CK performs in November 2016
Photo: Getty Images

It was inevitable, and then it happened: Louis CK made an unannounced appearance at the Comedy Cellar on Sunday night, his first performance since he admitted in November 2017 that he masturbated in front of non-consenting women. CK, who didn’t address his sexual misconduct in his brief set, is clearly testing whether the time is right for his comeback. He’s not alone. Here they come, bearing fumbling excuses and, perhaps, vague stabs at non-legally binding apologies. Here they are, arriving back on the cultural scene, borne along on a tide of supportive famous friends who will tell you, really: Haven’t they been punished enough?

CK’s cautious reappearance comes at the same time as the latest in a series of Page Six stories about Matt Lauer’s hopes of reappearing on TV. The former NBC host was accused of a truly disturbing series of violations, including reportedly locking a woman in his office— via a special button he’d had installed under his desk— and sexually assaulting her until she passed out. (“I’ve been busy being a dad,” he reportedly told a group of well-wishers recently. “But don’t worry, I’ll be back on TV.”) Aziz Ansari has quietly begun performing standup again after a much-criticized Babe.net story about a woman who said he made her feel sexually pressured during a date. After flatly denying his own series of sexual harassment allegations, actor Jeremy Piven—whose TV show was canceled in their wake—has begun making a stab at a career at standup comedy. Mario Batali and Charlie Rose and Garrison Keiller: they’re all looking for a way back in.

This behavior runs a gamut: not all of these allegations were the same (a point that’s obvious, but that we’re required to repeat so that tiresome debate trolls can’t accuse us of conflating harassment and rape). But one thing all of these stories have in common is that these men have chosen not to directly address the allegations against them (or, in CK’s case, behavior he admitted to, after many years of lying about and discrediting the accounts of the women he harassed). All of them appear to be closely following the same publicist-approved playbook: go to ground for a while, then quietly test the waters.

The other thing all these stories share is their timing; it’s fascinating, in fact, how closely spaced all of these comebacks and attempted comebacks are. Each of these men decided in the space of, at most, nine months or a year, that now was a reasonable time to make a reappearance. (In Batali’s case, he was reportedly looking for a “second act” back in April, just four months after the harassment and assault allegations against him first broke. He remains under criminal investigation.)

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And in many cases, most specifically in the comedy world, that canny, cynical math is working. It’s almost like some internal egg timer has gone off, some He’s Suffered Long Enough whistle pitched at a register only powerful people in these industries can hear. CK’s attempted comeback will be—indeed, already is—a test case. To get past a truly damaging sexual misconduct scandal, it enough to just be quiet for a while?

CK’s appearance at the Comedy Cellar was announced by its owner, Noam Dworman, who told the New York Times, “I didn’t think it was going to happen as soon as it did. I had thought that the first time he’d go on would be in a more controlled environment. But he decided to just rip the Band-Aid off.”

As radio host and cultural commentator Jay Smooth pointed out on Twitter, there is, in fact, no safer or more controlled environment place for CK than the Comedy Cellar, a place so identified with CK and comedians of his milieu that it appeared in the opening credits of his TV show. And “rip the Band-Aid off” has the odd effect of making it sound as though CK himself was the one who was wounded.

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But as Dworman’s comments make clear, CK cautiously climbing back onstage is giving more air to a conversation that’s already been playing out for months: how long do we “punish” someone? More accurately: If someone makes no attempts at redemption, apart from staying out of the way for a short time, how might he be redeemed? For his part, Dworman made the argument that’s become familiar by now: while some audience members might have been unpleasantly surprised to see CK—one person reportedly called the club to complain on Monday—“There can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.”

Actor Michael Ian Black made the same point in a lengthy Twitter thread on Tuesday, suggesting that perhaps the #MeToo movement should now concern itself with figuring out how to help the men it exposed as sexual predators.

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Let’s be very explicit about what Black is suggesting here: that a movement against abuse is also responsible for the redemption of those abusers. That this cultural moment requires that #MeToo to not just expose sexual predators, but to rehabilitate them. That the important thing now is figuring out “how we move forward.”

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What gets lost in this particular equation is the part where someone makes amends. Nobody is required to lay out a road map for CK and Lauer and others like them to follow to gain forgiveness. Their spots onstage and on TV aren’t guaranteed, and if they remain professionally disgraced for a period of time that they—or their famous friends—find uncomfortable, that’s not the same thing as a “life sentence.”

But these comebacks are also predicated on the idea that redemption is directly equal to being allowed back in the public eye, being allowed to continue to reap money and power and influence in the field that gave you enough clout to feel comfortable harassing or assaulting women in the first place.

None of these men—that we know about—have talked publicly about undergoing counseling, made large donations to RAINN, done anything to understand the power dynamics they were part of. But there’s clearly an eagerness to let some of them back in anyway, after making the barest effort possible. The question is who benefits from that attitude, and who, once again, is harmed.