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Louis C.K. and Tig Notaro, Sparring on the Battlefield of Art

Louis C.K. and Tig Notaro, Sparring on the Battlefield of Art
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Ms. Notaro, who plays a character named Tig, is often at odds with her love interest, Kate (her real-life wife, Stephanie Allynne), on how to think about sexual misconduct. After Kate’s experience with the radio programmer, she recalls, with mild disapproval, the inappropriate behavior of a coach in her high school days, and Ms. Notaro corrects her: “By the way, you were molested.” Kate disagrees: “But that happens to me all the time.”

The show is most pointed when the two women try to find redress for the behavior of the radio programmer, Jack (Timm Sharp). In an echo of the way Louis C.K. championed Ms. Notaro after her seminal confessional set with its famous opening joke — “Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” — the programmer tells Tig that he became obsessed with her work when she began doing “deeper, darker more personal material.”

But when she confronts him about masturbating, Jack denies any transgression, and when Kate and Tig approach his boss, they find him sympathetic but ineffectual. “One Mississippi” focuses on the trauma of being a victim, reflected in the way the masturbation scene is shot, shifting to a close-up of Kate’s anguished face as Jack becomes a blur. “We wanted to show that you can be assaulted without even being touched,” Ms. Notaro told The Hollywood Reporter.

This scene provides a contrast to a stunning episode of “Girls” last season, a portrait of sexual assault by a powerful man. After Hannah (Lena Dunham) writes about a novelist’s sexual encounters with young women, the novelist, a divorced father played by Matthew Rhys, invites her to his apartment. He is seductive and argumentative and Hannah has already written about him, so their dynamic is complex and shifting.

What Ms. Notaro portrays pointedly is not. In her show, the facts of the assault are simple, but the system for handling it is not. In a time when polarized debate over sexual assault often breaks down between those who say society needs to do more to protect victims and others who insist it must do better at respecting the due process of the accused, “One Mississippi” doesn’t just take a side, it also skewers the weak spots of the opposing one.

Photo

Louis C.K. in a scene from his new movie, “I Love You, Daddy.”

Credit
Courttesy TIFF

Louis C.K. usually seems less comfortable taking sides than jumping between them. In his controversial monologue on “Saturday Night Live” in 2015, he invited audiences to understand the pedophile’s point of view. To be clear, he wasn’t defending pedophiles, but his comedy is dialectical, finding its perspective through debate, juxtaposition and satire.

When he portrayed sexual assault on his FX series, “Louie,” he often seemed to be testing how far he could keep an audience’s sympathies on the side of a sexual abuser. In a 2012 episode, a character played by Melissa Leo delivers a passionate attack on male double standards about sex before she rapes Louie, his sad-sack alter ego. In an episode last year, Louie drags his babysitter across the apartment trying to kiss her. It was an uncomfortable scene to watch.

I have not seen “I Love You, Daddy,” but Louis C.K. told my colleague Cara Buckley that when it comes to the morality of beloved artists whose private lives are under clouds of scandal: “The uncomfortable truth is, you never really know. You don’t know anybody.”

This speaks to an often ignored fact about stand-up comics who make art about characters named after themselves: Their work may draw on real life but can be as fictional as any other art form.

In the same interview, Louis C.K. said he wouldn’t respond to the allegations, explaining, “If you actually participate in a rumor, you make it bigger and you make it real.” When asked if the rumor wasn’t real, he responded, “No. They’re rumors, that’s all that is.”

Yet Louis C.K.’s slightly evasive response stands out precisely because he has long won fans over by being so open about his private side, in his work and in interviews. (On Marc Maron’s podcast, he talked bluntly about dealing with sexually compulsive behavior and using masturbation to handle anxiety.)

Being open about his flaws, sexual and otherwise, earned him sympathy and perhaps even set expectations. Now he says he wants to just speak about the work, even as his new film will inevitably invite discussion about his life. It’s a tricky balancing act, especially when Ms. Notaro says she hopes her show inspires victims to speak out.

Part of what makes the comedy of Louis C.K. and Ms. Notaro exciting is that they both often suggest they are giving us a peek at an actual life. But once you blur the lines between what’s real and what is not, it can be difficult to bring the distinction between the two back into focus.



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