MUSIC

The Legacy of Kanye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"

The rapper's magnum opus turned 10 years old over the weekend.

It's almost eerie how accurately Kanye West predicted his own fate when he uttered the words "I miss the old Kanye" on 2016's The Life of Pablo.

In my head, and likely in the memories of many others, there are two Kanyes: a then and a now. Both are cocky, self-important, certifiable jerks, but then, he at least still felt a marginal need to continue proving himself.

Now, he's so immeasurably detached from reality that it's a little hard to take anything he does or creates seriously—at this point, I find it difficult to even care. I don't want to explicitly cite a certain presidential election and its aftermath as the dividing line between the Kanye of then and now in my conscience, but...yeah, Kanye rubbing elbows with Trump was pretty much the last straw for me.

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TV Features

"Ramy" Creator Ramy Youssef Is Humble About His Show's Historic Emmy Nominations

The lovable young star and creator of Ramy was just nominated for Emmys for his acting and directing.

At just 29 years old, Ramy Youssef—not to be confused with his character Ramy Hassan—has already created and starred in his own breakout series on Hulu, and won both a Golden Globe and a Peabody award.

But it wasn't long ago that the country at large hadn't heard of him.

His stand-up comedy got him booked on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert back in 2017—in the lead-up to his three-episode stint on Mr. Robot as Elliot's obnoxious, rambling co-worker Samar. Prior to that performance he had never been on network television, and he jokes that even his mother didn't take his Hollywood ambition seriously—encouraging him to get into acting with the idea that he could infiltrate Hollywood and eventually "become a lawyer for actors."

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CULTURE

I Believe What Louis C.K. Claims in His New Special—But It's Not Enough

There are a lot of people who want to forgive Louis C.K., but he's done little to earn it.

Over the weekend, Louis C.K. announced the surprise release of his new stand-up special, Sincerely Louis C.K. on his website.


*****TRIGGER WARNING: Depiction of sexual assault*****

He said it was for people "who need to laugh" amid the on-going coronavirus pandemic—though he's still charging money for it. Once upon a time, that news would have genuinely excited me. It would have been exactly what I needed to help me through a stressful, lonely stretch of time like this. Now, I doubt I'll ever see this new special—I'll just let my morbid curiosity drive me to keep reading about it.

He was my favorite comedian for years. Maybe my favorite artist, period. His comedy wasn't just hilarious—it was insightful and smart and managed to be somehow cheerful in a way that included all the sadness in the world. Most of all, it seemed to be informed by a strong capacity for self-criticism. He wasn't one of those toxic, egocentric comedians who targets other groups to mock. There were always some cringey exceptions when he showed his blind spots, but more often than not his jokes were at his own expense, or aimed at institutions of power that benefit straight white men. He seemed like someone who was operating from a strong moral foundation...

Louie upset

While a lot of other comics emulated his style, I didn't think any of them could match his skill. And there definitely wasn't another show like Louie at the time. It blended the surreal and the mundane in such a satisfying balance. It felt more like experimental cinema than just another sitcom. I thought that Louis C.K. was a genius. To be honest, I still do. But genius is not a free pass from accountability.

It was on a podcast with LA comedians that I first heard rumors about C.K. exposing himself to young female comics. I don't recall exactly what they said about it, just that they made it sound like common knowledge within the stand-up community that C.K. was kind of a creep. Still, it was all vague enough that I was able to watch Horace and Pete—his bizarre and compelling anti-Cheers play about the world's most depressing neighborhood bar—without getting too hung up on the thought that he might be a sexual predator. A few months later, in late 2017, the full story came out.

Here's what I learned: For years, Louis C.K. was seemingly in the habit of taking any occasion when he was alone with a young female admirer as an opportunity to masturbate. In the cases we know about, the women he targeted were comedians who wanted the chance to tell him how much they liked his work and to ask him for industry advice. Before they had a chance to do much of that, he would take advantage of the power dynamic between them to ask if he could masturbate in front of them.

Some of the women took that question—coming so out of the blue—as a joke, and laughingly agreed. C.K. was not joking. Once they consented (to the extent that term applies in this scenario), he would immediately get started. He would position himself between them and the door and stand there until he was finished. For years after these events took place—while they existed as rumors and unsubstantiated accusations—C.K. denied what he had done and discredited the women involved. That continued until a 2017 New York Times report compiled the stories of five women whose stories corroborated one another.

