In November 2017, three women told The New York Times that Louis C.K. had masturbated in front of them without their meaningful consent. Another woman told the newspaper C.K. had harassed her with a grotesque request to do the same. Rumors of his sexual misconduct with female performers and associates had dogged the comedian for years. The day after the Times report was published, he finally admitted, “These stories are true.”
“I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” he wrote at the end of his public statement. “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” He expressed his remorse and regret. He did not apologize.
Nine months later, C.K. was apparently done listening. He made a surprise appearance at the Comedy Cellar in New York in August 2018, and returned to the popular club for several sets thereafter. In a performance attended by a Times reporter, he even cracked a few jokes about his “weird year” after getting “in trouble.” He lamented that the fallout from his misdeeds cost him $35 million in a single hour.
Now C.K. is back on the stand-up circuit. He kicked off his tour in Richmond, Virginia, in November and will perform on April 4 in Boston, where he launched his once-ascendant comedy career. To his ardent supporters, C.K. is due for a comeback. As Hannah Giorgis pointed out in The Atlantic, his friends and fans have invoked the language of criminal justice in their defense of C.K.’s return to the stage. C.K. “served his time,” the argument goes. For how much longer should he be punished?
But time alone does not absolve an abuser of his misbehavior. Second chances are earned, not owed. In his time out of the spotlight, C.K. pledged he would listen. Who did he listen to and what did he hear? What, if anything, did he learn?
If the reviews of his new stand-up routine are an indication, it would seem C.K. spent his self-imposed exile stewing in self-pity. “If he’s looking for redemption, he’s doing so privately,” Los Angeles Times columnist Glenn Whipp, who saw C.K. shows in Richmond, and in Raleigh, North Carolina, generously surmised. Any mention of his sexual misconduct scandal is limited to jokes about his “pariah status,” according to Whipp. “I had to go to Poland to do shows,” C.K. moaned.
C.K. certainly paid a heavy price for his actions. In the aftermath of the Times expose, his management and publicist dumped him; FX, HBO, and Netflix cut ties with him; and the release of his new movie was canceled by its distributor.
But what about the ramifications suffered by the women C.K. betrayed? What price did they pay for his decision to exploit his power over them — and their choice to speak out?
In the years since C.K. stripped off his clothes and masturbated in front of comedians Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov in his hotel room at the 2002 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, Goodman and Wolov “took themselves out of the running for the many projects” C.K.’s powerful manager, Dave Becky, was involved in, according to the Times, because by speaking openly to others about the incident, they heard they had run afoul of him. (Becky said he “never threatened anyone.”) In an op-ed published in November by The Canadian Jewish News, Wolov wrote about the women “getting consistent hate mail from Louis C.K. supporters who tell them to kill themselves.”
Comedian Rebecca Corry, who spoke to the Times about her encounter with C.K. on the set of a 2005 television pilot, wrote in an essay for New York Magazine’s Vulture that she has “received death threats, been berated, judged, ridiculed, dismissed, shamed, and attacked” since coming forward.
“Speaking out feels like standing in front of the world naked under fluorescent lights on a really bad day,” Corry says in her essay. “I knew making myself so vulnerable would bring scrutiny from the outside, but my personal life has also been damaged by my decision to tell the truth.”
The genius of C.K.’s comedy was his bracing and transgressive honesty — about his failings as a father and husband, for example, or his interminable self-loathing. His best work was rooted in empathy for others and for himself. What he has apparently failed to do since his abuses were made public is truly reckon with the harm he has caused. As many critics have acknowledged, C.K.’s failure to fully wrestle with his wrongdoing on stage in this post #MeToo era is a missed opportunity for a comic of his talent and stature. His self-centered riffs on his own fall from grace display a stunning lack of empathy for the women he hurt.
Louis C.K. is free to make a living however he chooses — with or without redemption. We are free not to laugh along.
Deanna Pan is a reporter at The Boston Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.