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All the Sad, Funny Men

2015 May 21



I’m a sucker for the ends of things. Why else did I find myself on my couch until 1 am last night, watching David Letterman’s last late night show? I like Letterman–I even went to a live taping of the show when I lived in New York (Juliana Marguiles was the guest, and some athlete, and that terrible country band I can never remember the name of…not the most epic show, but still a fun experience). But I’m not what you would call a Fan. There were a few periods when I was a teenager that I would stay up late and watch his show before I went to bed, but that’s the most regular I’ve been in my Letterman viewership. I liked that he was weird and irreverent and didn’t always make sense. But beyond that, I didn’t really know (or care) that much about him. Nonetheless, all of the buzz surrounding this retirement drew me in and I watched, sucked in by nostalgia for a time I was barely alive for–Dave’s been on the air since before I was born. I got home at 11:30 after a night out with friends, and I wasn’t tired, so I stayed up and watched.

But while I watched, there was some nagging feeling pulling at me–there have been allegations that Letterman behaved inappropriately with female employees during his reign. Similarly, I’ve been struggling this week with what to think about the allegations against Louis C.K., a comic I’ve admired and also seen perform live. I know that just because Gawker puts up an article doesn’t mean it’s true, but I also cringe at the sheer number of males in power who are accused of taking advantage of female employees, reporters, colleagues, strangers, etc. It’s not a coincidence, and it’s especially jarring when the accusations come against someone whose work you genuinely admire.

One summer a few years ago, I watched Manhattan outdoors in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the movie that mythologized the city backdropped against the very skyline in its logo. It was one of those magical New York experiences that make living there ALMOST worth it, sometimes.


As we walked home, Joe & I talked about Woody Allen. This was before the revelations of the Dylan Farrow case were in the news (again). I talked about how much I enjoy his movies (Annie Hall is one of my favorites, or was) and how conflicted his behavior (I was thinking primarily of his relationship with Soon-Yi, his wife’s adopted daughter, who was just 17 when they began their romantic relationship) made me feel. We talked about art vs. the artist, and how one should stand separately from the other. Normally, I believe this, but where’s the line? If Hitler had actually been the talented artist he’d wanted to be, and still did all he did, would we be able to look at his paintings and think, “How beautiful”? I really don’t think so. At least, I couldn’t.

So, it’s difficult for me to look at these laughing, powerful men, and not cringe at what happens behind the scenes. And yet, I still watch Louie. I still watched Letterman’s farewell. I still read Hemingway and Updike and Roth and many other male writers who completely disparage women. And I can acknowledge their talent, even admire and enjoy it. But it makes me feel conflicted and a little dirty inside, a little ashamed. Can I watch a Woody Allen movie or a Louis C.K. stand-up routine or an old episode of The Cosby Show and still consider myself a feminist?

I don’t know, and it’s sad that it’s a dilemma faced by women everywhere. How do we reconcile our values and beliefs with those of a society in conflict?

What do you think? Are you able to separate the art from the artist?


5 Responses Post a comment
  1. May 21, 2015

    The one I have the hardest time with is Bill Cosby, because I *loved* the Cosby show. I think part of me has always wanted to be Clair Huxtable (or Phylicia Rashad) and I just think–how can a show that portrays such strong female characters be the creative result of a predator like Cosby? I’ve not been faced with the decision of whether to continue watching the show or not because the allegations came out after I moved to the UK, where they don’t seem to show it at all, and I really don’t know if I would watch or not. If I did, I would definitely watch it in a different way, and maybe that would ruin the whole show for me, which I don’t necessarily want to happen.

  2. Melissa permalink
    May 21, 2015

    As usual, a very insightful and thought provoking post. Given my work as a victim advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, I always think that when these allegations come to light, that they should not surprise me. I deal with all kinds of “wonderful” men who are pillars of their communities, who commit horrific and unspeakable acts on those they claim to love and care for, behind closed doors. When these acts do become public, it is all to often described as a lover’s quarrel, or a jealous outburst of some kind. This implies that the offender has no control over their actions, acting in the heat of the moment. Except that there are few people more controlling than people who are abusive. They are master manipulators. They manage to keep up a façade of being the all-around great dad, husband, boyfriend, etc. (or sometimes girlfriend, mother or wife). But it is only those that are exposed to them behind closed doors that really know the truth. It is so difficult to feel that continuing to support the work of actors, comedians, athletes or any other public figures who behave in this way is not a tacit approval of their behind the scenes lifestyles. For example, I wanted to join the Cosby clan as a kid, but I don’t think I could stomach watching the show now, knowing what I do about TV’s greatest dad. So, I don’t think I can enjoy the work of a person accused of that type of bad behavior. Especially because I know how difficult it is for victims to come forward, and that the number of false allegations is not very high.

  3. John Haakenson permalink
    May 22, 2015

    My only problem with this article is the bit about “allegations that Letterman behaved inappropriately with female employees.” Allegations???? There was a lot more than “allegations” — Letterman basically confessed to cheating with interns, didn’t he?

  4. Christine permalink
    May 22, 2015

    Letterman admitted to relationships with at least one intern when confronted with publicity about it; we can be sure that the acknowledgment wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. I remember that it was interesting because for a few months, one of the interns had gotten lots of air time, and I was wondering if there was a “back story” to it. However, she was a very nice personality and I could see why they would be attracted to each other. Her unequal position as intern of course adds suspicion about the affair – coercion would be criminal – but can we assume that coercion is present in 100% of such cases? If she was not a minor, and was not coerced, then it should be a private matter, left to the persons themselves to sort out the moral and personal implications. What is positive about the comments made so far – and also Jill’s phrase “a society in conflict” – is that society is ready to recognize and prosecute the instances when criminal and moral boundaries are crossed. And granted, there are way too many of those cases. And, Jill, I also watched the last few Letterman programs, and still watch Allen movies, and in short, can (often) separate the art from the artist (although I don’t really categorize much television as “art.”) What art is not fraught with human dilemmas? Who is free of human dilemma?

  5. Anne Roy permalink
    May 25, 2015

    I cannot look aside when it comes to any child abuse events … physical or sexual … those kinds of acts put people in a different human category for me … for one thing I cannot imagine it having never been struck or assaulted in my life … never even spanked by my parents.

    I leave the ‘real’ lives of writers alone … Charles Dickens behaved very badly to his wife for example … that was their business … no one knows a marriage unless you are in it.

    Woody Allen marrying that child icks me out … never liked him much anyway …

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