"I don't actually think those things"

ari shaffir, louis ck, joe rogan, jim norton, bread, butter, white nationalists

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Last week Ari Shaffir pressed a big red self-destruct button by tweeting hours after Kobe Bryant’s death that Bryant died 23 years too late. In swift course his Twitter went private, his agency dropped him, the New York Comedy Club announced it wouldn’t work with him anymore, and the production company Rotten Science pulled out of a special set to shoot this weekend. In a nine-slide Instagram apology, Shaffir said it was just a joke: he likes to tear down gods, and gods are “at their most worshipped” when they’ve just died. "Some of them I actually really admire and I'm bummed they've passed," he wrote. "It doesn't stop me from trying as quickly as I can to write some terrible shit about them." This, he said, is what his fans have come to expect from him.

Which came first, the irony poisoned comic or the irony poisoned fanbase? In an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience unpacking the Shaffir controversy, Rogan and Jim Norton suggest the two shape each other. The road to success in standup, as they describe it, is forked. You can spend many unforgiving years figuring out what you have to say and how to say it. Or you can toss some shit at the wall and lean into whatever gets a response. “You don't want to watch everybody pass you by," Norton says. "So you're like, oh, this thing works for me, let me just keep doing this thing. And then you kind of get married to doing that thing.” 

“I've seen that happen with people, where all the sudden they seem like white nationalists," Rogan replies. "I'm like, what is going on? And I realized, oh, that's where they're getting attention from. They're getting attention from all these people that are like, you know, kinda into white nationalism. And so they start leaning into that… that’s where their bread's being buttered.” He’s not explicitly describing Shaffir, and I don’t think it would be accurate to say that Shaffir, whose Judaism is central to his comic identity, leans into white nationalism. But his example shows that you don’t have to lean into animus to find yourself beholden to audiences driven by it.

A brief taxonomy. Shaffir is a frequent guest on Compound Media’s The Anthony Cumia Show, which he has also guest hosted. That show’s namesake was fired from SiriusXM over a racist Twitter rant, has pleaded guilty to domestic violence, was banned from Twitter on several occasions over hateful tweets, and today uses the account @CompoundBoss to holler at libs and spread racist conspiracy theories. A few days ago he retweeted a user with the tags “#Nationalist” and “#ProWhite” in their bio; last week he hosted Ann Coulter on TACS. I don’t think there can be any question that this man’s audience includes white nationalists. To go on his show is to serve that audience. The same is true of the podcast Legion of Skanks, on which Shaffir is also a mainstay. As I’ve written before, that group is gleefully hateful toward just about every marginalized group. When it hosted Milo Yiannopoulos last year, Shaffir sat right next to him. Skanks member Dave Smith separately interviewed Richard Spencer in 2017, and one of the group’s sister podcasts hosted Mike Cernovich in July. Again, there can be no doubt about who the audience is for all this. 

This is not to accuse Shaffir of intentionally supporting white nationalism. He probably doesn’t care who his fans are as long as they’re entertained. The road Norton describes—and I think he’s gone down it too—requires a sort of circular nihilism that erases any moral component from humor. A joke is good because people laugh and people laugh because a joke is good. “Who are these people?” and “Why are they laughing?” are irrelevant questions. You would need empathy to answer them, and it’s difficult to develop much empathy when you’ve devoted yourself to the entertainment of people without it. This is the ideological framework in which cruelty stops being cruelty and becomes just another aesthetic, a matter of subjective taste. It’s something you like or you don’t like, and if you don’t you can just look away. The possibility that words might affect people beyond the simple binary of laughter/no laughter—that words might actually do damage—no longer registers. Shaffir’s essay-length pseudo-apology is an unfiltered glimpse into a mind blissfully free of this knowledge. 

Am I giving Shaffir and his peers too much credit? Might they simply be rotten people, always have been, always will be? Sure, maybe. As Rogan and Norton note in that episode, Shaffir has a habit of taking his dick out in public, and he caused a stir in a past JRE episode by admitting that he once non-consensually slipped Bert Kreischer molly. The Legion of Skanks, meanwhile, are proud bullies who brag about how offensive their comedy is, then dog-pile anyone offended. Still, it’s worth considering the environment that creates comedians—popular comedians, successful comedians with Netflix specials and Comedy Central shows—so eager to serve an audience’s desire for lazy cruelty. I think Rogan is right that comedians lean in to what gets a reaction, but he skips past the obvious implication: if comedians are leaning in to white nationalists, then white nationalists must form a significant presence in the average comedian’s development. 

This is no great revelation, of course. White nationalists form a significant presence in society, and people in society go to comedy clubs, listen to podcasts, watch live-streams, etc. But I don't think this reality is fully appreciated in the business itself. Anthony Cumia shows up regularly at The Stand. So does every other comic in New York City.

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Ari Shaffir is not the only comedian chummy with Anthony Cumia who loves to take his dick out. Louis CK was a frequent guest on Opie and Anthony back before Cumia got fired and replaced by Jim Norton. You can find many of his appearances on YouTube, with titles like “N—r Jim Norton,” “Shut Up You Fucking Jew,” “Trans Kids and Retard Abuse,” and “Showtime Is For Queers.” They’re generally from the early 2010s, when CK was a renowned, middle-aged standup who had long since committed the earliest offenses described in the 2017 New York Times exposé. He was already the guy he was going to be, in other words; there were no two paths stretching out before him. He was just hanging out with his friends, whom he liked, and whose audience liked him back. 

