Louis C.K. returned to the stage this week, and he’s thrown the comedy world into turmoil.
Twitter is flooded with overwhelmingly negative reaction to Louis’ return to the Cellar, with the vast majority of those speaking out saying that he shouldn’t be allowed back on stage, at least not yet. His crime was too great, many have said, and his penance too slight. Some called C.K.’s 10-month exile nothing more than a vacation, although undoubtedly one of the most expensive vacations imaginable given how many jobs he was fired from, and that his feature film was shelved, indefinitely. He’s also been a pariah, lost friends, and was dethroned from a career path that was arguably one of the brightest of our generation. But ultimately it’s not up to social media to decide- it’s up to the clubs themselves initially, and ultimately the audiences.
Last month at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, I had spoken with five gatekeepers– all club owners, managers or bookers– and we talked about the Louis C.K. question. Only one person in the room said he wasn’t sure if he would let Louis go on stage at his clubs. The others, two of them women, answered emphatically that yes they would let Louis C.K. on stage at their clubs.
Since that article posted last week, Louis C.K. made his first and second returns to the stage in New York, first quietly at Governors in Long Island, and later at the New York Comedy Cellar. Most are applauding Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman who- despite taking heat for his decision- eloquently gave his reasoning for his decision to multiple press outlets including The Interrobang and at length with The Hollywood Reporter.
Against that backdrop, I set out to find out what other New York City club owners, bookers and, managers thought of “the Louis C.K. question” and whether he would be welcome in their clubs. I learned that most of the clubs are uncomfortable and nervous about the question. The majority of clubs were not yet ready to go on the record about this. Some who were willing to talk to me became uncomfortable afterward, with at least one club owner asking me to please retract the quote. “It isn’t a good enough answer,” I was told. “This conversation is just too complicated to figure out in one quote.”
Another booker from one of the major New York City clubs outright said no to my invitation to address the issue, preferring not to dealing with the Twitter madness that Louis return has caused. Three other clubs didn’t respond to requests to talk. Some who spoke to me seemed to be figuring things out while we were talking. But given the razor-thin margins most clubs are working with, and the conflicting pressures of being both arbiters of free speech, and protectors of all who walk through their doors, its no surprise that many of the clubs are gun shy. For those who did speak to us on the record, keep in mind, these are not corporate press statements that were run past lawyers and suits, and should not be held to that standard. In speaking to the clubs I wasn’t looking to ask them to stick their necks out, but rather to keep the discussion ongoing.
Louis Feranda who runs Carolines on Broadway already spoke to TMZ and made it clear he would absolutely put Louis on stage, citing a love for Louis that he could never turn his back on.
Gina Savage, who books the newest club in town, West Side Comedy Club, had no trouble giving her position. Gina said she spoke for everyone at her club in supporting Louis’ choice to get up at clubs again. “While we don’t condone his actions—he is remorseful, he has apologized and we are ready for his return t the stage.” West Side is a 100% female run club that prides itself on increasing stage opportunities for women, and providing programming that is pro-female.
Upper West Side club Stand Up New York felt equally strong.”Short answer, we would, absolutely,” Jon Borromeo told me, mentioning that they’ve had many polarizing figures in their club in the last couple of months including Milo Yiannopoulos, and Roseanne Barr did her first public appearance on their stage. “We’ve had people like Michael Moore that have been there as well that actually walked the whole room.”
Borromeo echoed Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman’s comments, about the role of comedy clubs. “We’re a platform. We are not there to kind of judge,” he said, adding, “if he came in and he wanted to do some time, yeah, absolutely.” Borromeo said he understood that there would be patrons and possibly other comedians unhappy with that choice, and he would respect their decisions to leave. “If there was any comedian that felt that they were uncomfortable to perform afterward or didn’t want to be in the same room or maybe if there was a customer that just felt kind of sidelined … not sidelined, but rather they felt kind of ambushed. We would have no problem with saying, no problem, you’re more than happy to leave. That’s just our feeling behind it. We want to give the opportunity to everybody.” Borromeo added that they would try to give some kind of announcement ahead of time that someone controversial would be performing and give patrons the chance to leave.
“Our clubs are gyms and everybody’s working out in these clubs,” he said referencing the line’s original source Eddie Murphy, and sometimes Yannis Pappas. “Then on the other side of it, I’ve heard that every single club is like Switzerland. Nothing can go wrong at a club and it’s not the time to kind of bring up old beefs or anything of that nature. Yeah, we like that kind of idea behind it, but we like the idea that people feel comfortable.”
