“Like, classic Louis, really really good.”
That was the comic Mo Amer, one of the performers who happened to be present at the Comedy Cellar in New York City for an event that took place—and took many by surprise—on Sunday evening: a set performed by Louis C.K. A show that marks, according to The New York Times, his return to comedy and to its various spotlights: a performance made “for apparently the first time since he admitted last year to sexual misconduct with women in the comedy world.”
C.K.’s appearance—a 15-minute set that included discussion of “racism, waitresses’ tips, and parades,” but did not apparently include discussion of the misconduct—comes as the former Today show host Matt Lauer has reportedly been telling fans in New York City, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back on TV.” It comes, as well, as Aziz Ansari has been staging a gradual comeback to comedy through his own sets at the Comedy Cellar, as well as shows in Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Neither comic, in their performances, appears to have mentioned #MeToo: “the reckoning,” without the reckoning. (Vulture, reporting on a recent Ansari show in Milwaukee: “To address the elephant in the room: Ansari didn’t.”)
The #MeToo comeback story—a common one these days, and one that will likely become increasingly common as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Times’ and The New Yorker’s initial reporting on Harvey Weinstein—is often discussed in terms of moral extremes. On the one hand, there’s the small and specific: the comeback, staged precisely at the whim and/or the strategy of the famous person in question, typically with the help of PR and legal teams expert in trial ballooning and public apologizing that use this combined expertise to plan the timing and messaging of the comeback. And on the other hand: There’s the suggestion, commonly invoked as a broad alternative to this precision, that if the comeback doesn’t happen in this precise way, at this precise moment, the famous person in question will be Banished Forever From Good Society. “There can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong,” Noam Dworman, the owner of the Comedy Cellar, told the Times. (Dworman invoked the prison metaphor even as he noted that he had not made the decision to host C.K. He had been at home, asleep, while C.K. had been on the Cellar stage, Dworman said; he learned of C.K.’s appearance only after club staff texted him about it.)
Famous man, straw man: It is an intoxicating combination. It is also a misleading one. Of course #MeToo comebacks are possible in the middle ground; of course notions of restorative justice—which are nuanced, and holistically empathetic, and focus their energies on victims as well as perpetrators—should be part of the calculus when it comes to conversations about forgiveness and responsibility and the long arc of a professional and moral career. What’s less tenable, though, is the widespread notion that the comebacks should be treated as all-or-nothing, black-or-white events. What’s less palatable is the insistent lack of nuance that tends to characterize discussions about comebacks, be it C.K.’s or Ansari’s or Lauer’s or Charlie Rose’s or Mario Batali’s or Garrison Keillor’s. Make his return entirely on his own terms—in a surprise set at the Comedy Cellar, in a series of shows in Milwaukee—or be banished; come back in precisely the way he wants, or be canceled. Those, it is so often assumed, are the options.
What results from that extreme thinking are discussions of comebacks—and the mechanics of them, in C.K.’s and Ansari’s case—that hew uncomfortably to the logic that made the comebacks necessary in the first place. So many of these stories of return revolve, still, around the desires of the men in question, to the evident exclusion of the interests of anyone who has the misfortune not to be famous or wealthy or powerful or male. In the story of his return, C.K.’s desire—now his desire to return to performing, and to the world as it was before—comes to supersede everything else. His desire is exerted, apparently, on the owner of the club he performed at (Dworman, asleep during the set, hearing of it only after the fact); it is exerted on the audience who happened to be in attendance at the Comedy Cellar on Sunday evening, who were given no choice about whether to participate in C.K.’s post-#MeToo return. (One audience member, Dworman said, called the club after the show: “He wished he had known in advance, so he could’ve decided whether to have been there or not.” )
Ansari, for his part, banned phones at his show—a common practice in comedy performances, but one that had the effect not only of allowing “an engaged audience unencumbered by social media,” as Vulture put it, but also of precluding widespread public discussion, or criticism, of his performance by that audience. The effect, once again? A comeback that plays out on Ansari’s terms. Ansari’s set, like C.K.’s, seems also to have ultimately elephant-roomed the allegations against him into slow, willful oblivion: “His material in this post-#MeToo context,” Vulture reports, “was more or less what it looked like before.”
Desire, once again—male desire, enabled desire, empowered desire—triumphs. The world’s physics return to their regressive inertias. The desire of the dudes, once again, becomes the force around which everything else, and everyone else, must spin: It will not be challenged. It cannot be refused. It is its own question, its own reply, and its own blunt truth.
It was not very long ago that Louis C.K., fueled by a want that saw no need to question itself, found it appropriate to masturbate in front of several of his female colleagues. In the apology letter he offered in November, C.K. acknowledged—in a way—the dynamics that will always be lurking in stories of sexual abuse: “The power I had over these women is that they admired me,” C.K. wrote at the time. “And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”
His comeback, though, offers another manifestation of power differentials—more proof of the myriad ways male desire still shapes and moves the world. Rebecca Corry, one of the women who discussed the behavior of Louis C.K. before he finally admitted to the truth of her claims, has received mockery, death threats, and other assorted tokens of hatred from members of the public who, despite the events of the previous year, still insist on bowing before the hulking altar of male genius. The man who inflicted his own wants on Corry, on the other hand, is staging his comeback to comedy at his own leisure, at his own pace, on his own easy terms. On Sunday evening, Louis C.K. strode onstage at the Comedy Cellar, hoping for—trusting in—the applause of a grateful audience. It is profoundly revealing that, in this desire, once again, Louis C.K. was justified. He received, the Times reports, an enthusiastic ovation.