At some point in our culture, we began to view male comedians as philosophers. Citing the legacy of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, comedy fans label funny men as paternalistic truth-tellers we all must adore. Not to mention the fact that these men are no longer alive and therefore have no opportunity to question the way their works have been framed and what living comics they are being compared to.
Louis CK is one such comedian who is often mentioned in the same breath as these men, although his work often lacks a political tone. CK and comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are the recognized gold standard of comedy, standing on top of the mountain looking down on the rest of us. There’s no denying their talent and insight, but they’re still very human, despite the prevailing desire to see them as otherworldly and beyond reproach just because they made us laugh.
I’m sorry/I’m not sorry
A piece of information in search of a thesis.
But why is it that we continue to prioritize powerful men over everything else? That is the question that should be the focus of the documentary I’m sorry/I’m not sorry, which chronicles the rise and fall of CK, with a focus on his sexual harassment of female comedians throughout his career. Directed by Caroline Suh and Cara Mones, the film is based on a New York Times Article by Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley and Jodi Kantor. Combining talking head interviews with comedy footage, article excerpts and tweets, the documentary attempts to provide a clear timeline of how CK’s behavior is slowly revealed to the public. From whispers to blind objects to The New York TimesCK’s growing fame reflects the media’s growing interest in exposing abusive behavior in the workplace.
Inevitably there are echoes of last year she saidMaria Schrader’s dramatization of cantor and colleagues Just Reporter Megan Twohey’s efforts to break the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault story. But here there is a clearer journalistic distance to the more emotional aspects of the narrative. Instead of going into more detail about the investigation against the comedian himself, I’m sorry/I’m not sorry uses its source article as an excuse for a somewhat muted discussion of comedy, gender, and the cult of personality that allowed CK to exploit his female colleagues. Featuring interviews with comedy personalities like Mike Schur and Michael Ian Black, as well as writers like comedy journalist Sean L. McCarthy and Just Critic Wesley Morris finds the film difficult to create a coherent understanding of CK and his actions.
The film focuses on comedian Jen Kirkman, who became known for being one of the first female comedians to publicly say something negative about CK. Like most people in the comedy community, Kirkman had no intention of making a splash, but that’s exactly what she did. Her commentary, along with contributions from artist and comedian Abby Schachner and comedian and writer Megan Koester, serve to articulate the difficulty of navigating comedy’s complicated boys’ club. Luckily, the film doesn’t dwell on the silly question of whether women are funny or not, but instead reveals the mechanisms that prevent them from doing what they love.
Unfortunately, these women are trapped in a documentary that feels inadequate. Divided into seven narratively ill-defined parts, I’m sorry/I’m not sorry moves like the first draft of an article that has all the sources but doesn’t yet have a real thesis. Rather than pondering the nuances of CK’s rise and fall, it’s simply a piece of information that adds footnotes to the story we already know. We know he was popular for many years. We know the rumors have been circulating, perhaps from the beginning. We know CK did what he was accused of doing because he admitted it. The focus of the discourse was not the question of whether he did it, but whether we as a society should even care.
Perhaps just as perverse as sexual harassment itself is the way people publicly judge whether or not these women should care about what happened to them. Comedy personalities like Bill Maher and Joe Rogan weighed in, opening the floodgates for everyone inside and outside of the comedy community to voice their opinion on a situation they had nothing to do with. In a clip from his 2020 Netflix special The bird revelation, Chappelle accuses Schachner of having a “fragile mind” because she allegedly allowed CK’s actions to deter her career ambitions. Not to mention that comedy is actually a job and the community is ostensibly a workplace, which means it should, in theory, be safe for everyone. Chappelle, more than Rock or CK, has presented himself as the patriarch of American comedy, and his uncritical acceptance of CK’s actions reinforces the idea that women’s participation in the comedy community is of little importance. Worse, they appear to be expected to continue knowing that this is the case.
In the final sections of the film, the focus is on the rejection. But at this point it should be clear that there is no cancellation for people. Audiences have always chosen whose work they want to follow and support based on their own value system. After decades of social media, people have become fixated on the consumption habits of not just those around them, but everyone in the world. It is simply not possible to reach a full agreement, so CK’s return was inevitable. Given the complexity of the topic, this is no surprise I’m sorry/I’m not sorry does not provide any satisfactory answers to the question of what should happen next. And although the uncertainty is true to life, the film has an air of meaninglessness. Because at the end of the day we’re talking about this man again and wondering if anything will change.