One would be hard pressed to find a comedian as well-known and formerly beloved as Louis CK. The dark, raunchy, guilty-pleasure comedy that oozed out of every special Mr. CK delivered spoke to a dark pit in the collective imagination of the audience — it was exciting. In this sense, it is difficult to confront the fact that the crimes he was accused of had already been hiding in his comedy under the guise of benign humor. It is almost impossible to know what lies ahead as the #MeToo movement is reignited with CK’s apparent return to the comedy scene. In this regard, the news has been eerily quiet in recent months, especially compared to the kind of material that plagued every conversation and story in October of last year. Allegations against CK materialized in the testimonies of five women who worked alongside the comic on various projects. As stated in the Nov. 9 New York Times article, Louis CK sexually exposed himself to Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, masturbated while talking to Abby Schachner over the phone, asked if he could masturbate in front of Rebecca Corry and allegedly masturbated in front of an unnamed victim. These were crimes he was able to repeat unpunished due to his status.  

At that point, few comedians were on the same level as CK, whose visibility extended beyond his standup. CK could boast a show on FX, appearances on Saturday Night Live, an impressive collection of awards and recognitions and heavily promoted collaborative projects with big names such as Chris Rock and Conan O’Brien. CK used to be known for his success spanning almost 33 years in the business. However, he is now known for his major fall from grace. One person complained to Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman that he felt “ambushed” by CK. His return is welcomed by some, while others believe his treatment of the scandal was inadequate and flippant. There are three major topics one must understand to make sense of this controversy: what kind of comedian CK was, what he did and who he will be as a comic.

CK’s comedy was almost confessional. He often commented on the monotony of daily life and was self-deprecating to such a degree that it made him unique. After joking about a particularly taboo topic, such as masturbation, CK would often remind his audiences that they were “in this with [him]” in an effort to make what he was saying permissible. It was an effort to build trust with the audience and push his comedic catharsis even further — evident in the fact that these were some of his most popular bits.

Everyone thought Louis CK was a sheep in wolf’s clothing — but he was really a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Many were under the impression that the numerous jokes about inappropriate interactions with women were harmlessly suspended within the dreamland/nightmare of his standup and his imagination. Sarah Silverman, another eminent comedian, has found it especially difficult to reconcile the two halves of the friend she thought she knew. Even though much of his material was tongue-in-cheek commentary on how much he hated parenting, Silverman says on her show “I Love You America” that she could “couch this whole thing with heartwarming stories of what a great dad he is” but would not, because CK needs to own up to what he did, and there is no excuse for this type of conduct. It was CK’s virtues that blinded many to what was going on.

Many are giving him the benefit of the doubt, as they think his intent was never malicious. As Dave Chappelle put it in a recent standup bit, “I shouldn’t say this, but Louis’ allegation was the only one that made me laugh.” Defenders of Louis CK make the argument that he is being portrayed in the media as a Weinstein or a Cosby and paying the respective price. On the podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, comic Kurt Metzger vehemently rejects the accusations brought against CK, saying, “We’re comedians, we don’t work for a corporation, there’s no power level … They made it look like he was a predator.” Rogan brings it back and asks if Metzger thought this was “just a weird thing that Louis did that was misinterpreted as sexual assault” and the “yes” that followed outlined what he perceived the issue to be: Metzger and CK versus ‘feminazis’ and their witch-hunt shenanigans. 

People are latching onto extremists like Metzger for the same reason that people loved CK. These people say politically incorrect things and thus voice the sentiments of a group of people not brave enough to do so themselves. The two sides agree, however, on these facts: Louis CK is a master of comedy, he did a series of terrible things and his apology and comeback were unacceptable. CK ended his open-letter apology by saying, “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” Louis CK has been out of the public eye for nine months — whether or not this is a long time is beside the point. The issue is that Louis CK came back and did a completely unannounced set, during which he talked about himself and acted as though his time out of the public eye had merely been a vacation. In the 90–minute set, not once did Mr. CK directly address any of the accusations or anything else he may have learned during his time away from the public eye. 

He begins by responding to the thunderous applause, by saying “I needed that.” Nonetheless, the tension is palpable. One is able to perceive half the audience holding its breath. Skirting around the elephant in the room, CK says, “I’ve had the impulse to kill myself just because I’m embarrassed, because I did something dumb … I want to kill myself for two reasons: One, I did something stupid, and two, if I kill myself then nobody will talk about the dumb thing I did.” The rest of his routine at the Comedy Cellar was old Louis, which appears to be his approach in coming back. A well-crafted joke about teachers having terrible lives yielded a disappointed sigh rather than laughter. Every masturbation joke sank in some way. CK opted for cheap pops in the form of race jokes and accents. At the end, he was called back for more. It all reinforces the point that only one thing is certain as of right now: This was not the right move. Rogan mentioned on his podcast that if Louis CK made a TED talk about what he learned this past year, he might draw flak, but he would be able to repair his reputation by committing himself to the prevention of sexual misconduct in the workplace. The stance he took in this comeback was that he spent nine months wallowing in his own despair. 

No one knows if there is a future for Louis CK in comedy. In an interview with Dana Weiss, Jerry Seinfeld said that “the problem for him will be: No one will ever, ever look at him without thinking about [the accusations], and he knows that.” Most of his career hinged on the dark and raunchy material people bought a ticket for when they saw the name ‘Louis CK.’ However, his plans for a tour are shaky at best. He mentions in the 2018 Comedy Cellar routine that the tickets to the show were $20, a laughable price for a man who sold out Madison Square Garden multiple times. Louis CK used to be someone who gave voice to America’s subconsciousness. It was CK’s job to move thoughts from the realm of the unspoken to the stage, and now, the audience’s sympathy for CK’s sexual misfortune is gone. It is ironic that he says in his special Shameless, “I can’t die, I got two kids and my wife doesn’t fucking work so I can’t die, I don’t get to die.” His most recent set was full of suicidal overtones, all evidence of his shame. However, as Sarah Silverman said, “It is vital people are held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are.” CK mentions in this comeback set that he performed at the Comedy Cellar to start his career. With this sort of material, he might end it there too.