The surprise set was 15 minutes, and the reaction was swift. Louis C.K. performed Sunday at the Comedy Cellar, a New York comedy fixture he formerly frequented. Only about 100 people were in attendance.
Multiple allegations of C.K.’s sexual misconduct surfaced last fall. In November, he admitted that five women’s allegations, including that he masturbated in front of them, “are true.”
“I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” C.K. said in response to a New York Times investigation. “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”
He’d been silent since then. Until Sunday.
The New York Times first reported the set on Tuesday, prompting a larger discussion on social media and beyond about men who quietly returned to their professions after stepping out of the limelight following sexual misconduct allegations. (C.K.’s is the rare instance in which he eventually admitted wrongdoing, after years of denying rumors.)
Comedy bookers and club owners are grappling with how to react. Are they the gatekeepers? What responsibility do they have, as the public reckons with a wave of sexual misconduct revelations?
“I think too many people are interpreting it as a reflection of how we feel or don’t feel about what Louis was accused of, or admitted to doing. It’s not really about that,” said Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman. “It’s more of an ACLU approach, which I’ve always had, which is to say that we’re a platform for comedy, that handing out punishments is something that institutions of courts of law do.”
In recent weeks, Aziz Ansari has also been performing at abruptly announced shows around the country in sizable venues as part of his “Working Out New Material” tour. The comic had retreated after being accused anonymously in January of sexual impropriety. (He said that his encounter with a woman “by all indications was completely consensual.”)
While “every club owner, it’s their business and they can draw their own lines,” Dworman said, “the public needs to be careful about expecting that the club owner is obligated to draw that line for them, as opposed to saying, ‘I don’t want to see Louis C.K., I won’t go see him.’”
Dworman said he found out about the set the next morning via text messages that employees sent after he had put his kids to bed. But he did watch a tape of the set and said that when the host announced C.K., the audience broke out into “sustained applause,” with some folks “giving a little bit extra,” as if to show they “wanted to hear what he had to say.”
For Marshall Chiles, owner of Atlanta’s Laughing Skull Lounge and Laughing Skull Comedy Festival, the questions when it comes to comics like C.K. are: “Is he going to be doing hate speech? Is he going to be encouraging that behavior, or is he discouraging that behavior, even with his transgressions? ... [What] if he had this amazing 15-minute bit of the errors of his ways?”
At the Comedy Cellar, C.K. performed new material but didn’t address his past misdeeds and subsequent apology.
“If he hadn’t apologized, and he was trying to fight it or justify it, I would not be tolerant of him onstage,” Chile said. “The fact that he handled it the way he did, I believe in giving people second chances. I’ve made mistakes.”
Dworman was surprised that C.K. returned so soon, and in such a setting, and that he didn’t address the controversy at all. He suspects audiences want C.K. to, “like Richard Pryor, talk about his past.”
“In comedy there is a long history of comedians with pasts that people disapproved of, talking about that stuff onstage and being lauded for that,” Dworman said. “Richard Pryor famously talked about all these terrible things he had done and nobody had ever thought that somebody shouldn’t put Richard Pryor on. That didn’t mean they approved of” his actions.
On Tuesday, many comics took to Twitter to post their shock, and disappointment, with C.K.’s return.
“The fact that Louis, a comedian whose whole thing is plumbing the depths of his own psyche, apparently didn’t mention his most recent, famous news in his surprise set tells you all you need to know about his desire for ‘redemption,’ right?” tweeted comedian Paul F. Tompkins.
It’s unclear whether C.K. will hit the stage again anytime soon. But he’s now broken his silence, almost 10 months after he decided to “take a long time to listen.”
As New York comic Sarah Lazarus wrote in a viral tweet, “I’m still on the same shampoo bottle as when louis ck’s time out started.”