IS TIME STILL UP?
Louis C.K.’s Comedy ‘Comeback’ Sends a Chilling Message to Victims
The genius auteur gets to come and go as he sees fit. The rest of us have to watch.
On Monday, headlines announced the nascent comebacks of two men—Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer—who have, respectively, been accused of and admitted to sexual misconduct. Both men have multiple alleged victims; C.K. jerked off in front of female comics without their consent and spent years lying about and refusing to address the would-be scandal. The accusations against Lauer include flashing a female employee and giving another female colleague a sex toy with an “explicit note about how he wanted to use it on her.” The hidden desk button that he used to lock his office door from the inside is the kind of small, horrific detail that sticks with the reader—and, one would imagine, the victim—long after the story is done.
Now, less than a year after being outed, these marquee names of the Me Too moment have flashed the unsuspecting public with visions of their futures. For Louis C.K., that means a return to stand-up comedy at one of the most respected venues in the world, marked by a standing ovation. For Lauer, it’s telling fans not to worry, because “I’ll be back on TV.”
How silly to think that these men wouldn’t already be preparing for new professional opportunities—the kinds their victims were denied, because talking about your harassment or assault is career suicide in a way that masturbating in front of women or pressuring subordinates to sleep with you never will be.
Lauer and C.K. are just the latest in a long line of resurgent accused. Anyone surprised by the news of C.K.’s set should consult writer Moira Donegan’s Twitter thread, which tracks “the rehabilitation of abusers and the rewriting of their histories.” The thread, which began in April, includes a report on Charlie Rose’s rumored #MeToo show, an article about how Junot Díaz is “adamantly defending himself,” and news of other accused men keeping their jobs or taking on other high-profile gigs. Donegan famously created the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet, aimed at helping women protect themselves from rapists and abusers. After the spreadsheet was exposed, she lost her job.
Which is all to say that it feels like nothing has changed. For all of the talk of cancelled men and their onerous contrition, it’s the “heroes” of this movement who have suffered. When coming forward doesn’t lead to total blackballing, it triggers an avalanche of online harassment at the very least. While many alleged abusers have emerged professionally unscathed, accusers find themselves inextricably and publicly linked to their trauma. Survivors scroll through an endless minefield of potentially triggering content, and women are reminded every day that they live and work in systems that enable abusers and render women expendable. What does bearing witness to all of this accomplish, aside from depressing the shit out of the witnesses?
In spite of all of the bravery that has been displayed throughout this “reckoning,” and the smattering of victories, it’s hard to feel optimistic. Just look at Louis C.K., who appears to have been welcomed back into the comedy world that protected him for so many years, facilitating his abuse and silencing his victims. Like many abusers, C.K.’s behavior was whispered about long before it was reported. When The New York Times finally “broke” the story, they referenced “years of unsubstantiated rumors about Louis C.K. masturbating in front of associates.” These “rumors” remained unsubstantiated for a reason. The article continues, “[Dana Min] Goodman and [Julia] Wolov said that when they told others about the incident in the Colorado hotel room, they heard that Louis C.K.’s manager was upset that they were talking about it openly. The women feared career repercussions.” The comic’s manager, Dave Becky, told the Times that he “never threatened anyone.”
When the comedy duo talked about the incident, “many people seemed to recoil”: “Guys were backing away from us,” Wolov told the Times.
Comedian Rebecca Corry, whose experience with C.K. was also detailed in the exposé, has written about the hierarchy of apologists, from comedy insiders down to fans. “Since speaking out,” Corry explained, “I’ve experienced vicious and swift backlash from women and men, in and out of the comedy community. I’ve received death threats, been berated, judged, ridiculed, dismissed, shamed, and attacked.”
In 2017, Megan Koester, a journalist and a comedian, wrote about her attempts to report on the Louis C.K. rumors at the 2015 Just for Laughs festival. Koester recalled asking a string of male comedians on the red carpet for comment on the allegations. “I had just finished with my third interview of the afternoon, Kevin Hart (who responded with incredulity before his handler escorted him away from me), when a woman holding a clipboard called me off the carpet,” Koester wrote.
“She told me ‘we’ve been receiving complaints’ about the Louis question; no one I had asked so far, however, seemed outwardly upset by the inquiry. A tall man in a suit approached, relieving her of the duty of admonishing me. He was, in a word, livid. In two words: fucking livid. Red faced, he informed me that JFL is a ‘family,’ that Louis is a member of said ‘family,’ and that I could ask my question on ‘my turf,’ but that this was ‘our turf.’ This wasn't ‘that kind’ of red carpet, he informed me—it was a ‘friendly one,’ and Louis was a ‘friend of the festival.’ Were I to ask the offending question again, he said, I would be ejected from the carpet.” That man was the COO of JFL, Bruce Hills.
