Was The Time Right For Louis C.K.’s Comeback?

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On Sunday, Louis C.K. freed himself from exile and made his return to the stage and the public eye, performing a surprise set at The Comedy Cellar to an apparently delighted crowd. The reaction from the world at large and on social media? Less delighted, with notes of support from C.K. fans and peers mixing with a chorus that is questioning whether enough time has passed since C.K. admitted to masturbating in front of women without proper consent. Eager to weigh in on the debate, Uproxx writers Allison Sanchez and Jason Tabrys evaluated their feelings about C.K., his return, and what it all means for the #MeToo movement and this cultural moment. Here’s their discussion on the whole controversy.

Jason: I guess the first question is, are you surprised that Louis C.K. is inching toward making a full comeback?

Allison: Not really. After he put out his apology statement, I thought it would be less than a year before he slowly started playing tiny, surprise shows in small venues. But, at the same time, I’m disappointed that his time of just “listening” to women, as he referenced in that statement, was so short-lived.

Jason: I assumed, of all the people taken down by the #MeToo movement, that he had the easiest path back since his site meant he could drop a special without begging Netflix or HBO to align with a confessed sexual predator. But I’m also surprised it took such a short amount of time. I don’t know what the right amount of time is.

Allison: I guess for me, what has been upsetting isn’t (just) about the “right amount” of time to wait. I can’t (and wouldn’t try to) stop him from working when he chooses to. But I’m saddened by the response of the audience. A standing ovation? It’s like he’s Tracy Morgan coming back from his horrible car accident or Tig Notaro’s vulnerable set about her illness and mother dying. It only took a few months for people to stand and cheer as if they were applauding Louis C.K.’s perseverance after what he’s been through this year. If a woman even makes an accusation, it can derail or ruin her career forever. But as the abuser, Louis C.K. didn’t have his career derailed. He had a ten-month pause. What Louis C.K. got was a vacation.

Jason: It’s the kind of reaction that makes you think that the media and social media are an echo chamber and that the world beyond their reach just doesn’t care about people’s misdeeds so long as they can give them what they crave. Be that some kind of crude reinforcement of their belief that their lot in life is someone else’s fault (ala Donald Trump) or a laugh. That’s a really depressing thought. It’s also depressing that, by all accounts, C.K. didn’t delve into the reality of the moment and what has transpired in his career and in the world over the last 10 months. But, if he had, would it have made this more palatable?

Allison: I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t think him finding ways to be self-deprecating and talk about what he did would have been better. Because that’s his schtick right? He lovably says that he’s disgusting and women don’t deserve how men treat them. I think him folding that into it would have also been a way to normalize it.

Jason: A mea culpa Trojan horse of sorts.

Allison: Right. I worry if we laugh, we’ll begin to stop thinking about it as abuse and assault. So… I don’t know what the answer to that is. I probably wouldn’t have found it to be better. And, ugh, I was about to say, I guess there’s no way for him to win on that one. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? That we’re conditioned to believe that he’s supposed to have a way to win again? And it’s not fair if he doesn’t?

Jason: That’s a good point and one I didn’t consider. I assume he did, though.

Allison: I think Louis C.K. studies and understands human behavior in a way that makes him a fantastic comedian. But those same excellent observational skills make me skeptical that his apology (or anything that follows) aren’t well-calculated. He’s smart. He’s an amazing writer. Of course, his apology was well-crafted. But, at the same time, it also rings false. Because I don’t believe for one second that he didn’t realize — when he asked to masturbate in front of female comedians — that it would make them uncomfortable. I think that was a large part of the appeal, having the power to make them uncomfortable. And I don’t know that he’s done anything to make amends with the women whose lives he so grossly impacted.

Jason: Some will say that’s cynical, but without knowing their thoughts on his comeback or seeing some evidence of real effort, it’s more than fair to be suspicious that those were just well-chosen words designed to keep him from losing his career for good.

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Allison: What makes me tired is that for powerful, white men, the common “career ruined because of an accusation” charge is rarely true. Because these men (specifically a lot of male comedians and industry professionals) protect their friends. The Comedy Cellar chose to have him back. So, I don’t think it’s going to affect his career in the long run. Six months from now he’ll put out a comedy special specifically around all of this, and it will seem honest and remorseful. All will be forgiven by the masses.

Jason: The sheer variability of the consequences is astonishing. How some accusations pushed people off the stage for a minute while others didn’t and then there are those cases of people where it’s just been a part of their bio and not much of an impediment to their careers. Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, etc. And we’ve all been a part of that culture. We want to believe or minimize so we can, again, get that thing that we crave and not feel bad about it. I know I covered my ears and loved Louis C.K.’s work for years until you just couldn’t ignore it… but that tipping point should have come sooner, in hindsight. For me, at least.

Allison: We all are attracted to talent. We don’t want to believe our heroes and idols are monsters. Mostly, because then we have to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves if we continue supporting them.

Jason: His scandal, more than most, nudged me toward the idea of just not having idols and toward putting the idea of hero worship in a drawer. At least, I tell myself that.

Allison: It’s so complicated. Because where do we draw the line? Do we go back in history and stop supporting every artist who was a misogynistic monster? After watching Hannah Gadsby’s incredible Nanette, my husband and I had a long discussion about Picasso. It made me want to take down a painting of his. And we wondered, in that case, whether we could divorce the artist’s actions from his art. I am increasingly having a hard time doing that. I think the answer, for me, is no. With Louis C.K., I’d heard the rumors. But I wanted to believe that he didn’t do it because I respected his work so much. So I continued to go in person to see his stand-up shows. I lied to myself, and said, well, who knows if it’s true? I was part of him being able to dodge the rumors and become the most powerful man in comedy. And I have to reconcile that, through my support of him, I was complicit in discrediting the women. I can’t change that. But, I guess, I want to try to be better in the future. We can all try to be better, right?

Jason: I don’t know. You said you would never try to stop him from working but we can control our intake. Do you feel like you can go back to watching him now or even in the future and fit the definition of being better? I want to say no and I also want to hold against him the fact that his actions made me feel like an idiot for believing that the rumors weren’t true. But I think it’s possible that curiosity will bring me to that place at some point and that maybe I’ll have a laugh or two. But it’s never not going to feel weird and uncomfortable listening to Louis C.K. talk about relationship dynamics or culture again. I’m confident that, no matter the care he puts into his return from here on out, the connection to him as this relatable cultural observer is lost. At least, for me.

Allison: I wish that were true. But I think as you, or any of us, start to laugh again, it will numb people to what he did. I keep trying to figure out what would make me feel better about this, and I don’t know if there’s a version of him as a successful comedian that doesn’t make me feel, once again, like women’s stories or pain matter less than a man’s success. We keep wanting to say that things are getting better. And there are those that even argue that the Me Too movement has shifted things back too far in the other direction. But, Louis C.K. returning to stand up after only ten months to a standing fucking ovation, makes me pretty sure that isn’t the case.

I was talking to my friend this morning and she said she wished she had been there, just to yell, “How many women did you get a chance to listen to in ten months, Louis?” I don’t think I’m going to watch him again, at least, I hope I don’t become complacent enough to start. But I do want to know the answer to that question: How many women did you listen to, like you said you were going to, before returning, Louis? How did it change you? Because you’re the one who still gets to speak on the public stage.