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Louis C.K. Is Just the Latest Proof That ‘Cancel Culture’ Isn’t Real

Is cancel culture real? Are people overreacting to an admitted sex pest selling out one of the most famous venues in the world? Does anything matter?

Comedian Louis CK

Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual misconduct, racism, and transphobia.

Depending on who you talk to, cancel culture is singlehandedly ruining the world. You can’t do anything, detractors say, without fear of being canceled. You can’t even tell a harmless joke at the expense of a minority or play grab-ass with the women at your office. You can’t blur the lines of consent or become obsessively transphobic and use your enormous platform to spread provably false rhetoric or make transphobic jokes in one of your $20 million Netflix specials or regularly jerk off in front of non-consenting women.

Unless, of course, you want to sell out a global comedy tour, or make millions of dollars off of an ongoing film franchise and an upcoming open-world RPG, or put out a few more $20 million Netflix specials. Or, apparently, sell out a show at Madison Square Garden.

Which is exactly what Louis C.K., the once-beloved comedian, just did. According to our own Rachel Leishman, even after the comedian admitted to sexual misconduct in 2017 and said he would reflect on his actions, his apology was essentially moot. He returned to comedy almost immediately, a move which “became emblematic of how ‘cancel culture’ will not take these men down, despite everyone’s complaints.” Now, only five years after C.K.’s defenders cried that hypersensitivity ruined a good man’s career, the stand-up has sold out one of the most famous venues in the world.

But maybe we’re overreacting. Really, who’s to say—the people who are often the targets of this kind of bigotry and malfeasance? I mean … no. It couldn’t be. But maybe? Let’s break it down.

Why was Louis C.K. canceled?

In November 2017, just a month after explosive reports about the extensive sexual misconduct, assault, and rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement, the New York Times published a damning investigation into one of comedy’s biggest names: Louis C.K.

Five women went on the record to accuse C.K. (whose real name is Louis Székely) of masturbating in front of them without their consent. While some accusers said that he asked, there was an undercurrent of threat to his permission-seeking. The comedian threw around his weight in the notoriously guarded world of television and film in order to intimidate them into agreeing to let him strip naked and masturbate. In other words, it was sexual coercion.

Two of the accusers recalled trying to tell their cohorts about the incidents right after they occurred, but were met with silence and a chilly reception. They could “feel the backlash,” they told the Times, from the people—especially the men—that they told about C.K.’s behavior.

Despite the fact that rumors of his misconduct were well-known in the comedy world since at least the early 2000s—and there was even a blind item about C.K.’s misconduct in Gawker five years before the Times article—it took multiple women going on record, just as #MeToo was gathering speed and making it hard to look away, for the allegations to stick. 

C.K. had previously responded to reporters who dared ask about the rumors with variations of “fuck off” or “it’s not true.” This time, however, he released a statement in which he admitted, “These stories are true.”

C.K. was at the height of his career, having shot and released yet another popular comedy special, 2017, hosted Saturday Night Live for the fourth time, and directed the film I Love You, Daddy all in the months leading up to the Times investigation. 

That all came crashing down practically overnight.

What happened to Louis C.K.’s career?

After the allegations surfaced—or rather, after they became too public to ignore—C.K. seemed to lose it all. 

He was dropped by his management company, 3 Arts, and touring agency, APA; HBO cut ties and removed his stand-up specials as well as Lucky Louie, the predecessor to FX’s Louie, from streaming; the distribution company behind I Love You, Daddy announced it would not release his upcoming film; TBS suspended production on an animated series he co-created and in which he voiced one of the main characters; long-time collaborator FX dropped him, canceled Louie, and removed his executive producer credits from Baskets and Better Things; and Netflix canceled the second in a two-special deal he had signed earlier in the year.

Following that dizzying list of losses, the comedian went from being seemingly everywhere to disappearing off the face of the earth.

It seemed to be all over for C.K., which he knew—and was ostensibly understanding of. In the same statement admitting guilt, he wrote, “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” And while his apology left quite a lot to be desired, at least he admitted to his wrongdoing.

