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The sexual harassment allegations against Louis C.K., explained

A new report sheds light on the sexual harassment rumors that have dogged the comedian for years.

Tribeca TV Festival Sneak Peek Of Better Things Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Tribeca TV Festival

When the premiere of Louis C.K.’s new film I Love You, Daddy was abruptly canceled hours before it was set to begin, the distribution company the Orchard said it was “due to unexpected circumstances.” But some weren’t surprised at all.

I Love You, Daddy revolves around C.K. playing a morally dubious TV writer whose teenage daughter starts a relationship with a man about 50 years her senior. (It may not surprise you to learn that the film is something of a Woody Allen homage.) Suffice it to say, eyebrows were already well and truly raised by that premise. But the other layer of skepticism surrounding this movie is rooted in the rumors of sexual harassment that have quietly dogged C.K. for years. Now, a little over a month after it broke the many allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the New York Times has released a new report in which several women claim C.K. used his power in the comedy world to sexually harass and intimidate them.

The report details the accounts of five women, spanning the mid-’90s to 2005. Each woman recounts startlingly similar situations in which C.K., an established comedian, either asked them to watch him masturbate or forced them to do so. In the wake of these accounts, HBO has announced C.K. will no longer be appearing in Jon Stewart’s upcoming Night of Too Many Stars fundraising show, nor will his past shows be available on HBO anymore. Netflix says it will not move forward with his next planned standup special. FX, which has worked with C.K. for eight years, has released a statement cutting ties with both him and his production company, specifically stating he will “no longer serve as executive producer or receive compensation.” The day after the report, the Orchard announced it would be canceling the release of I Love You, Daddy altogether.

To most, C.K. is known as a smart, bracing, often filthy comic who relishes making people uncomfortable. Both on his TV shows and in his standup, he alternates between being the forthright guy who knows better than everyone else and the self-loathing, out-of-touch guy who realizes he knows nothing at all. His critically acclaimed shows — namely the autobiographical Louie and the experiment in sparseness Horace and Pete — are often heralded (including by Vox) as uniquely smart, the kinds of shows that will tell ugly truths few others will touch.

C.K. is also known, in certain comedy circles, as someone with a reputation for cornering women in order to masturbate in front of them.

But the allegations of such behavior remained rumors, whispered backstage and in comments sections. The story remained, as the Times puts it, “unsubstantiated,” making it difficult to pin down. Even when C.K. has been asked about such allegations directly — especially in conjunction with his own material, in which he often paints himself as a passionate masturbation enthusiast — he’s been vague enough that the story remained nebulous. He’s never issued denials so much as dismissed the allegations as irrelevant distractions.

“I don’t care about that,” he told Vulture in 2016 when pressed about the allegations. “That’s nothing to me. That’s not real.” He continued, “if you need your public profile to be all positive, you’re sick in the head. I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after.”

The day after the Times report dropped, C.K. issued a much different statement, beginning with, “These stories are true.”

“At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true,” C.K. wrote. “But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

Many C.K. fans who heard about the allegations were loath to believe that a man who could be so forthright about some of the hardest topics to parse comedically could have this other side to him. Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, two Chicago comics who met C.K. at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2002, told the Times that when they tried to tell people about C.K. stripping naked and masturbating in front of them, the reception was … chilly. “Guys were backing away from us,” Wolov said. “We could already feel the backlash.”

But now, 15 years after the alleged incident and a month after the Weinstein allegations have rippled far beyond Hollywood, C.K.’s accusers have found themselves in a far different environment from the one that threatened to freeze them out of comedy — one in which they might even be believed.

Allegations against Louis C.K. have swirled around the comedy world since at least the early 2000s

The rumors circled C.K. for years, largely in local comedy communities, with younger female comics warning each other about C.K.’s alleged behavior. The first major attempt to report on said rumors came when Gawker ran a blind item in 2012 that at the time was widely believed to be about C.K.:

We've heard from several sources that this shameless funnyman whips [his penis] out at the most inopportune moments, often at times when his female companions have expressed no interest in watching him go at it. A representative example: At the Aspen Comedy Festival a few years ago, he invited a female comedy duo back to his hotel room. The two ladies gladly joined him, and offered him some weed. He turned it down, but asked if it would be OK if he took his dick out.

Thinking he was joking (that's exactly the kind of thing this guy would say), the women gave a facetious thumbs up. He wasn't joking. When he actually started jerking off in front of them, the ladies decided that wasn't their bag and made for the exit. But the comedian stood in front of the door, blocking their way with his body, until he was done.

In a twist, comic Doug Stanhope shared the blind item on Facebook claiming that it was about him; at least a few commenters disagreed.

The New York Times’s new report appears to identify the two female comics from that blind item as Goodman and Wolov, who said they met C.K. at the Aspen festival in 2002. What started as a post-show nightcap, they say, became something else very quickly. “He proceeded to take all of his clothes off, and get completely naked, and started masturbating,” says Goodman.

In 2015, Gawker confirmed that the blind item was about C.K. in a post that then detailed how “a tipster” had reached out directly to C.K. and point blank asked him to “please stop sexually assaulting comics.” C.K. apparently responded and asked to speak on the phone, which they briefly did, but not to the tipster’s satisfaction. And so the tipster relayed to Gawker, while sparing identifying details, that he had a couple of friends who had recounted uncomfortable incidents involving C.K. to him. One of those, he said, included a time in 2014 when “C.K. had come up to [his friend] at a comedy club, grabbed her by the back of the neck, leaned into her ear, and said ‘I’m going to fuck you.’”

