Louis C.K.’s Phantom Alliance With His Black Fans

The comic, returning to the Comedy Cellar this week, described a particular wave of support he’s received since admitting to sexual misbehavior last year.

Kevork Djansezian / Reuters

Louis C.K. says he’s been persecuted. During a Monday-night set at the New York performance mainstay the Comedy Cellar, the comedian addressed his November 2017 admission of sexual misconduct—namely, masturbating in front of several young female comedians—only to the extent that it has affected his own career. “Hard things, you survive them or you don’t,” C.K. said at the Cellar, according to a report in The New York Times. “I think even hell you can survive. Hell is not that bad. I’ve been there.”

But even amid the fire and brimstone of his own creation, C.K. noted that he’d found relief in the wave of support he’d received from a specific population. “They tell you that when you get in trouble, you find out who your real friends are,” he said during his set. “It’s black people, it turns out. They’ll stick by you.”

The comedian’s invocation of unnamed black supporters echoed comments made earlier this month by the actor Alec Baldwin. Baldwin, who has recently attracted the ire of conservatives for his portrayals of President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, told The Hollywood Reporter that his performances have earned him ardent approval within the same community C.K. hailed as his saving grace. “Ever since I played Trump, black people love me. They love me,” Baldwin said. “Everywhere I go, black people go crazy. I think it’s because they’re most afraid of Trump. I’m not going to paint every African American person with the same brush, but a significant number of them are sitting there going, ‘This is going to be bad for black folks.’”

That both men, white and rich and powerful as they are, would name “black people”—that hastily aggregated monolith—as their primary supporters amid heightened critical attention is curious, but perhaps not wholly surprising. Their comments partake of a long tradition. Trotting out the proverbial black friend as evidence of one’s open-mindedness or innocence in the face of controversy is hardly new. Even the president himself, a man whose rhetoric and policies have already wrought long-term damage to communities of color, has gestured toward phantom support from his “African American over here.”

By allying themselves with black people, at least rhetorically, both Baldwin and C.K. attempt to access the symbolism of victimhood: The men seem to be cashing in on black people’s oppression in an attempt to paint the group’s approval as uniquely weighty. This is manipulative, disingenuous logic. Black people, even those who might feel sympathy toward either of the comedians, do not exist as rhetorical tools to be levied in the face of criticism. Whatever black supporters C.K. or Baldwin may have found in the wake of their perceived missteps are not shields to be thrown up when the men do not wish to face the ire of others—or tokens to be redeemed for cultural cachet. Solidarity is a reciprocal endeavor.

The men’s relationship to black people, convenient invocations that we are, is, of course, largely one-sided. Louis C.K. has long addressed racism and white privilege in his comedy, but his bits have tended toward self-aggrandizement and unproductive discomfort. In his April 2017 Saturday Night Live monologue, C.K. joked about a chicken that crossed the road “because there was a black guy walking behind him,” as well as a housekeeper at a fancy hotel who didn’t regard him respectfully enough. “It’s wrong that white people get preferential treatment,” he said mockingly. “But as long as they do, what’s going on at this hotel?” (The joke was eye-roll-worthy at the time, but following reports of C.K.’s misconduct, in at least one instance, occurring in hotel rooms, it’s taken on a more disturbing valence.) Baldwin, for his part, recently likened Dylan Farrow to Mayella, the character in To Kill a Mockingbird who falsely accuses a black man of rape. The comparison somehow managed to belittle both Farrow’s accounts of her adoptive father Woody Allen’s alleged abuse and the specter of racist policing.

C.K. is, however, right that one of his most vocal supporters in the comedy world has been a black man. In a series of Instagram stories in August, the Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che defended C.K.’s surprise return to the stage. “What’s interesting to me about these articles against Louis C.K. performing again, is how important fame is to people. A lot of what I read says that C.K. shouldn’t get to be a ‘famous’ comedian anymore. Because to them, he’s still winning. Isn’t that strange?” Che wrote in response to my colleague Megan Garber’s piece about C.K.’s performance. “Meaning he can be shamed, humiliated, lose millions of dollars, lose all of his projects, lose the respect of a lot of his fans and peers, and whatever else that comes with what he did, but since he can still do a comedy set for free at [a] 200 seat club a year later, it means he got off easy. THAT’S how coveted fame is.”

Though C.K. didn’t mention Che by name, it’s difficult to ignore that Che was the only black person who made headlines for defending C.K.’s return to the stage in August. Still, it feels both impossibly pedestrian and important to note that Che, himself a prominent comedian, doesn’t speak for all black people—and certainly not for all marginalized people. His relationship to C.K. is shaded by the men’s proximity to each other in the industry; Che is the rare black comedian who has reached a career stratosphere that men like C.K. can access much more easily. His blackness alone does not render Che a moral authority.

Referencing such support—or that of any marginalized group—in an attempt to curry favor or avoid accountability is both lazy and misguided. C.K. has admitted to disturbing misbehavior. Nobody owes him steadfast forgiveness, certainly not people whom he most often addresses to downplay their concerns about racism. If Louis C.K. wants to atone for his actions, he can’t do that by proxy.