But that’s just about where the silver lining stops.

In the vein of Weinstein—though to a much lesser degree—C.K. used his authority to manipulate his victims and threaten their careers in an industry that is all about who you know. C.K. was a powerful name, and to speak up against him was to potentially ruin your career. That, in and of itself, should have been enough to exile him to … well, frankly, to enjoy his vast fortune out of the public eye.

Yet, a scant five months after C.K. faced some financial consequences for his heinous actions, The Hollywood Reporter hypothesized about what a comeback could look like for the banished king of comedy. It posited that he could successfully make his way back to the public eye in practically the same way he built his career: by playing small comedy clubs.

Lo and behold, in August 2018, not even a full year after he admitted to abusing his power in order to literally get off in front of at least five vulnerable women, C.K. returned to the stage. Albeit, the cramped stage of the Comedy Cellar in New York, but a stage nonetheless, and an important one at that. He was done reflecting.

Granted, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for C.K., what with audience members heckling him and one audience member even yelling, “Get your dick out!” to protest his surprise appearances. Comedians canceled shows when they got word of clubs working with C.K., and there were even organized protests outside of some of his scheduled appearances.

To compound a self-centered move that would already upset survivors and allies, C.K.’s appearances were often unannounced. The audiences hadn’t consented to listening to a tight five from a multimillionaire bitching about gun control and other sensitive topics, including, allegedly, eight-year-old girls thinking about having sex (according to the same audience member who yelled at C.K. to whip out his dick). His comedy club comeback paralleled what exactly got him into trouble in the first place: he’s going to do what he wants to do, bystanders be damned.

Still, playing basement clubs with capacity for 150 isn’t the same as selling out stadiums and making multimillion dollar deals with some of the biggest TV and streaming networks in the business.

Did cancel culture hurt Louis C.K.?

According to C.K. himself, he lost $35 million in deals in the aftermath of the Times report. (He threw out that figure during an October 2018 stand-up set at the West Side Comedy Club, where he also described the experience of being exposed as a creep as “a weird year.”)

If you look at his financials, one could make the argument that, yes, cancel culture hurt Louis C.K. He lost out on tens of millions of dollars in deals, to say nothing of where his career could have gone had he continued his meteoric rise. He had his fingers in more pies than one could count, and he seemed happy to keep that trend going.

Certainly, the Times report changed the trajectory of C.K.’s career. He’s no longer a frequent face on American television, where at one point he was working so much that it was hard to avoid him. 

At the same time, C.K. is fine. Not just fine, in fact, but obscenely wealthy. He’s worth at least tens of millions of dollars; estimates range from $30 million to $52 million. In the days right after C.K. was dropped from all of his deals, Forbes reported that he had made $1 million playing eight shows between June 2015 and June 2016. If he had disappeared from the public eye forever, he—and his children and his grandchildren—would have been set for life.

Instead, after playing cramped clubs for a few years testing out new material that was shockingly bitter and lacked the self-flagellation and insights for which he was known, he announced his official return to touring in 2021. Many of those dates sold out, despite protests outside the venues and many voices expressing their discontent. Furthermore, C.K. won a Grammy in 2022 for Best Comedy Album—for an album about cancel culture.

And now? Not only did C.K. sell out Madison Square Garden for his January 28 show—filling just shy of 21,000 seats with people who apparently don’t care about the fact that he regularly and knowingly made women feel unsafe and powerless for the sake of his own gratification—but his entire winter tour is largely sold out. 

It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate that it’s only a matter of time until he’s back to writing, producing, and directing—and maybe even back in front of the camera again.

To make matters worse, we once again find ourselves arguing about whether or not cancel culture has gone too far by asking a shitty man to take a seat.

Is this really about Louis C.K., or is there something else going on?

Critics of cancel culture talk about how the phenomenon ruins lives; that it’s the will of a few extremists and often goes too far. That raises the question of what is far enough when it comes to holding people accountable for bad behavior—and, in some instances, criminal behavior.

