a suit saying, “I’m here to tell…” “Fuck you!” 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. Now I have to listen to you talking?”
Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I’m shocked that a standup as gifted as C.K. could make this kind of error. How could he have ever thought it was a good idea to make fun of and undermine teenagers who have responded to a horrific tragedy by becoming social activists?
The function of satire is to reveal truth through exaggeration and humor. There is no way that Louis C.K. doesn’t know that. But what is the truth revealed in this monologue? Is it his truth? That the students who survived Parkland did so because they used the fat kids as shields? Or that the Parkland kids should be more like C.K. and his pals were in their youth and get high rather than putting on suits and working for positive social change?
You would think such sickening, tone-deaf material would have bombed, but it didn’t. In fact, it was received by much uproarious laughter. The Parkland bit came well into C.K.’s set, after he had won the audience over. And once an audience starts laughing, well, apparently, they will even laugh at this.
The backlash has been swift. These days the backlash is always swift when a comedian makes a joke that many people find offensive. Just ask Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf, Bill Maher or Kathy Griffin. But not all jokes that offend are created equal. Of the aforementioned comedians who have recently been in hot water, only Michelle Wolf refused to apologize because she was credibly able to stand by her material. But when a comedian is unable to do that, they have no choice but to apologize or withdraw from the scene in disgrace.
Will Louis C.K. stand by this material? Of course, he won’t, though he has a lot more important issues to address than the quality of his wisecracks. First, he needs to address the charges of sexual misconduct against him. And then he needs to find his comedy compass.