The comedian’s casual return to the stage is yet more evidence that talented performers believe the rules don’t apply to them, says comedian and writer Stevie Martin.
Last November, comedian Louis CK admitted to allegations that he had masturbated in front of five separate women after years of persistent rumours. This week, he returned to do a low-key 15-minute comedy set at his favourite haunt, the Comedy Cellar, and received a standing ovation before he’d even said a word.
His return isn’t a surprise. Someone who repeatedly w**ks in front of women and then has the balls to make a film about it (with a man also attached to numerous sexual abuse rumours – hello, Woody Allen) is exactly the sort of person who would turn up barely 10 months after being outed, and do a tight 15 as if nothing has happened. The surprise is that 115 people in that room let him.
Yes, he apologised. Yes, it was a good apology, if you’re in the business of rating apologies. No, it’s not enough. If Mark Zuckerberg did what Louis CK has done, would he return as the CEO of Facebook less than a year after a good apology? Do you reckon HR would be able to overlook it? Of course not. Because in the normal working world, there are systems in place that allow employees to operate in a safe space without being constantly concerned that someone is going to be inappropriate in front of them.
But stand-up comedians, similarly to movie actors (hello Dustin Hoffman, hello Casey Affleck, hello Harvey Weinstein and all the others I don’t have space to name here) are not of the normal working world. Or so they’ve been led to believe, by how untouchable the world has allowed them to become.
Film actors are often cushioned within a set, still able to do their job despite bad behaviour thanks to the sheer number of people who have a stake in getting the movie made, and so turn a blind eye. Stand-up comedians are a bizarre breed of employee that require only an audience. Actors may lack an HR department, but a stand-up comedian has one, and it’s us.
We might not be able to stop Johnny Depp starring in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we can stop giving standing ovations to comedians who admit to masturbating in front of co-workers. That night, Louis CK’s audience gave him full permission to return, despite the disturbing things he’s done to women, often ruining their careers in the process. That room gave him acceptance, and therefore power.
In order to change this culture where abusive, powerful men are either left unchecked or given yet more power, we have to, y’know, change the culture. No wonder Louis CK’s ego is so rampantly high when, and I repeat, PEOPLE GAVE HIM A STANDING OVATION BEFORE HE’D EVEN SAID ANYTHING. It’s no surprise that when he finally got to his set AFTER ALL THE GODDAMN CLAPPING, there was no mention of the admissions of last November. Louis CK just did a chilled out set about tipping waitresses and parades. He didn’t need to do anything else.
Noam Dworman, the owner of the Comedy Cellar, wasn’t there on the night in question. But in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he questioned the ethics of stopping Louis CK from getting up on stage, even suggested that preventing Louis CK from doing stand-up would be tantamount to cruelty. “[F]or the world to think, ‘You shall not have an audience again, you shall not get up in front of people and be an artist,’ it is similar in a way to ‘We think your punishment should be that you shall never pick up a paintbrush again’ for an artist,” he said.
Dworman also drew comparisons with other legendary comics like Richard Pryor, who spoke about the domestic violence he was involved in without it once affecting his career. And that’s the point that needs to be focused on. Being an artist, in any capacity, is a privilege: you’re creating and sharing your brain with the world, on your terms. You punch in when you want, you punch out when you want. But this does not make you above the law.
You still have to co-exist with others – whether that’s your girlfriend, your family, or other artists operating in the same space. For a stand-up, that’s the other comedians on the bill, in the writing room, or on set. If you abuse those other artists with your penis, if you beat the s**t out of your girlfriend, if you conduct yourself in a way that is morally wrong, you do not get to enjoy this privilege.
Or rather, you should not. Artists often get free rein to act terribly because of this myth that they’re tortured. They’re emotional. They’re difficult geniuses. All of which is bulls**t, of course. They’re often just grown-up, pampered babies left unchecked, surrounded by suck-ups without any governing body to stop them acting however they like, wherever they like. You can absolutely be an artist – you can even be an artist with serious issues – and manage to avoid masturbating at women. Or sexually assaulting co-workers in any way.
Have a look at some of the comedians who have Netflix specials. Loads of them haven’t waved their d**k about! It’s an insult to art to presume that if you’re creative, you’re going to have to behave like some sort of wild animal. Go to therapy! Work on your problems before the point where your movie gets cancelled because you’ve sexually assaulted people! Everyone else has to do this, why shouldn’t you? Oh, because you tell jokes on stage? Because you have a successful career on various sized screens and a fair bit of money? Give me a break.
A lot of people feel like Louis CK should never work again. I disagree. People should be given the capacity to change, people should be shown compassion, and people make mistakes. There’s not one simple way to atone for past transgressions, just like saying sorry doesn’t make it magically disappear.
But he’s not better just because he says he’s better. Louis CK needed to address this on stage the other night. If he wants to come back, he should have had the balls to announce himself and let the audience decide if they wanted to watch him (the club received complaints from people who felt ambushed by his surprise set). Or he should have commented on the mess that he himself caused, before launching into observations on tipping waitresses.
Yeah, announcing his comeback could have provoked protests and mentioning it on stage may have got him booed off. But surely that’s the very least he should have to deal with if he wants to earn his place on a stage with people who haven’t terrified and intimidated fellow comedians with their penises. He should have waited a fair bit longer than 10 months, too.
Because what message is this sending to female comedians who might now have to share a bill with him, so soon after all of this came out? That we now put celebrity, or how great Louie was, before their safety? How do we know he’s not going to get his d**k out again? Because he says he won’t? It makes me want to bang my head against a wall for days.
But that does nothing. Just as a backlash on Twitter or an angry opinion piece does nothing; we need to hold these people to account in the room. Louis CK needs to feel like he has to work f**king hard, to face the awkwardness and controversy he has created, before he’s allowed to giggle about how annoying parades can be.
Or maybe he doesn’t. Because he took the coward’s way in, as if nothing had happened, and 115 people stood and applauded.