Recommended Reading: The Return of Louis C.K.

The best of what we read about that 15 minutes at the Comedy Cellar.

Sunday night, comedian and actor Louis C.K. performed a surprise set at New York City’s Comedy Cellar, his old stomping ground (it’s the club he is en route to in the opening credits of his FX series Louie). It was the kind of unannounced drop-in appearance he and other comic heavyweights make there all the time. But this set, of course, was different; it marked C.K.’s first public appearance since the comedian admitted to several accusations of sexual misconduct that were whispered about and blind-itemed for years, and finally reported out in a (seemingly) career-ending New York Times investigation last fall.

According to the Times item on his Sunday night appearance, the comic was received “warmly,” greeted with an ovation “even before he began” his 15-minute set. Significantly, that piece only quoted men: Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman (“there can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong”) and fellow comic Mo Amer (“it was like a wow moment”). Vulture’s Hunter Harris went to the trouble of tracking down two women in the crowd, whose response was notably less enthusiastic. “There were at least four to five females that I could see,” one told her, “and three or four of them were not having it. They were just looking at him, deadpan, straight, not having it.”

You know who else is not having it? Some of our best cultural critics. So for the week’s recommended reading, we’re sharing some of the smartest responses we read to this test case in post-#MeToo “rehabilitation.”

Dana Schwartz on the subtext.

At Entertainment Weekly, Schwartz points out that the very circumstances of C.K.’s return — an unannounced appearance for an unwarned audience — bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the very acts that got him in this trouble to begin with:

Recall, if you will, the specifics of the stories women recounted about him. Louis C.K. — from a position of power either explicit (as a producer of a television show on which a woman was working) or implicit (as one of the most famous and acclaimed comedians in the world) — coerced women into watching him masturbate, or forced them to listen to him masturbate on the phone without their consent. What makes things even worse: All five of the women who agreed to go on record with the New York Times were comedians, and comedians who admired Louis C.K.’s work. In response, he turned them into props for his sexual fantasy.

And so, after what were undoubtedly the world’s most introspective ten months, Louis C.K. decided to surprise a possibly unwilling audience by claiming the stage in front of them, forcing them to watch him perform.

Mo Ryan is done.

Like most contemporary comedians, C.K. pinpoints Richard Pryor as one of his idols — and Pryor was guilty of plenty of off-stage sins himself. But one of the things that made him so influential was the degree to which he used the stage as his confessional, turning difficult events (like his bizarre 1979 weapons charge or his 1980 suicide attempt) into candid, painful, and painfully funny material.

C.K., disappointingly, did no such thing. In the Times, C.K.’s set is described by Dworman as “typical Louis C.K. stuff,” consisting of material about “racism, waitress tips, [and] parades.” Vulture added another key detail: there was also a joke about rape whistles. And this detail was too much for Mo Ryan, in a guest column at The Hollywood Reporter.

He could have released a comedy special on his site. It could have been an hour of real excavation. It could have been, just possibly, with the right approach, painfully tinged with humor, as he grappled with his history and damage. Damage done to multiple women and their careers, absolutely. But to the world, too. Because people looked up to him. People — myself included — at one time thought he was doing fine, vigorous work as he examined what it was like to be a father and a man and a citizen of the world at a weird time.

But this week, I feel like a rube. At that club, he appeared to just want 15 minutes of glory. How small and shabby. How disappointing. And ultimately, how infuriating.

Alison Herman on the cult of the comedy club.

Over at The Ringer, Flavorwire alum Herman takes on one of the many distressing elements of this story: the speed with which gatekeepers are clearly willing to welcome C.K. back into the already clique-ish comedy community.

Such a neutral framing of the Cellar’s position belies the club system’s role in perpetuating comedy’s power structure. That stage time at one of the most renowned spaces in the country doesn’t confer approval would surely come as a surprise to the thousands of comedians who’ve toiled in hopes of earning a Cellar spot and never gotten one. “I ran the light”—meaning, went over one’s allotted time—“at the Cellar once and that was enough for them to never have me back,” stand-up Emily Heller tweeted on Tuesday. In comedy, stage time is a precious resource vied for by performers and sometimes capriciously regulated by club staff. Taking it away is a punishment; conferring it is, at least in part, an endorsement—if not of a comic’s personal history, at least their right to the audience’s time and attention. It’s a business owner’s prerogative to use their platform as they see fit, but to act as if that platform doesn’t have an impact in itself is disingenuous at best. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.

Anna Merlan on where we’re at.

The timing of C.K.’s toe-dip is fascinating because so many other men, disgraced by accusations in the first flush of #MeToo, are gingerly testing the waters themselves. As Merlan notes for Jezebel, it’s no coincidence.

Each of these men decided in the space of, at most, nine months or a year, that now was a reasonable time to make a reappearance. (In [Mario] Batali’s case, he was reportedly looking for a “second act” back in April, just four months after the harassment and assault allegations against him first broke. He remains under criminal investigation.)

And in many cases, most specifically in the comedy world, that canny, cynical math is working. It’s almost like some internal egg timer has gone off, some He’s Suffered Long Enough whistle pitched at a register only powerful people in these industries can hear. CK’s attempted comeback will be—indeed, already is—a test case. To get past a truly damaging sexual misconduct scandal, it enough to just be quiet for a while?

Rebecca Traister on where we’re going.

Writing for The Cut, Traister is also interested in the cynicism of the timing, tying C.K.’s appearance to reports of Matt Lauer angling to return to television, and wondering what it is that makes these men so culturally indispensable — particularly when their victims were granted no such importance.

What does it mean that C.K.’s ovation began before he even started his set? It means he got applauded just for being Louis C.K. Which, he might recall before he gets off on that too much, is exactly the reasoning that kept women from gaining any traction when they reported their experiences with Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose. “That’s just Harvey being Harvey” and “That’s just Charlie being Charlie” were verbatim lines used to excuse the fact that those guys assaulted and harassed scores of women — they were just being themselves. Literally just being the powerful man is enough to get you a whole lot in this fucked-up world.

And that low bar should give lie to the fantasy that whatever these guys offered — talent or skill or pure mediocrity — was something that only they could offer, a rank illusion in industries in which women were systematically denigrated, harassed, and wound up banished or fleeing out of frustration, anger, fear, or a combination of all three. The upshot is, men who sexually used less powerful women consciously or unconsciously managed to clear the field of potential competitors, of whole populations of colleagues who might well have been more gifted, funnier, smarter, than they were.