On a brisk November night, a solitary man wandered around the plaza outside the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts on the edge of downtown. He had just flown alone from New York to see his favorite comic, Louis C.K., and he had an extra ticket.
He couldn’t find anyone to join him.
Shortly before the show started, you could have picked up a pair of $49.50 orchestra seats for $9 a pop on the ticket site Vivid Seats. After hitting the bar of a nearby hotel and asking numerous people outside the box office if they needed a ticket, the man went in by himself.
“I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to see him after what he did,” he told me, declining to give his name because of the controversy surrounding C.K. “I love him, but I don’t want to get in any trouble.”
Two years after admitting to sexual misconduct with female comedians and associates, Louis C.K. is back on tour, landing for the time being in some pretty far-flung locales. I caught two shows in Richmond, Va., before arriving in Raleigh to watch C.K. perform his act. Next he’s heading to Illinois for dates in Peoria and Rockford, then to Dubuque, Iowa, before going overseas to Israel, Italy, Switzerland and Slovakia.
The dates are the first official foray of a comeback that C.K. began in comedy clubs nine months after confirming that he masturbated in front of female comedians and associates, issuing a statement saying, “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”
What C.K. heard is anyone’s guess, because he’s still defiantly saying what he wants. If anything, he’s even more aggressive these days in exploring and assaulting societal norms and boundaries. “Let’s talk about retarded people for about 20 minutes,” he says early on in his set. He doesn’t actually spend that much time on the subject (though it feels like it), but the introduction serves as a mission statement. Saying the wrong thing, he says, is the whole point of his comedy.
So, no, C.K.'s exercise in “listening” doesn’t lend itself to an onstage apology for his sexual misconduct. He does note that he has learned things during his time away from the public eye — how to eat alone in a restaurant with people making obscene gestures toward him, who his real friends are (not who he’d like them to be) and that if a woman says it’s OK to masturbate in front of her, you still shouldn’t do it because it’s not “popular.”
Julia Wolov, one of the five women who accused C.K. of sexual misconduct in a 2017 New York Times investigation, responded to the comic’s assertion on Tuesday.
"[W]hat C.K. did was not done with consent,” Wolov wrote in an op-ed published in the Canadian Jewish News. “We never agreed nor asked him to take all his clothes off and masturbate to completion in front of us. But it didn’t matter because the exciting part for him was the fear on our faces.”
C.K.'s return comes at a time when headlining comedians are taking decidedly different routes in dealing with the #MeToo movement. Aziz Ansari, the subject of a 2018 online story about a date gone awry when signals were missed or rejected, returned in July with a Netflix special, the culmination of an evolving stand-up set that found him eventually addressing the allegations.
Dave Chappelle courted controversy during his provocative August Netflix special, defending Michael Jackson and C.K., noting that the comic “was a very good friend of mine, before he died in that terrible masturbation accident.”
Given his pungent brand, the question of whether the public is ready for C.K. to return to the stage remains open. Three years ago, he sold out large arenas like New York’s Madison Square Garden and the Forum in Inglewood. Now he’s playing 2,000-seat theaters. Both Richmond performances sold out, but there were scores of tickets for the first show available online, indicating that local brokers might have overestimated the market.
I paid $4 for my ticket to that show.
Before the scandal, C.K. stood atop the comedy world, winning Emmys for his stand-up specials and acclaimed FX series “Louie” and lending his clout to help produce shows like Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” and “Baskets” starring Zach Galifianakis. His brutally honest, confessional comedy influenced a generation of young comedians. Charlie Rose, who had his own #MeToo scandal, once asked him what it was like to be called a “philosopher king.”
Now he’s regarded warily. In 2018, FX CEO John Landgraf said he loved C.K. and missed his work, but added that working with him again was “not really in my control.”
“Some of it is about what Louie decides to do, and some of it is about where we go as a society and when, if ever, we’ll be ready to have second chances or forgiveness — and who gets to be forgiven,” Landgraf told Variety. “Not my decision.”
“My feelings were all over the place,” Adlon told me earlier this year. “I couldn’t believe what the women had been through and I couldn’t believe what Louis was going through. And you’re not allowed to have empathy for him and you’re not allowed to condemn him and you’re not allowed to have silence around the subject because it’s just this feeding frenzy.”
C.K.'s new stand-up show has its moments. He remains skilled at skewering the stranger aspects of various religions and how even God must be confused by a jihadist’s conviction that he’ll be rewarded with 72 virgins for blowing up a bus in Tel Aviv.
What’s mostly absent now though is the appearance that he’s at least trying to be decent. It’s like C.K. is still doing his famous “Of Course ... But Maybe” bit — the one where he initially expresses his agreement with accepted beliefs only to then play the contrarian, offering incisive thoughts about modern hypocrisy — but now with only the slightest nod toward virtue. (See: “Let’s talk about retarded people for about 20 minutes ...”)
