The Louis C.K. comeback controversy continues to unfold. The still-adored stand-up comedian—who last year admitted to frequent workplace sexual harassment by masturbating in front of or asking to masturbate in front of multiple women—has dropped in at multiple New York City comedy clubs this week, Laughspin has confirmed. Unlike his previous controversial appearances, the fallen star is finally talking about the sexual misconduct and what he’s been up to the last 11 months.
The former FX darling made headlines in August after a surprise performance at the Comedy Cellar. The widely reported event caused ownership to create a new Swim At Your Own Risk policy, offering patrons the option to walk out if upset by an unannounced performer—your drinks on the house. Just over one month later, he returned to test out more material—none of which addressed his #MeToo moment or what he’s learned during his brief hiatus. Two patrons walked out taking advantage of the new club policy.
Louis C.K. performed this week at the West Side Comedy Club, Caroline’s, and again at the Comedy Cellar. One comedian present at Caroline’s said he mostly talked about getting old and wondered if gay guys miss when it was bad to be gay. He continued to avoid talking much about the misconduct or any personal growth. Though he did open with, “Good to be here even though some of you might not like me,” the comedian shared. “All he said was he ‘took time off because…it’s good to take time off.’”
Things took a turn Wednesday night at West Side Comedy Club: he finally mentioned the massive masturbating elephant in the room. According to the show’s producers, they received word from the club that the legendary stand-up would be dropping in to close their 8:00pm show. “He said he’s been to hell and back,” a comedian on the line-up shared. AMarie Castillo, who hosted, said, “It’s like he didn’t even skip a beat with the year he had. He was so genuine and reflected on how weird his year was, tried out some new dark and dirty material…Sounds to me he is owning up, acknowledging, and trying to figure it out.”
Louis C.K. has not made a public statement since his apology in November. Laughspin reached out to him on Oct. 7 but never got a response. He doesn’t have active social media and has not sent any of those super longread emails for which he was once known. The decision not to address what is on everyone’s mind was curious and, if you ask most comics, ill-advised. Just like if you’re in a wheelchair or spill a glass of water, you need to address the obvious distraction.
Audiences might be in agreement. A source present at the Sunday night Caroline’s showcase and the Wednesday night show at West Side claims there was a stark difference between the two sets. The Caroline’s set was like his previously reported drop-ins, acting like it’s business as usual. On Sunday night “he looked frightened before he went on,” according to the source. He didn’t get huge applause, but he did just okay. “I couldn’t listen to the words because I’m like, ‘Come on bro, really? You’re not going to talk about it?’ It was insane.”
Something shifted Wednesday night. “He was much more confident,” says the source. Castillo says he opened with, “It’s been a weird year” (understatement). He continued talking about how he’s been to “Hell and back”—joking that while he was in Hell he met Hitler. Multiple comedians hanging out that night say he seemed more authentic and real. From the source, his Wednesday set addressed getting booed in the streets and how everyone hates him. “I lost $35 million in an hour.” This audience apparently loved it way more than the unrealistically guarded set just a few days prior—though the comics hanging out were laughing harder than the audience, says the source.
Despite not just public accusations of sexual misconduct, but an all-out admittance of guilt, audiences have been welcoming of his return to the stage. Stand-up comedians have also been thrilled to see the red-haired sexual abuser pop in. Castillo posted to social media, “Tonight I got to bring Louis C.K. on stage as a host. Life is crazy.” The Caroline’s comedian said you could tell people were “in awe” of such a “great comedian” even if he didn’t crush.
Many are outraged that the Comedy Cellar and other clubs are allowing him on stage and others claim the Louie creator has “done his time.” The comedy community has been in a debate lately over what actions should get you banned and which guys simply need an extended time out. One comedy club booker, Candi Clare of Stand Up NY, says if she had it her way she’d politely tell Louis C.K. ‘no.’ In a public Facebook post she shared, “As a comedy booker I feel consistent pressure to not only put together the best line-up specific to our room for our audiences, but I also feel a loyalty to comics to create a safe and creative space.” She offers the very plausible scenario of the comedy giant walking in and asking to do a guest spot. “I would say ‘no.’ I wouldn’t make a scene, I wouldn’t call attention to it. I would simply say, ‘I’m afraid it’s not possible.’” However, she shares, “Ownership has to look at a picture much much larger than I do.”
No New York City comedy club has made the bold choice to ban Louis C.K. from their clubs (even temporarily). But Clare tells Laughspin that Stand Up NY has been “really supportive of me on this” without officially announcing using the b-word. It’s an unprecedented situation. Some say, “He only jerked off in front of some women at work. Come on!” And others shout, “He jerked off in front of women at work! Come on!” The conversation of, “How bad was it really?” is sadly at the center of the storm instead of conversations about consent, power dynamics, and appropriate accountability. Generally speaking, the world does not want to #CancelLouisCK forever. But eight months out of the spotlight doesn’t seem very long. What many are still figuring out is: how long is enough?
Maybe if we focused less on when we can greedily enjoy a fresh Louis C.K. stand-up special and more on how to change the male-dominant comedy culture, we wouldn’t need to send men like Louis away because they wouldn’t be exposing themselves to unknowing young women.
Read Stand Up NY’s booker Candi Clare’s full post below.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article claimed Louis C.K. masturbated in front of women without their consent. He, more accurately, would repeatedly ask women at work if he could masturbate in front of them and abused a power dynamic in a hotel room at a work convention in front of two younger female comedians.