Last weekend, clips of a recent Louis C.K. comedy set—in which the comedian mocked gender-neutral pronouns and the Parkland students—were posted online. They landed with a predictable thud. A year ago, after five women accused him of sexual misconduct, C.K. said that he would “now step back and take a long time to listen.” Apparently, he changed his mind. In the leaked audio, he says, of the Parkland kids, “You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot. Why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I’ve got to listen to you talking?”
To discuss Louis C.K.’s return, and how we judge comedians (and comedy), I spoke by phone with Jena Friedman, who was a producer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and a writer for “Late Show with David Letterman.” The second episode of her live-action special, “Soft Focus,” will appear on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim later this month.
Our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
Some comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, like to say that we should just judge jokes and comedians by whether they are funny. But viewers clearly bring their own experiences to comedy, and comedians are often using their own stories to get certain kinds of laughs. How do you think about all this?
Comedy is completely subjective. It is not what’s funny—it’s what’s funny to me. Every time you are looking at comedy, it’s not just jokes, it’s who is telling it, the context in which they are telling it, the crowd. It’s all sorts of things.
If you want to jump into the Louis stuff and talk about that set, if I am talking from a comedian’s perspective, comedy is always a work in progress until you tape it. So, I do think that that particular set, for us to analyze it publicly, does a disservice to comedy, because it was clearly a work in progress—as opposed to a finished product. That’s not to defend or criticize it, just to speak in terms of how comedy works.
Like a first draft of a novel?
Sure. Well, it’s just not ready to be seen. I think comedy is two things: it is art and it is entertainment, and it’s entertainment because we need an audience to laugh at whatever we do. But I think the best comedy is art, because it challenges people and makes people think. My favorite comedians are able to make sense of things the rest of us have trouble understanding. I have been getting more into George Carlin lately, and he has this one bit about how the planet will be fine but we’re fucked. His joke, even though it is misanthropic and negative in some ways, is so comforting to me, like, yeah, the planet is going to be fine.
Is the planet going to be fine, though?
Listen to it, because what he is saying is that the planet was around before us, and will be around after us, and we are all going to die.
It seems like maybe there are two things worth distinguishing. One is that we, as audience members, bring different things, and the second is that the comedian him- or herself brings aspects of him- or herself that are seen subjectively. A lot of your comedy is a response to who you are and your persona.
Sure, yeah. I remember when I was coming up in Chicago’s improv scene. There was all this talk about an agenda—that you shouldn’t have an agenda when you are doing comedy. But I think “agenda” is another word for voice. I think everyone has an agenda.
This is a total side note, but I read the piece about Mark Burnett in The New Yorker. His whole thing is about how he isn’t political because when you say you are you shut out fifty per cent of people. But the reality is that everyone is political, and he helped bring Trump into power. I think women realize that more frequently, and people on the margins—nonbinary people, people of color—realize that because they have to. But I think that for white men, for the most part—and I don’t want to speak on your behalf—it’s easier to think that everything isn’t political, because you have been able to go through life without having it be about things outside your control.
I think things can be different degrees of political, but I also think what you said is correct. But, to turn to Louis, I’m interested to know what degree you think his comedy has changed, and what degree you think the way we have experienced his comedy has changed.
On, again, that set, if I were to talk off the record to other comedians, that set just sounded like—and I could be wrong—he hasn’t gotten a ton of stage time between when the [sexual misconduct] story came out and now, because every time he has dropped by the Cellar it has been an issue. So, it sounded like he went through old joke books to fill an hour, and looked at some premises he had from the nineties and is trying to work them out to make them funny. The one bit that people aren’t talking about that I was shocked by, not because it was offensive but because it was so hacky, was the bit about Asian men. That bit is so . . . Did you listen to the set?
I did, but do you want to explain it?
I don’t even want to say it. Maybe there . . . part of the reason it is hard to discuss the set is because it was a work in progress, so you need to fail and fail and fail until you make something great.
But here’s the larger point. All eyes are on Louis right now, because of the role of comedians and his ability to make sense of things that are hard for the rest of us to understand. I tune in because I am continually hoping that he will have something insightful to say about what he did, and what all these men whose behavior we are finding out about did in the past year.
I’m not a think piece, I’m a comedian, so it’s hard for me to articulate this. But I think we want to hear what this person we have anointed a genius has to say about what he did. But I think the reality is maybe there is nothing to say, and maybe it is not Louis we should aim to find answers from. Maybe we should be taking this moment to re-route who we are paying the most attention to, and take it away from people who have a history of abusing their power, and point it toward people who have been on the margins talking about these things forever in a really thoughtful way.
One of the things that is weird about our culture is that we let people get away with certain things because of how we feel about them—
Rephrase that. We let men—white men—get away with things.
