So much of the focus on the wave of sexual-abuse allegations post-Harvey Weinstein has, rightly, been on Hollywood’s narrow corridors of power, and how easily men like Weinstein or C.K. can use their influence to shut down claims of impropriety. But C.K.’s onscreen persona had its own incredible power, helping him to get away with things in even plainer sight. The supposed authenticity of his comedy contributed to the image of a man deeply, and humorously, aware of his own shortcomings. The statement of apology he gave to The New York Times (which doesn’t actually contain the words “I’m sorry”) does not.
When C.K. first emerged as a comedian, he was an absurdist. His ’90s stand-up, and stints on shows like Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Dana Carvey Show, tended toward the surreal. But in the mid-2000s, as he went through a divorce and began recording comedy specials for HBO, C.K. became a national phenomenon for his openness about his home life and his dysfunctional attitudes toward sex, along with his hilariously bleak view of the 21st century. His stand-up, beginning with the one-hour set Shameless, didn’t hold back. “Sometimes you find ecstasy, but it’s followed by the deepest self-hate and depression you’ve ever felt,” C.K. says about masturbation in one stand-up segment. “What the fuck is wrong with me? God dammit. … Then you get married, now you gotta hide!”
Masturbation was one of many topics C.K. revisited in his specials—his disintegrating (and, eventually, dissolved) marriage, his ups and downs as a father, the struggles of dating as an older man. It was all so alluringly believable: the tribulations of a middle-class guy in his early 40s baring his soul to the world. He built up a relationship of genuine trust with his audience, in the way only a great stand-up comedian can, often by demonstrating a willingness to put his own image on the line. C.K. earned the “right,” so to speak, to push into more uncomfortable territory, by offering sharp insights into both societal and personal hypocrisies.
Louie, which amassed Emmys and acclaim for years since it debuted in 2010, was more artful but similarly emotionally raw, putting an indie-movie spin on C.K.’s material and only becoming more sophisticated in its storytelling over the years. Present throughout that show was Pamela Adlon, the hugely gifted comic actress who played a fictional version of herself: a fellow parent at Louie’s kids’ school and, eventually, an object of his affection. Adlon’s character—also named Pamela—mostly functioned as a truth-teller, the brassy but righteous woman whom C.K. knew had his number. It was a broad role she played in his failed 2006 HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, and it’s one she reprises in I Love You, Daddy.
Adlon, who co-created her own series, FX’s Better Things, with C.K., has issued a short statement describing her devastation over his “abhorrent behavior.” Her various appearances on C.K.’s shows often served as evidence of his ability to listen to criticism about himself and confront his own worst tendencies. One memorable scene in Louie features his character grabbing Pamela and forcefully trying to kiss her; at one point during their lengthy, distressing struggle, she pushes him off, yelling, “You can’t even rape well!” The moment seems designed to be a daring condemnation of pathetic, and dangerous, male behavior—a reading reinforced by the fact that the same episode includes a stand-up segment by C.K. that lays into the long history of patriarchal control of women. That additional context worked to distance Louie the character from C.K. the comedian; today, the episode resembles a half-hearted apologia.