Comedian Louis CK admitted sexually harassing women. Now he’s now staging a comeback – and women aren’t happy.
In November 2017, five women came forward to publicly accuse American comedian Louis CK of sexual misconduct. These women said that CK – a much-beloved and wildly successful comic, who frequently joked about toxic masculinity and sex in his stand-up routines – had masturbated in front of them or during phone calls with them. Several of the women said categorically that their experiences with CK had harmed their own comedy careers.
Rumours had swirled for years about CK’s proclivity for masturbating in front of women without their consent. He had always denied them. But after The New York Times published the five women’s accounts of his behaviour, CK immediately admitted that their allegations were true.
“At the time, I said to myself that what I did was OK because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first,” the comedian said in a statement. He had “[taken] advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community,” he continued, and felt “remorseful” about how he had treated women.
The entertainment industry’s initial response to CK’s admission was swift and severe. A movie he’d directed and starred in was dropped by distributors; several television networks and streaming services, including HBO, The Disney Channel and Netflix, announced that they were cutting ties with the comedian or suspending production on his projects. In an echo of the damage he had admitted doing to women’s careers, it seemed – briefly – as though CK’s career might never recover.
But CK’s exile to the comedy wilderness was short-lived. Less than 10 months after admitting to sexual misconduct, the stand-up has begun staging his comeback, beginning with a ‘surprise’ performance at the Comedy Cellar in New York over the weekend.
In an interview, the club’s owner said that CK had been “very relaxed” on stage, and was greeted with a standing ovation before he’d even begun his act.
CK’s return has been greeted with dismay and anger by many female stand-ups and comedy writers, who have highlighted the discrepancy between how his sexual misconduct has affected his own career versus how it impacted the careers of the women he mistreated.
Comedy duo Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov have said that their work has been hamstrung ever since CK masturbated in front of them in 2002, telling The New York Times in November that they no longer put forward their writing for projects in which his former manager – Steve Becky, one of the most powerful men in US comedy – is involved. “[W]e know immediately that we can never even submit our material,” said Wolov.
Another of CK’s victims, Abby Schachner, has said that CK started masturbating while they spoke on the phone in 2003. At the time, she was a budding comedian – but, she said, her interaction with CK was one of the factors that discouraged her from pursuing a career in the industry.
On Twitter, Irish comedian Aisling Bea pointed out that female comics often face harassment and abuse for so much as discussing “gender equality” – making it all the more galling that men can admit to sexual misconduct and still be welcomed back onto the comedy scene.
Canadian comic Mae Martin called on male comedians to speak out against CK’s return, while British-American comedian and writer Siobhan Thompson noted tartly that the response to CK’s behaviour may have been different if his victims had been male.
Several people questioned whether it was ethical for CK to do a surprise performance, given that it was highly possible that survivors of sexual assault – or people who simply didn’t want to watch his routine – could have been in the audience. (Noam Dworman, the owner of the venue, has said that one audience member complained on Monday that they had not been given advance warning of CK’s appearance.)
Other comedians dismantled the idea that CK had somehow ‘done his time’, or needed to make a comeback in order to provide for his two daughters.
It’s yet to be seen whether CK will be able to rebuild his career to its former heights. But if he is already receiving standing ovations, it seems unlikely that he will stay out of the spotlight for long.
For the women whose careers were irreparably harmed by his behaviour, and those who support them, it is infuriating and disheartening – a feeling summed up by comedian and actor Aparna Nancherla.
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