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Louis C.K. and the Cult of the Comedy Club

After admitting to sexual misconduct, C.K. began his seeming comeback at New York’s Comedy Cellar, one of a handful of institutions where careers are made—and then protected

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A Hollywood comeback requires many more participants than whoever’s trying to come back. That’s been true for many former personae non grata, and it has been true so far in the saga of comedian Louis C.K., who this week gave one of his first public performances since admitting to nonconsensually masturbating in front of several women. Just nine months after his latest film was pulled from release, manager Dave Becky ended their professional relationship, and FX cut off a prolific partnership, C.K. took a tentative step toward ending a hiatus that’s proved shorter than the one between some seasons of his eponymous TV show. His venue: New York’s famed Comedy Cellar.

Stand-up comedy is an art that takes place in public, and to resume his practice, C.K. required both a stage and an audience. The Cellar was a natural choice: C.K. has a longstanding relationship with the institution, placing it prominently in Louie’s opening credits and filming its comic interstitials there. The tiny West Village space is also notorious for unannounced A-list drop-ins, and on Sunday night, C.K. became one of them. The Cellar’s 115 patrons may not have known C.K. was coming, but according to a New York Times report, they received him enthusiastically, offering a ovation before his 15-minute set even began. A Vulture interview with two audience members describes a more ambivalent mood, with some members of the crowd stunned or stone-faced while others vocally welcomed C.K. back to the fold.

Owner Noam Dworman wasn’t at the Cellar when C.K. went onstage; the final call on C.K.’s performance fell to Sunday’s emcee. Since this weekend, however, Dworman has offered several interviews in which he defended the decision: “It’s not an open mic, but it’s Louis C.K., somebody famous like that … I don’t consider it a decision,” Dworman told The Hollywood Reporter. The proprietor also elaborated further on his thinking behind C.K.’s reappearance, and any potential ones he might make in the future. “I think too many people are interpreting it as a reflection of how we feel or don’t feel about what Louis was accused of, or admitted to doing. It’s not really about that,” he explained to The Washington Post. “It’s more of an ACLU approach, which I’ve always had, which is to say that we’re a platform for comedy, that handing out punishments is something that institutions of courts of law do.”

Such a neutral framing of the Cellar’s position belies the club system’s role in perpetuating comedy’s power structure. That stage time at one of the most renowned spaces in the country doesn’t confer approval would surely come as a surprise to the thousands of comedians who’ve toiled in hopes of earning a Cellar spot and never gotten one. “I ran the light”—meaning, went over one’s allotted time—“at the Cellar once and that was enough for them to never have me back,” stand-up Emily Heller tweeted on Tuesday. In comedy, stage time is a precious resource vied for by performers and sometimes capriciously regulated by club staff. Taking it away is a punishment; conferring it is, at least in part, an endorsement—if not of a comic’s personal history, at least their right to the audience’s time and attention. It’s a business owner’s prerogative to use their platform as they see fit, but to act as if that platform doesn’t have an impact in itself is disingenuous at best. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.

Nor is Dworman alone in his ability to use his platform to C.K.’s benefit. Perhaps emboldened by the Cellar, the top brass at other New York clubs expressed similar sentiments about a hypothetical C.K. appearance to TMZ. From Louis Faranda, of Carolines on Broadway: “We all make bad mistakes in life and everyone deserves the right to be forgiven.” Al Martin, who owns the Broadway and Greenwich Village comedy clubs: “Everyone is entitled to a second chance.” Bill Boggs, of the Friars Club: “We were repulsed by his actions … [but] we can’t punish people for the rest of their lives; we can’t assume they haven’t learned.” Together, these men form a chorus of gatekeepers: C.K. now has access to the rarefied rooms they control.

C.K. himself, it’s worth noting, has stayed silent on the matter of his own indiscretions since his written statement of remorse in November. The actual Cellar set made no mention of his misconduct nor the firestorm that ensued when it became public; C.K. hasn’t issued a statement about his intentions, or announced any subsequent plans. Whether or not it’s desirable for C.K. to turn the real harm he’s done into fodder for his tarnished image as a self-aware male ally is far from clear. As discomfiting as it is that C.K.’s strategy on Sunday night, and possibly going forward, was to act like nothing’s changed, it’s equally uncomfortable to contemplate a forgiveness tour that turns remorse into box office receipts. What’s certain is that, in the absence of any real position to grapple with on C.K.’s part, we’re left with the very real party line of Dworman and his colleagues. And, in the end, their opinion carries just as much weight.

The torrent of rage and frustration unleashed by C.K.’s Cellar performance was not entirely directed, as some have complained, at a single, unpaid set the length of an average football halftime show. Rather, the emotion was preemptive, with an eye toward what probably lies at the end of the domino chain that begins with an unannounced drop-in. Clubs are where comedians test and hone new material. Then, they tour with it, taking in healthy profits from ticket sales. Finally, they film it and release it as a special—typically via a multimillion-dollar deal with an outlet like HBO or Netflix, but thanks to the same website he used to sell multiple specials as well as Horace and Pete, C.K. already has a personal, owned-and-operated distribution system. C.K. always had the infrastructure to stage a more seamless reintegration than almost any other figure chased out of the spotlight by scandal. Most just didn’t think it would happen so soon, and with such willing participation by arbiters like Dworman, who’s perfectly aware where all this leads: “It was a typical set from a guy who’s starting fresh and developing a new hour of material,” he observed to THR.

There’s also the matter of the precedent C.K. seems close to setting. C.K. is the first of the high-profile perpetrators identified in the post-Weinstein #MeToo moment to attempt what figures like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose have only discussed: a resumption of the post he occupied before his disgrace, essentially unaltered. Much of the anger and distress greeting C.K.’s return is rooted in a perceived helplessness, and a frustration that #MeToo may have turned out to be nothing more than a pause button on business as usual. If the Cellar crowd’s enthusiasm was any indication, C.K. may still be able to fill seats and sell specials, and those still appalled by him will be powerless to stop it. Or, as one of the anonymous audience members put it to Vulture: “Everyone around me was laughing. That was just depressing.”

It all starts with the clubs. At the restaurant above the Cellar, there is an almost mythical comedians’ table, legendary among fans and memorialized on inside-baseball series from Louie to Crashing. Earning a seat at the table, as C.K. did long ago, connotes membership of a sort of club within a club—a tribe that may eat its young, but protects its own. There are romantic connotations to that tight-knit closeness. There are also sinister ones. Bookers may be sincere in their belief that wrongdoers deserve a chance at redemption; there’s no model for accountability on this scale, leaving everyone to make complicated ethical choices without any template but instinct. (It feels too soon to start the process, but a feeling isn’t an objective standard.) Still, by signaling that they’ll have C.K. anytime he asks them, these club staff are participating in the very system that kept him free from consequences for so long. It’s the same system that valued his career above Rebecca Corry’s—the same one that confined the allegations against him to anonymous blind items for years. It’s the system that makes the decisions everyone else has to live with, and it’s starting to close ranks.