In a new column about CK’s current tour, New Yorker critic Hilton Als writes that he was the only person of color in attendance at a recent show in the Niagara Falls Yuk Yuk’s. The audience was mostly male; CK’s openers were male as well, their jokes “focussed primarily on the men’s dicks and on the unattractiveness of female genitalia”; and Als’ account of the material, while limited, suggests that CK is at least unconsciously writing with a white male listener in mind: “Wouldn’t it be amazing,” he asks in one joke, “if your mom was, like, ‘I was with a black guy once. It was hot’?” (His comedy famously expresses forbidden desires; for whom would this be forbidden?) I think it’s probably conscious, though. CK’s a smart guy. He’s always known his audience. 

If there was ever any question whether CK would stage a comeback—perhaps one upright venue owner after another would put their foot down, or audiences would suddenly care about sexual violence—it evaporated over a year ago. He’s back. He’s touring internationally, from Mexico City and Akron to Rome and Warsaw. Sitting in a booth at the Comedy Cellar last month, a comedian told me the ovation CK received during his first drop-in at that club, in 2018, was proof that he deserved to return. The people wanted him. The market was ready. Als’ column suggests who exactly that market includes. It’s not a new one. It’s always been there. It’s people who listened to him on Opie and Anthony. It’s people who go to comedy clubs. It’s people who’ll forgive a man his sex abuses before he even apologizes, because he’s famous and he made them laugh. It’s other men.

The question of what to do with Louis CK was always a question of what to do with standup comedy. What do you do with a business where nobody in charge will say no to an admitted, unrepentant predator? Where they don’t even think what he did was all that bad? Where nobody wants to talk openly about the many elephants in the room—racism, homophobia, transphobia, rape culture, labor exploitation—because none of their bosses will listen and none of their colleagues have their back? 

It’s a hard question I don’t think many people are interested in answering. You see it reduced to culture-war squabbles about free speech and offensive humor because it’s easier to yell about whether jokes cause harm than to face the ways people do—people being the ones who tell jokes. Here’s Als: “I had never seen him live. But I am interested in performers who try to work through the difficulties in their own lives by addressing them in art.” What? The “difficulty” in CK’s life is that he sexually menaced younger women in his field and lied about it for years while his management pressured them to keep quiet. The impulse to see him address this in art strikes me as a bizarre one, especially given that he has not meaningfully addressed it in life. But Als is not the only critic with this impulse. Times critic Jason Zinoman wrote a whole column in 2018 making the case for Aziz Ansari and Louis CK to channel their difficulties into art. He, too, took CK’s return to public life as a foregone conclusion: “Whether and how these men should return has been debated endlessly,” he wrote, saying nothing more on those debates. “They are back, and while their new work will raise political and moral questions, it also poses an artistic one: Should they talk about the accusations and their experience onstage?” In both cases the answer was yes. 

But what of those political and moral questions? Can we dispense with them so easily? Evidently so. In a more recent review of CK’s new material, Zinoman glances past them again: “While I agree with the critics who have rejected the idea that we must separate the art from the artist, I have a high tolerance for enjoying art from morally suspect places. Given that, Louis C.K.’s new show made me laugh very hard.” Like Als, he is unwilling or unable to confront the ugliness of CK’s offenses: where Als flattens them into “difficulties,” Zinoman fashions the man as “morally suspect,” like Don Draper. But CK isn’t suspect. He’s guilty. He admitted it. Then he got away with it, because no one who matters thought it was all that bad. Now each of us is faced with the question of whether to let him have what he’s taken. The desire for CK to address what happened in art—a desire that uncritically invests in him the moral authority to do so—is ultimately a desire for him to answer that question for us, so we don’t have to do the work ourselves. Give me a reason to forgive you; that way I won’t have to admit I want to; that way I won’t have to admit I already have. 

It’s frustrating to see these blind spots in critics who are so often deeply incisive. Zinoman’s review descends into classic Times both-sidesism, noting that some old fans will not like CK’s jokes while others will see them as “blows against political correctness.” (Who cares how imaginary third parties will see them; what do they look like?) Als’ review ends in pure fantasy: “As the show went on, I began to want to feed C.K., telepathically, the different forms of storytelling he brought to his work when he was at the top of his game and unafraid of losing out on being loved. What if he were to turn his shame into a story? What if he imagined how his dick looked to a woman he had horrified? Couldn’t he go there, Richard Pryor style, and talk from the vantage point of his disgraced penis?” Maybe he could, but he didn’t, because he chose not to, which seems like a choice worth interrogating, possibly related to the specifics of why he was “unafraid of losing out” for such a long time. Or, I don’t know, maybe he’s no longer concerned with writing comedy that gives New Yorker critics something to chew on. Maybe the community he’s leaning into now isn’t interested in that woman’s point of view.

Yesterday I was reading old press coverage of CK and came across a prescient criticism tucked in a parenthetical deep in this 2011 GQ profile: “As one comic who's worked with C.K. said to me, ‘I like Louis. And I appreciate his brilliance. But the idea that he's expressing thoughts that we all think doesn't seem totally right to me. I don't actually think those things.’” Huh. What an elegant encapsulation of the way celebrity creates a distortion field in the critical discourse. The received wisdom inevitably conditions new thought: an artist can tell you for years that he’s totally fucked up, and all anyone will hear is that he’s telling us how we’re fucked up. The artist is able to launder individual failings into universal ones, immunizing himself against any individual accountability (CK did this with increasing brazenness). Caught up in the self-perpetuating momentum of celebrity, few seriously stop to ask, “Wait. Who is he actually speaking for?”

This operates on a smaller scale too. The conventional wisdom that comedy is supposed to be dark and edgy and toe the line of what’s acceptable—that to ask whether the occasional joke is fucked up on a non-aesthetic level is to deprive comics of freedom and society of progress—has long obscured any real scrutiny of the communities served by much of the “dark” humor Joe Rogan and his guests spend hours philosophizing about. I think it’s time for some light.

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Header photo by Greg Gayne/Comedy Central.