Last November, after the C.K. story was officially moved into the substantiated pile, comedian Guy Branum went long on the boys’ club that protected Louis and men like him. “Louis, of course, sexually harassed numerous comics. He was not expelled. When managers, club owners, and comics became aware that he was assaulting comics, they did not say, ‘Hey, let’s figure out what’s going on,’ or ‘He might be a threat to the other comics.’ They protected him. They made the problem go away. They kicked Megan Beth Koester out of the Montreal Just for Laughs festival. That’s because Louis’s behavior didn’t hurt the system. It maintained the system.”
“At the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, there’s a table where the comics sit. It’s where they joke, debate, goof off, and ridicule their friends,” Branum continued. “As depicted on the FX series Louie, it’s the most fun place to be with the smartest, coolest comics in America. Every club has one, but the Comedy Cellar is the best club, and the table Louis C.K. sat at was the best table, occupied by the likes of Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Marc Maron…Here’s a New Yorker article from a few months ago about the table. It lists 17 comedians, including, of course, Louis C.K. Only three are women, they are confined to a single line of the article. None are gay men. The article defines the table as sanctified space, reserved only for the realest comics, and discusses their hostility to even minor changes to the table.”
“People who weren’t like them didn’t get to be part of the club. I am not like them. Louis’s victims were not like them.”
Louis C.K. returned to the Comedy Cellar on Sunday night for an unannounced, 15-minute set, less than a year after the New York Times exposé. The industry appears to be largely the same, from the club owners to the famous comics who didn’t care to comment on the allegations against their own. Dave Becky is still one of the most powerful managers in comedy, and boasts clients like Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, and Amy Poehler. In The New York Times report on C.K.’s set, they quoted the comic who performed after him, Mo Amer. Amer praised Louis’s material as “like, classic Louis, really really good.”
The owner of the Cellar, Noam Dworman, was not at the club when C.K. performed, but he told The New York Times that the comic received a standing ovation before he even began. He insisted that he cares about “doing the right thing,” but “there can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.”
Dworman may have expected C.K. to lay low for a few more months, but he doesn’t seem to be complaining. “I didn’t think it was going to happen as soon as it did,” he told the Times. “I had thought that the first time he’d go on would be in a more controlled environment. But he decided to just rip the Band-Aid off.”
These details from C.K.’s comeback are as predictable as they are enraging—right down to the comic’s set, new material that reportedly sounded a lot like the old stuff. Inevitably, people will ask, what about Louis C.K., and his path to redemption? Is he supposed to just go away? They’ve already started.
The irony, of course, is that C.K.’s accusers can’t walk into the Comedy Cellar whenever they want and play around with some new material. What’s their path back in? The fact that we’re already being asked to imagine C.K.’s comeback shows how powerful abusers are still centered and prioritized, even after being outed. Why does Louis, who cycled through women with no regard for the consequences, think that he is irreplaceable?
Why does he have all the agency, the power and privilege to decide when he is seen and how, when the women he harassed had no control over what happened to them then, and little control over what has happened to them since?
But it’s no surprise that it’s all about Louis—it always has been. His bad joke of a non-apology—masturbatory until the bitter end—repeatedly references how he was “admired” and “looked up to.” The Cut quipped that, “Louis C.K. wrote over 400 words, none of which were ‘sorry.’” As Owen Ellickson pointed out on Twitter, “among the many problems w/ the push to welcome Louis CK back is the idea he’s owned up to what he did. he acknowledged he did the things in the NYT article... he HASN’T acknowledged the fifteen years he & his team spent lying, story-killing and (in at least one case) intimidating.”
We don’t need to have a perfect answer to how abusers can earn forgiveness to know that C.K. hasn’t done shit. The humiliation of being outed for what you are is not punishment enough. Admitting that you did it is not an apology. Being a rich person in private instead of in public is not the unprecedented sacrifice famous people seem to think it is.
Forgetting, for a second, the larger ramifications of Sunday night’s set and C.K.’s graduating #MeToo class—including Matt Lauer and Chris Hardwick, who was reinstated as the host of Talking Dead following an investigation in which his accuser did not take part—let’s remember that the Comedy Cellar is a workplace. As Tig Notaro told the New York Times in May, “If a janitor was so great at cleaning the building but also tended to masturbate in front of people, would the people at that building be like, ‘Yes, he masturbated, but I’ve never seen anyone clean so thoroughly, and I was just wondering when he’s going to get his job back, he’s so good at it.’ No, it would be, ‘That’s not acceptable.’” She concluded, “It’s fame and power that people are blinded by.”
Louis C.K.’s comeback set sends a certain message to the comics who have worked at the club, and to the Comedy Cellar staff. The message isn’t subtle: this A-List comic’s desire to perform is more important, and more pressing, than any objection you might have to working with a man who masturbates in front of women without their consent.
On social media, people have wondered what the surprise performance felt like for any survivors in the audience, who weren’t able to consent to the performance, and weren’t even warned. The genius auteur gets to come and go as he sees fit. The rest of us have to watch.