In August, Louis C.K. performed at New York’s Comedy Cellar in his first set since admitting to sexual misconduct and harassment of female coworkers, stirring up controversy and debate about whether he deserves a comeback. This weekend, C.K. returned to the Cellar on Sunday night for another surprise set, the second stop on the redemption tour many don’t think he’s earned.
The fact that his initial return was a surprise was especially troubling to some audience members, who were upset to find themselves unexpectedly face-to-face with an admitted sexual abuser. One woman described the experience of his first set back to Vulture as “so uncomfortable and so disgusting.” This time around, Comedy Cellar has a new policy that they’ll foot the bill for anyone who wants to leave in the middle of a show because a surprise guest makes them uncomfortable. “Swim at your own risk,” is now printed on tickets and posted by the front entrance, with a logo of a swimming person. “We never know who is going to pop in,” reads the warning. “If an unannounced appearance is not your cup of tea, you are free to leave (unobtrusively please) no questions asked, your check on the house.”
Norm Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar, tells Rolling Stone that he’s been considering the issue seriously. “I don’t know what else to do,” he says, though he declined to say whether or not he ever considered the option of disinviting C.K. from performing at his club in the first place. “I’ve thought about this from every angle, and have sought a lot of outside advice to try to guide me.”
“The one complaint that I felt I didn’t have a good answer for, was customers who came who felt ambushed,” he says. “One option was to put [C.K.] on the line-up, but for practical reasons that won’t work, so I decided the next thing to do was to have this policy and give customers notice.”
“This is not the first time we’ve had someone who became controversial, but this is the most serious time,” Dworman says. “This is the kind of place where these people might show up. Comedy is that kind of world.” Aziz Ansari also made his first steps back from a short-lived #MeToo exile at the Comedy Cellar in May.
“I don’t feel that there’s a clear standard out there in the world of when someone is supposed to be fired or denied an audience,” Dworman told The Hollywood Reporter after C.K.’s August set. “And I don’t think anyone’s come after the theaters and stages that allow Mike Tyson to tour the country with his show, and Bill Clinton is still invited to charity events.”
“Listen, we are really a free-expression outfit,” he said. “People should not take me allowing them to perform as my approval of their character or the things they’ve done in their lives.”
The comedy world is wary of anything that looks like censorship, and rightfully so. Stand-up comedy only works if comics are free to push the boundaries with their material, and that sometimes means making people uncomfortable. To preserve this freedom, club owners, bookers and comics tend to jump to the defense of comics whose material is deemed offensive.
But an important distinction is that the objections to C.K.’s return to comedy aren’t about censoring unsavory material, they’re about giving a platform to a man who has created an unsafe environment for his female colleagues in the past, and in the process, sending a message to female comics (and, by extension, female patrons) that their safety isn’t important. Customers who don’t want to condone his behavior by watching him perform aren’t objecting to the man’s art or threatening his freedom of expression or the sanctity of comedy. They’re objecting to the perpetuance of a culture that leaves it up to women to remove themselves from unsafe environments rather than working to make those environments safer.
Yet, as Dworman said in August, he feels it’s not his place to tell C.K. he isn’t welcome. “I’ve spoken to many, many, many female comics, many of whom take this issue very seriously. I don’t remember anybody feeling that he shouldn’t be able to perform anymore. Although some have said that they don’t want to sit at the table with him, things like that,” he said. “Having said that, that doesn’t extend to the female comics that were involved in these things with him, and I know that they feel quite differently.”