On Sunday, the disgraced comedian Louis C.K. performed a public comedy set for the first time since last fall, when The New York Times published an article verifying the long-circulating allegations of sexual misconduct against him, including multiple incidents where he’d forced women to watch him masturbate. C.K. confirmed the report shortly after the Times article and went underground. His production deal with FX Networks was cancelled, and his to-be-released film I Love You, Daddy was shelved indefinitely.
According to the Times, his recent set at the Comedy Cellar covered what club owner Noam Dworman called “typical Louis C.K. stuff” like racism and tipping. “It sounded just like he was trying to work out some new material, almost like any time of the last 10 years he would come in at the beginning of a new act,” he said. (The comeback is surely not as spontaneous as it seems: A blind item on the gossip site Crazy Days & Nights, posted Tuesday, alluded to a “former A+ list comedian/A list actor” who “paid $10k to get himself on stage this weekend.”)
Speculation about the necessary conditions of C.K.’s eventual return began from almost the moment the Times published its expose, and slowly took on the tone of a foregone conclusion. “There can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong,” Dworman told the Times after his Sunday set, echoing identical comments he made to The Hollywood Reporter in April. “He needs to work on his best comedy about how he was a douche and how he is trying to make amends to women,” comedian Christopher Titus also told The Hollywood Reporter, before noting he had to “earn it.” Michael Ian Black, who once enjoyed a career as a comedian before morphing into a #resistance pundit, tweeted this morning: “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.”
“Serve their time” is an interesting phrase there. C.K. wasn’t prosecuted. He wasn’t sued. He spent no time in jail. His assets weren’t seized. He is, by any account, fantastically rich, and privileged enough to have fans who greeted him “warmly” at the Comedy Cellar, according to the Times. He suffered socially, and may never experience the same type of professional success as he did before, but the notion that he went through the literal imprisonment that society deems the metric of one’s atonement is obviously ridiculous.
The actual path to atonement is somewhat easier to locate, should C.K. and the disgraced men like him choose to walk it. “None of these men — that we know about — have talked publicly about undergoing counseling, made large donations to RAINN, done anything to understand the power dynamics they were part of,” wrote Jezebel’s Anna Merlan. If C.K. has done any of this, we don’t know — and if he does, great, sure, that’s a start toward a meaningful redemption as a human being.
But does Louis C.K. deserve a meaningful redemption as a comedian? Bluntly, no. C.K.’s entire comedy was predicated on the idea that he was a biased asshole, but an honest one — a person who saw through the bullshit routines governing most human behavior, and could cut to a point by way of honesty. But last year’s revelations showed us that he is not an honest person — beyond being a liar, he is an aggressor and an abuser, and thinks he functions above recrimination. The notion that he could so easily return to doing “typical Louis C.K. stuff” — and that this could even be normal, or fine — is so myopic that only a comedian could’ve come up with it.
Comedy is a fantastically narcissistic profession; to get on stage, sharing all your messy pathos and world views is a fantastically self-centered thing to do. The forces motivating thematically and stylistically dissimilar comics like Hannah Gadsby and, say, Dane Cook are not so different. This is a weird thing for comedy people to admit out loud — that the professionals they admire are, objectively, toxic narcissists, but that’s the trade off for watching someone getting closer to the human experience, or something. Beyond abstract notions of justice and morality, most of us will accept a bit of bad behavior from someone we really like.
But that bargain collapses entirely when someone decides to transgress far beyond the norm, like C.K., and the hope that someone is not actually a toxic narcissist dissolves when they reveal themselves as such. So why, then, are comedians attempting to — or, more sinisterly, being allowed to — lead the conversation about when C.K. and the men like him will be allowed to return? People whose entire existence is predicated on living in the taboo spaces that the best comedy often expands are hardly the most trustworthy authorities on what kind of behavior is too taboo.
Forget the banal idea of whether C.K. “deserves” to make a living as a comedian, a job that has never been essential to the framework of society, and has literally thousands of people lining up to do the work. The underlying implication that there is nothing else he might be able to do is profoundly warped and unimaginative, the end point of a society that tells people to follow their dreams without caring too much about everyone they step over in the process, such as the women whose careers were profoundly altered by C.K.’s indiscretions.
Is nine months away too long? Long enough? Indulging that conversation gives credence to the people who talk ambiguously about amends with no sincere consideration of what it takes to make them — who cannot conceive of any worse punishment than being denied the work that they have decided is their birthright. C.K.’s Sunday set was a toe in the water to see how many people agree that he’s suffered enough — if, through all the vague conversations about who should be allowed to participate in society given enough vague atonement, he might be allowed back into the world that made him rich, no big deal. You would be naive to believe his end goal is a surprise set at a small, private comedy show, and not eventual reintegration into the whole system.
In that Hollywood Reporter article, comedian Aida Rodriguez said: “If he uses the opportunity to address his shortcomings, maybe he can change a few minds among his fans and maybe he can save a couple of girls from unnecessary and unwanted incidents.” Maybe that kind of work will come in his next set, once someone gives him the opportunity he doesn’t yet deserve.