The Feminist Comedy of Louis C.K.

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April 16 2013 12:59 PM

“We’re the No. 1 Threat to Women!”

The feminist comedy of Louis C.K.

Louis C.K. HBO Special "Oh My God"
Louis C.K. HBO special Oh My God

Photo by Kevin Mazur/HBO

Last year at a comedy club Daniel Tosh supposedly told a heckler it would be funny if five guys raped her right that second. During the blowback that ensued when the story hit the Web, Louis C.K. tweeted a compliment to Tosh: “your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes.” Now people were mad at C.K., too. So he went on The Daily Show and said that he had no idea about the rape-joke controversy when he wrote the tweet. Then he described feminists and comics as “natural enemies,” since “stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke” and “comedians can’t take criticism.” Some of the angry people forgave C.K. after his explanation—but some just got angrier, since he seemed to pit comedy and feminism against each other. This was ironic, because Louis C.K. has been making feminism funny for years.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

His new stand-up special, Oh My God, premiered on HBO over the weekend. It includes a bit that seems to have been inspired by the reading and thinking C.K. said he did after the Tosh kerfuffle. “I’ve read some blogs during this whole thing that have made me enlightened to things I didn’t know,” he told Jon Stewart back then. “This woman said how rape is something that polices women’s lives … That’s part of me now that wasn’t before.” Halfway through the new special, C.K. starts talking about how dating is an act of bravery for all involved. “The male courage, traditionally speaking, is that he decided to ask” a woman out. (Note the careful caveat, “traditionally speaking.”) And if the woman says yes, “that’s her courage.” That kind of courage, he says, is beyond his imagining. “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women.” A moment later he adds, speaking for all men, “You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.”

There’s more, and it’s all very funny. (If you’re a guy trying to understand the woman’s situation, C.K. says, “try to imagine that you could only date a half-bear, half-lion. ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice.’ ”) Was the routine inspired by what C.K. read online after the Tosh-tweet dust-up? Maybe. But it’s part of a comic vein that he has mined throughout his career: the awful ways that men, including himself, treat and, especially, think about women.

His previous special, Live at the Beacon Theater, ended with a bit that excoriated men not just for being terrible at sex, but for blaming women for that typical male inadequacy. Men think women are weird because they don’t want to have sex all the time, he says. “We think it’s because they don’t have as much desire as we do. That’s how stupid men are.” (That inclusive we also pops up in the aforementioned Oh My God routine.) The real reason, C.K. says, is that women have to have sex with men, who are lousy at it. (He’s just talking about straight people here, obviously; C.K. and homosexuality is a subject for another day.) Men think women are “needy” because they want to cuddle after sex. “She’s not needy, you idiot, she’s horny, because you did nothing for her.” Every time a man has sex with a woman it’s “the greatest thing that ever happened in his life,” while, for a woman, “about 40 percent of the time, she’s thinking … I’ll get over this in a week. It’s not the worst thing. I’m not gonna cry this time.”

That’s not explicitly a rape joke, but the idea that she’ll need time to get over the experience, and that tears are at least a possibility, hints that we’re not far from the subject. C.K. also crept up to the edge of the topic in a bit that aired on the third season of Louie, when he took on a fairly unusual subject for a stand-up: the difficulty of being a very attractive woman. “Young gorgeous women” have it hard, he says. “You’re smaller than most people … and there’s just massive men, like three times your size, and they just …” C.K. then proceeds to grunt and groan in an effort to convey the aggressive and lusty stares of ogling males. Then he translates the grunting: “He just looks at you and you feel just buckets of cum hit you in the face.” This, as I said in a Slate TV Club about the show, is C.K.’s graphic-as-can-be description of the male gaze.

Plenty of female stand-ups—Lily Tomlin, Margaret Cho, Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and on and on and on—have turned various strains of feminist thinking into comedy. C.K. is hardly unique. But he is fairly rare among male comics in this regard—especially among the few peers who have combined craftsmanship, originality, and popular appeal in the way he has. Dave Chappelle—to pick just one other guy from that tiny group—is an interesting thinker and storyteller and a terrific joke-smith. But his material on the differences between men and women can sometimes leave something to be desired. (“Feelings are very important to women,” he explains in one bit, after saying that men only buy fancy cars because women like them.) Even the man who may be C.K.’s chief comedy role model, George Carlin—among other things, he inspired the choice of venue for Oh My God—arguably had a mixed record on the matter. (The section on women and men from one of his books is essentially a takedown of patriarchy; his bit about “pissing off the feminists,” on the other hand, hasn’t aged well.)

And C.K.’s record is mixed, too. He does some “men are like this, women are like that” material from time to time, though his ventures into that territory tend to be fairly sensitive and sophisticated. Comedians will always find laughs in places that make people uncomfortable, and some of the funniest people in the world can be pretty piggish in their thinking. But comedians and feminists aren’t “natural enemies,” as should be perfectly obvious by now. Whether further thinking on that matter inspired C.K.’s routine about the threat men pose to women doesn’t really matter. Either way, it’s the highlight of his latest hour.

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