I wasn’t going to attend the Louis C.K. Toronto residency, because I didn’t really want to write this. I just finished covering a major festival, and it was great. Let others argue, determine and decipher the meaning in Louis’ return to the stage. I would simply say I could not get a ticket and that would be that. But when a ticket was offered to me curiosity set in. The F.O.M.O. started to creep. So I decided to go.
Planning to go see C.K. that night raised all sorts of questions and conflict in my mind. I had no idea how I would react to being there.
I arrived early, and as the 8 pm show was filing in, I decided to go check the “alley.” Yuk Yuks Toronto does not have a green room but an alley. No comedian or friend of comedian enters into the club by the front door like a square. The preferred entrance is the back door that you access through that alley. Much to the disappointment of the comedy community in Toronto it was made clear this would be one show we had to pay for, and enter in through the front door. In the days leading up to the C.K shows, there was plenty of conversation about what the alley would be like that night. People suspected that it would be closed off cops, bodyguards, hyperbole.
As I turned down the alley there were no cops or traffic barriers. There was just Louis C.K wearing his familiar coat holding a brown vintage briefcase. Walking down the alley I had been in a million times, I was that perfect distance to grab a look without him noticing me. I just stared like a scene from his TV show. There he was. Louis C.K., the larger-than-life depiction of sexual misconduct, was just a man walking down an alley with a briefcase on his way to work.
I got in line with my friends Dan Guiry his wife and Morgan O’Shea who run the danger room at Toronto’s Corner Comedy Club—a room where anything goes and the principal of consent in comedy is still very much alive every Sunday. All who enter consent to the idea that anything goes, nothing is serious, and if you don’t like it don’t come (also no one will force you to stay).
While waiting to enter the club, I was thinking, I hope the show is worth it. I had gotten my eyebrows waxed and any woman will tell you ,you do not want to waste freshly waxed anything on a sad broken-down man. Filing down the stairs to the club there was an energy, an excitement in the air. It was like Bye Bye Birdie if Birdie was trying to rebuild his career after stroking it. We had amazing seats center booth.
I was thinking about something Pamela Adlon had said about C.K. after his sex scandal news broke. She said she was hurt to find out that a man who had supported her work so closely had acted like that, but urged the audience to reserve judgement to see if the art he made after this experience reflected growth and contrition. Up until now, I had used Adlon’s words as a nice place holder when anyone had asked me what I thought about him. My pretentious placeholder was about to be taken away.
C.K. took to the stage and was working out bits that had been worked out in shorter drop in sets. Watching him perform, I realized that I do not think it is a fair statement to say that Louis C.K. is unapologetic. Suggesting such is being obtuse to the subtleties in the performance. C.K. hurt people and as a result, he has rightly suffered the consequences of his actions. He’s experienced shame, disgrace to him and those close to him with many choosing to distance themselves for safety. But his new material is not doubling down on his controversy and proceeding with those who agree. Instead, I found it to be a deep exploration of why he is the way he is, divulging his first experience of perversion and being in trouble. The humor of unflinching honesty is what has always made him funny.
His show that night in Toronto was a raw exercise of the craft, putting these experiences on stage and finding the places where the humor ignites. Loss was a theme. Intolerance was a reflection. Differences were an absurdity expanded on from a point of view of a person who knows what it means to be truly hated.
There was one point in the show where’s C.K’s search for humor in an anecdote about his mother’s body being taken away for cremation was abandoned, the sadness and vulnerability of the moment was left on display for the audience to take in.
C.K clearly knows what he has done and felt the pain of his actions. There is a complex bit in his act about moans not equaling consent that demonstrates this. Louis C.K could not be the comedians he is if he did not feel remorse because he could not access the commonality to resonate with the human experience on the level people have come to expect from his work.
When the show finished. It was an experience that required me to be honest about my feelings. A part of me wanted it to be bad and started looking. It is all too easy to adopt the pre prescribed sentiments that are expected in controversial situations. These sentiments are strong and were the same sentiments that had made it clear it would have been wiser and simpler for me to sit this one out. Adopting them would certainly be an easier editorial to write. C.K had it! He lost it! It’s over!!
I knew what I had seen was one of the greats trying to rebuild after the lowest point in his career. I had to admit honestly. It was good stand up.
In fact, I enjoyed it much more than a show I had attended earlier that week, seeing a very clean comic with a gigantic following. That clean comedy didn’t work for me. I can’t explain why. Everyone around me was enjoying the performance and laughing, but I was bored. My boredom didn’t negate their love for him or their devotion or the pleasure they got from seeing him on stage. That’s because comedy is subjective and laughing is one of the only actions this personal and intimate we do in public spaces.
So why were people who did not find pleasure in C.K’s comedy creating feelings of shame in me for wanting to see the show? Well, because he abused his power.
Louis stands accused of sexual activity without genuine consent. But everyone in that club was consenting to be there. Yet there are those who want to decide that even those who are consenting to see him perform are somehow deeply flawed, and should not be allowed to decide to see Louis perform.
The answer to this great divide doesn’t have to be so complicated. If you consent to a C.K. comeback, participate. If you don’t, then do not. You don’t need to feel pressure to defend your decision, or negate someone else’s. This should be a choice on all sides of the equation.
Laughing is a physical expression of pleasure. What we do to get us there, and what we need to make it happen is as personal as what we keep in our bedside table or in our deepest fantasies. One person’s physical expression of aggression is another person’s kink and the only difference between the two is consent. Consent to the comedy you consume. Seek to understand the infallible parameters of joking around. Ideas and words can be used and explored in the name of having the physical pleasurable reaction of a laugh.
It is dangerous to lose touch with your feelings. You should use information to challenge them. But losing the ability to know what they are for the sake of being agreeable is truly disingenuous.
Comedy needs complicated people sharing their experiences to push the art forward. Complicated people does not mean criminals. Louis C.K was never charged or found guilty of any crime, so that distinction is fitting. There is no jail time when convicted in the court of public opinion, which makes it complicated to decide how to move on from what he’s done.
I was very conflicted after seeing C.K. I still am, but something I know to be fundamentally true is that losing success puts a drastic amount of perspective on how and what one will do to reclaim it. Rightly or wrongly, Louis C.K loves comedy and is fighting to get back in.