Photo: Getty

As Louis C.K. continues his comeback tour—recently stepping up from unplanned appearances at marquee comedy clubs in New York to scheduled sets—controversy has circled the comic yet again. There is, of course, the specter of whether it’s appropriate for Louis to begin headlining at comedy clubs again; it’s been a little over a year since accusations of sexual misconduct—which had followed him for more than a decade—forced Louis to bow out of the limelight. But recent comments the comic, director, and former star of Louie made on stage at New York’s Comedy Cellar have raised eyebrows for different reasons.

From the New York Times:

“So what kind of year have you guys had?” Louis C.K. said, starting off his set. “They tell you that when you get in trouble you find out who your real friends are. It’s black people, it turns out. They’ll stick by you.”

“Hard things, you survive them or you don’t,” Louis C.K. said. “I think even hell you can survive. Hell is not that bad. I’ve been there.”

Ah yes, if you ever get caught with your dick literally in your hand, find yourself a black person to lean on. Just try not to get any backsplash on them.

Before getting into what’s striking about Louis C.K.’s quotes, it should be said that it’s hard to judge jokes—much less entire stand-up sets—by isolating a couple of lines. As someone who wasn’t in the room that night, I don’t know what the lines were setting up, or how Louis weaved his way in and out of his premises and punchlines (which was one of his many strengths as a stand-up comedian). Louis’ opening comments are likely throw-away lines, and a way to raise the issue of his absence without actually addressing it.

But Louis is a man who’s been in the public eye for many years, and surely knows the stakes of these sets. More than that, Louis is a gifted and sharp writer. He’s also been working on this material for a year, as he mentioned on stage at the Comedy Cellar. He’s a man who knows the value of his words and has made a name and millions of dollars off of his facility with them. It’s not inappropriate or outrageous to consider the words he’s used and what they suggest.

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There’s the subtext of his introduction, of course, which are the accusations of sexual abuse that arose about the comedian last year, when several female comedians said Louis had masturbated in front of them— accusations he confirmed were true.

Without this entire foundation—Louis’ fall from grace, or the “hell” he’s been through—this acknowledgment of black people being his true friends and supporters doesn’t exist. White people will hang him out to dry, Louis implies, but black people—now, they’ve got his back..

In this way, proximity to blackness becomes weirdly transactional. Weird, in part, because of the use of the monolithic “black people” to stand in for what, at least in the public eye, seems to boil down to two notable examples: Michael Che and Chris Rock. Both black men, and both his peers in the comedy world (Rock, notably, was in the audience for another of Louis’ recent Cellar gigs).

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Weird, also, because it harkens back to recent comments made by another famous white man who’s fallen out (and then back in) of the public’s good graces—Alec Baldwin.

Hannah Giorgis elucidates the connection between the two men in her analysis for the Atlantic. Comparing Louis’ proclamation to Baldwin’s similar highlighting of black people’s—again, the monolith—affection for him (“Ever since I played Trump, black people love me,” he said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter), Giorgis writes:

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.

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As Giorgis notes, there is a long tradition of “trotting out the proverbial black friend as evidence of one’s open-mindedness or innocence in the face of controversy.” In the U.S., not only has proximity to blackness functioned in non-black society as shorthand for coolness, but that proximity has—in times of moral turmoil—worked similarly to signal goodness, or at least something close to it.

You may not be “woke,” but if black people like you, you’re at least “woke-adjacent.” You may not be redeemed, but if black people are still going to your shows or laughing at your jokes, you’re at least redeemable. While in writing this may seem obviously outrageous, that line of thinking is the very thrust of white people’s obsession with “allyship”—which frequently comes down to getting the right co-signs on everything from your politics to your taste in comedy.

This phenomenon applies a tremendous weight on the shoulders of black people—black women, specifically—to be the perennial North Stars for justice and righteousness for liberal white people, while liberating those same white people from developing a moral and social consciousness of their own. As far as transactions go, it’s as one-sided as asking Siri for directions to the nearest vegan Reiki master.

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What makes this particularly sour coming from Louis C.K. is that his brand of neurotic self-awareness seemed particularly sharp when it came to race. He riffed on his privilege multiple times and to great effect. But, just as with Aziz Ansari’s recent stand-up work (after developing an identity as a woke, feminist comic, Ansari has crafted a stand-up set that waxes weary about political correctness and performative progressives), Louis’ flippant comments raise questions about how real those revelations were, or whether they simply made for great jokes.