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Opinion I feel sorry for Louis C.K.

Louis C.K. at the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Aug. 9, 2017. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

“What are you going to do? Take away my birthday? My life is over.”

It was at this point in a recent clandestinely recorded performance by comedian Louis C.K. that I realized I was feeling a surprising emotion. I generally don’t care about the plight of famous, wealthy and powerful men who have finally stopped getting away with their very bad behavior and are suffering the consequences. That’s part of why sexual misconduct is such an endemic problem, the sense that men such as C.K. — who admitted to a propensity for masturbating in front of women who were not actually interested in seeing his bits — Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby were more important than the women they are accused of victimizing. But listening to C.K. grouse his way through a truly depressing set at Governor’s Comedy Club in Levittown, N.Y., I realized I felt nominally sorry for him. C.K. may not be in jail, but he’s suffering a not-inconsiderable punishment: He’s stuck being himself.

On the long list of people I feel bad for, C.K. doesn’t rate terribly high, at least in terms of my immediate concern for their welfare. As he said in the set, he may have lost $35 million when the allegations against him came out, but he already had enough money before his downfall that he can tell jokes about the absurdity of going out and buying himself a gold watch. I’m more immediately afraid for kids who have been separated from their parents at the border between the United States and Mexico; for people starving to death in Yemen; for LGBT Brazilians under the newly inaugurated Bolsonaro regime; for children in Trump country who are dying of cancer because of environmental deregulation.

But it’s clear from the Governor’s Comedy Club set that being Louis C.K. at this particular moment is the perfect punishment for the comedian.

C.K.'s routine felt different from his previous work less in kind than in degree. (And as writers, including stand-up Vicky Kuperman and New York Times critic Jason Zinoman have pointed out, it’s reasonable to ask whether it’s fair to judge the recording as a finished work of art rather than a draft that’s rough in all senses of the word.) C.K. was on familiar ground with subjects such as divorce, feelings of disorientation and the fear that it might not be possible to change his life.

But this set had a quality of hopelessness and sourness to it, without any of the transcendence that made works such as his FX show “Louie” so emotionally engaging. This version of C.K. is spiteful toward his teenage daughter, unable to enjoy himself in exile in France, and despondent that he’s reduced to performing in a place where he has to heckle his own sound guy to get an adjustment on his microphone. There’s a difference between bitterness and introspection, though, and while the set let us know that C.K. feels very, very bad about life, it didn’t contain much to indicate that he understands how he ended up in this place that he hates so much.

That’s the worst curse of all, because if you don’t understand how you’ve plunged yourself into the sort of depths C.K. now inhabits, you’ll never find a way out. Only C.K. can explain why he started masturbating in front of women in the comedy world; only he can summon up the self-discipline to stop; only he can go to the people he has harmed and ask for forgiveness and make recompense.

There’s no question that making these sorts of amends is difficult, painful work. It’s certainly harder than popping up at the Comedy Cellar, as C.K. did on several occasions, or Governor’s, and bumbling through raw-and-perhaps-not-very-promising material.

But listening to C.K. complain, I was reminded of Kiese Laymon’s memoir “Heavy.” The book is about a lot of things: black Southern cooking, sexual abuse, exercise, masculinity and education. Most of all, though, it’s an argument that we do more damage when we lie to ourselves about the harm we’re doing to other people, and to ourselves, than when we sit down and reckon with the painful truths of our behavior and what’s driving us. Laymon may no longer be skinny, he may be working on his relationships with women and constantly reassessing his politics, but in trying to be honest about his flaws and fears, he’s a lot freer than Louis C.K. is.

More than a year into the #MeToo movement, no one has figured out the moral sentencing guidelines that ought to apply to allegations of misconduct, such as the ones against C.K., that can’t or won’t be adjudicated in a court of law. If audiences are frustrated that comedy clubs are still booking him, and C.K.'s material is a mess, his set at Governor’s Comedy Club ought to provide some sense that he’s being punished. Losing what C.K. said is millions of dollars is a hefty, one-time penalty for what seems to have been an ongoing pattern of misconduct. And if that’s not enough, he apparently has been sentenced to a life of straining for laughs in comedy clubs, trying to remind everyone of who he used to be — before the world found out who he was all along.

Read more:

Molly Roberts: The Louis C.K. story reveals a depressing reality about sexual harassment

Alyssa Rosenberg: The sexual harassment accusations against Louis C.K. actually make his work make more sense

Sonny Bunch: Now is the time to examine Louis C.K.'s work, not to bury it

Kathleen Parker: The inevitable unintended consequences of #MeToo

Alexandra Petri: I, an admitted abuser of women, have decided that I have atoned enough