Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals is out today. To mark the occasion, here's a story I liked that didn't quite make the cut.
Liam Neeson woke up. He sat upright and rubbed his head. As he looked around, dazed, he realised that this was not his home. Instead, all around him was mile after mile of empty nothingness.
"Hey, is that Liam Neeson?" called a voice from behind him.
"I think it is," replied a second voice.
Liam Neeson turned around and, to his surprise, he saw Louis CK and Lena Dunham standing next to each other.
"Hey Liam," waved Lena cheerily.
Liam Neeson was confused. He didn't know Louis CK or Lena Dunham, and yet there they were. They were right in the middle of this bizarre wilderness with him.
"Where am I?" asked Liam Neeson.
“I hate to say it, pal, but I think you've been cancelled," said Louis CK.
Liam Neeson didn't know what 'cancelled' meant. "Have I died?" he asked. "Is this heaven?"
"Definitely not heaven," replied Lena Dunham. She asked him to think back. Perhaps there was something he had said or done in the past that might have annoyed the internet. Liam Neeson wracked his brain for answers, but nothing came to mind. Could it have been a film he had made? Was his love of contact sports responsible? Surely those wouldn't have got him cancelled.
"Oh, I know!" he said after a few minutes. "Is it because I used a movie junket to announce that I once set out to murder a random black person in the street?"
Louis CK and Lena Dunham agreed that, yes, that would probably do it. Then they explained that, as soon as the internet cancels a celebrity it previously held in high regard, this is where they end up: The Island of Problematic Faves.
"Why are you here, Louis?” Liam Neeson asked. "Did you also express your intention to literally murder the first black person you saw in the street?"
"No! No way! Jesus, no, are you crazy?” replied Louis CK. "I just masturbated in front of some women without their consent".
"That's still pretty bad," said Liam Neeson.
“Oh I’m sorry", snapped Louis CK. "Next time I'll just tell a random journalist that I wanted to kill a black person with a cosh, shall I?"
"Boys, boys, calm down", said Lena Dunham, who then explained that she had been cancelled for – among other things – not casting many people of colour in a TV show she once wrote.
Liam Neeson was sad. He looked at Louis CK and Lena Dunham. “I guess it’s just the three of us now, then”, he said.
"Just us?" replied Louis CK. "Are you crazy? We all live here now!"
So Louis CK and Lena Dunham took Liam Neeson by the hands and led him to the top of a nearby hill. At the summit, they pointed down to a huge bustling metropolis below.
"Everybody's down there!" shouted Lena Dunham. “Seriously, everyone!"
"Go on," urged Louis CK. "Think of a celebrity".
Liam Neeson said the first name he could think of: Katy Perry.
"Yep!" said Lena Dunham. "She made some racist shoes and sold them on the internet“.
"Yep," nodded Louis CK. "Mansplained diversity to a black lady".
"She's friends with me," shrugged Lena Dunham, pointing out Swift from afar.
"For some reason that seems to be enough to get you here“.
Liam Neeson was baffled. He couldn't believe that so many celebrities had been cancelled. So he closed his eyes and thought of the purest, wokest celebrity he could think of.
"What about Jameela Jamil from The Good Place?" he asked. "She cannot possibly be here. She’s an outspoken body positivity campaigner”.
"Look down there," said Louis CK, and sure enough there was Jameela Jamil.
"She retained the services of my manager even after he tried to silence all those women I jerked off at. Anyway, let's go and get you sorted out with a house".
So Lena Dunham and Louis CK led Liam Neeson down into the city, past problematic faves like Chris Pratt (who believed in God), Miley Cyrus (who dressed as a native American in a photoshoot) and Chrissy Teigan (who used the word 'tranny' in a tweet a decade ago). But Liam Neeson still had questions.
"Are we all cancelled forever?" he asked. "Will I ever get home?"
Lena Dunham saw the sadness in Liam Neeson’s eyes, so she told him an old story she knew. "There is one way", she told him. "In a faraway forest there is said to be a temple. Legend has it that the temple contains the only known portal back to the real world".
