SAN JOSE, California—When Louis C.K. stepped onstage to a standing ovation and a full house at a San Jose comedy club Wednesday night, he got right to the point:
“I like to jerk off, and I don’t like being alone.”
Simple and without a trace of apology; it got a good laugh.
It’s been a little over a year since C.K.’s star came crashing down, after The New York Times published accounts of five women who said he had masturbated in front of them without their consent. C.K. issued a statement, confirming “those stories are true.”
His testing-the-waters attempts at making a comeback, first by appearing at New York’s Comedy Cellar in October 2018, have drawn criticism, protests, and mixed reviews.
Audio from a gig last month that included a joke about survivors of the Parkland school massacre and a one-liner that questioned the masculinity of Asian men sparked outrage.
But waiting in the drizzling rain before the show outside San Jose Improv, fans were quick to forgive C.K., who was one of the world’s most beloved comedians before the news of his misconduct broke. They wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t spend a lot of time trying to follow public figures’ private lives,” said Tiff Ting, who was first in line.
Behind Ting was Juan Duran, who said he’d been a fan of C.K.’s for years. Asked his thoughts on the jacking-off incidents, Duran said, “I don’t know him… It’s he said, she said.”
When it was pointed out that C.K. had admitted everything, Duran shifted gears. “Everyone deserves a road to redemption,” he said.
Ann Horner, 62, was the first protester to show up. “Keep it in your pants,” her sign said. Horner said she has experienced both harassment and sexual assault in her life, and that she was here because of C.K.’s harassment of women. “It’s not OK with me,” she said.
A young man named Shane, who passed by on his way inside, asked Horner what C.K.’s harassment had to do with his standup.
“Do you think it’s funny when people jerk off in front of women?” she asked him.
“No, I think his standup is funny,” he said. “Who do you think is funny?” he asked her.
“Hannah Gadsby” she said. “Do you know who that is?”
“Yes, she’s the one with the least funny special on Netflix,” he said.
Horner, a sociologist, has worked with women who’ve survived domestic violence. “Females being treated as second-class citizens is in the fiber of the culture.” Most men don’t get it, she said, “because it’s like fish in water. They don’t see it.”
After most of the audience had filtered into the theater, a group of about 30 more protesters gathered out front, marching and shouting “Shame!” and “Louie C.K. has got to go!”
The group included veteran campaigner Michele Dauber. She previously led the successful effort to recall a Palo Alto judge who gained notoriety after giving Brock Turner, a former Stanford swimmer, a lenient sentence for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman on campus.
People with tickets for the comedy show were required to put their phones in sealed closed cases that could only be unlocked in the lobby, to discourage photographs and recordings.
Onstage, C.K. wasted no time in addressing the complicity of the audience—“You’ve read the worst possible things you could read about a person, about me, and you’re here”—before pivoting to mansplaining comedy.
“The whole point of comedy is to say things that you shouldn’t say. That’s the entire point,” he said.
Comedy is also like porn, he said. Then he made a joke about a porn star’s asshole, and concluded that the world needs porn because it somehow keeps men from molesting their colleagues at work.
The first half of the show garnered a lot of laughter, especially when C.K. was confronting his serious missteps.
“If you ever need people to forget that you jerked off, what you do is you make a joke about kids that got shot,” he said, referring to the controversy over his Parkland joke, which was dropped from Wednesday night’s set.
About halfway through, a joke about 9/11 was the turning point—and the energy started to go downhill.
“I got on a plane once,” he said. “And this couple comes up to me as we’re boarding. There’s an empty seat next to me, and this woman says to me, ‘Would you mind moving so my husband and I can sit together?’ And he’s behind her and he’s like [motions – no]. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t wanna upset him. But I don’t wanna sit with his fucking wife. So I just got off the plane.
“And then the plane took off. And it hit the World Trade Center.”
There was some laughter, but a lot of groans.
I’ve heard C.K. make a 9/11 joke before, on a radio call-in show where the set-up to the joke was all about denigrating himself, and other men like him. At the time he was still married, and he said American husbands were the worst, they weren’t even truly fat, just “half-fat,” doughy, and they were “shitty-looking” and in decline. That’s why al Qaeda targeted us. That was the old joke.
There was none of that old charming self-deprecation on display in this show. There were a lot of tired jokes, including one that sparked loud criticism after his previous show about black men having large dicks, and Asian men having small ones “because they’re all women.”
Instead, C.K. doubled down on jokes about “retarded” kids, rehashing the fact that he was once sent to a summer camp for these children. A woman sitting at the table next to me said afterward that she works with disabled kids. She wasn’t offended, but said it seemed like he didn’t know what he was talking about, like he had no idea what that community actually deals with. Her date said that his baby had actually died, so C.K.’s bit about dead babies also didn’t go over that well with him. They weren’t offended, they just didn’t think it was funny.
“He came out with both fists swinging,” was the assessment of one audience member, Akshay from San Jose.
Valerie Vernale, a comedian from San Francisco who now lives in New York, said she felt conflicted about having attended.
When she had first heard about the allegations, she was furious, she said, but over time she softened.
She ran through a list of reasons why she had wanted to come, from curiosity about how he would handle his material now, to having the chance to see a comedy legend for $35.
But: “Am I betraying women?” she wondered.
“What he did is wrong and I know that,” she said. “It’s not irredeemable. It’s still conflicting for me to figure out, because we’re all still in the midst of it.”