Richard Pryor, by his own profitable admission, chased his wife with a gun, shot his own car, and lit himself on fire while free-basing cocaine and we still love his comedy. Why? It’s probably because comedy matters in the Culture Wars and despite his flaws and his demons Pryor showed us what free speech meant and provided the anesthesia it sometimes takes to look at some of the more painful parts of our society in the form of laughter.
His craft and talent are celebrated and respected. Comedy is a pillar of culture, especially a free culture. What makes us laugh and who makes us laugh says a lot about who we are.
This brings us to the present, where we find a similarly edgy comic, Louis C.K., in a public relations nightmare. He stands accused of jerking his gherkin in front of women. But this is the odd part, he owns it. That’s the part that rarely happens in these cases without an extensive scrimmage over the political narrative.
In his own words, C.K. admits to what he did. Don’t get this wrong, this isn’t excusing what he did, but what else can you ask of him? He was a shithead. Would he have written a convincing appeal for forgiveness in The New York Times if we weren’t living in the age of social media? We’ll never know, but he does seem to understand the full ramifications of his actions from 2002.
He writes, after profusely apologizing to 5 women and one who wanted to remain anonymous.
“I’d be remiss to exclude the hurt that I’ve brought on people who I work with and have worked with whose professional and personal lives have been impacted by all of this, including projects currently in production”
The Culture of Covering Up
Why the comparison to Pryor? Well, beyond pure comedy chops, in 1978 after he actually chased his wife with a gun and surrendered to police in Los Angeles and People Magazine put him on the cover. Writing glowing portrayals of his more culturally acceptable views and opinions. Saying,
“Money’s not a hang-up for Pryor—he’s made a name for well-meaning, if slightly fulsome, charity. He will send a helpful secretary not a bouquet of flowers but an entire truckload”
The production interrupted by Pryor’s antics is never discussed or covered, but it’s rather flippant way to discuss business that extends beyond him. By most accounts Pryor was a pro who always showed up but he was deeply flawed. Perhaps more than Louis C.K., but “who was worse” is just whataboutism and not at all the issue here.
The issue, or rather issues, are women being subjected to some messed up shit by men who have a certain level of power over them and the media excusing insane behavior because they’re fans or stand to gain financially or on some ideological front.
One could easily dismiss Pryor’s cover up as a product of his time and to some extent the same can be applied to the swift reaction to what C.K. stands accused of causing; film openings to be halted in a this age of political correctness which is to say people didn’t get the money they were expecting. That is always a hard situation that anyone can relate to. We’ve all had our money flow messed with and it was beyond our control.
The first and most important part of these observations is something that not everyone can relate to which is having power used to extort some sort of sexual pleasure out of you. That unfortunate situation happens to women in unfairly staggering numbers and that’s a cultural trend that shouldn’t stand. If you have daughters or are just a decent person it seems like one would want to be apart of reversing the trend.
In a party that preaches personal responsibility, it’s odd to see republicans defending a senatorial candidate convincingly accused of hitting on junior high girls. Traditional family, indeed. But that’s public process of electing a leader and who we elect or tolerate being elected says more about us than what makes us laugh. That’s why we call them our “representatives”.
When people who are paid to entertain us fail we should remember that they are just that — people and all people are flawed, but confession has power. The world would be better served if we stopped looking to celebrities for moral guidance but rather principles and ideas. Louis C.K. may again make us laugh and probably about the very thing that makes us squirm about him as a person. But that’s a comedian’s job to make us squirm in our seats.
There’s a seriously problem in our country with celebrity culture, sexual culture, and media culture and at times it feels impossible to fix. If there’s any culture left to salvage perhaps it starts with a comedian and flows downstream.