When US comic Louis CK became one of a long line of people exposed at the height of the #MeToo era, nobody was surprised. Not even me. Fifteen years ago I was a fan, enjoying his eponymous sitcom, buying his comedy specials and immaturely accepting a lot of his misogynistic, brash humour.
By 2016, when he played a headline show at Dublin’s 3Arena, his routines that had once seemed self-deprecating and hilariously explicit now seemed insidious. I had seen enough rumours and accusations about him swirling online that I knew the fire wasn’t too far behind the smoke.
In 2017 CK released a statement in which he confirmed “these stories are true”. The stories in question were from five women who spoke to the New York Times and said that he had been sexually inappropriate: he’d exposed himself to them, or masturbated in front of them. He’d used his power as a successful or aspirational comedian to do whatever he wanted.
His statement – in which he referred to his “d**k” twice – acknowledged that he had spent “a long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen”.
The following year Louis CK was back onstage performing comedy. That same year fellow comic Dave Chappelle said in his Netflix special that of all the #MeToo allegations, CK’s “were the only ones that made me laugh” and suggested that by taking “everything” from him the reaction might have been “disproportionate”. He suggested that one woman who had been discouraged from pursuing a comedy career because of her experiences with Louis CK had a “brittle-ass spirit”.
That’s just one blunt example of how power in comedy works. Louis CK’s deeds were an open secret for years. The allegations about Russell Brand that emerged last weekend are apparently a surprise to nobody in the industry. In old clips it seems he’s almost telling on himself. Louis CK’s kinks were always out there for the world to see. He was a walking masturbation joke. Are the jokes more important than the victims? Is that why these open secrets remain secret for so long?
Knowing something, and being able to prove it are two very different things. There have been online rumblings for several years about abuse in the Irish comedy scene, kept under wraps for fear of litigation and career damage. Reading between the lines of tweets and observing various boycotts of events and venues throws a chink of light on the issue. Those of us on the outside of the circle of knowledge hope that a judgment day is coming, or at least suspect that one is deserved.
Keeping the secrets is usually vital to livelihoods. Those who are privy to the knowledge but not directly involved could lose gigs or be sued if they speak up. Victims risk being ostracised, silenced, not believed, believed but advised to say nothing, ridiculed. Victims who have bravely spoken out have had all these things happen to them. They exist in a limbo of “my word against theirs”, and their supporters probably feel helpless and useless, caught in the vicious circle of power, industry structure and libel laws.
In the wake of the Brand allegations, Irish comic David O’Doherty tweeted, “A grim reminder that there are still people involved in comedy who face serious allegations that are broadly known within the industry, but many are happy to dismiss/ignore because these people generate money”.
He seems powerful enough to name names, right? But even if he did the burden of proof would be on him to prove the allegations, if the courts got involved. Irish journalists have tried and failed to see an allegation through to publication, because the story cannot clear the lawyers. Even writing this, with nobody identifiable – truthfully, I don’t even have a name – feels risky.
I used to like Brand. Like with Louis CK, I was too immature and ignorant to see a lot of his comedy for what it was: misogyny. It’s a wonder any female comics rise to the top, given the misuse of power and necessary isolation that it seems critical to endure in order to be successful. Comedy is just another once male-dominated industry that is slowly delivering days of judgment. Hopefully an Irish one is coming soon.