"Great!" shouted Liam Neeson. “What are we waiting for?“
But Louis CK explained that it wasn't so easy. To return to the real world, the cancelled celebrity had to perform a single impossible task. They had to convincingly apologise.
"That's it?" asked Liam Neeson. "Surely that's easy".
Lena Dunham stroked Liam Neeson's hair. "If only it were, baby” she sighed. She explained that, although they all tried their hardest, no celebrity had ever been able to apologise for a single wrongdoing with anything even approaching an appropriate level of sincerity.
"We keep saying things like 'I'm sorry if my actions caused offence' or ‘I’m saddened’”, she said. "Those aren’t real apologies. Everyone knows that".
"Or we just avoid the subject altogether," added Louis CK. "Remember when Kevin Spacey tried to deflect from all his accusations by coming out as gay? What the hell was he thinking?"
"Oh, is Kevin Spacey here?" asked Liam Neeson.
"No no no", said Lena Dunham quickly. "This is The Island of Problematic Faves. The Island of Guys Who Always Creeped You Out Before Any of This Stuff Went Down is just across the bay".
"Why didn't you apologise?" Liam Neeson asked Louis CK.
"I tried," Louis CK replied. "But in my statement I kept talking about how powerful I was".
"You also forgot to write the word 'Sorry' even once", added Lena Dunham.
"What can I say?" laughed Louis CK. "I'm a classic klutz".
Liam Neeson looked around at the city. Everyone he saw was instantly recognisable, but they all looked lost and sad. It was as if they couldn't work out what they had done wrong, and they all harboured secret resentments for falling short of society’s ever-changing ethical standards. He couldn’t become one of these people. He still had so much left to give the world. Like, I dunno, Taken 4 or something.
"Take me to the temple", he growled.
And so, for six days and six nights, Liam Neeson trekked across the forest with
Lena Dunham and Louis CK in search of the temple. The journey was slow and treacherous but, eventually, they reached their mystical destination.
An ancient bearded knight guarded the doorway of the temple.
"Who goes there?" the knight croaked.
"It is I, Liam Neeson," replied Liam Neeson. "I seek passage from this wretched place, back to the mortal world".
"Then apologise you must," said the knight.
Liam Neeson took a deep breath. He knew that the next few moments would be vitally important to the rest of his life. He paused. Finally, he spoke:
"I am truly sorry for any offence people may have taken from..."
There was a loud ZAP, and Liam Neeson fell to the floor.
"Not a real apology!" scolded the knight. "You may try twice more”.
Liam Neeson dragged himself back up to his feet. He brushed the dirt from his outfit, made a silent vow to do better, and opened his mouth.
"You have to remember, it was a different time back..."
ZAP! As he flew through the air, the knight’s sparks still crackling on his skin, Liam Neeson realised that attempting to culturally rationalise his actions wouldn't cut it either. If he wanted to get back to Earth, he knew he would need to summon a level of sincerity he never thought possible.
Coughing and grazed, with his hair smoking, Liam Neeson approached the knight for the third and final time. He looked deep into the knight's eyes, searching for even a speck of human connection.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "To do what I did – to even think what I thought – was genuinely reprehensible. I don't know if words will ever truly fix the damage I've caused, but I promise to spend the rest of my life trying. I was an arsehole. And I am so, so sorry for that“.
The knight smiled a rare smile and stepped aside. Liam Neeson turned to face his friends Lena Dunham and Louis CK. He nodded, wordlessly thanking them for all their help. As he did, a single tear fell from his eye. The tear hit the ground with a tiny splash, and the door flew open. Liam Neeson was sucked inside with a great whoosh, and sent back to the real world on a rainbow blasted out from the top of the temple.
Everyone on The Island of Problematic Faves stopped in their tracks and cheered. The legend was true. It could be done after all. Salvation really could be achieved. Liam Neeson had taught them all about the value of believable contrition.
"Me next!" barked Louis CK as the door slammed shut. He barged up to the knight and cleared his throat. "As a famously powerful man..." he began.
“You are terrible at this, Louis CK,” said the knight.