The most recent Louis C.K. controversy brings up the conversation about whether or not a stand-up stage is a sacred place. Comedy clubs have policies barring recordings of their comics and bigger names like Dave Chappelle have utilized special services to ensure their material is not leaked ahead of a big Netflix release. Laughspin has asked two stand-up comics to examine each side of the privacy of the comedy club. Rosa Escandon is a New York City-based comedian and frequent contributor to Forbes writing about comedy.
Over the weekend, a set Louis C.K. did at Governor’s Comedy Club on Long Island leaked to YouTube. Reactions have mostly centered on C.K. himself and the gross nature of the jokes in the set. With material complaining about his public fall from grace and jokes about the Parkland school shooting, they are right: The set is gross. Some in the comedy community, however, have rallied around C.K. because the audio was secretly recorded in a comedy club and they see it as an invasion of privacy. But is a comedy club stage really a private place? And moreover, should it be?
Bigger-name comedians often use clubs to test out new material or work on new stuff. You will never see Chris Rock at an open mic, but he still needs to test out new jokes somewhere away from Netflix’s cameras and arena-sized crowds. Jokes are often rough at first, and by putting these jokes online, not only can they misrepresent a comic, but it can also make the final form of the joke feel less fresh. Most comedy clubs have a clearly posted sign with the rule “no audio or video recording” and some even announce from an intimidating God mic. It is a rule that you shouldn’t break as an audience member. However, just because you shouldn’t be recording doesn’t mean a comedy club is ever a private space.
An audience spends money to come in. In essence, this transaction makes it a public platform. It is not a safe space for a comedian to say whatever they want—it is a performance. The audience has paid for comedy and owns the memory of that set. Even if they don’t record the set, audiences will talk about it. They will tweet about it. The information will get out there. The internet might have changed how easy it is to show and talk about what happens behind the doors of a comedy club, but the idea that the stage is not private has been around for a long time. Before easy-to-conceal recording devices, there were obscenity laws. Comedians used to get arrested for what they said on stage. Today’s standards are much easier. No one is getting arrested for saying cunt the way Lenny Bruce did in 1961 for saying cocksucker.
Comedians don’t get a safe space to work on jokes. Anything a comedian says on stage in front of an audience is a public thought. Usually, this system works. When leaks happen, they don’t make mainstream news. When a comedian says something too controversial on stage, the fragile unspoken guise of privacy between audience and artist is easily broken. If there is a crowd there, the crowd or even just a couple members of a crowd gets to decide if that thought is too offensive and, if it is, they will bring it out into the light of day. While leaked sets can be annoying or damaging for comics, the only ones that create headline news and reach an audience outside comedy happen when a big name starts talking about something controversial.
From Michael Richards using the N-word to Daniel Tosh saying a heckler should be raped, the version of a leaked set that makes the news shows us something important. Privacy can’t truly exist on a stage. Comedy, by design, needs an audience, which means it can never be truly private. The unfortunate byproduct of that is that comedians risk their practice sets being misrepresented as their final product.
C.K. should know at this point what he says on stage is not private. His return to comedy has been a hot topic in the press ever since his first “comeback show” back in October. He knows his edgy new material will make the news, just like Aziz Ansari’s did. Of all people, C.K. knows that there is no such thing as a safe space.
See what the other side thinks in this counterpoint.