Chris Rock’s N-Word Controversy With Louis C.K. and the Myth of the ‘Down-Ass White Guy’
A clip from 2011 of the comedians discussing—and using—the N-word has caused a stir online. And with good reason.
This was a bad look.
A clip from a 2011 HBO special called Talking Funny resurfaced on social media that featured Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K in conversation. In it, Rock declares Louis C.K. “the blackest white guy I know.” He explains that “all the negative things we think about black people, this fucker [is],” as C.K. guffaws alongside him.
“You’re saying I’m a n---er?” a grinning C.K. adds. “You are the n---er-est white man,” Rock fires back, as Gervais laughs hysterically and Jerry Seinfeld becomes increasingly uncomfortable. They go back and forth in regards to the slur, and C.K.’s propensity for using it in his own act. “Who says n---er on stage?” Gervais asks with no self-edit, and Seinfeld concludes that he’s never found the humor in the word as the other three men continue to grin and laugh.
The video has sparked a wave of criticism towards the already-toxic C.K., whose career has been in limbo ever since sexual harassment allegations were made against the comic by five female colleagues who said he’d masturbated in front of them, and towards Rock, who set the entire exchange in motion by implying C.K. has a “pass” to use that word and in co-signing the racist implications that associated blackness with negativity. Rock has long been one of America’s most celebrated comics largely because he’s tackled issues such as race with a sharp focus and even sharper wit. But this particular exchange is in no way shocking if you’ve been paying attention.
At the height of his pop-culture sway, only Dave Chappelle could command more respect as a black comic. Rock emerged as the post-Def Comedy Jam go-to black stand-up, and he rattled off a string of classic stand-up specials and albums that cemented his position. His talk show became a low-key hit for HBO in the late-‘90s, and helped launch the careers of fellow comics like Wanda Sykes and C.K. C.K. also directed 2001’s comedy flop Pootie Tang, which co-starred Rock. Rock and C.K.’s friendship goes back years, but the now-viral video exposes what has always been a troubling dynamic when the “edgy” white comic who also considers himself The Down-Ass White Guy has been given too much latitude by his Super-Cool Black Friend.
The pseudo-fraternity of male comedians has been the subject of much scrutiny lately but one angle that’s gone under-discussed is the brotherhood of the “edgy” comic. Both Rock and C.K. are examples of comedians who became famous tackling taboos, and they often worked together in that vein. The belief that the edgy comic could and should say whatever he wants leads to the defense of some pretty reprehensible things—from Kevin Hart’s homophobic tweets to Rock’s bigoted Asian bits while hosting the Oscars—and it’s that belief that kept Rock from acknowledging the racism in his pal C.K.’s infatuation with that word, and it fed Rock’s need to give him a slap on the back for it. His need to “express a truth”—as so many comics often describe these kinds of transgressions—has never superseded a greater truth: that a white man can never be a “n---er” in a white man’s world. And no black man should ever let him forget that.
Rock has always had glaring blind spots in his commentary on race—the kind that often come when your contempt for racism is also tied to an anti-black filter born of surrounding yourself with successful white people. Call it “the Kanye lens.” For every moment of biting prescience (“You’d think every once in a while the cops would shoot a white kid just to make it look good”), there has been one that was staggeringly obtuse (“Black people did not protest [the Oscars]. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematography”). And while building a career on undeniably topical comedy, Rock, like many comics of his generation, has shown himself to be critical of the current wave of social commentary permeating pop culture. When The Federalist wrote that “Tragedy-laced pleas for social action may be having their moment in comedy, but Jerry Seinfeld and Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee are, mercifully, not part of it” in reaction to what was described as “the insufferable wokeness of comedy,” Rock shared the article with the comment: “Thank God for Jerry.”
For years, his much-derided “Niggas vs Black People” bit from 1995’s Bring the Pain, the HBO special that transformed Chris Rock from second-tier Saturday Night Live-er into a superstar, has served as a perfect example of what Chris Rock gets wrong. That segment highlighted an anti-black contempt that wasn’t uncommon among certain quarters of black folks but was no less troubling in how much it said about who gets looked down upon and why. “It’s like a civil war going on with black people and there two sides: there’s black people and there’s niggas,” Rock said in the routine. “And niggas have got to go.”
One of the most galling aspects of being around The Down-Ass White Guy is the constant need for you, the Super-Cool Black Friend, to let them off the hook. Louis C.K. and Chris Rock’s exchange highlights so much of how racism works—C.K. wants to be called a “n---er” as a show of false camaraderie that disavows how his race has benefited him. Did C.K. ever want to be a “n---er” in pitch meetings with major studios? Does it even matter to him that not being one is what got him to his position of influence in the first place?
The other interesting reaction to the clip has been some people’s over-eagerness to single out Jerry Seinfeld as the white guy who “gets it.” Yes, Jerry clearly seems to understand the significance of that word and why white comics tossing it around is a problem; but a white person understanding that the N-word is beyond the the pale in comedy is a pretty low bar—especially when said comedian has gone defensive and tone-deaf in the past when called out for his own history regarding diversity and race. Seinfeld understanding the gravity of what was being joked about shouldn’t be celebrated inasmuch as what the other three men engaged in should be chastised. There was no valor in any of it—only ignorance and one person’s simple recognition of said ignorance.
The public is seething over this video now. Chris Rock is undoubtedly taking the brunt of the criticism—and that’s understandable given the role he plays in this dubious exchange. But no one should downplay what Louis C.K.’s statement and stand-up history represent. Black people can’t give white people “permission” to use the N-word—we can enable the racism but, make no mistake, any white person that needs, wants or seeks “permission” to use it is only looking for a co-signer to what they are already comfortable doing. Louis C.K. says that word and so does Ricky Gervais. And they both think it’s funny. Chris Rock should’ve called them out and never initiated this racist conversation. But I don’t think for a second they would’ve behaved any differently had he not even been in the room.