So Louis CK made a brief, unannounced comeback on the stage of a New York comedy club on Sunday night, popping up for a fifteen minute set (according to the club owner, he walked up to the emcee and asked to go on). As a reminder, it’s only been about ten months since CK was accused–and admitted to–multiple acts of sexual harassment, including masturbating in front of women whose careers were under his power, and causing the blacklisting of female comedians who had complained about his harassment, behavior is alleged to have spanned more than a decade.
It is, of course, unsurprising that CK, and other accused and admitted harassers and abusers who have experienced career setbacks and collapses in the last year, should be trying to crawl back into the limelight. #MeToo is almost a year old now, and while some of the entertainers exposed by it–Kevin Spacey, who molested young boys, some of them underage; T.J. Miller, who seems to have been a general-purpose asshole as well as a sexual harasser–are probably beyond career salvation, Hollywood has never valued the safety, well-being, or career prospects of women highly enough to prioritize them over its adoration of successful white men. CK’s calculation, that his fame and name recognition would get him back on stage, was a very easy one to make. It’s also, of course, morally reprehensible, and everyone involved should be deeply ashamed of themselves and, in a just world, looking for a new job.
(To this group we must unfortunately add the audience for CK’s impromptu set, who apparently reacted to his taking the stage with a standing ovation and no walkouts. Stand-up comedy is practically synonymous with malicious heckling, and yet it seems that not a single member of the audience that night found it in their heart to boo CK, as he so richly deserves. After all, his only crime is abusing women, not the far more egregious sin of actually being one.)
Happily, there’s been some pushback to CK’s attempted comeback. Rebecca Traister at The Cut and Caroline Framke at Variety have both pointed out that CK is not entitled to a stage, that he has done nothing to make restitution to the women whose careers he blighted in order to protect his own (for a particularly infuriating account of same, see Rebecca Corry, writing in The Vulture in May), and that ten months is a piddling amount of time for CK to have retired into semi-obscurity with his millions over crimes that, if he were not rich and famous, might have landed him serious prison time. Other comedians have also pointed out that CK’s return to comedy is a workplace safety issue, as well as an egregious violation of comedy’s alleged protectiveness of its practitioners.
Louis CK being “banished” from stand-up comedy wasn’t some kind of petty punishment, it was a fucking workplace safety issue.
— Bris Farley (@IanKarmel) August 28, 2018
If Louis CK had stolen jokes, he’d be a fucking pariah. But instead he stole careers and passion and trust from possibly brilliant comedians – women that we’ll never get to hear from – and that is worse. Or it should be.
— Jason Filiatrault (@jfiliatrault) August 28, 2018
But you already know what I’m going to talk about. Hell, you probably know the exact counter-arguments I’m about to quote. Almost from the moment #MeToo came into existence–hell, before we were even calling it #MeToo–there were people rushing to argue that it had gone too far, and haven’t these people suffered enough, and can’t a person come back from a mistake. This time, it was comedian and actor Michael Ian Black (whom I had not, to my knowledge, heard about before yesterday, but who a lot of people on my feed seem to have thought highly of), who dedicated most of his day to CK’s defense.
Will take heat for this, but people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives. 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. https://t.co/QmqdGJnIjy
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) August 28, 2018
Really quite a lot to unpack here, starting from the notion that having to live quietly with your millions for less than a year constitutes “serving time”, and continuing with the complete indifference to the careers CK destroyed (it took Talia Lavin a day of concerted work to get Black to make even the most paltry concession to this point). But what I find shocking (if, unfortunately, not surprising) is the assumption that CK’s return to the public stage is inevitable, and that the only question is whether it’s been long enough. Even among people who have been criticizing Black, in the comments to this tweet and others he made throughout the day, I kept seeing the notion that calling for CK to be banished from comedy forever was somehow a bridge too far.
Whereas for me, I’m happy to say: Louis CK should never be allowed on a comedy stage again. It doesn’t matter how hard he works and what amends he makes and how much he changes–though, to be clear, so far he’s done absolutely nothing to actually work towards forgiveness. A public platform is a privilege, not a right. In CK’s field in particular, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people vying for even the smallest spotlight. Some of them are furiously talented, with ideas and perspectives we’ve never even considered. Most of them, we will never hear from. Louis CK had one of the biggest spotlights in the business, and he used it to abuse people, and to stymie their careers. You don’t get to come back from that. It is perfectly reasonable to say that other people–people who have not misused their power–should get to go on stage before, and instead, of him.
Trying to elaborate on his argument later in the day, Black tried to argue that unless #MeToo dangles the hope of full restitution before men who have abused women, they will have no motivation to change.
The #metoo movement is incredibly powerful and important and vital. One next step, among many steps, has to be figuring out a way for the men who are caught up in it to find redemption.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) August 28, 2018
And then later, on his blog:
When I said I was happy Louis is trying to find his way back, I am happy that he is trying to move into the uncharted territory of finding redemption at a time when redemption is hard to find.
Here we see privilege at work. Louis CK has done absolutely nothing to indicate that he is seeking redemption. He clearly wants his career back, but there has been absolutely no indication that he regrets his past behavior (except inasmuch as he regrets what it eventually cost him), much less any attempt to make restitution to his victims, or work on himself to try to become a better, less toxic person. But because he is a famous, rich white man, Black automatically assumes the existence of his regret, and reads his attempt to get his career back as an act of attempted redemption–and then he gets mad at the rest of us for refusing to share in his fantasy, and castigates us for our cruelty and lack of charity. (Nor is this a phenomenon unique to CK. At least once during the inevitable Al Franken discussions that crop up here with depressing regularity, I was told that Franken was clearly sorry, despite the lack of any evidence of same. And in case it wasn’t clear, Al Franken should never seek public office again.)
But more importantly, there is the poisonous, risible notion that it is the job of #MeToo–of women, of victims of abuse–to teach abusers how to be better. When the truth is, we all went to kindergarten, and we all know what actually working towards forgiveness looks like: contrition, repentance, and restitution. Recognize that you did something wrong; feel bad that you did something wrong; try to make what you did right. But that’s hard, unglamorous work. Even worse, it’s not the kind of work that will get you back to being famous and on TV (in fact, I would argue that a necessary precondition to someone like CK seeking redemption is recognizing that he has put himself beyond being a public figure ever again). It’s much easier to just go away for a few months, come back without saying anything, and trust that water-carriers like Black will spin narratives in which you are a tortured soul seeking redemption.
Which means it’s up to the rest of us not to fall for it. And that falls to men most especially. Stop making endless excuses for the privileged in a world where women and POC often don’t even get a first chance (as multiple people have pointed out, Winona Ryder wandered the wilderness for twenty years because she was caught shoplifting; Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd lost their careers because they wouldn’t sleep with Harvey Weinstein; Louis CK losing his career for a decade-plus of harassment is not a tragedy by any sane person’s definition). Stop confusing redemption for simply showing up. Stop insisting that people who clearly just want their spotlight back are obviously sorry. Stop prioritizing the justified comeuppance of victimizers over the suffering of victims. And stop putting up with this bullshit when other people do it. That is the only way forward, for all of us.