After a fall from grace that continues to roil the comedy community, Louis C.K. took a nine-month sabbatical (a trip to Europe, as disgraced men do). This week, he returned to the Comedy Cellar, apparently unannounced, and did a set in which he discussed “typical” topics for him—“racism, waitresses’ tips, parades,” according to The New York Times. It appears he did not address his past misdeeds or any lessons he may have learned in his time out of the public eye.
It seems C.K. would like everyone to forget his transgressions. For the record, he masturbated in front of women with whom he worked. He asked them first, but acknowledged himself “that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question”—something many of his fans seem unable to accept. For the past nine months, his fans have continued to rage against the women who dared speak out about how he made them feel, how he took advantage of them, and how his power jeopardized their careers and their safety. Other than the lone statement he made in November 2017, he hasn’t spoken about the issue again—not to calm his raging fans, not to expound upon how wrong he was to get them to understand, not to share how he learned that what he did was wrong, not in any way at all.
And yet, his friend and fellow comedian Michael Ian Black insists that C.K. deserves “redemption.” In several tweets Tuesday morning, he seemed to believe that redemption is fundamentally owed to men who are “caught up” in the Me Too movement, as if the movement is some sort of massive net that swept up these poor unassuming men-fish as they wandered around innocently.
It should go without saying that this is not the case. What happened to these men is that they finally experienced consequences for their actions after years of acting with impunity in a way that harmed their colleagues. When asked by another Twitter user what entitles people who did “such horrible things” to “the same platform of fame they had before,” Black responded, “Because that is the human experience.”
In a way, he is right. For decades, that has been the status quo. If you are a white, wealthy, powerful man and you get caught doing something wrong, you take a brief hiatus from public life and then are warmly welcomed back. Look at Mark Wahlberg, who committed violent, racist attacks against black and Asian people in the 1980s and this year was able to command exponentially more money for a reshoot than his costar, four-time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Michelle Williams. Or Mel Gibson, who has made racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks and threatened the life and safety of a woman with whom he was romantically involved, and still has a thriving career.
Men in the entertainment industry have rarely, if ever, experienced consequences for harming other people. But that is not because of “the human experience,” whatever that means. It’s because of totally skewed power dynamics and a culture that systemically devalued women and minorities. And that culture is changing, rightly.
This is not to say that men who did bad things must throw themselves in a volcano or be shot into space. But the road to redemption is paved by the people who need it. It takes work. It is not something that is owed to anyone, the same way that no one is owed sex from women, or anything else from anyone, other than a base level of respect and decency.
And part of why C.K. and others need redemption is because they did not act toward others with a base level of respect and decency. You cannot command treatment from others that you have not given yourself. This is very basic stuff. Do unto others, etc. It should not be a revelation.
But Black’s comments do create an opportunity for those of us who are not too worn out to make things clearer for those who don’t understand. What could they even do, their less abusive fans hand-wring. How do they redeem themselves?
For starters: Try. Make some effort. And not weird, half-assed gestures done so publicists can plant them in tabloids. Go to therapy and work hard to understand not only why you did the terrible things you did, but exactly why they were so wrong. Maybe that will help you figure out how to make things right.
Talk about the terrible things you did and be clear about how terrible they were. Don’t just let your fans descend, mouths foaming, on anyone who has the gall to suggest you deserve to face consequences for your actions. Talk to other men. Try to help others understand that this behavior is atrocious. Don’t leave women to do all of that work.
This in particular is something C.K. is uniquely situated to do, and with a high likelihood of success. Much of his career involved talking about things—including sex—in such a way as to illuminate uncomfortable truths or make things clearer. Now he has a chance to focus not on himself, but on an important issue. It’s a challenge, and if he’s as good as his fans believe he is, he ought to be up for it.
But the main thing that Black got wrong is that redemption doesn’t mean he gets his old life back. Even if you do the work of redemption, that doesn’t entitle you to fame or money or movie deals or TV shows. That doesn’t mean he has to stop performing. But instead of the Comedy Cellar, why not try a prison or a nursing home or a hospital or a homeless shelter? Why not teach classes for free to low-income or poor people who want to pursue comedy? Why not use your power to help others? You used it to hurt them, before. What better way to redeem yourself than to commit to doing the opposite?