Louis CK’s Grammy win for best comedy album on Sunday was his first major award since a 2017 scandal in which he admitted to several incidents of sexual misconduct. The award was presented during the Grammy Premiere Ceremony prior to the main telecast. The comedian wasn’t present at the MGM Grand Conference Marquee Ballroom in Las Vegas to accept the award in person. (Many winners of these non-televised awards are no-shows at the Premiere Ceremony.)
Even so, the very fact that he won has stirred controversy and raised questions. How could he win, especially when the Recording Academy has been working overtime to boost the number of women and other underrepresented groups in the Academy?
The simple, if rather glib, answer is that his Sincerely Louis CK got more votes than any of its rivals – Lavell Crawford’s The Comedy VaccineChelsea Handler’s EvolutionLewis Black’s Thanks for Risking Your LifeNate Bargatze’s The Greatest Average American and Kevin Hart’s Zero F****s Given.
There is no mechanism or precedent for the Grammys to not allow a controversial figure to be nominated.
Harvey Mason jr., the Recording Academy’s CEO, addressed the controversy stirred by nominations for Louis CK, Dave Chappelle and Marilyn Manson when the 64th annual Grammy nominations were announced last November.
Asked about it by The Wrap‘s Brian Welk, Mason said the Recording Academy doesn’t take personal history into account when determining eligibility for its awards. “We won’t restrict the people who can submit their material for consideration,” Mason said. “We won’t look back at people’s history, we won’t look at their criminal record, we won’t look at anything other than the legality within our rules of, is this recording for this work eligible based on date and other criteria ? If it is, they can submit for consideration.”
But he also added: “What we will control is our stages, our shows, our events, our red carpets. We’ll take a look at anyone who is asking to be a part of that, asking to be in attendance, and we’ll make our decisions at that point. But we’re not going to be in the business of restricting people from submitting their work for our voters to decide on.”
The Academy invited Bargatze to serve as a presenter at the Premiere Ceremony – valuable exposure for someone at his career stage.
But how did CK win anyway, even carrying that baggage?
Grammy voters often gravitate toward familiar names, especially in “down-ballot” categories. This was Louis CK’s fourth nomination, and third win, in the category. He also won for Hilarious (2011) and Live at Madison Square Garden (2015). CK is one of only three comedians to win in the category three times since 2000, along with the late George Carlin and Chappelle.
Two other nominees in the category this year were also repeat nominees. This was Black’s sixth nod in the category (he has won twice) and Hart’s second (he has yet to win).
CK also caught a break when the Recording Academy ruled that Bo Burnham’s Inside (The Songs)the biggest hit of the year on Billboard‘s Comedy Albums chart, didn’t meet the criteria to compete in the category. Instead, Inside (The Songs) vied for a nomination for best compilation soundtrack for visual media, a category typically reserved for original music composed for films, TV shows and video games. It wound up not even being nominated there, though a song from the project, “All Eyes on Me,” was nominated for, and won, best song written for visual media. In addition, Inside was nominated for best music film (but lost to summer of soul).
The Academy has a new rule in place, informally called “the 10/3 rule,” which was intended to cut down on the practice of voters roaming around the ballot and voting in categories in which they’re not experts. All voting members may vote in the so-called Big Four categories – album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist. After that, they may vote in no more than 10 other categories — chosen from no more than three other fields.
Best comedy album is the only category in the comedy field, so a voter would have had to use up one of their three fields to vote there. (There are 24 fields, not counting the General Field, which houses the Big Four categories.)
So it’s fair to say that voters in the comedy community supported CK, despite the controversy. Voters from outside the comedy community weren’t likely to use up a field just to ding him.
Before the scandal, CK, 54, was one of the most successful comedians of his era, success that was reflected in awards. He has received six Primetime Emmy Awards (though none since 2015), three awards from the Writers Guild of America (though none since 2014), three Peabody Awards (though none since 2016), and a Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding ensemble cast in a motion picture for his role in AmericanHustle (2013).
CK’s admission that he had repeatedly exposed himself to women without their consent, which followed the publication of an exposition in The New York Times, caused swift backlash. His 2017 movie I Love You, Daddy was pulled from distribution prior to its release. His stand-up career also came to a temporary halt.
In 2020, CK released a new comedy special, Sincerely Louis CK, on his website. It is the album from that special that brought him his third Grammy. In 2021, he embarked on an international comedy tour and released a new comedy special, sorryagain on his website.
Chappelle, meanwhile, has faced backlash for transphobic comments that he made in his Netflix stand-up special The Closer. He was Grammy-nominated this year for best spoken word album (includes poetry, audio books & storytelling), alongside poet Amir Sulaiman, for 8:46but they lost to actor Don Cheadle for Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation from John Lewis.
Did the controversy over his jokes hurt Chappelle’s chances, or was respect for Lewis, a civil rights icon, and appreciation for the job Cheadle did on the project, simply too much to overcome? The controversy certainly didn’t help.
The Recording Academy declined to comment for this story beyond referring to Mason’s comments from last fall.