Louis C.K. Came Back Too Soon

Louis CK’s comedy has always made people uncomfortable. But now, it’s causing discomfort for all the wrong reasons.

During a drop-in set at New York’s Comedy Cellar Sunday night—his first since admitting to long-rumored serial sexual harassment a year ago—CK reportedly told a rape joke. Several women in the audience were uncomfortable. And some fans (myself included) are left to wonder why one of the most introspective comedic minds in history has refused to explain, or even acknowledge, his wrongdoing.

Ostensibly, CK doesn’t owe his fans, or anyone, anything more than what he’s barely said. He could live comfortably on residual checks and television money for the rest of his days, garnering no further public attention other than what’s already been said or written about him.

But we all knew CK wouldn’t stay quiet forever. He’s committed his life to a craft that involves putting yourself in front of people, talking about life’s idiosyncracies and trying to make them funny. The entertainment industry has always forgiven abusive men looking to rehabilitate their image on their own terms. No doubt a drop-in set at the Comedy Cellar, where CK became a comedy legend, was his most ideal setting to begin that rehabilitation. And doing it also means he hasn’t learned anything about consent.

CK certainly has a right to “speak and make a living” as fellow comedian Michael Che said. If people want to pay to see him, they should be able to. But dropping in on an unsuspecting crowd is the opposite of that. It removes the choice of participation. It prioritizes CK’s comfort over that of his victims, his fans and audience members who didn’t pay to see him. And after admitting to masturbating in front of women without consent, an unannounced stroll onstage is an unbearably bad look.

Many comedians try to make people uncomfortable with vulgarity or thought-provoking humor. That’s always been CK’s style. And I imagine doing so over and over again to raucous applause and critical acclaim makes you forget the sentiments and feelings of the people in front of you. I’m not suggesting CK ever had that fundamental empathy to begin with. But he looked and sounded like a regular guy arguing for human decency and respect, and that at least gave off an illusion of empathy. He struck you as an honest comedian that wouldn’t just acknowledge his sins, but discuss them candidly.

Inevitably, the real man doesn’t live up to his own performative projection. And with such lack of self awareness, it’s hard to reconcile CK’s comeback under these kind of circumstances. Or any at all.

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