At some point in our culture, we began to see male comedians as philosophers. Invoking the legacies of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, comedy fans have labeled funny men as paternalistic truth tellers that we all must revere. Never mind the fact that these men are no longer alive and thus have no opportunity to challenge the way their work has been framed and which living comics they are compared to.
Louis C.K. is one such comedian who has often been spoken of in the same breath as these men, despite lacking the often political edge of their work. C.K. and comics like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are the confirmed gold standard of comedy, standing at the top of the mountain looking down at the rest of us. There’s no denying their talent and insight, but they are very much still human, despite the prevailing desire to see them as otherworldly and beyond reproach simply because they have made us laugh.
The Bottom Line
An information piece in search of a thesis.
But how is it that we find ourselves, again and again, prioritizing powerful men above all else? That is the question that should be at the heart of the documentary Sorry/Not Sorry, which chronicles the rise and fall of C.K. with a focus on his sexual harassment of female comedians throughout his career. The film, directed by Caroline Suh and Cara Mones, 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 create a clear timeline of C.K.’s behavior slowly being exposed to the public. From whispers to blind items to The New York Times, C.K.’s growing fame mirrors the media’s expanding interest in exposing abusive workplace behavior.
Inevitably, there are echoes of last year’s She Said, Maria Schrader’s dramatization of Kantor and fellow Times reporter Megan Twohey’s efforts to break the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault story. But here there’s a clearer sense of journalistic remove from the more emotional aspects of the narrative. Rather than expand much on the investigation into the comedian himself, Sorry/Not Sorry uses its source article as a pretense for a somewhat muted discussion of comedy, gender and the cult of personality that allowed C.K. to take advantage of his female colleagues. Featuring interviews with comedy figures like Mike Schur and Michael Ian Black as well as writers like comedy journalist Sean L. McCarthy and Times critic Wesley Morris, the film struggles to create a cohesive understanding of C.K. and his actions.
Much of the focus of the film is on comedian Jen Kirkman, who became notorious for being one of the first female comedians to say anything publicly negative about C.K. Like most people in the comedy community, Kirkman wasn’t intending to make waves, but that was exactly what she did. Her commentary, along with the contributions of artist and comedian Abby Schachner and comedian and writer Megan Koester, serves to articulate the difficulty of navigating comedy’s intricate boys’ club. The film thankfully spends no time with the silly question of whether or not women are funny, instead revealing the mechanisms that work to prevent them from doing what they love.
Unfortunately, these women are trapped in a documentary that feels undercooked. Divided into seven narratively ill-defined parts, Sorry/Not Sorry moves like the first draft of an article that has all its sources, but doesn’t quite have a thesis yet. Rather than contemplating the nuances of C.K.’s rise and fall, it is simply an information piece, adding footnotes to the story we already know. We know that he was popular for many years. We know that the rumors were swirling around, perhaps from the beginning. We know that C.K. did what he was accused of because he’s admitted to it. The center of the discourse was not about whether he did it, but rather whether we as a society should care at all.
Perhaps just as perverse as the sexual harassment itself is the way people publicly evaluated 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 in and out of the comedy community to share their take about a situation they have nothing to do with. In a clip from his 2020 Netflix special The Bird Revelation, Chappelle accuses Schachner of having a “brittle ass spirit” for supposedly allowing C.K.’s actions to deter her career ambitions. Never mind the fact that comedy is, in fact, a job, and the community is ostensibly a workplace, which means it theoretically should be safe for everyone. More than Rock or C.K., Chappelle has presented himself as the patriarch of American comedy, and his uncritical acceptance of C.K.’s actions bolsters the idea that women’s participation in the comedy community is of little importance. Even worse, they are apparently expected to continue knowing that is the case.
In the film’s final sections, the focus is on cancellation. But at this point, it should be clear that cancellation for human beings does not exist. Audiences have always chosen whose work they want to follow and support based on their own value systems. After decades of social media, people have become hyper-fixated on the consumption habits of not only those around them, but everyone in the world. It’s simply not possible for there to be full agreement, so C.K.’s return was inevitable. Considering the messiness of its subject, it’s no surprise that Sorry/Not Sorry provides no satisfying answers to the question of where to go from here. And though the uncertainty is true to life, there is an air of pointlessness to the film. Because at the end of the day, here we are, talking about this man again, wondering if anything will change.