clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Louis C.K.’s controversial comeback attempt, explained

C.K.’s comeback attempt isn’t just about fame. It’s a workplace safety issue.

FX and Vanity Fair Emmy Celebration - Arrivals Rich Fury/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It’s been a week since Louis C.K. made his attempt at a return to the public eye, but the ensuing outrage is continuing unabated.

On August 26, C.K. made a surprise appearance at New York’s Comedy Cellar, where he performed a 15-minute set to a standing ovation. It was his first high-profile public performance since last November, when he admitted to having masturbated in front of multiple unwilling women.

For C.K.’s supporters, his performance was a welcome return to the fold, coming after C.K. had admitted his wrong and spent time out of the public eye. He’d taken his medicine, was the general argument, and now it was time for the public to let him come back to comedy as a changed man.

“Will take heat for this, but people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives,” wrote actor Michael Ian Black, in a tweet he later apologized for. “I don’t know if it’s been long enough, or his career will recover, or if people will have him back, but I’m happy to see him try.”

“[Louis C.K.] can be shamed, humiliated, lose millions of dollars, lose all of his projects, lose the respect of a lot of his fans and peers, and whatever else that comes with what he did, but since he can still do a comedy set for free at a 200 seat club a year later, it means he got off easy,” wrote SNL’s Michael Che in a series of now-deleted Instagram posts. “THAT’s how coveted fame is.”

But for others, C.K.’s appearance was a travesty.

“‘Comeback’ is not the right word for what is being floated here,” wrote Amanda Hess at the New York Times. “A comeback implies a hero’s journey — an adventure, a transformation, a triumphant return. This feels more like a malignancy. We try to cut men like him out of public life, but nine months later, we get a call with the bad news.”

“Do people deserve second chances? Of course,” wrote Arwa Mahdawi at the Guardian. “But the more important question to ask is why some people get second, third and fourth chances, while others are never even afforded a first chance? We should be asking ourselves how CK’s abuse of power robbed his victims of professional opportunities. We should be reminding ourselves that CK is not the victim in this situation.”

Personally, I can’t say whether Louis C.K. will ever be accepted back into the public eye, but this performance did nothing to convince me that he should be. Here are the three big things he did wrong.

Last fall, Louis C.K. admitted to taking away women’s ability to consent with no warning. This summer, he showed up at a comedy club with no warning and performed a set people couldn’t walk out of.

In C.K.’s initial apology for his history of sexual misconduct last fall, he acknowledged that part of what made his actions wrong was that he had created a power dynamic in which women couldn’t walk away from him.

“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,” he said. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

But C.K.’s surprise set at the Comedy Cellar ended up recreating the same toxic power dynamic.

The set was unannounced, and even the Comedy Cellar’s owner didn’t know he would be appearing. (Reportedly, C.K. walked up to the emcee and asked if he could have the mic for a bit.) Any members of the audience who did not feel comfortable watching C.K. perform and lending him their de facto support had no warning about what was about to happen. They couldn’t choose to stay home because they didn’t know what they were about to watch.

And once C.K. took the stage, anyone who was uncomfortable with his set couldn’t necessarily just get up and walk out. The Comedy Cellar has and enforces a two-drink minimum, meaning you have to spend a certain amount of money at the bar before you can settle your tab and go. Until you’ve reached your minimum, you’re stuck.

Women who were present at the set told Vulture that they weren’t pleased C.K. was there, but they felt uncomfortable speaking out against him. “If someone had heckled him, I think they would’ve been heckled out. It felt like there were a lot of aggressive men in the audience and very quiet women,” one said. “It’s the kind of vibe that doesn’t allow for a dissenting voice. You’re just expected to be a good audience member. You’re considered a bad sport if you speak out.”

So, to recap: Louis C.K. fell from grace after admitting that he had masturbated in front of women without their meaningful consent. He made his big attempt at a comeback by entering — without warning — a space whose rules discourage walkouts and whose culture discourages heckling. He took away his audience’s ability to consent to watch him.

The irony is not lost on the women who ended up witnessing his set. “It felt like he was being thrust upon the audience without telling them,” one said to Vulture.

Louis C.K. has given us no reason to believe that women will be safe around him now when they weren’t before

C.K. did not just disappear for nine months as punishment for his sins. The career ramifications he suffered — getting dropped by Netflix, HBO, and FX; his movie getting shelved — came partly because his brand was toxic, but also as part of a workplace safety issue.

C.K. disappeared because he had demonstrated a pattern of predatory behavior around women over whom he had power, and he did it in their place of work. (Reportedly, he asked some women to watch him masturbate but didn’t even ask others; the women who said that he asked first have explained that C.K. had so much power over them that they felt they couldn’t say no.)

In most industries, if an employee is fired for sexually harassing his underlings, it’s considered poor form to rehire said employee nine months later just because he has shown up and requested his job back. You need assurance of some kind that he has taken steps to correct his behavior, understand what he did wrong, and prevent himself from harassing people again. You need proof that demonstrates that you aren’t putting people in danger by letting this person back into the workplace.

In C.K.’s apology, he wrote, “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything that I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” Even if you were to set aside the fact that C.K.’s definition of “a long time” is apparently nine months, he has yet to demonstrate that he has put in the necessary work to assure us all that he isn’t going to harass women again when given the chance. If anything, his willingness to spring his presence on an unsuspecting and potentially unconsenting audience suggests the opposite.

Louis C.K. has not done anything to make restitution to his victims

There is a common theme to all of the instances of sexual harassment that C.K. committed: He consistently targeted young up-and-coming comedians who did not have his level of institutional power. He harassed them and made them feel unsafe in professional spaces, and that negatively impacted their careers. And when they came forward about what he’d done to them, their careers suffered more.

“Since speaking out, I’ve experienced vicious and swift backlash from women and men, in and out of the comedy community,” wrote C.K. accuser Rebecca Corry in a Vulture article in May. “I’ve received death threats, been berated, judged, ridiculed, dismissed, shamed, and attacked​.”

None of the women whom C.K. targeted have the institutional power to walk into the Comedy Cellar on the spur of the moment, grab the mic, and be met with a standing ovation. And C.K. does not appear to have used any of his own enormous institutional power to raise the platforms of these women. Instead, he’s stood by and stayed quiet while they are harassed for having come forward to speak publicly about what he did to them.

Here’s the situation we’re left with: Louis C.K. has not done anything that we know of to make up for his actions and the way they negatively affected his victims. He has not done anything that we know of to show that he even understands the extent to which his actions negatively affected his victims. He has not done anything that we know of to assure us he won’t sexually harass women again in the future.

Instead, he showed up to a venue that customers can’t just walk out of and inflicted his presence on the audience with no warning. He recreated the power dynamics that made him dangerous to begin with. And he did it all in a bid to convince the public to accept him back into their good graces.

But if his standing ovation at the Comedy Cellar is any indication, no matter how many people have their doubts about C.K., he will always have plenty of vocal and enthusiastic supporters ready to cheer him on.