You didn’t let me finish. If you have a guy like Louis, who was seen by a lot of liberal people as this white guy who gets it, and who is beloved by the press and on social media, then you have this thing where he can tell unfunny or inappropriate jokes, or use the N-word on HBO in 2011, which did not even make a big splash until now. And then our perception of him flips, and our whole response flips.
It does. This is a tangent, but, in terms of why our perception of him changed, I don’t think it’s because of what he did but because he denied it for two years. If you are in this position of truth-teller, and then you gaslight people, I think that seems to a lot of people like a bigger indiscretion than jerking off in front of women without their consent, or tanking a lot of women’s careers on your path to success.
But it’s more interesting if conversations aren’t about him but about us, because it really is about us. We continually want to hear from these men, or pay attention to these men, and take space away from other voices we have ignored forever.
My last thing about this is that you tweeted and deleted some stuff about him, is that right?
I delete everything. I tweet and then I delete. It’s kind of my thing.
O.K. What was your personal experience with him?
I’ve known him from the Comedy Cellar. He has always been kind to me. When we are waiting to go onstage, comedians talk. And I had a conversation with him that always stuck with me, about how a lot of women will put their careers on pause to start a family. There is a kernel of truth to it, and I didn’t understand why it frustrated me, but, as I started thinking about gender in America, I was able to construct a bit out of it. The bit is online.
I feel dirty even being, like, [deep voice] “I had a conversation with Louis.” It was a very benign, vanilla conversation, but I do feel like part of the issue is that younger comedians look up to older, veteran comics, and we seek guidance and advice from them. And, even if they aren’t doing anything creepy to you, comedy is a business, and there is no H.R. It is hard for people who are trying to make their way and survive in this world. It is like many, many industries. The same stuff happens everywhere. But I think the culture is intrigued by comedy because it is sexier to people than the domestic-work industry or whatever.
Do you think it has changed for women since you got into the business?
Oh, so, much so. I think that so much positive change has happened. I remember before the  election I saw Tig Notaro, with Aparna Nancherla opening for her, at Carnegie, and then the next night I went to Sam Bee’s show. And then Trump won. I was very optimistic in 2016 because I got into comedy in 2004, and that was one tiny space where I saw real change in a really exciting way.
Were you at “Late Show with David Letterman” when the controversy occurred around him sleeping with employees?
No, I was there after.
I’m curious what you thought about how that was covered, because my memory was that it wasn’t talked about the way some of these things are talked about now, which is that there is something deeply inappropriate about sleeping with employees, and not just because you are cheating on your wife and there are financial issues. [In 2009, Letterman admitted, on air, after a failed extortion attempt, to having had affairs with several female employees.] What was your experience at the show?
I had two very short interactions with him. They kept me away from him. I was only there for a year, and I think it makes it harder to succeed somewhere when you don’t know your boss.
Why did they keep you away from him?
It could have been for my protection. I don’t know. [Friedman later clarified that she was unaware of any effort to keep Letterman away from female employees.] This is tough because it’s funny to me that I was there for a year and only met him twice, but I think he was kind of, like, a reclusive character to all the writers. I think the guy who was hired before me only met him after, like, six years of working there. It was a kind of weird place. I was only there for a year—and everyone was really kind to me, and it wasn’t the right fit—but, also, if you are going into a job where your boss has had a public sex scandal with an employee, it makes it hard to thrive. That’s part of all this stuff.
The more interesting thing to me is looking at men like Les Moonves, Harvey Weinstein, and the power they had to green-light so many projects, and these are men who can’t be alone in a room with a woman without attacking her. And that is what we have been consuming culturally for the last couple decades. We don’t even know the impact of shows like “Two and a Half Men,” which Les Moonves green-lit, and what shows got overlooked by men in power who maybe didn’t see women as people.
It’s sad that we can no longer examine “Two and a Half Men” for its artistic merit.
But the other thing is that I don’t want to come across as bitching or complaining, and anything I say could be interpreted as that. It’s hard to talk about stuff honestly and thoughtfully when you don’t have the inherent trust of people reading it. They don’t know me, and that’s another thing that makes it hard to talk about.
What’s the best joke in your new special?
The new special is not standup. The first piece is actually about sexual harassment in gaming. And the second segment is an interview with John McAfee.
Do you have any jokes before you go?
Ohhh-K. No, I don’t know, I find me funny. I find funny things funny now.
It took you a while to find funny things funny?
Basically, you are asking me to tell you a joke, which is the comedian’s equivalent of being, like, “Show me your tits.”
No, no, no, you are fine. I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s really easy for me to do that. But, again, it’s the context. Nothing I say is going to be funny. You are not even seeing my face.
This is good because we started out talking about subjectivity, and now you have proved it from my dumb question.
It wasn’t a dumb question. Whatever, you get it. I guess. Hopefully. I don’t know.