"I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen."
That's how Louis C.K. closed out his admission of guilt after five women accused the iconic comedian of sexual misconduct via New York Times exposé. The accusations, which had floated through small circles in hushed whispers for years, were startling; C.K.'s willingness to confirm them and appear contrite even more so. It's not every day that guilty men, you know, admit their guilt.
And step back he did.
His lucrative and fruitful creative relationship with FX came to a swift end. His film I Love You Daddy, with its instances of scripted behavior bafflingly similar to his own untoward and odious actions, was shelved indefinitely. Plans for a Netflix stand-up special were scrapped. For all intents and purposes, a powerful man's career was canceled and, as that career was the vehicle through which C.K. could go about his admittedly predatory ways, ensconced and protected as he was by his status, a justice was served.
C.K.'s misdeeds were made public to the world on November 9, 2017. His lengthy statement copping to the allegations levied against him came a day later. Then, silence.
This week, the disgraced comedian made his return to the stage. For C.K., "a long time" appears to be defined as merely nine months.
When C.K. stepped on stage at the legendary Comedy Cellar—a NYC stand-up institution that was frequently used as a shooting location on his FX series Louie—on Sunday, it was a complete surprise to everyone: club owner and staff, the other comics on the bill, and, most importantly, the audience. While not uncommon for A-list comedians to show up at clubs unannounced while they're working out new material, giving it the audience test run the art form requires, they usually don't do it when stepping out from the shroud of disgrace for the first time.
"It felt like he was being thrust upon the audience without telling them," one female audience member, who chose to remain anonymous, reported to Vulture.
"I would want to have announced shows where everybody came in knew that Louis C.K.'s coming," Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman, who wasn't present at the time of C.K.'s comeback by ambush, told The Hollywood Reporter. "I would have [wanted him to] treat it with a certain gravity.
But that's not what happened. Instead, despite his "long time" away spent listening, C.K. strode in and acted as though nothing had transpired in the past nine months, apparently still under the impression that his celebrity and his artistry afforded him great privilege. Why ask for permission to speak when you can just demand it, when you expect it? According to eyewitness reports, his set wasn't revolutionary—"Just the most plain, everyday Louis C.K. stuff," Dworman described it—and it certainly wasn't revelatory, avoiding what he'd done altogether.
"I think that was a missed opportunity for him," Dworman lamented. "I think that for a man who signed off from the public with this promise to, 'I've talked for a long time, now I'm going to listen,' he created the expectation of, 'Well, now you're back after nine months, what did you learn?'"
And therein lies the rub. In returning to the stage like he did, C.K. made sure that his first public appearance was entirely on his own terms, retaining all the power. There was no one there to challenge him or question him; hell, there wasn't even an attempt to seek consent. And for this to come nine months after admitting he'd "wielded [his] power irresponsibly" and "took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my...community," it certainly feels as though no lesson had been learned, no listening had been done. The man included a "rape whistle" joke in his set, for crying out loud.
As we've watched powerful men like C.K. fall, we somehow find ourselves so preoccupied with the idea of how he can redeem himself, how he can return to his life's work in an industry that apparently can't survive without him. C.K.'s return is something of a litmus test and those fretting over his well-being seem to be, well, relieved. "Will take heat for this, but people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives," fellow comedian Michael Ian Black tweeted. "I don't know if it's been long enough, or his career will recover, or if people will have him back, but I'm happy to see him try."
"But for a stand-up comedian—and Louis is at heart a stand-up comedian, it is the most important thing to him—for the world to think, 'You shall not have an audience again, you shall not get up in front of people and be an artist,' it is similar in a way to 'We think your punishment should be that you shall never pick up a paintbrush again' for an artist," Dworman lamented. "And that deserves at least some thought."
And sure, they make a point. The court of public opinion is like the wild, wild west, where there are no rules and once you're "canceled," it's hard to bounce back from that, however unfair it may seem. And, yes, we ought to find a way to allow those who've repented and rehabilitated themselves—something, by the way, that C.K.'s stand-up set did nothing to prove has actually happened—to re-enter the field they love and try to prove themselves to us once more. But what of the women victimized by C.K. and Matt Lauer, who, it seems, is preparing to mount his own comeback, and all the rest? Do they not deserve, at the very least, some thought too?
What of their career aspirations, put on ice after either becoming disillusioned with an industry whose kings treated them like meat or being forced out by handlers trying to protect said kings? And what of the endless harassment they've been forced to endure online for their courage in stepping forward? (Check out comedian Jen Kirkman's excellent and incisive Twitter thread on the topic to see what a minefield her life has become.) Where is the hand-wringing over what they've been made to endure, the concern over how they can possibly come back?
"The idea that C.K. reentering the public eye would ever be considered a 'comeback' story is disturbing. The guy exploited his position of power to abuse women. A 'comeback' implies he's the underdog and victim, and he is neither," Rebecca Corry, one of C.K.'s five accusers, remarked in a passionate, must-read essay for Vulture detailing the misery she's had foisted upon her since her encounter with the comedian over a decade ago. "C.K. is a rich, powerful man who was fully aware that his actions were wrong. Yet he chose to behave grotesquely simply because he could."
When Louis C.K. stepped on stage on Sunday night, he received a standing ovation. Before he even opened his mouth, he was applauded for simply showing up. Even in disgrace, the privilege is there. Clearly, it never really left.