“We’re comfortable with the fact that somebody like Roseanne Barr reached out to us and said, hey, I want to come on your stage and do my podcast and have my first public appearance. It was a great feeling. Obviously, there’s part of us that knows that what she said was not very PC, but at the same time, we also know that she is a comedian and if she wants the opportunity, who are we to say no to that? We’re just a platform. Same exact concept as…. I’ll bring up Noam’s line that he said it was whether it was Bill Clinton or Mike Tyson, they’ve all had their pasts. So, yeah. Is a little soon? I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know. I don’t know if it happened, if Dr. Cosby came out and said he wants to do a stand up set would it be too soon?”
New York Comedy Club, which today celebrates the grand opening of their second location in New York City, had mixed opinions from its two owners and its booker. I spoke to owners Emilio Savone and Scott Lindner, and heard two dramatically different responses. Emilo, told me, “If Louis came here I would have no issue with him going up. I think comedy as an art form is a place where someone has an opportunity to talk to speak and I think people would rather know, would rather have him go up. I think audience members and people who go to comedy clubs are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. I think they want to know his perspective on things, what he’s saying. What Louis did obviously is unacceptable. What he did was gross, let’s call it what it is. But he did come out, he was open about it, he went away. Did he pay his time? I don’t know. But if he came into our club and wanted to go on stage, I would think we would be doing more harm by not allowing him to get up then having him go up.” But he agreed, if Louis popped in he wouldn’t treat it with the same celebratory tone that other famous pop-ins bring. “I would just let the audience, the market, the people dictate what that meant or didn’t mean.”
Lindner sees the situation from another angle. “I’m not sure whether its smart to even make a comment on it.” he said. “My gut is to say no. You [Louis] made some decisions that were really bad decisions. Everybody should get a second chance, I guess. But in the current landscape of the #metoo movement, I feel like it’s not an appropriate time,” he said, adding, “Let’s not forget that there are repercussions to your actions. So yeah, let’s applaud him getting back on stage but the truth of the matter is, he’s a predator. There’s a lot of people who should have the opportunity to be on stage and I don’t think its necessary just because he’s a celebrity to put him on there and give him that chance. So if you put a gun to my head now, I’d say no. But maybe that’s why I don’t book the comedy club.” He also said he couldn’t help but think about what his wife would say. “If he showed up at the club and we let him up I know my wife would be like ‘what is wrong with you,’ and I think that’s an important reaction. Comedy is an important part of our culture and particularly the #metoo movement and what’s happening with Louis. I think it’s not a light decision to make. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. It’s a great question.”
After listening to his partner speak, Savone agreed that deciding to put Louis on stage could reflect badly on the club, but that didn’t change his answer. “I feel that comedy is an art form, and he is, or was, or is a social voice,” he said. “Before all this, he was someone that people looked at to be a social voice. His comedy exceeded a lot more than just being a funny guy on stage, he talked about a lot of things. I’d be interested to see how he approached his set, and how the audience perceived him.” Savone also took the chance to use the platform to put out a request to someone he has long wanted to have on his stage. “If Eddie Murphy wanted to come by, he’s more than welcome to come up. We would have Eddie up, hands down.”
Ultimately Lindner and Savone agreed they would respect the decision of their booker, Amy Hawthorne, who on her own, felt as conflicted as the separate feelings the club’s owners expressed. She leaned in the direction expressed by Emilio, saying she would most likely put C.K. on her stages. “I mean, I honestly just can’t … I wish I had some great feminist thing to say that I would stand up to him and say, but no, I would probably let him on [stage],” she told me.
“Everything’s still a gray area with this now, because we don’t have HR in entertainment,” she told me. “And I think compared to a corporate job or even a job at McDonald’s, if you sexually harass someone, if you’re creepy and gross like that and you use your job to harm your colleagues in some way or take advantage of them, you get usually fired. There is a set repercussion for that and we just don’t have that. We’re making this up as we go. Like, we’re all learning and creating what are the repercussions for that?”
She continued, “Louis’ case is so tough, because it’s so gross and so creepy what he did, but it’s definitely not a Cosby or a Harvey Weinstein kind of a level of thing and he has been punished. Hs earnings and position have been damaged … but if you get fired from a job for sexual harassment, you can probably get another job. It might not be as good of a job.” She differentiated the case of the incorrigible offender, who could be expected to continue preying on people, and Louis’ case where the evidence seems to show that he stopped his predatory behavior long before it had become a public issue, saying it seems like it would have come out if he had been continuing sexually inappropriate conduct. “He was punished,” she said, “commensurately or not, depending on how you feel for what he had done and if he wants to try doing comedy at clubs, and clubs will ultimately stop booking you if you are not bringing value to that club. So, if all of America has decided they are done with Louis C.K. and nobody wants to buy a ticket to see him anymore, he won’t get to work anymore.”
So while she would bring C.K. on stage, she said she would take care to measure the reaction of the public, because the goal is to create a place where other comedians felt comfortable working, and where audiences felt comfortable. “I would see complaints,” she said. “And not just audiences, but in terms of the comedy community in general.”