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What Jimmy Kimmel Misses in the Discussion Around Louis C.K.’s Place in Comedy

jimmy kimmel, louis ck, linda holmes, paul f tompkins

Over the weekend, Louis C.K. returned to his stomping ground of New York’s Comedy Cellar for another surprise drop-in set. It was barely a month since his previous drop-in at the venue, and just shy of 11 months since he admitted to multiple instances of sexual misconduct towards female comedians.

Following his appearance in late August, the Comedy Cellar’s owner, Noam Dworman announced he would be implementing a “swim at your own risk” policy. (Indeed, that slogan is now printed on tickets, along with the message, “We never know who is going to pop in. If an unannounced appearance is not your cup of tea, you are free to leave (unobtrusively please) no questions asked, your check on the house.”)

Jimmy Kimmel is opening up a comedy venue in Las Vegas, and in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he was asked about what’s been happening at the Comedy Cellar and how he anticipates dealing with those issues. “At your club,” he’s asked, “how are you going to approach who comes through and how they’re vetted, if they need to be vetted, and revealed to audiences?”

He responded by saying, “If we get into the business of sanitizing every comedian and doing a thorough background check before they walk through the door, it’s going to be a very empty stage. (Laughs.) I think people tend to focus on the one or two people who walk out of a situation like that. Ultimately, the audience decides whether someone is welcomed back.”

A lot of people took issue with Dworman for placing the burden of avoiding watching an admitted sexual predator on the audience members, especially when he’s done nothing to make sure audiences feel safe in showing their discomfort. One female audience member in C.K.’s August audience said the show had “the kind of vibe that doesn’t allow for a dissenting voice.” Printing words on a ticket doesn’t change that.

The THR interviewer, Lacey Rose, then asked Kimmel, “Sure, but you talk about curating your lineup — will you give thought to that curation with regard to having more female comics, for instance?”

“Comedy is very democratic,” Kimmel said. “The people who are great, rise to the top; the people who are good, rise to the middle; and the people who aren’t good, don’t make it. We want to get a lot of very funny people, and we want to give new comics an opportunity to work. I don’t focus on their gender or their skin color. I’d never want a woman to think that the reason she’s booked to be onstage at a club is because she’s a woman. The reason she’ll be booked to be onstage is because she’s funny.”

This is one of the most pervasive arguments against actively working to diversify any given group. The misunderstanding is the idea that proponents of diversity are calling for tokenism. That we want any woman/POC/etc included. In reality, the goal is to remove the barriers that have long kept those marginalized groups from having the same access to these sorts of opportunities. To call comedy a democracy, or a meritocracy, as Kimmel is doing, is to deny those barriers even exist.

I think a lot of us hoped Kimmel–who has recently found himself at the center of so many political debates, taking on Republican and conservative oppression–was better than that. But maybe he isn’t.

NPR’s Linda Holmes had an excellent thread breaking down what Kimmel gets wrong here.

She goes on to say:

There are people who would give him that spot — people who think his comedy is funny — and people who don’t. The idea that it’s like the hot air balloon in The Good Place and you walk near a stage and it turns red or green? That’s fake.

I hate this depersonalization of the ways that people become famous, get opportunities to remain famous, and get opportunities to recover from stumbles. Those are all choices. It’s not an algorithm.

As for that idea of tokenism vs. active inclusivity, Holmes nails it.

Separately, the incredible Paul F. Tompkins also addressed what Kimmel gets wrong, starting with coining (I think?) the term “frontground check,” as in, listening to what people openly tell you about themselves.

From there, Tompkins engaged directly with a follower asking why club owners need to be responsible for vetting comedians, and calling the audience complicit. Again, the idea that club owners have no duty but to put “good comedy” onstage is ridiculous. They are business owners and anyone in that position has a whole heap of responsibilities. It’s just naive to pretend like “keeping men who have exposed themselves to female comedians off the stage” couldn’t possibly be one of them.

Tompkins also has a great and depressing point that the argument of “why didn’t you leave?”–placing the burden to police comics on the audience–is never good, but is especially horrible in the case of C.K., who many have defended for not having admitted to physically assaulting women, but rather forcing female comics to watch him masturbate. And you know the argument there:

In short, I guess the news here is that yet another white male comedian (Kimmel) is dedicated to not investigating his role in the gender discrimination and sexual harassment & abuse rampant in his industry. Stop the presses, what a story.

It’s Friday, though, so here’s a good, nice, thing to leave you with: Tompkins singing “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton.

(image: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Turner)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.