Late in the set, C.K. follows a blame-shifting joke on consent with an observation that women have the “skill” of being able to seem fine when they’re actually not. In the past, C.K. would have spent more time investigating why women grin-and-bear their way through galling circumstances and the ways that men, including himself, have forced women to put on that kind of facade. Now it just feels more like a way of excusing his “thing,” his transgressions.
C.K.'s joking lament that everyone now knows his “thing” might be the most ridiculous part of his new show. Talking about masturbation has always been a cornerstone of his act, an abiding obsession that in retrospect could be construed as a cover for his misconduct. In his 2017 Netflix comedy special, he noted that “men don’t really have judgment, they have intent. They just want to spray the world ... with their mist.”
Then there was “I Love You, Daddy,” the 2017 movie that C.K. wrote, directed and starred in, the film that was shelved in the wake of his scandal. It had a scene in which a character mimicked masturbating for 45 seconds, though that might be one of the less problematic elements of a movie about a TV auteur (played by C.K.) coping with the fact that his 17-year-old daughter has become involved with a celebrated 68-year-old movie director.
The movie’s message isn’t subtle: Great artists are amoral. And anyone who dares judge their behavior is an intolerant tyrant.
So, yes, C.K. has been opening his trench coat for years and audiences have chosen to laugh or look the other way. When he performed at a San Jose comedy club in January, he began the show with a straightforward declaration: “I like to jerk off, and I don’t like being alone.”
That joke remains in his act, though he has stopped making fun of the activism of the Parkland school shooting survivors. (“You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot,” he was heard telling an audience last year at a comedy club in Levittown, N.Y. “Why does that mean I have to listen to you?”) Perversely, he still tells a 9/11 joke that elicits groans and, in the case of the early Richmond show, a handful of walkouts.
That’s about the only pushback right now though. The Richmond and Raleigh audiences were generous, laughing in all the right (and, depending on your sensibility, wrong) places and offering vocal support for C.K. as he laid out the facts of his “weird” last couple of years. The demographics were dude-heavy, probably about a 70/30 split.
The approval must have felt good, given how often C.K. bemoaned his pariah status (“I had to go to Poland to do shows”) and his complaining about how he says New York, his current city of residence, has turned on him. “I used to love it there,” he said. “Now I hate it.”
Talking to ticket-holders, many told me that while they were “disturbed” by reports of C.K.'s behavior, they thought they could get past it. Some cited the statement C.K. issued after the initial New York Times story ran, noting he expressed regret. Others admitted that, yes, what he did was wrong, but it was minor compared with the actions of others caught up in #MeToo scandals, like Harvey Weinstein.
“Is he supposed to give up performing and stay away forever?” asked Christian Hargrave, who came from Charlottesville, Va., with his fiancée to see the Richmond show. “Louis C.K. has always been insane. That’s who he is. That’s why people love him. We don’t want him to change.”
“I mean, it does bother me, but not enough to keep away,” said Jeff Scott, who drove five hours from Morgantown, W.Va. Scott added that he paid $6 for his ticket, a bargain that came about because his buddy’s girlfriend didn’t want to see C.K., scrapping a planned road trip.
Where C.K. goes from here — besides Dubuque — is anyone’s guess. The standard playbook for men attempting to return to public life following #MeToo allegations is to express remorse and publicly demonstrate some evidence that they’ve learned from their mistakes. Former U.S. Sen. Al Franken and onetime TV political pundit Mark Halperin have gone that route recently and the response has been mixed.
“Halperin has said and done everything that so many people have said they want to see from Louis,” said a prominent comedy club owner who has worked with C.K. in the last couple of years. “And yet, even people who were interviewed for his new book have been forced to apologize.”
That book, “How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists On What It Will Take,” sold just 502 copies in its debut week. Its publisher, Judith Regan, blamed a “guilty-until-proven-innocent, cancel culture” for its failure.
C.K. is writing his own post-#MeToo playbook, appealing to an audience that’s exhausted with public shaming. If he’s looking for redemption, he’s doing so privately.
Even performing his comedy publicly is an explicitly private act. C.K. goes beyond requiring audiences to lock their smartphones in fabric pouches before the show, as is standard practice now at some comedy shows. Shortly after entering, a woman pulled me aside, pointed to my notebook, and told me that I couldn’t write down anything during the performance. A lanky security officer approached me a few minutes later. “You can’t take notes during the show,” he said, adding that he thought the order was a joke.
Yet, despite the notebook watchers and the metal detectors and the wanding, an audience member somehow managed to get a cellphone into the late show in Richmond. C.K. saw it, stopped his routine and called out for security. The device was locked in a pouch.
“Sorry, I have to,” C.K. said. “Otherwise, my life would be over.”