At that point, C.K. issued a public apology that acknowledged some of the hurt he had caused, but many people criticized it as downplaying the abusive nature of what he had done—"asking [women] to look at [his] dick"—and making the issue about himself and his regret rather than the women he had traumatized. In his new special, C.K. once again addresses the scandal while shirking much of the responsibility for his actions, saying, "Men are taught to make sure the woman is okay. The thing is, women know how to seem okay when they're not okay."

Louie ugh

The struggle I have with all this is that, back when the story broke, I felt I had gotten to know C.K. through his work. It was like finding out a good friend had done something awful years ago, and I was ready to hear my friend's side of the story—to take his account of events seriously. So when C.K. says that he didn't realize how he was taking advantage of his power, and that he really thought the women involved were okay with it, I can believe that he was that blind. When he claims in his new special not to have realized that, even after someone consents, "you need to check in often," because "it's not always clear how people feel," I believe him.

I can believe that an unattractive and awkward man who grew up absorbing the twisted cultural messages of the U.S. in the '70s and '80s could have misunderstood consent that thoroughly. I can believe that he failed to imagine the pressure those women must have felt to go along with his outlandish request. I can believe that the way he positioned himself to block the doorway was unconscious. I can believe that he downplayed their discomfort in his own head to erase the lasting damage he was doing—that he may have even felt betrayed when some of those women told others what he had done. His behavior was much the same in the rare instances when he actually did have real consent. I may be wrong to give him this much benefit of the doubt—at least one of the women he victimized has said that she believes the fear C.K. caused those women was the point for him. But even if he was able to convince himself that it was all okay—that he wasn't hurting anyone—so what?

Failing to see that you're hurting someone does not erase your fault in hurting them—it just means that you have to address that blindness, as well as the hurt you've caused. By ascribing his failure to empathize to women's ability to "seem okay when they're not okay," C.K. is essentially blaming them for his crimes. He treated young women who admired him professionally not as equals or colleagues or even mentees, but as objects of lust whose autonomy was a minor barrier to be overcome before satisfying his sexual impulses—just blurt out the request as soon as you get a chance, and if they say "yes," then you're good to go.

Along with his apparent insights into the nuance of consent, C.K. made some jokes about his skill as a masturbator that further reveal his failure to empathize. They try to make light of the situation in a way that quickly becomes grotesque when you imagine any of the women he hurt hearing C.K. say, "I like company. I like to share. I'm good at it, too. If you're good at juggling, you wouldn't do it alone in the dark. You'd gather folks and amaze them."

Louie No

Even worse, he still isn't acknowledging the way he covered up his crimes for years after he had supposedly learned his lesson and stopped traumatizing women like that. He lied to protect himself, and he undermined those women's careers in the process.

Maybe, if he finds a way to repay the women he hurt for the trauma he caused them and for the damage he did to their careers—if he takes enough real responsibility that they can forgive him—maybe it will be possible to enjoy Louis C.K.'s work again. Until then, his actions and his failure to take responsibility for them have undermined that sense of a moral core that once made his comedy so compelling, and those of us who want to forgive him have to come to terms with the fact that we were wrong—that despite his talent, he really is just another toxic, egocentric comedian.

Film Reviews

Yes, Pete Davidson Talks About Ariana Grande in His New Netflix Special

In Pete Davidson: Alive From New York, the SNL cast member handles controversial topics well...for the most part.

Netflix

Since diving into the world of stand-up as a teenager, Pete Davidson's comedy has often hinged on touchy subject matter.

The Saturday Night Live cast member's debut Netflix special, Pete Davidson: Alive From New York, dropped this week, and there's no shortage of potentially controversial topics: fellow comedian Louis C.K., his hyper-public breakup with Ariana Grande, and divisive politician/veteran Dan Crenshaw being among them. "All right, we'll do some 9/11 jokes, and then we'll get the f--k out of here," Davidson shrugs near the set's end, as casually as if he were taking a sip of water.

Callousness might be Davidson's bread and butter, but in Alive From New York, he handles these polarizing issues with a surprising level of grace. The special opens with a particularly eyebrow-raising anecdote: "So Louis C.K. tried to get me fired from 'SNL' my first year, and this is that story," he explains. By the punchline—and not without a healthy dose of self-deprecation—Davidson paints the disgraced C.K. as, somehow, even more unlikeable.

Davidson hits his stride when he's able to justify those points of contention; his 9/11 jokes land because he frames them within the context of having lost his father in the attacks. His picking on Grande is among the special's highlights, because he knows he's punching up: "She won Billboard's Woman of the Year, and I got called 'butthole eyes' by barstoolsports.com." Naturally, Davidson also doesn't shy away from poking fun at himself, dismissing the rumors that circulated after Grande implied he was—ahem—well-endowed. "She's a very smart person, OK?" he says. "She did that so that every girl that sees my dick for the rest of my life is disappointed."