At this point, the allegations became loud enough that when comedian Jen Kirkman described a horrible encounter she had with “a very famous comic [who] is probably Cosby level at this point” on her podcast I Seem Fun, many assumed she was talking about CK. Said Kirkman:

He is lauded as a genius. He is basically a French filmmaker at this point. You know, new material every year. He’s a known perv. And there’s a lockdown on talking about him. His guy friends are standing by him, and you cannot say a bad thing about him. And I’ve been told by people, “Well, then say it then. Say it if it’s true.” If I say it, my career is over. My manager and my agent have told me that. They didn’t threaten it. They just said to me “You know what, Jen, it’s not worth it because you’ll be torn apart. Look at the Cosby women.” And this guy didn’t rape me, but he made a certain difficult decision to go on tour with him really hard. Because I knew if I did, I’d be getting more of the same weird treatment I’d been getting from him. And it was really fucked up, and this person was married. So it was not good, and so I hold a lot of resentment.

Kirkman later vehemently denied that she was talking about C.K., whom she once considered something like a mentor. (She deleted the podcast episode in question.) As recently as this September, she tried to set the record straight to the Village Voice, insisting that she never implied it was C.K. and thinks “this might be a case of there’s nothing there,” but that if allegations against him did come out, she’d “totally back them, because I believe women.”

Cut to now, when the tidal wave of sexual assault victims coming forward with their experiences following Weinstein’s downfall officially reached C.K.’s shores.

The New York Times report alleges a disturbing pattern of behavior in which C.K. abused his power

64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show
C.K. won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2012.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

All the accounts of sexual harassment in the Times’s new report depend on one crucial thing: a distinct power imbalance between C.K. and the women he reportedly pursued.

Goodman and Wolov described agreeing to join C.K. for a nightcap at the comedy festival because “he was a comedian they admired.” Abby Schachner recalled how she “admired [his] work,” but when she called to invite him to one of her shows over the phone in 2003, she could hear him masturbating over the phone. Rebecca Corry said C.K. asked her to watch him masturbate while on the set of a television pilot she was shooting, which was going to be a big step in her career. (Courteney Cox, an executive producer of that pilot, confirmed the incident to the Times.)

One woman, who spoke to the Times anonymously, said that when she worked at The Chris Rock Show in her early 20s, writer-producer C.K. persistently asked her to watch him masturbate:

“It was something that I knew was wrong,” said the woman, who described sitting in Louis C.K.’s office while he masturbated in his desk chair during a workday, other colleagues just outside the door. “I think the big piece of why I said yes was because of the culture,” she continued. “He abused his power.”

There were a couple of times when C.K. allegedly reached out to the women involved, seemingly contrite. Both Schachner and Corry told the Times C.K. had tried to apologize, chalking the incidents up to “a bad time in his life.” But Corry bristled when his apology to her in 2015 seemed to mix up her incident with another — “When he phoned her, he said was sorry for shoving her in a bathroom” — and explained that he “used to misread people.” This, Corry felt, “implied she had done something to invite his behavior.”

C.K., as a hugely popular and influential comedian, is incredibly well-connected in Hollywood, through both the people he works with and the people who work for him. Part of the Times report hinges on the alleged involvement of C.K.’s manager Dave Becky, who Goodman and Wolov say was angry about them spreading the story about his client.

Becky denies the charge that he made any overt threats, but he too is a man with plenty of power to wield. As the Times points out, Becky also represents comedians like Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, and Amy Poehler. Goodman and Wolov said that when they moved to Los Angeles after that comedy festival, they knew they couldn’t work on projects involving Becky or those he might represent — which, as it turns out, takes a whole lot of people out of the running.

C.K. has worked with many, many comedians and writers who have supported him over the years. In the wake of the Times’s report, some are already publicly reckoning with what they had heard about him, like Mike Schur, creator of Parks and Recreation:

But at least one had already publicly distanced herself before the Times report broke, citing his alleged behavior. This past August, Tig Notaro — a comedian whom C.K. had promoted prior to executive producing her Amazon show One Mississippiacknowledged the rumors and unequivocally called on C.K. to handle them. “I think it’s important to take care of that, to handle that, because it’s serious to be assaulted,” Notaro told the Daily Beast. “It’s serious to be harassed. It’s serious, it’s serious, it’s serious.”

Notaro also told the Daily Beast she and C.K. had had a falling out and that he is no longer involved with One Mississippi, which in its second season featured a storyline about a man cornering a woman and masturbating. When asked for comment by the New York Times, Notaro expressed her fear that C.K.’s previous support of her work felt like “he knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman.” She then went on to say that she had heard directly from women he allegedly harassed, including two the Times interviewed.

But just because Notaro now believes these women doesn’t mean every comedian who has worked with C.K. will. In fact, even if they do, there’s no guarantee they will even care. After all, comedy — most especially C.K.’s — is built on a foundation of blurred boundaries; what’s a little jerking off between friends?

If you ask the women he allegedly harassed, those blurred boundaries meant humiliation and isolation from a community they were striving to join. They meant years of being dismissed as histrionic and intimidated into silence. But now that so many powerful men are getting called out for years of rampant misbehavior, they’re finally ready to reject it publicly.

“Because of this moment, as gross as it is,” Wolov told the Times, “we feel compelled to speak.”

Updated to include HBO, FX, and Netflix’s responses, Kirkman’s latest comments, the cancellation of I Love You, Daddy, and C.K.’s statement.

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