When several well-regarded feminist writers and media personalities, including Marisa Kabas and Jessica Valenti, tweeted that his sold-out show at one of the world’s most famous venues is proof that cancel culture isn’t real, the backlash was swift.

One of the most prominent retorts came from Dan Friedman, a little-known mystery novelist who tweeted, “Louis CK has enough fans that he can sell out stadiums [sic], yet nobody will put him on TV. Cancel culture doesn’t mean that somebody’s audience abandons them, it means that institutions act to attempt to sever a person from their intact audience.”

Which basically reads, Oh, boo-hoo, my favorite comedian, who made women feel unsafe and used his power to fuck them over if they tried to tell on him, is no longer on TV, and therefore cancel culture has gone too far.

Frankly, C.K.’s comeback isn’t just about the comedian himself. Yes, the fact that he’s starting to worm his way back into the public eye after doing very little self-reflection (save for perhaps a self-serving, Lisa Rinna-esque “owning it” non-apology) is infuriating in the most straightforward way. Where once his comedy was subversive and often punched up, post-#MeToo C.K. seems to take joy in going after the little guy, whether that’s the survivors of the Parkland school shooting or people who, god forbid, stare angrily when he’s out in public.

He’s also a walking reminder that systemic change isn’t coming any time soon. To those who had hoped that the #MeToo movement meant that the many, many people who abuse their power and their subordinates would have to face legitimate consequences, seeing a man who victimized at least five women who were powerless to say “no” once again grow his massive audience hurts.

He’s also proof that cancel culture, despite panicked cries otherwise, isn’t real. While “cancel culture” and “canceling” has transcended its once-niche use in certain online communities (as with most slang, the idea of “canceling” someone got its start in Black communities and was subsequently co-opted by the white hegemony), Americans understand the phenomenon differently depending on where their political loyalties lie.

According to the Pew Research Center, where Americans who are left-of-center tend to define cancel culture as an attempt to hold powerful people accountable, right-of-center Americans call it censorship. This bears out in online conversations about figures like C.K., whose defenders include Ben Shapiro, among others.

Taking a step back for a moment, C.K. isn’t the worst this world has to offer. What he did was heinous, as anyone who has been targeted in a similar fashion can attest to, and yet, he’s not Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Kevin Spacey. What he did wasn’t technically criminal, even if it was disgusting. He’s still a good example of what cancel culture can and cannot do, and the reaction to his sold-out winter tour can tell us a lot about power and accountability.

Even if a powerful man does do something criminal, however, power protects power. The true consequences of cancel culture bear that out. Take Roman Polaski for example. In 1977, the then-44-year-old was arrested for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl; he entered a plea bargain in exchange for a lesser charge but absconded to France before his sentencing, where he remains to this day. He is also one of the most celebrated film directors of all time and frequently works with the biggest names in Hollywood, including vocal #MeToo supporter Sigourney Weaver.

Perhaps the best example of power protecting power is Mel Gibson. Once a Hollywood heartthrob turned celebrated director, in the mid-2000s, his star dimmed considerably following a spate of hateful comments and actions. He threw around the n-word, drunkenly called a police officer “sugar tits” when she pulled him over for a suspected DUI, ranted about The Jews™ in that same tirade, and even beat his former girlfriend and threatened her life (while throwing in some old-school, virulent racism for a little extra color). 

One would think that, if cancel culture were real, his star would not only have dimmed but would have been extinguished. Yet after a few years of silence, Gibson started regularly working both in front of and behind the camera. It started slowly at first, with appearances in Machete Kills and The Expendables 3. But that drip became a downpour, and he has 13 acting credits post-#MeToo. Not even calling Winona Ryder an “oven dodger”—a hateful term for Jewish people used most often by Holocaust deniers—is enough to end his career. He continues to write, direct, act, and win awards.

So it’s sadly unsurprising that Louis C.K. is staging a comeback—one that is likely to be a success. At the same time, C.K.’s return won’t stop critics from sounding the alarm and trying to hold powerful men accountable.

(featured image: Ben Gabbe, Getty Images)

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