It’s natural to feel a flare of disgust when a disgraced man is given a shot at a professional comeback — and there’s no doubt that was the reaction of many viewers when Louis C.K. won best comedy album at the Grammys this past weekend.
For anyone who’s forgotten the lurid details: In 2017, the New York Times reported what had long been rumored — that C.K. had a penchant for masturbating in front of women in the comedy world who hoped for his professional help.
C.K. seemed to believe that because — at least in some cases — he’d asked permission, it was above board for him to go below the belt. Some of the women didn’t believe the request was serious until C.K. began to disrobe. None were delighted to be told after the fact that C.K.’s influential manager wanted them to keep quiet.
After the Times story, the distributor for C.K.’s feature film canceled its release. FX, which aired his acclaimed comedy “Louie,” dropped him. And while C.K. began booking live shows again a few years later, the covid-19 pandemic put a full-fledged comeback on hold.
Deciding which offenders deserve career rehabilitation and under which circumstances will always be fraught. But in C.K.’s case, the entertainment industry seems to have gotten it right.
Today, C.K. is able to work, though not necessarily in the forums or at the scale he might prefer. Whereas Dave Chappelle has an eight-figure deal with Netflix, C.K. is self-releasing his specials on his own website, including the one for which he won a Grammy. That may be to his advantage. Unlike Chappelle, C.K. doesn’t have to worry about what Netflix employees appalled by his views or behavior will think of his routines. And he gets to keep the money.
But working independently also means he doesn’t get the promotional boost a streaming giant such as Netflix can provide. And he certainly isn’t getting to make new TV shows or direct feature films. His only acting role in the past five years was in a French-language miniseries, “La meilleure version de moi-même,” starring his girlfriend, Blanche Gardin.
As jarring as it may be to find C.K.’s name in a list of winners, his Grammy victory suggests a welcome ability to see both his talent and his transgressions clearly. His professional community can recognize the excellence of his art while still expressing moral disapproval of the artist who created it.
Because here’s the thing: “Sincerely Louis C.K.” is often extremely funny, whether he’s doing a bit about the logistics involved in delivering virgins to Islamist militant martyrs or talking about the total weirdness of being a tourist at Auschwitz. And while C.K. is adept at fostering intimacy with his audience, he leads his fans into traps, too, setting up jokes that force them to confront the ugliness of what they’re laughing at.
Giving C.K. a Grammy doesn’t mean that people in Hollywood are ready to embrace him, no matter how funny he is; no matter how chastened he says he is by the thought of Barack Obama learning about his behavior; and no matter how vehemently he insists that he now understands that yes doesn’t always mean yes. The risk — of sexual harassment lawsuits, of horrible publicity, of sinking money into a project that can’t ultimately be released — is probably still too high.
The first part of setting new norms is the easiest: Of course it was wrong for C.K. to masturbate in front of fledgling female comics, or for the producer Harvey Weinstein to use his studio to prey on victims. The challenge is the second part: coming up with a moral algorithm to determine what happens next, weighing legal versus other outcomes, remorse and recompense, the wishes of the victims and the demands of the public.
The results aren’t always going to be satisfactory. But acknowledging a performer’s enormous talents while limiting his ability to make full use of them seems a fair punishment. Louis C.K.’s Grammy isn’t a defeat for the #MeToo movement. It’s a sign that the reckoning, in this case, has stuck.