Louis C.K., Language & Sensitivity: Lost in Translation

Not a great year for the man, to be honest.

Not a great year for the man, to be honest.

As part of his ongoing, extremely successful and convincing campaign to convince the world that he is a terrible human being who does not deserve any more chances, Louis C.K. recently took to the stage to try out material that’s short on insight and laughs but long on bigotry, reactionary anger and deeply personal ugliness. 

C.K. notoriously took on the survivors of the Parkland massacre for trying to prevent further shooting sprees rather than engage in more appropriate activities for young people like finger-banging and doing mushrooms before directing his previously sound comic aim at, uh, people who ask to have their dignity and identity respected by being referred to by their preferred terminology. CK sneered of the kids today, “You should address me…They’re like royalty! They tell you what to call them. You should address me as they/them, because I identify as gender neutral. Oh, OK. You should address me as “there” because I identify as a location. And the location is your mother’s cunt.” 

C.K. is of course far from the only prominent stand-up comedian to make jokes mocking the trans, LGTBQ and non-gender-conforming communities. Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle have all flirted with transphobia or, in the case of Maher, made transphobia fairly central to their persona and worldview. Maher has so much anger towards the trans community you’d think they were Muslim or something. 

What enrages comedians like C.K., Chappelle, Gervais and Maher is the idea that they are not being asked to be more sensitive in regards to pronouns and language so much as they are being told what to do by college kids, people who identify as non-binary or twenty-something queer activists that they clearly see as nowhere near as wise or deserving of respect and consideration as themselves. 


“Edgy” comedians like C.K., Chappelle, Gervais and Maher inveterately think of themselves as rebels, outlaws, rule-breakers. So when they’re presented with new, seemingly harsh and iron-clad rules about how you can talk about non-binary people, their natural instinct is to rebel, to raise an angry middle finger to the idea that there are any restrictions on what can and cannot be said into a microphone during a stand-up comedy performance. 

Why is there so much transphobic vitriol coming from ostensibly left-wing comedians? The answer, I suspect, has a fair amount to do with xenophobia and bigotry and feeling threatened and confused by social progress and cultural evolution. 

But a lot of the bile being vomited forth by lefty comedians is also rooted in differing ideas about language. A lot of the discourse regarding the LGTBQ and trans communities comes down to words, language and labels, to calling people by their preferred pronouns and expanding our ideas about gender and sexuality to keep up with changing times. 

Comedians with enormous, extremely brittle egos like C.K., Chappelle, Gervais and Maher make their living through words, through putting ideas together in a way designed to provoke a strong response. Words are their tool, their instrument. Words are to them what a guitar was to Jimi Hendrix or drums were to Keith Moon. 

Because they make their living through words, these arrogant exemplars of smug left-wing entitlement feel a sense of ownership over words and language. It’s easy to see where this arrogance comes from. 


I know that I am as guilty as anyone of building CK up into something borderline superhuman. I was one of many writers who heralded CK not just as an unusually perceptive comic genius but also a bona fide philosopher whose keen insights into what it means to be human allow us see a dusty old world in exhilarating new ways. 

We told CK he was a goddamn genius, a philosopher, someone whose words and insights had incredible power and value and meaning. He clearly believed us. Why wouldn’t he? It’s a whole lot more flattering thinking of yourself as a contemporary Bill Hicks or George Carlin and a comedian’s comedian than as a hypocritical sex criminal whose entire career was predicated on a lie. We fell in love with C.K. as an underdog but now it seems achingly apparent he’s a Goliath who used his tremendous power to keep his ugly predilections a semi-secret. 

In publicist-mandated contrition mode last year, CK promised to spend a long time listening following his downfall. His exact words were, "I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”


The implication was that he’d learn something in the process. If C.K. listened at all to his critics, it was only long enough to determine that he no longer had the power and control he enjoyed and abused as one of the most successful and influential comedians and TV creators of the past twenty years.

It took about eleven months out of the limelight, but CK went right back to saying whatever the fuck he wanted in ways that betrayed that the only voice he listened to during his time in the wilderness was a selfish, narcissistic inner one saying, “You got screwed, Louis! Time to go on the offensive! It’s the kids that are wrong, not you!”

C.K. stopped listening and got angry and indignant. The faux-vulnerable spiritual learner who vowed to take a step back from his previously fabulously successful career seemed personally offended by the idea that others now controlled the power of words and were in a position to determine what is and isn’t acceptable to say.

In full-on “Get off my lawn” mode, CK lashed out petulantly against identity politics and cultural sensitivity, at the idea that a man who had experienced so much success with words was now having his language choices dictated by people he clearly sees as his cultural inferiors. 

It’s fucking sad to see C.K. act this way, to hear him say those awful words and vomit forth such ugly ideas. But I take comfort in knowing that C.K. is on the wrong side of history and David Hogg and an LGTBQ community demanding respect and dignity are on the right side. 


To paraphrase a legend with a little more empathy for the generations that followed, and a much greater understanding and appreciation for the complexities of gender and sexuality, these children that you spit on with your words, Mr. CK, as they try to change their world are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.  

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