I don’t know exactly when I first heard the rumors about Louis C.K., but this is because of how frequently I’ve heard those rumors repeated — not with the hushed tones and gripped elbow of a worried girlfriend’s warning, the way such information is usually shared, but in jokes, told to comedians by comedians.
“You’ve got to hand it to Louis C.K. Actually, there’s no need to hand it to him, but could you at least watch?”
“That guy’s so depraved he makes Louis C.K. watch himjerk off.”
“Where is Louie going up tonight? I wanna go watch him masturbate.”
I’ve been a stand-up comedian since 2011, and since at least 2012, when Gawker published a “blind item” strongly insinuating that Louis C.K. masturbated in front of nonconsenting women, comedians have joked about it with each other. In all those years, no one was ever willing to put their name behind an accusation, and as a new comic starting out in Austin, a second-tier comedy market, everyone I knew was several degrees removed from even speaking to Louis C.K. for longer than a minute or two. But the fact that you couldn’t discuss any aspect of C.K.’s life or work without somebody cracking a joke about his supposed compulsions speaks to how widespread the rumors were: Everyone generally thought he was up to something, and it was a joke we were all in on.
Stand-up has been the animating force in my life. I’ve spent the better part of my 20s skulking around half-empty bars, drinking a single glass of the cheapest beer available and waiting to get onstage for the three or four minutes that I’d arranged my entire life around. I’ve made not only all of my friends here, but all of my acquaintances, and all of my (hopefully few) enemies. And all of these people had heard the rumors about Louis C.K.
In January, C.K. happened to drop in at an open mic where I was scheduled to perform. He had upcoming shows in town and wanted to workshop some material for people who hadn’t paid $50 a ticket.
This phenomenon is one of my favorite things about stand-up: It doesn’t matter how famous you are or how long you’ve been doing it, a new bit is a new bit. Your batting average gets better over time, but there’s still a chance something that killed you when you thought of it will be totally meaningless when it’s outside your brain. This means that sometimes people like Louis C.K. show up at a $5 open mic night in Austin to try some stuff out.
All of us performers were beside ourselves with excitement. If you’re a comedian, and especially if you’re a white millennial comedian, you love Louis C.K. His set was great. All of his jokes were about animals — moose, giraffes, goats — and many of them ended up in his “Saturday Night Live” monologue in April. The audience was dazzled; they laughed and hollered and so did we comedians, gathered in the back. In typical Louis C.K. fashion, the jokes ranged from philosophical to touching to absolutely disgusting. Mostly disgusting. I loved it. My boyfriend at the time had come to the open mic with me, and I felt like my proximity to such a universally respected celebrity legitimized my modest comedy career in his eyes.
As we’ve all come to understand since the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein broke, power in the entertainment industry is intensely unequal. I was a nobody. Louis C.K. was the supreme somebody. As I prepared for my set, I tried to calm the queasy part of myself with rationalizations: What was I supposed to do, tap him on the shoulder and ask if he really jerked off in front of unwilling women? I didn’t have any first- or even secondhand stories of misdeeds, just the received knowledge of the comedy world and a couple of vividly told blind items. Sure, a lot of Louie’s material deals with his lack of impulse control. Sure, he’s explored subjects like sexual assault and compulsive masturbation on his TV show. But is it fair to judge his art so literally?
I was scheduled to perform two or three people after Louie, and he was gone by the time I got onstage. I knew that all anyone in the audience was thinking about was him. I knew I had to address his drop-in, and I knew I had to say something about how unsettled I felt by seeing him — but I also knew that since he was no longer in the room, it couldn’t mean much. If he’d still been there, I doubt I would have said anything.
“Louis C.K. at our open mic! Can you believe it?” I said, as I took the mic from the stand. “I guess it just goes to show you that stand-up is a performance art — you have to try new jokes for an audience no matter what. If you don’t do it in front of people, it doesn’t count. Unfortunately, Louie also feels that way about masturbation.” The comics in the back roared, but the audience stared at me blankly. I was baffled. I hung out with comics, and since they had heard the rumors, I’d assumed everyone had. Clearly, that was wrong.
The insidious thing about an open secret is that it allows you to assume that all people have access to, and can be protected by, the same information — that the openness of the secret does the work so you don’t have to. It makes you feel that knowing is the same as doing. This is an assumption of convenience, and it’s one I’m sure many people in entertainment made about Louie. I’m sure it’s one people make about every powerful man with a cloud of whispers hanging over him. I don’t know what someone in my position can do, but I know I don’t feel like I did enough.
Comedians are a famously maladjusted group. We use humor to deal with anything that makes us even slightly uncomfortable. C.K.’s habits were a big inside joke, and we were all in on it. But it wasn’t funny, and joking about someone when they leave the room isn’t the same as holding them to account. You told everyone but the one person you needed to tell.
Kath Barbadoro is a comedian and writer based in New York City.