After receiving (merited) backlash to Louis CK’s first unexpected drop-in set on August 26th, the Comedy Cellar made a move that conveniently shifts the onus of their booking choices back onto the audience. Rather than take a stand in either direction, the Comedy Cellar’s way of dealing with the “controversy” of C.K.’s return is by posting a new disclaimer sign in the club (which is also printed on tickets).
The sign, bearing a classic icon of a swimming figure reads: “Swim at your own risk. We never know who is going to pop in. If an unannounced appearance is not your cup of tea, you are free to leave (unobtrusively please) no questions asked, your check on the house.”
As you likely know, less than a year ago Louis CK admitted to sexual misconduct towards women in the comedy world. Since “misconduct” feels like it applies more to misusing silverware at a post-church brunch than traumatizing colleagues, I want to clearly spell it out: C.K. trapped women and jerked off in front of them. This is clearly not an issue of “slipping up” but a premeditated way to abuse his power in the comedy world. These women’s careers were put on ice because of both C.K. and his former manager Dave Becky’s use of intimidation and threats. When the allegations surfaced at large, Becky apologized for his past behavior and admitted, “I now comprehend that my response was perceived as a threat to cover-up sexual misconduct.”
So, when the Louie star returned to the stage less than a year after these allegations surfaced to the larger public, it served as a slap in the face to women in comedy, survivors of sexual abuse, and conscionable comedians everywhere. Nonetheless, even amidst backlash, his reception by the audience was largely warm and the Comedy Cellar allowed him on their stage again this past Sunday night— at which point two women left. It should be noted that the recent addition of the ‘Swim At Your Own Risk’ disclaimer did in fact allow those women to leave without paying.
While the Comedy Cellar’s new sign may seem fair to some—since it allows audience members to leave free of charge if they’re disturbed—it reads as a weak-willed way for the club to shirk themselves of responsibility. Rather than blatantly saying, “We are fine with hosting sexual abusers,” the club is shifting the onus back onto the audience, claiming if you want to go see comedy and a guy who sexually harasses or assaults women shows up, that’s on you.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Comedy Cellar owner Norm Dworman admitted it’s been tricky deciding how to handle the comedian’s comeback. “Listen, we are really a free-expression outfit. People should not take me allowing them to perform as my approval of their character or the things they’ve done in their lives,” Dworman clarified. I would imagine Louis C.K.’s comeback is legitimately tricky to handle as a club owner. However, this is not a matter of limiting C.K.’s expression, but rather, deciding to run a club that doesn’t protect sexually inappropriate behavior. This is not about him making an off-color joke, it’s about the enabling of men like him driving women out of comedy.
It’s not unreasonable to expect one of the most iconic comedy clubs in the world to say something definitive about their choice to harbor sexual abusers in the workplace. According to Dworman, the club enabled C.K. by taking cues from the cultural handling of other sexually inappropriate men. “I don’t feel that there’s a clear standard out there in the world of when someone is supposed to be fired or denied an audience. I don’t think anyone’s come after the theaters and stages that allow Mike Tyson to tour the country with his show, and Bill Clinton is still invited to charity events,” Dworman told The Hollywood Reporter.
While he’s not wrong about the mishandling of Clinton or Tyson, his deflection shows that he knows this is a cultural problem. The comedy world, of all places, prides itself on pointing out hypocrisy and speaking uncomfortable truths. Why now, the convenient conformity when it comes to sexual predators Sadly, the entertainment industry wants to claim the structure of a work environment, while aggressively shirking off accountability that would be leveraged towards managers and workers anywhere else.
The Comedy Cellar, while seductive, is a Tinder date who warned you he has no ethical backbone. And when someone tells you who they are, it’s best to believe them.