But Alive From New York's low point came when Davidson made a joke about doubting if certain gay men were actually gay. In the bit, which got flack after being featured in the special's official trailer, Davidson opens by assuring viewers that he has a lot of gay friends, which off the bat feels slightly too similar to the classic "I can't be racist because I have black friends" defense. "It's that gay dude that'll run up on your girlfriend and squeeze her boobs and grab her ass and be like, 'Damn, girl, you look great!'" Davidson says. "I don't find that f--king funny."

www.youtube.com

Writer Jill Gutowitz condemned this joke in a viral Twitter thread, emphasizing that, as a woman, she'd never been groped by a gay man: "Did straight men literally invent this stereotype of gay men with grab hands?" she asked, adding that depicting gay men in that light was "extremely dangerous." Gutowitz's tweets were met with mixed responses. Some women shared the same sentiments, although the majority pointed out numerous times in which gay men had groped them without their consent. "Don't dismiss that cis gay men are still men conditioned to see us as objects," one user argued.

Davidson's joke concurred that gay men shouldn't be able to freely grope women, although it was veiled with a "...because she's my girlfriend" qualifier. Nonetheless, it's generally in poor taste for masculine, straight men like Davidson to joke about gay men in a negative light. He surely meant no harm in the joke, but if he does in fact have a lot of gay friends, then he probably should've been advised to avoid such a joke altogether.

Davidson knows his comedy isn't for everyone—"I know that joke splits the room," he clarifies after a provocative punchline—but overall, Alive From New York evidences his growth as a comedian. Where other comedians show a lack of distinction between vulgarity and full-on offensiveness, Davidson proves he's pretty good at walking the thin line between the two—butthole eyes and all.

FILM

The Best Netflix Comedy Specials of the 2010s

It was so bad, it was funny.

Everything in life is funny.

Remember that the next time you feel creeping alarm about climate change, impeachment proceedings, or Brexit. As George Carlin once said, "There's a humorous side to every situation. The challenge is to find it." But in the age of Twitter and op-eds about bad dates with comedians, it's hard to keep track of what's funny and what's cringey. In the last decade, we've been treated to all variations. From critics lamenting that Hannah Gadsby's emotional comedy isn't "real" stand-up to Dave Chappelle returning to say exactly what's on his mind regardless of the political climate, our cultural understanding of what constitutes comedy is currently in flux.

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When did Asians become funny?

Sure, Asians have seemed funny to Americans since the early twentieth century when media had two representations of them: Fu Manchu, the archetypal vainglorious villain trying to "kill the white man and take his women"; and Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective (played by white actors Warner Oland and Sidney Toler) who became wildly popular by embodying Oriental stereotypes. But then the U.S. was pulled into World War II by the Japanese plane that struck Pearl Harbor, and suddenly Yellow Peril seemed all too real. Everyone with Asian features was suddenly a "jap," "nip," or "Asian menace" threatening to take over or generally debase America with their inferiority, a fear which intensified with the Korean War and then Vietnam War.

Maybe those fears were grounded, because Netflix recently released, "Asian Comedian Destroys America!" It's the title of Ronny Chieng's stand-up special, a play on the use of "destroy" to suggest out-of-the-park success and the history of xenophobic fear in America. "Or maybe I just came up with something funny and I'm just trying to explain it retroactively," he told The New York Times. "It came from Netflix telling me I'm not famous enough and I need a title to get people to click on the icon."

Frank admissions–somewhere between deadpan humor and social awkwardness–characterize Chieng's hour-long special, which captures his equal parts bemusement and devotion to the country he's called home since 2015. Beginning with admittedly hackneyed observations on American attention spans and wastefulness ("every night in America is a competition to see how many screens we can get between our face and the wall: iPhone, iPad, laptop, TV, and then Apple Watch"), he wades into deeper waters about racial politics and divides between his Malaysian Chinese culture and American diversity.

Asians, who only account for about 5.6% of the population, need to "get that number up," he says. Why? First, "We are the only objective referees in your ongoing race war between white and black people," Chieng explains. "Because you don't care about us, and we don't care about any of you. So you can trust us...Our skin is not in the game. Literally. NFL, NBA, our skin is in none of those games." Second, we need to elect an Asian president; "Man or woman, get that Asian president in the White House. We will fix this sh*t in a week!" The proof? "We don't shut down for anything," he said. "We don't shut down for Christmas. We work through public holidays. Any city in America when it's 3:00 a.m. and you're hungry, where do you go? You go to Chinatown cause things are delicious, affordable and open."

