Since Louis C.K. made his post-#MeToo reemergence at the New York comedy club Comedy Cellar, it seems like everyone has been arguing over whether or not he should have returned to the stage nine months after the story of his alleged sexual misconduct broke. His fellow comedian Michael Ian Black drew flak for tweeting that “people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives” and that he was “happy to see [C.K.] try.” (C.K. hadn’t actually served any time after he admitted to masturbating in front of women without their consent, other users pointed out—he just laid low for a bit.) Michael Che chimed in with some Instagram Stories, in which he defended C.K. for getting “on with his life” after being “shamed, humiliated” and losing “millions of dollars” and the “respect of a lot of his fans and peers”—in other words, in Che’s view, C.K. has already paid a fair price. Che, too, got pushback from followers and posted their comments along with his own rebuttals.
C.K. hasn’t commented on his decision to spring a surprise stand-up set on a Comedy Cellar audience (even the club owner didn’t know he’d be showing up) on a Sunday night. It’s impossible to know, at this point, if the performance portends a slow-and-steady comeback for C.K., or if it was just an ill-advised toe dipped in water still too boiling hot for swimming. But C.K.’s reemergence feels like a harbinger of how other men who disappeared from the public eye after being accused of sexual exploitation during the wave of #MeToo allegations might orchestrate their own returns.
Reports of C.K.’s performance suggest that comedy fans—male ones in particular—are more than ready to see their guy back onstage. According to the New York Times, C.K. got an enthusiastic ovation (not a standing one, as has been reported elsewhere, just regular applause) before he even started his set—apparently elation for the return of C.K. himself, rather than for any great comedy he comedied. “It’s so great to have you back, Louis,” yelled one man in attendance, according to an audience member who spoke to Vulture.
This response suggests two things. First, while it may seem like the vast majority of people don’t want to see C.K. again until he’s made serious amends, demonstrated accountability, and spent more time in comedy exile as punishment for his abuse, there is probably a decent-sized segment of the population made up of people who don’t much care about what he did, or thinks it wasn’t so bad that he deserves to suffer major career consequences, or believes a nine-month break from the comedy circuit is a tough enough sanction. And second, people who object to C.K.’s speedy return to the professional limelight may be understandably reluctant to engage in one of the few means the average person has of exerting influence over a comedian: public confrontation. The two women Vulture interviewed said that plenty of women in the audience seemed peeved by C.K.’s surprise appearance, but the environment had “the kind of vibe that doesn’t allow for a dissenting voice,” with “a lot of aggressive men … and very quiet women.” C.K. wasn’t heckled once.
His choice of venue and the substance of his routine may also foretell the way his fellow alleged abusers will eke out paths to their former places of power. There was an explosion of outrage when Tina Brown said she was pitched a show that would feature Charlie Rose, who was accused of sexual harassment and assault by about three dozen women, interviewing other famous men who’d lost their jobs amid similar allegations. People were floored by the audacity of a man who would potentially stage such a self-congratulatory comeback, putting the growth narratives of himself and other alleged assailants at the center of a story about women’s pain and resilience. But C.K.’s Sunday set suggests that it may not be a sympathetic Charlie Rose roundtable or glossy magazine spread or self-aware, highly produced streaming special that heralds these men’s reentry into public life. The more likely route to reputation renovation will simply be nonchalant reintroduction into the cultural bloodstream, little by little, like routine allergy shots that cause a milder reaction with each prick.
If the response of C.K.’s comedy brethren is any indication of how other industry allies of alleged abusers might welcome their respective fallen comrades back into the fold, it will be remarkably easy for men to return to the workplaces where they, in many cases, harassed and assaulted women with impunity for decades. On Instagram, Che responded to critics with a kind of exhausted, defiant nihilism. When someone commented that C.K. is “going to be getting money and opportunities that he shouldn’t be allowed to get,” Che asked, “Who’s to say what someone should be ‘allowed’ to get? I mean, who makes THAT decision? You? The law? Jesus?” When asked what C.K. “deserves,” Che responded, “I really don’t know. I haven’t talked to him in a while. I don’t know any of his accusers. I don’t know what he’s done to right that situation, and it’s none of my business. But I do believe any free person has a right to speak and make a living.”
Che’s Instagram rant provides a perfect example of two facets of the collective cultural mindset that helped allow Harvey Weinstein, Rose, Matt Lauer, C.K., Bill Cosby, and countless other men to get away with acts of exploitation and degradation while discrediting and blacklisting the women they victimized. One is the notion that, since it is difficult to come to a consensus on just how bad any given transgression is and what sort of punishment it warrants, it’s not worth trying to impose any sort of accountability measures at all. The other is the insistence that if someone doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the accusers’ experience—the women C.K. harassed aren’t just “accusers,” by the way, since he admitted to the behavior—it’s not his or her place to pass judgment on it. I had hoped that the #MeToo movement might have rendered these arguments less convincing to a public trying to make sense of sexual humiliation and assault in the workplace. Now, I’m not so sure.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Michael Ian Black has been engaging in a thoughtful dialogue with followers who criticized his defense of C.K. In one response, he wrote, “It would be different to me if he got a TV show. Because then somebody would be paying him. Here he is relying on a direct payment system where the market of the audience is reacting in real time to him. Either they will accept him or they won’t. It’s entirely up to them.” This is another defense that will likely be deployed by friends and fans of shunned men trying to recapture their former glory: Instead of placing the burden of employee protection and ethical hiring on businesses, this logic dumps it on audiences. If people don’t want to see an admitted serial harasser get even richer and more famous, they’ll have to boycott comedy venues, the people who perform alongside him, and producers and directors who pay him for his work. They’ll have to raise a stink wherever he appears in public. But we’re already getting a taste of the backlash any such boycott will surely generate. “This is a dark period for discourse in this country,” said Noam Dworman, the owner of the club where C.K. performed on Sunday, of the criticism that followed news of the show. The same comedy-world insiders who insist on market-based solutions to sexual abuse are often the ones who argue that consumer protests or boycotts are infringements on free speech rights.
The general feeling among C.K.’s defenders—even the lukewarm, reluctant ones—seems to be that he’s going to have to regain his comedy fame sometime, in some way, and the only questions left are when, where, and how. They seemingly can’t imagine a world in which every talented, beloved man doesn’t get to do his thing, to great acclaim, forever—that he might work quietly behind the scenes, or in another industry, or just lay by a pool drinking through his riches for a few decades. The more frequent conversations like this become, and the more #MeToo supporters are forced to justify their belief that abusers should be held to account for their misdeeds or crimes, the more this resignation to the idea of an eventual comeback will spread. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the begrudging acceptance of undeserved redemption enables that very undeserved redemption.
Here’s a forecast for future post-#MeToo returns based on what has transpired since Sunday: Every time C.K. or one of his canceled peers reemerges, some people will get mad, but most people won’t, and there will be other, more pressing outrages to smother with energy, and before anyone fully grasps what’s going on, they’ll be back on tour, or rolling through the credits of our TV shows and movies, with an ugly entry on their Wikipedia pages but a growing bank account to soothe that indignity. Nine months after he admitted to serial sexual harassment of his industry peers, C.K. performed a few behind-the-scenes calculations and determined that any random audience at the Comedy Cellar would be ready for his sans-atonement return. For all the Twitter anger he inspired, the prodigal comedian was right.