Since five women went on record with The New York Times alleging a long pattern of sexual assault from Louis CK, many in the comedy world have been suspiciously silent. While film and TV companies were quick to distance themselves from him, late night comedians—our supposed voice of moral clarity in trying times—danced around the issue, barely mentioning it. Only a handful of people—like Jason Alexander, Tig Notaro, and Michael Schur—have tweeted condemnation. Marc Maron finally spoke at length about it on his podcast, saying CK lied to him outright about what were then wide rumors. But nothing seems to encapsulate the ongoing silence from the comedy world better than this clip of Jon Stewart from last year, claiming absolute ignorance of the entire situation.
The clip, which has been making the rounds again thanks in part to Reddit, comes from a much-longer sit-down with David Axelrod, former chief campaign strategist for Barack Obama. Here Stewart is asked by an audience member named Dan Ackerman if there was any discussion about having CK on as his final Daily Show guest, and Stewart first acts as if he doesn’t understand the question and then has never heard the accusations before. “So the internet said Louis harassed women,” he says to audience laughter. “No, I didn’t see the tweets. I’m not that connected to that world.”
When it becomes a little too clear that he’s belittling Ackerman, who then connected the accusations to comedians’ willingness to condemn Bill Cosby despite there not being any formal charges against him yet, Stewart says, “I do apologize. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I can’t answer. All I can tell you is I’ve worked with Louis for 30 years, and he’s a wonderful man and person and I’ve never heard anything about this. And we’ve all known Bill Cosby is a prick for a long time.”
It is, of course, possible that Stewart had truly never heard these allegations about his friend before. It’s also possible that he, like Maron, was lied to about them, but still chose to act as if he’d never heard anything about them. There are many possible explanations, but all of them stretch belief. As Ackerman said in a recent interview with Slate:
I think it’s unlikely that Courteney Cox and David Arquette knew and Jon Stewart didn’t, but it’s possible. What’s most unlikely to me is that Courteney Cox and David Arquette knew and Jon Stewart’s bookers didn’t. Someone at The Daily Show must have known.
No matter what the case, Stewart should address it whenever he chooses to speak about CK more broadly. The clip is powerful as an example of the sort of tactics employed by powerful people to silence accusations against their friends. Stewart discredits the source of the accusations (Gawker, “the internet”) and then claims that he’d never heard them at all. Others were at least more direct: In 2015 Aziz Ansari responded to a question from The Daily Beast about the accusations with a simple, “I’m not talking about that.” Whenever CK’s powerful friends in comedy do choose to speak, they will also need to address their long silence leading up to the New York Times story. In Stewart’s case, that ought to include apparent absolute ignorance up to May of last year.