Chieng, already recognized for his satirical correspondence for The Daily Show and his role as Eddie Cheng in Crazy Rich Asians, doesn't defer to self-effacing humor to critique social issues, from healthcare and civil liberties to the Darwinism of gluten intolerance and the undeniable coolness of the black community owning their own racial slur. "You never see Chinese people walking around, 'Yo, where my chinks at? My chinks!" he mimes with finger guns, "Hey, stay yellow, my fellows–sounds awful!"

While the 34-year-old comedian has lived and been educated in Singapore, Australia, and the U.S., his comedy career, since 2009, has clearly been informed by the fraught history of Asians being accepted in western culture. From the title of his special to the promotional trailer's riff of media's anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II, he speaks back to Yellow Peril with alternating empathy and hardened logic.

Ronny Chieng Netflix Standup Comedy Special | Asian Comedian Destroys America! Trailer youtu.be

It might be working, at least in comedy. This year Bowen Yang became the first SNL cast member of Asian descent in the show's 44-year history, and the viral humor of Joel Kim Booster has been showcasing his observations on being gay and Asian in America ("I'm not a bad driver 'cause I'm Asian; I'm a bad driver because I won't wear my glasses and I text. It's a CHOICE!"). And in film and TV, of course, there's been Lulu Wang's The Farewell starring Awkwafina, six seasons of Fresh Off the Boat, and the flash in the pan of Crazy Rich Asians' success. But back in the early aughts, only a handful of East Asian and Indian individuals had found mainstream success in comedy (this was back when Korean-American Margaret Cho was told by a major network that she "was not Asian enough"). In cartoonist Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings, he captures the complexities and contradictions in Asian-American masculinity and, more largely, the respectability politics involved with being accepted.

Culturally, respectability politics is an odd game of self-effacement and personal betrayal that's weighed against the prize of acceptance.

Thessaly La Force at The New York Times describes "Asian jokes" as "an accepted kind of humor when it comes to talking about Asian-Americans — it's a humor comfortable with its own ignorance, like the bully in the schoolyard who pounces on perceived weaknesses and kicks up dirt for a laugh. These types of jokes often concern Asian men's masculinity, or lack thereof — or the Asian man's helplessness in life, his neediness, his foolishness, his greed, his feminine demeanor and physicality."

Or, as Joel Kim Booster puts it, "I'm terrible at math. I don't know karate. My dick is huge." On the surface, this might even seem lazy: "Why does every comedian of color have to have material about their racial identity? Can't you come up with something else to say?" But every person of color has, at one point or other, felt the weight of racist stereotypes in the room–like an invisible, crushing fog–and been sorely tempted to comment on them first; because with stereotypes (however hackneyed) come a haunting fear that someone else will invoke them first. Whether that's in the form of an attack or, more commonly in 2019, a blatant display of the speaker's own ignorance, the resulting awkwardness permeates the room. Imagine knowing the discomfort is all about you. Embarrassment and a baseless guilt starts churning your stomach–you feel responsible to ease the tension but, at the same time, f*ck off, you didn't create this ignorance. It's all very unpleasant and, just as bad, it's never funny.

Similarly, just about every comedian of color targets racial stereotypes at some point in their act, because in an industry dominated by non-POC entertainers, their race is still an elephant in the room. Diffusing that tension is hard to do well when there are centuries of ignorance and propaganda and yellow face that have come before you, and it's even harder to do in a way that's refreshing and unique. Maybe Chieng pulls it off because he's partly socially awkward and partly just "a grumpy person," as he self-describes. "When someone says that people of your race are not supposed to be grumpy, it just makes me grumpier." Or it's his brand of authenticity when there's still been more mockery of people of color than genuine representation in American media. "I'm just trying to write what I think is funny," he says. "I'm just trying to have as authentic a reaction as possible to something."

In English author Sax Rohmer's 1913 novel, he writes, "Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan ...one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ...Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man." Rohmer's caricature would become an icon of satire because of its over-the-top portrayal of foreign threats and the Asian menace. Between the 1950s and '80s, he became a subject of parody in radio and film: He became funny. Whether he's a mockery of Asian culture or the ignorance that once surrounded it depends on whether or not American media is ready for comedians like Ronny Chieng to "destroy" racist stereotypes (see what I did there? Stay yellow, my fellows).