Less than two years ago, acclaimed American comedian Louis C.K. was accused of sexual misconduct by five women.
Next week, he’ll perform at six sold-out shows at Rumor’s Comedy Club in Winnipeg.
Seems... about right.
That C.K. is playing at comedy clubs and not, say, arenas is telling and, perhaps, strategic. This is a comedian who has sold out Madison Square Garden eight times. Now he’s playing a run of club shows at Rumor’s. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
At least, that’s the impression I suspect C.K. wants to give, that he’s repaying his dues.
"It’s good to start over at 52," he told the crowd at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto, where he’s currently doing an eight-night stand. Now, I don’t know what the tone was because I wasn’t there (even if I was, I would’ve been forbidden to take notes), but either way, I nearly detached a retina from the eye rolling. It’s less "starting over" and more, "picking up roughly where I left off because I can."
There are no cellphones permitted at these shows, which is not necessarily unusual for a comedy show. The no note-taking, however, is a new one.
C.K.’s shows come at a time when the comedy world is embroiled in a broader debate about so-called "cancel culture," a kind of boogeyman in that it sounds scary but doesn’t actually exist. Cancel culture refers to the wholesale public dismissal, rejection and boycotting — usually on Twitter — of a once-beloved person or idea.
One can get "cancelled" for all kinds of infractions — which makes the term rather meaningless — but when someone is declared "cancelled," you can bet they did something ranging from questionable to criminal. Comedians, in particular, seem disproportionately fearful of being cancelled, as though you can cancel a person the way you cancel a TV show (Roseanne and Roseanne notwithstanding).
But strip away the polarizing term and you’re left with a pretty basic concept: people should be held accountable for their words and actions.
As we’ve seen over and over again, people use their power, platform and/or privilege to cause harm in myriad ways. Sometimes it looks like a joke that turns rape into a punchline. Sometimes it looks like a string of homophobic tweets. Sometimes it looks like, say... appearing in black face (and then appearing in black face again two more times. That we know of). And sometimes, it looks like predation, harassment and abuse.
The #MeToo movement was a direct response to men in power who could act however they wanted, with impunity. We live in a different time now. One no longer gets to repeatedly expose their wang to unsuspecting women and then sleep soundly on bags of money and critical acclaim. That’s a good thing. That’s the point.
Part of what made the #MeToo movement so satisfying was its swiftness. Here, finally, men were being held accountable. The dam broke and the consequences were immediate. People were fired. Pedestals were toppled. Some people, including Harvey Weinstein, were even formally charged.
There were immediate consequences for C.K., too. He confirmed the allegations were true. Professional opportunities were rescinded; his film, I Love You, Daddy, was shelved. Colleagues distanced themselves. And many people, myself included, saw him in a new, harsh light. C.K. always seemed like one of the good ones: smart, progressive, funny.
But then, roughly nine months after he swore in the New York Times that he’d "step back and take a long time to listen," after a "long and lucky" career, he was back onstage at New York City’s Comedy Cellar. And now he’s on a club tour. Won’t be long before he’s back at MSG.
Two years after #MeToo, we’re asking now what? What happens to these "fallen men"? Does the punishment fit the crime? What’s too soon for a comeback? Who gets a pass and who doesn’t? Should we forgive?
No one is guaranteed anything: not an audience, not a laugh and certainly not forgiveness. But C.K. is at a level where he can safely bank on getting all three. That’s the myth of cancel culture. For as many fans C.K. has lost and alienated with his behaviour, he has just as many that clamoured to buy tickets to his show. His biggest supporters will make excuses, justifications and apologies on his behalf.
That’s why we have to have so many exhausting conversations about "separating art from artist." People just want to enjoy their comedian without having to think about the women he’s harmed. That’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about things being "ruined." We don’t want to think about our artists doing bad things because what does that say about us?
Louis C.K. sold out six shows in Winnipeg. It’s easy to make a comeback when you know you’ll be welcome.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Thursday, October 3, 2019 at 8:18 PM CDT: Adds bg image