Louis C.K. is in the midst of a comedy comeback, and he doesn’t need your approval.
Just nine months ago, the comedian admitted to sexual misconduct, apologized, and proclaimed he’d be going away for a while. He did exactly that. He lost a movie, almost a year’s worth of work, television appearances, and countless future endeavors.
Now he’s ready to come back, even if it’s just to tell jokes in a night club like he did at the beginning of his career. His past transgressions will always be attached to his name. He will always be the guy who masturbated in front of a bunch of women. That shouldn’t mean he doesn’t get to be a comedian anymore.
Stand-up comedy should only ever have one objective: to make people laugh. People go to a comedy show because they want to relate to the material on stage, find the common senses of irony and tragedy, and laugh about them. When comedy becomes subject to de facto censorship, and comedians are banished because the public is angry with them, that connection people have with comedy is tarnished.
Every person knows what he connects to and what he doesn’t, and every person has the ability to walk out of a club, turn the channel, or simply not laugh. Angry, sensitive members of the public should not be able to shut down what others find funny.
Louis C.K.’s return to comedy was always going to meet outrage, whether he waited nine months or nine years. There’s no argument: What he did was salacious, and seems to have traumatized the women who came forward with their stories last year.
He did not, however, commit a crime. No matter how personally outraged his actions make you feel, you cannot say he is beyond redemption. Comedians do not need to be held to a high moral standard. They are the poster children for imperfect, unfiltered, honest takes on life. They only need to connect to their audience and make them laugh. They need to sell tickets, fill seats, and make people happy. Their success or failure should be dictated by these aspects alone.
While most stand-up comedy takes place in private clubs and on television, it’s become a beacon of free speech. Comedians are not afraid to say what they want on stage, and patrons aren’t afraid to hear it. Every club has the right to prevent any comic from performing for any reason, but you would be hard-pressed to find a comedy club that wants to be considered a “safe space,” free from triggering topics and people.
Clubs know they’re hosting more than entertainment. They’re providing a venue for people who have slogged through a week of politically correct tip-toeing. They fill their line-ups with comedians who can connect to the crowd and commiserate with them, not preach wokeness.
Louis C.K.’s comedy is designed to relate to the everyman. He jokes about divorce, loneliness, parenthood, and, yes, masturbation. His unfiltered self-deprecation has been highly regarded for so many years because he has never yielded to the idea that “You can’t say that.” His fans love him because he’s given voice to their deepest insecurities. This type of comedy could never exist in an environment that catered to an outraged public searching for ways to be offended.
The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, which hosted C.K.’s controversial comeback appearance in August, has instituted a “Swim at Your Own Risk” policy, allowing patrons to get up and leave for any reason during the show, without having to settle their tab. Club owner Noam Dworman understands that not every person wants to see the controversial comic, but his answer isn’t to ban C.K., it is to give his customers the ability to “change the channel,” and simply leave.
In an interview with Michael Barbaro for “The Daily” podcast, Dworman expressed his anguish over the outrage that’s been directed at him and his club for allowing C.K. to perform with no warning to a potentially sensitive audience. “Nobody would expect a warning before Bill Clinton made an appearance,” he said.
C.K. has been a regular surprise performer at The Cellar over the past several weeks, where his reception has been, according to the owner, “Very, very warm. Not different than the Louis C.K. ovations when he was just a big star.” Dworman and other club owners know that putting C.K. back in rotation could be a big risk. They must make the assumption that media animosity toward C.K., and the threats they receive, do not reflect the mindset of their average patron.
So far, it seems the risk has been worth it. Since instituting the “Swim at Your Own Risk” policy, Dworman ventures that fewer than a dozen people have opted to leave when they learned C.K. would be performing.
Dworman and other club owners who have allowed C.K. to perform are taking criticism for not acting as gatekeepers, responsible for protecting the public from “problematic” or “triggering” performers. The truth is, they are gatekeepers. They keep outrage mania and political sanitation out of comedy by allowing a controversial person to tell jokes at their clubs.
By not yielding to the hysteria, they give their customers a space that is free from insufferable wokeness and censorship, a place where everyone— on stage, or in the seats— is free to be imperfect.