Louis C.K. Attempts a Comeback- But Will 2018 Be Forgiving?

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Around midnight this past Sunday, August 26, comedy fans were shocked at the familiar, albeit notorious figure that took the stage at New York’s Comedy Cellar. Louis C.K., the disgraced comedian and central figure of the #MeToo Movement, arrived at the club and asked the emcee if he could perform for the first time in nearly ten months.  

It was actually C.K.’s second set of the night, having performed at Governor’s of Levittown, a comedy club in Long Island earlier in the evening to a lukewarm crowd. The audience at the Comedy Cellar, however, was apparently much more forgiving as C.K.’s unexpected return earned him an ovation. The set lasted about fifteen minutes, and the material was not anything particularly unusual. The Comedy Cellar’s owner, Noam Dworman, reported that C.K. unplanned set included banter about tipping servers, parades, and wordplay. Notably, he did not address the circumstances that led to his unplanned hiatus. 

Just last November, The New York Times published an expose written by Jodi Kanter, who co-wrote the Harvey Weinstein expose the previous month, in which five women stepped forward to accuse C.K. of sexual misconduct. The allegations were eerily similar to material that C.K. regularly utilized in his stand-up. The women alleged that C.K. exposed his penis and openly masturbated in front of them, and in one case, over the phone. 

In the wake of the allegations, every outlet remotely associated with C.K. severed ties. Comedy clubs immediately dropped him from their line-ups. He lost his production deal with FX, the company behind his comedy series Louie. He also served as a producer for Baskets, Better Things, One Mississippi, and The Cops. Production company The Orchard dropped I Love You, Daddy, a film written, directed, and starring C.K. just a week before its scheduled release. Netflix removed his specials and canceled one in the works. Finally, his management 3 Arts and his publicist, Lewis Kay, dropped him. 

In an open apology, C.K. stated, "I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen." While his return to the stage last Sunday was unprecedented, audience members were undoubtedly waiting for discussion of his past that he left unaddressed. Noam Dworman spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about C.K.’s appearance, and his own interpretation of the comedian’s return. Dworman called it a “missed opportunity” as C.K. chose not to bring up his misconduct. Yet the audience still enjoyed the surprise performance. Of the entire audience, which was about equally male and female, Dworman only received one complaint about C.K. The individual felt that they were ambushed by the arrival of the comic, who was not scheduled. Dworman responded by saying that in the future the Comedy Cellar will have to announce all guests, even the walk-ons like Louis C.K. to prevent any audience member from feeling they are stuck in a show they do not want to be a part of. He said of Louis in particular that “he should only be in front of an audience that wants to see him”. Dworman also made it clear that he and the Comedy Cellar are in no way endorsing C.K. by allowing him to perform, rather they are giving comedians such as C.K. a platform and leaving it up to the audience to interpret: “I don't feel that there's a clear standard out there in the world of when someone is supposed to be fired or denied an audience”. 

The female comedians Dworman talked to about Louis’ return did not necessarily like him as a person or want to be around him, but as performers, they understood C.K.’s “right to do his art”.   The internet of course has been up in arms with debate over whether Louis waited long enough to come back or if he should have come back at all. Plenty of people feel that he should be banned permanently from the public eye, and resent the Comedy Cellar for giving him a stage and an audience. In regards to rumors that the Comedy Cellar paid Louis to perform, Dworman was quick to point out that C.K.’s appearance did not benefit the Comedy Cellar, rather it served to embroil them in his controversy: “On principle, I believe that the man is entitled to his livelihood and that it's up to the audience to go or not go, I believe that in principle. But in terms of the Comedy Cellar, this is nothing but a difficulty for us — there's no benefit here for us”. 

C.K. has not yet commented on his return, but fellow male comics have openly supported him. Michael Ian Black tweeted “people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives. I don't know if it's been long enough, or his career will recover, or if people will have him back, but I'm happy to see him try.” This brings up a whole separate and seemingly unanswerable question of how long is long enough to punish someone for what they have done in the past? If the audience at the Comedy Cellar last Sunday is any indication, then evidently Louis C.K. has caught a second wind. What Louis has done is written in stone, he has admitted to it, apologized for it, and attempted to move past it. And perhaps that is enough for some, and likely enough for his dedicated fans. For everyone else, the option not to endorse him and support his career is always an option.