When his boss asked about his plans for after work tonight, the guy I invited to come to see Louis C.K. with me panicked and gave a vague answer about “going for drinks.” Even as a journalist’s plus-one, it’s not a great look to be at a comeback gig for one of the most high-profile men to fall from grace as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct.
Not that we were likely to run into anybody. The OVO Arena Wembley is some way out of the city center in a quite vibeless corner of North West London: new build flats, chain restaurants, and the enormous Wembley football stadium. This is where C.K. has decided to do one of two shows in London, his first big gigs in the city since multiple women came forward a month after the dawn of the #MeToo movement, detailing their experiences being coerced into situations where the comedian would masturbate in front of them.
So who’s going to a Louis C.K. gig in 2022? Not all that many people, is the answer, or certainly nothing like the numbers he could command in his heyday. This is a man who sold out Madison Square Garden eight times. The OVO Arena was not full, even though the upper levels of raked seating had been curtained off. C.K did sell out a 4,000-capacity venue elsewhere in the city the night before, though, where he apparently announced himself from a mic backstage as “the disgraced, the disgusting Louis C.K.” So there is at least some appetite for his comeback. Tonight, there was no such introduction, and he doesn’t need one. I would be flabbergasted if there was anyone in the room who was not aware of how Louis CK’s reputation has tanked over the past five years. And the crowd were a very mixed bunch. I expected edgelords, overtly right-leaning people. There were some of those types, sure, but otherwise there was nothing to unite the people in the arena, really. Just a bunch of people at a comedy show.
We were told we weren’t allowed to use phones, not only for photographs but for any reason, including text messages. This has become de rigueur for the post-cancellation comedy circuit, and when C.K. has been playing smaller gigs in the run up to these big shows, the policy has been the same, a “fuck you” to the online outrage machine that would pore over clips of his off-color jokes with new intensity now he’s been exposed as a wrong’un.
As he came out, one kind of unassuming looking guy—it’s always those guys—yelled “we love you, pervert!” C.K. seemed surprisingly ill-equipped to respond to this, smiling a little and saying “whoa, whoa” in a “calm down” kind of way.
This is not the first time people have seen C.K. since the 2017 revelations, by any means. In 2020 he self-released a stand-up special called Sincerely, in which he showed some remorse, but not a lot, for what he did. This was followed last December by another special, Sorry, in which he did not mention the scandal at all except by standing in front of giant letters reading “SORRY” for the duration of the set.
If Sincerely was him grinning as he held up his hands, this tour is him dusting them off and getting back to business as usual: edgy jokes about everything and everybody, from abortions to Japanese people to fart porn to Auschwitz to having sex with children. Which is, I suppose, what most of the #MeToo-accused will eventually be able to do, no matter how many times they’re described as “canceled”: get back on the horse. He did not refer once to the allegations against him, but the specter of his misconduct haunts the set, the unspoken context to jokes about his dating life and his sexual preferences.
Which isn’t to say the show is not funny. Some of the show feels like it’s too easy, sure, a little too jaded, too wed to the shock tactic over the well-constructed joke. But of course some of the show is really funny: This man is an extremely successful and once very widely beloved comedian. That is the entire problem with people like Louis CK and the crux of the power they’re able to abuse. He’s a legend in his field. That’s why he was able for years to do the things that he did with impunity.
After the show, I asked some of the other audience members what they made of it. Most people acknowledged in a vague way that he shouldn’t have jerked off in front of women he held sway over but said they enjoyed the show. I asked a woman in her early 30s in the foyer, and it feels too on the nose, but we were immediately interrupted by two of her male friends who wanted to argue between themselves about whether the problem with Louis CK is that he’s “cancelled” for the jerking-off incidents or that he makes “offensive” jokes.
“Is there ever a way back, for someone like Louis, who held substantial power in his industry, did something wrong, and held his hands up?” one of them said, munching on the dregs of his popcorn. “It’s had an impact on his career and, well, rightly so, but … ” he paused. “I dunno. I feel conflicted about the whole thing. I don’t know how to feel about it. Like, I love Louis C.K. He did some bad shit. How do we define whether he’s paid his dues or not?”
Two guys in their mid-20s from Israel who gave me the pseudonyms Roger and Abraham, told me that this was their third Louis C.K. show. “At first we felt like, ‘Whoa, he got so old. He looks like a grandpa.’ But he is the greatest of all time, in my opinion, and he just killed it.” I asked them whether the revelations about his abusive behavior affected their enjoyment of the show. “Not really,” Roger said, “I separate the artist and his personal life.”
But it’s a pretty difficult thing to do, to separate the art from the artist in confessional, observational standup comedy. Louis C.K. is the protagonist of Louis C.K.’s standup shows. Watching old gigs in which he used to mime masturbating as part of his act (not to mention the extended masturbation material on his show) necessarily has a different flavor now that we know what he got up to offstage.
Five years on from #MeToo’s inception, the rooms he plays might be smaller, but Louis C.K. hasn’t shuffled off into the shadows. If people want you back after “cancellation,” that road is far from blocked. At the end of the show, he received a standing ovation, and then another after his encore.
But not everybody was impressed. During the first ovation, I turned to the woman sitting behind me, who was making disgruntled noises to her friend. I asked her why. “I came because my brother said this guy was funny,” she said. “I dunno. I just think it’s not hard to be funny without being really offensive.”