Last November, The New York Times published a report in which five women — all comedians — recounted their stories of Louis C.K. using his power to put them in sexually compromising positions. Their accounts — of Louis C.K. addressing individuals in work environments and asking, sometimes repeatedly, if he could masturbate in front of them and then pulling out his penis — date back to the late 1990s. A day after the accusations were made public, he admitted in a lengthy statement that they were true.
Monday night, less than a year after his decades of misconduct came to light, Louis C.K. returned to standup comedy with a surprise appearance at the Comedy Cellar, the celebrated club in Greenwich Village. The set, which was described as “typical Louis C.K. stuff,” marks the first instance of the comedian’s apparent efforts at a comeback (efforts lauded by fellow comedian Michael Ian Black).
But Louis C.K. could not have chosen a worse possible way to stage a comeback.
Recall, if you will, the specifics of the stories women recounted about him. Louis C.K. — from a position of power either explicit (as a producer of a television show on which a woman was working) or implicit (as one of the most famous and acclaimed comedians in the world) — coerced women into watching him masturbate, or forced them to listen to him masturbate on the phone without their consent. What makes things even worse: All five of the women who agreed to go on record with the New York Times were comedians, and comedians who admired Louis C.K.’s work. In response, he turned them into props for his sexual fantasy.
And so, after what were undoubtedly the world’s most introspective ten months, Louis C.K. decided to surprise a possibly unwilling audience by claiming the stage in front of them, forcing them to watch him perform.
There is no timetable on what redemption looks like for the men whose serial misconduct has been revealed through the #MeToo movement. It’s math that just doesn’t yet exist. The process of returning to work will be unique for each individual, and every member of the community will have a different level of tolerance for when they’ll be willing to see him in the public eye again. And yet, for no one can the answer to the question “What should these individuals do in order to redeem themselves?” be “Just wait a few months.”
In that statement Louis C.K. released after the New York Times exposé, he wrote, “These stories are true.” He concluded it by promising, “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”
A written statement and then a year away from the spotlight was the PR strategy for Taylor Swift after feuding with Kanye West about whether she agreed to his using a lyric about her in his song “Famous.” It cannot be the same punishment for a man who humiliated and gaslit women, sexually harassing them at work, isolating them and non-consensually masturbating in front of them.
Should Louis C.K. be banished for eternity? No. That sort of hyperbole, rhetoric often thrown back at people who express their misgivings about Louis C.K. (“Oh, so you think he should just have to go away forever????”) serves to obfuscate, to gridlock any possible productive conversation.
But the very choice of his first “comeback” event reveals that Louis C.K. has not achieved whatever level of soul-searching he sought out last November. The ability to drop in to do a set at a comedy club is a privilege given only to the most famous figures in comedy. Louis C.K. is attempting to re-enter the comedy world by means of the same power structure that allowed him to abuse women for so long. And making it a surprise set, in which the audience may not have been ready or willing to see an admitted sexual harasser with an empty stage and the amplification of a silent room and a microphone, has the slimy feeling of Louis C.K. flaunting that power again.
Either he is completely oblivious (which means his “long time to listen” has not nearly been long enough) or he is smirking and rolling his eyes after waiting in a time-out for as long as seemed necessary from a PR standpoint.
As someone who was once a Louis C.K. fan, I hope it is the former.
According to the club owner, Louis C.K. was greeted with a standing ovation before he took the stage. It seems he has come back to a comedy community that also has a long way to go.