In the fall of 2015, I sat down with Aziz Ansari to discuss his excellent new Netflix series Master of None. We met at The Greenwich Hotel (his suggestion) and, over the course of an hour—and several cups of coffee—engaged in a lively, unbridled discussion touching on race, comedy, and everything in between.
There was only one question that he refused to answer.
Midway through the interview, the topic of sexual harassment came up. The seventh episode of his show, titled “Ladies and Gentlemen,” sees Dev (Ansari’s character) and his pal Denise (Lena Waithe) making a citizen’s arrest after catching a middle-aged man masturbating on the subway. Dev then proceeds to take a victory lap, bragging about the incident to his other female friends, who subsequently brand him a “masturbation vigilante” before sharing their own sexual harassment horror stories.
“The seed of that episode came from a bit during my Madison Square Garden special where I’d talk about women getting followed home by creepy dudes, and I’d ask during the bit, ‘Raise your hands if you’re a woman and you’ve been followed home,’ and everyone would raise their hand. And then all the other women would look around and go, ‘What the fuck?!’ Then, I’d ask all the guys if they expected all the women to raise their hands, and none of them really did. They couldn’t believe it,” he told me.
He continued: “I thought it was interesting that this is happening, yet so many people are unaware of it. And the problem is people aren’t talking about it. What I’ve learned, as a guy, is to just ask women questions and listen to what they have to say. Go to your group of female friends and ask them about times they’ve experienced sexism at their job, and you’ll get blown away by the things they tell you. You’ll think, ‘What the fuck? This is way darker than anything I’d imagined.’”
I then proceeded to ask him about the sexual misconduct allegations against Louis C.K., a sometime mentor of Ansari’s. The two share a manager, Dave Becky, and booking agent, Mike Berkowitz—two of the more powerful figures in the comedy world, who also represent Kevin Hart and a slew of other top-shelf comics.
“I’m not talking about that,” Ansari brusquely replied.
Over the years, I’ve asked a number of famous male comedians about the allegations against Louis C.K., which have been widely known since a 2012 Gawker story titled, “Which Beloved Comedian Likes to Force Female Comics to Watch Him Jerk Off?” They’ve all either declined to comment or, in the case of Jim Gaffigan, went off the record to share their thoughts on the matter. Only a handful of brave female comics were willing to shine a spotlight on C.K.’s alleged abuse, including Roseanne Barr and Tig Notaro in interviews with The Daily Beast.
The tentacles of Louis C.K., who stands accused of sexual misconduct by at least five women, spread throughout the comedy world. He worked as a staff writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Late Show with David Letterman, and The Chris Rock Show. As head writer on The Dana Carvey Show, he was boss to comedians Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. He mentored the likes of Ansari and Amy Schumer, and counts Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais as personal friends. Many of these A-listers in the C.K. orbit surely knew about the widespread sexual misconduct allegations against the comedian, but chose to turn a blind eye to it. Instead, they welcomed C.K. on their programs, like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, casually reminiscing about comedy days of old.
After The New York Times’ investigation broke on Thursday, Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur issued an apology for having C.K. on his NBC show even though he’d caught wind of the allegations against him (the show’s star, Amy Poehler, shares a manager with C.K.):
These days, C.K. is one of the most famous comedians alive. He regularly sells out Madison Square Garden, has a lucrative deal with Netflix, and produces and stars in a number of TV shows, including the FX programs Louie, Baskets, and Better Things. Next week, he was scheduled as one of the headliners of the Jon Stewart-hosted Night of Too Many Stars: America Unites for Autism Programs. The program will still air November 18th on HBO, but without the participation of C.K., whose content was also removed from all HBO platforms. FX, for its part, issued a statement that read:
“We are obviously very troubled by the allegations about Louis C.K. published in The New York Times today. The network has received no allegations of misconduct by Louis C.K. related to any of our 5 shows produced together over the past 8 years. FX Networks and FXP take all necessary actions to protect our employees and thoroughly investigate any allegations of misconduct within our workplace. That said, the matter is currently under review.”
It was not easy to stand up to someone as well-connected as C.K. On Thursday afternoon, the comedian Nicole Silverberg shared a disturbing story on Twitter that spoke to C.K.’s power and influence. “I was told to delete a tweet I wrote about Louis CK abusing women before I applied to a high-profile comedy job because the people conducting the hiring process might not like it. These women who have spoken up are brave, and we owe them so much,” she wrote. Meanwhile, in The New York Times piece, the comedy duo of Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, who charge that C.K. abruptly began masturbating in front of them, said that “when they told others about the incident in the Colorado hotel room, they heard that Louis C.K.’s manager was upset that they were talking about it openly. The women feared career repercussions.”
On top of all this is the cavalier way C.K. approached the sexual misconduct allegations against him—brushing off questions in interviews with non-denial denials, and even going so far as incorporating them into his art.
Rape and masturbation jokes have long been a staple of C.K.’s stand-up oeuvre, but in recent years, in the wake of the aforementioned Gawker exposé, the comedian appeared to be taunting his victims—and the public. First came the controversial Louie episode “Pamela: Part 1,” wherein his character, an avatar of himself, attacks Pamela Adlon’s in an apartment, attempting to overpower her before she finally fights free. C.K. later argued that the scene represented a “consensual” encounter, calling it “a fun train wreck of a ride.” Then there’s his upcoming film I Love You, Daddy, a bizarre ode to Woody Allen focusing on a sixty-something director engaged in a romantic affair with a 17-year-old girl, where “a character pretends to masturbate at length in front of other people, and other characters appear to dismiss rumors of sexual predation,” reported the Times.
In the wake of sexual assault allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, filmmakers James Toback and Brett Ratner, and the actor Kevin Spacey, there’s been plenty of talk about the nature of allyship and how passivity on the part of powerful men contributes to a culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse. Why did Brad Pitt, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, work with Harvey Weinstein not once, but twice after the executive had allegedly attacked both his ex-fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow and then-wife Angelina Jolie? Why did Quentin Tarantino, whose films are responsible for much of Weinstein’s success, continue to work with him after learning that he attacked his ex-girlfriend, Mira Sorvino?
The onus can’t only be on women to stand up to male predators. Men—particularly men of power and influence—must be willing to speak up for what is right, and refuse to align themselves with the creeps of the world.