Several years ago, I was in New York and took my daughter to the Comedy Cellar, where we saw a half-dozen comics perform. They were all pretty good, but we weren’t familiar with any of them except Judah Friedlander, who she knew from “30 Rock.” We were also happily surprised to get a drop-in set from Amy Schumer, who took the stage for about ten minutes to try out some material she was developing for an appearance later that week on David Letterman’s show.
My daughter has gone back to that comedy club a couple of times, including a couple of weeks ago. But she was not there the night Louis CK suddenly appeared and took the stage for the first time in ten months since he admitted sexually harassing women. When the story broke, we traded emails about it:
Her: I did mean donating an equivalent amount. And you’re right about forcing people to be exposed to him against their will. Like, oh, you publicly confessed to being gross and sexist and abusive? Better replicate that behavior mere months later in a public forum without acknowledging it, while making a joke about sexual assault! What a fantastic idea!
I had been a fan of Louis CK for a long time, but was horrified by the news of his actions and concerned about the women whose lives he impacted so negatively. Remember, these were not “allegations.” He confirmed he had exposed himself and masturbated in front of them, shamed them when they told others about it, and (in some cases) actively worked to suppress their careers. At the time, I felt that FX was right to cancel his TV series, and his movie, “I Love You, Daddy,” was never released. However, I held out hope that someone as smart as Louis CK would perhaps be the one sexual aggressor who could not only see the error of his ways, but be proactive in changing the culture that allowed those women (and too many others) to be victimized by powerful men.
Staying quiet until he was ready to do a stand-up set was not the answer. Clearly, he’s been thinking more about how to get his own career back on track than on what he should be saying and doing instead.
In The Hollywood Reporter, Mo Ryan has written a powerful piece entitled, “Louis CK Has Clearly Learned Nothing — And I’m Done,” which echoes my feelings about him. An excerpt:
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.
He could have given advance warning to the comedy club patrons and staff (which, going by statistics, almost certainly included survivors of sexual assault), so that they could have chosen whether to stay in the room with him. But whether anyone liked it or not — and how some folks cheered! — he made sure he was calling the shots. He obviously just wanted to soak up the glory and the applause again as he made an unearned return to the stage.
Even then, even then, he could have made a different choice when it came to his material. But no, all the audience got was average comedy club bullshit, as if nothing had happened. Like the last year was a waking nightmare that had no impact on anything. He didn’t take even one step down the road to a new chapter. Instead, he twisted the knife.
Before posting this, I sent it to my daughter for permission to quote her and see if she had anything else to add. She did:
The thing about abusers is that not all of them look and act like stereotypical abusers. Some are smart. Some are friendly. Some do good things for the world, and then when their abuse is eventually uncovered, folks are shocked to learn that people they’ve idolized have committed heinous and harmful acts. Therein lies one of the many problems with hero worship. If we can’t hold celebrities like Louis publicly accountable for their actions, how can we expect those without their platforms to hold themselves accountable and to stop?
These abusive celebrities are a mere microcosm — a symptom — of a much larger system of abuse that affects nearly everyone, even more so folks with marginalized identities. So we can call Louis smart, or Bill Cosby a father figure, or Kevin Spacey a great actor. But those qualities don’t supersede the harm. In fact, that harm only grows when they, and we, try to make these flimsy excuses.
I don’t know yet if there can be forgiveness, and it’s not my place to say, having not been personally abused by these men. But I do know one thing: forgiveness demands accountability, and accountability cannot happen without listening to the voices of the abused. We must not take away their agency and control; to forget them would be a huge disservice. These stories do not belong to abusers. They belong to survivors.