Caroline Llanes: Not so open mic

Thursday, January 10, 2019 - 2:41pm

When I heard about the leaked audio from Louis C.K.’s big comeback set (or second comeback, if showing up unannounced at New York’s Comedy Cellar is considered a comeback), I labeled it in my brain as one more thing not to interact with.

Comics like Louis C.K. are intentionally inflammatory, aiming to provoke with comments ranging from blatant transphobia and racism to digs at millennials and their obsession with “PC culture,” a term I did not realize meant “political correctness” rather than “personal computer” until embarrassingly recently. Not only is paying attention to comics and instigators giving them exactly what they want; it’s downright exhausting. Every day, the news cycle churns out some fresh hell, and you have to prioritize what’s going to get your emotional attention that day.

Louis C.K. did not even crack my top five list of News Items to be Upset About. Sadly, these things are unavoidable, as people post screenshots of transcripts and write think pieces and generally make it impossible not to interact with this god-awful set. So I found what I could of the bootlegged audio and listened to it. It was so…not funny. Even for comics who like to walk the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not who claim to occupy an edgy space it was just completely devoid of humor.

Judd Apatow called it “hacky, unfunny, shallow” and he’s right. Not only is it all of these things, but it’s also tired. C.K. brings absolutely nothing fresh with transphobic and racist comments about Asian men, especially when there are so many Asian comics. Gay Asian men like Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang, as well as trans Asian women like Patti Harrison, are able to deliver comedy that is actually funny while addressing their identity cogently and genuinely, bringing empathy to their sets. C.K.’s return also got me thinking about how openly hostile comedy is to those who aren’t straight white men.

Gilda Radner was an iconic comedian, one of the original seven cast members on Saturday Night Live. So many comics today, male and female, cite her as an inspiration. Watching clips of her perform as wacky reporter Roseanne Roseannadanna on Weekend Update still makes me laugh. She absolutely steals whatever scene she is in and exudes a hilariously chaotic blend of energy and charisma. Radner also famously struggled with an eating disorder. She says it best: “Because I’m not a perfect example of my gender, I decided to be funny about what I didn't have, instead of worrying about it.”

So much of comedy depends on subversion of norms in order to get laughs, which leaves women in comedy with the quandary of either attempting to perform womanhood as they’re supposed to without making waves or eschewing the portrait of traditional womanhood, upsetting people along the way.

Radner faced enormous obstacles. During National Lampoon Radio Hour, male cast members and male writers would collaborate on sketches without the help or presence of the female cast members. Radner would then volunteer to be on the typewriter in order to transcribe the ideas, inserting her own ideas and bits whenever she could  She was a trailblazer in the comedy world, a world where "Animal House" was the standard for how women were treated. John Belushi asked her to move to New York to be a part of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, saying that he wanted her to be “the girl” — as in, the only girl. This was all happening in the early days of SNL in the 1970s. Has anything changed? C.K.’s return suggests no, things have not changed.

During his set, Louis C.K. blamed the loss of $35 million on the cancellation of his forthcoming TV special and movie. In addition, he lamented that he had been out of the comedy scene for so long (11 months). What is $35 million to Louis C.K., a man whose comedy career is long and illustrious, who has been a producer on many successful television shows and has had many a stand-up special on HBO?

What about the women who were subjected to C.K.’s behavior, having to endure humiliating displays of power, unnecessarily sexual situations and hostile work environments? These women’s careers have been sidelined and shattered because they dared to speak up. What did Gilda Radner and her co-stars Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman have to deal with during their time on SNL? What drove Gilda Radner to so closely control her diet because she felt it was the only thing she could control? Looking at these patterns, it becomes clear why women must struggle to be represented in a pool of comedians crowded by men. Women have to get a leg up in the world of comedy, while Louis C.K. gets a standing ovation after destroying multiple women’s careers.  Is it worth $35 million? I’m certainly not the one who gets to make that call, but I’d take even five more female comedians over another angry, bitter, hacky white man lashing out because he can’t get away with his bad behavior anymore.

Caroline Llanes can be reached at cmllanes@umich.edu