Too Soon, Louis C.K., Too Soon

Louis C.K. had a very good chance at rehabilitating his career. Then he took the stage at the Comedy Cellar

Louis C.K.
\ ERIC THAYER/REUTERS

Given that the entertainment industry is already full of douchebags, it may seem a little harsh to wish continued unemployment on the likes of Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr. But until they own their past odious behavior and truly apologize (and not with a sentence that includes the word “but”), I’ll be happy never to see either of them on TV again.

Until last week, I would have said that, as long as he proceeded with caution and sensitivity, C.K. had a very good chance at rehabilitating his career. But then he went and fell at the very first hurdle.

Following the uproar over his surprise appearance on a comedy stage – his first public outing since he was shamed as a sexual predator last November – his path to redemption is definitely going to be a far longer one than a few low-profile comedy gigs in Manhattan.

You’ll recall that, late last year, following a story in the New York Times that C.K. exposed himself to several young female comedians and masturbated in front of them (seriously, can someone explain that one to me? And is there a technical term for it other than “sad wanker”?), he penned an apology in which he pled guilty as charged.

After admitting that he took advantage of the five female comedians who had “admired” him, he concluded by writing: “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.”

Based on the reactions online and in newspapers to his reappearance on August 26, he hasn’t been listening enough. Powerful Op-Eds by the likes of Roxane Gay in the New York Times (“Louis C.K. and men who think justice takes as long as they want it to”) and Maureen Ryan in the Hollywood Reporter (“Louis C.K. clearly learned nothing – and I’m done”)  were fierce rebuttals slamming C.K.’s return.

Earlier this year, of course, Barr was fired from her own hit ABC sitcom “Roseanne” after tweeting a racist comment about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, and then blaming it on the sleeping aid Ambien. The show was canned but later resurrected as “The Conners,” with star John Goodman revealing recently that, unsurprisingly, Roseanne’s character has been killed off. This suggests her best hope of a future TV career will be as a political commentator on “Fox & Friends.”

Other than both pressing the self-destruct button on their own careers, Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr have very little in common. While Louis was placed on a pedestal by his peers, Roseanne was never placed far from the ducking stool. He was widely loved; she was widely seen as a conservative loudmouth whose most noteworthy trait was her remarkable dexterity in constantly putting her foot in her mouth.

The problem with being revered rather than jeered is that when the New York Times broke the news about C.K.’s actions, he had further to fall than Barr – who had been consigned to the “batshit crazy” benches long before she started singing the praises of Donald Trump – and even further to go to convince us he was actually worthy of a second chance. After all, what’s more shocking – if you hear that Charlie Sheen abuses fluffy kittens or that Tom Hanks does? (For the record, I’m pretty sure Hanks doesn’t.)

“Lovable curmudgeon” Louis built his comedy empire on doing things his own way: making his eponymous, beloved sitcom for FX whenever the muse struck; cutting out the middle man and offering the show “Horace and Pete” directly for viewers to purchase via his own website; creating critically acclaimed shows with other comedians (most notably “Better Things” with Pamela Adlon and “Baskets” with Zach Galifianakis); and, just as the harassment story broke, directing and starring in his own movie, “I Love You, Daddy.” Of course, that film will never see the light of day – hell, it was even deemed too toxic for France, the country that still loves Woody Allen.

Given this, you’d hope that C.K.’s first attempt at career rehabilitation would be a little more imaginative than an unannounced slot at the Comedy Cellar in New York. But no.

He reportedly received a loud ovation from the men in the room when, unbilled, he suddenly appeared on stage. According to a report in New York magazine quoting eyewitnesses, his appearance left many women feeling uncomfortable. Interestingly, C.K. received less applause at the end of his set, which included jokes about racism, parades and waitresses’ tips. Oh, and rape whistles. For references such as this was the phrase “Too soon” invented.

Although his set was only 15 minutes – an ironic length, given Andy Warhol’s worn-out quote – the clearest sign that C.K. has not done “a lot of listening” was his failure to mention his abhorrent behaviour once during his routine, instead offering the equivalent of “So, where was I…” That’s like an arsonist trying to burn down his own office on the Friday and returning the following Monday and blithely asking his scarred colleagues how their weekend was.

Given that C.K. grew up Catholic and his father later converted to Judaism, he will know all about the Christian concept of sackcloth and ashes, and also the Jewish act of atoning for one’s sins. Yet he didn’t even wait until Yom Kippur before trying to relaunch his career. Atonement, Louis – it’s not just an overrated British movie starring Keira Knightley.

What C.K. needs to recognize is that when a person has earned his fortune by presenting himself in a certain light, he then has a responsibility to confront his shameful behavior. If he wants to win back our respect and show that he really comprehends the enormity of his actions – how he abused five women, primarily, but also how he hurt the thousands of fans who also admired him – he needs to talk about the real Louis C.K. in the same way he might about talk about a person he sees masturbating on the bus (whether that be a passenger or the driver).

Like others, I would love to hear what Louis C.K. the comedian has to say about Louis C.K. the person. It doesn’t need to be in a comedy routine. It doesn’t need to contain punch lines. It doesn’t have to be in a script. But it does need to come from the heart, it has to help us understand his actions, and it has to make him worthy of a second chance. At the moment, he isn’t.

“There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am,” he wrote last November. Well, a joke about rape whistles and no mention of past misdeeds does not sound like reconciliation to me. Or if it is, I’ll throw my “Louie” DVDs in the trash (it’s not like I’ve felt in the mood to watch them in the past year) and move on.

C.K. was happy enough to bare his dick uninvited to women. He was happy enough to turn up to a comedy club uninvited to try out a new routine. Now he needs to bare his soul uninvited and then, just maybe, he may be able to start the process of expiation.