The time we always knew was coming is finally here: It’s been just under a year since the Harvey Weinstein allegations kicked off #MeToo, and so right on time, a number of men accused of sexual harassment and abuse are now making their unnecessary returns to the public eye.
Last week, Aziz Ansari did a few abrupt stand-up sets in Wisconsin, eight months after he was accused of sexual harassment by a woman he went on a date with in 2017. This week, Louis C.K. made a surprise appearance at New York’s Comedy Cellar, also trying out some new material that surprisingly had nothing to do with the fact that he had admitted to masturbating in front of fellow women comics without their consent.
Comedians like Michael Ian Black and Michael Che have already defended C.K.’s return to stand-up (though Black later apologized for his comments). Ansari’s allegations are more complicated and more nebulous in nature, coming from one woman’s blog post rather than a heavily vetted report with multiple sources. But Netflix has already said they’re happy to do more episodes of Ansari’s show whenever he’s ready. The return of both comedians highlights an unambiguous and frustrating double standard between the way we reprimand women comics like Kathy Griffin and Samantha Bee for their fuckups, and the way we reprimand their male counterparts, even when their misconduct has been more severe.
While the rest of us continue to debate how long we’re supposed to be mad at bad men, it’s clear that C.K. and Ansari are attempting their returns on their own terms and no one else’s. At one of Ansari’s shows, phones were banned, which is customary for a new set, but still allows him to work out his atonement tour away from a critical internet. C.K.’s set, meanwhile, was a complete surprise, according to the owner of the Comedy Cellar, who said the comedian basically showed up unannounced and asked the emcee if he could go on.
The audience wasn’t even prepped (though they did give him a big standing ovation once they learned he would be performing). Two women told Vulture about the “uncomfortable” nature of his set; his was the last performance on a lineup that already consisted only of men. Neither C.K. nor Ansari addressed the allegations that hang over their heads during their sets. (C.K.’s set did include an unfortunate gag about rape whistles.) These men want to come back, but only in a way that feels safe to them, comes with a forgiving audience, and allows them to avoid answering any uncomfortable and tough questions. And they seem to be getting it.
Comedy in particular seems very welcoming to these comebacks; being funny almost demands a lack of decorum. (In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman said, “I have other comedians work here who I've heard accusations of worse things than Louis, worse than sexual harassment. If everybody we know that has done something they're really ashamed of, like that last scene in Infinity War, we'd see people disappearing all around us.”) The purpose of a lot of comedy clubs is to try out new, experimental, possibly problematic material with an audience that’s likely accustomed to outrageous material. Television and movies have standards for language and content; meanwhile, stand-up has always been a little rough and a little gross. C.K. and Ansari seem to be finding their way back into a career just fine, in contrast to some of the women comedians who also got in trouble in the last year.
After Kathy Griffin was featured in a photo of herself holding a fake decapitated head of the sitting president Donald Trump, her career came to a standstill. She was fired from her New Year’s Eve special on CNN, dropped as a spokesperson for Squatty Potty, was forced to cancel several live shows because of death threats, was disinvited to an event with Al Franken (karma?), was under investigation by the Secret Service, and had to watch as a number of her famous friends denounced her in public. (She was even briefly reduced to doing a YouTube makeover video with Jeffree Star which, what a fall from grace.) It’s only recently — a good 15 months after the photo first ran — that she’s been able to regain her footing. Her comeback, though successful — she’s on track to make a few million dollars on her 27-date “Laugh Your Head Off World Tour” — is still marred by a lack of publicity on network television and any significant mainstream media coverage. “Touring is a business I’ve built that does a hell of a lot better when you have a regular TV presence,” she told Forbes in June. She says that because she’s still unable to get booked on most programs, she’s started a mailing and text listserve to sign people up and promote her tour that way.
Late-night host Samantha Bee, meanwhile, not only had to apologize for her May crack about Ivanka Trump being “a feckless cunt” on her TBS talk show Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, but the entire episode was scrubbed from the internet. It’s a real loss, especially since the segment was about the Trump administration’s systematic separation of children from their parents when they cross the border and it was Bee at her best: biting and honest. Three months since Bee made the joke, she’s still giving interviews about it, still being asked about one line she said in nearly 100 episodes of programming. Full Frontal lost advertisers, people called for the program to be canceled, and TBS decided to start supervising the show.
There’s an odd imbalance here, that being accused of — or even admitting to, as C.K. already has — sexual harassment in comedy allows you to facilitate your own comeback with relative ease, while pissing off the Trump administration with a poorly conceived photo shoot or a dumb insult results in repeated, public atonement. Bee and Griffin have had to beg for the public’s forgiveness over and over again; the men, meanwhile, just have to sit out for a few months. Griffin and Bee were wrong, only because their jokes missed the mark, but at least they apologized. C.K. and Ansari each released statements but have otherwise chosen not to participate in the narrative around them.
Che said earlier this week that it’s unfair to suggest that C.K. has gotten off easy just because “he can still do a comedy set for free at a 200-seat club a year later.” He argued that “just because it looks to you like someone is ‘getting off easy’ ’cause they still have the perks you would kill to have, doesn’t make it so.” Having to deal with people getting mad at you because you kept taking your dick out when women did not want you to take your dick out seems like a comparatively small price to pay.
Even though it’s clear why the imbalance between the mea culpa tours exists (sexism!!!), it’s still frustrating that the comedy industry, and a lion’s share of consumers, are more interested in preserving the status quo. So many people would rather laugh at what makes them comfortable, and would prefer to maintain the current comedic hierarchy, than engage in a harder conversation about why the comedy scene is so toxic for women. C.K. and Ansari are well-established men who have been wildly successful, while Bee and Griffin, though certainly successful themselves, aren’t as readily protected when they fuck up. The old boys club reigns.
Since C.K.’s set, multiple comedy club owners and talent scouts have already welcomed him back, happy to have him perform for their audiences. “We all make bad mistakes in life and everyone deserves the right to be forgiven,” a talent executive for Carolines on Broadway told TMZ on Tuesday. But forgiveness feels a lot more hollow if there’s a double standard for that forgiveness, if doing the least results in a standing ovation merely because you show up and tell some jokes, while others (women, because, again, sexism) have to slog for months, or sometimes years, to regain their balance.
There is still no clear-cut answer on how we should handle the return of men whose lives were momentarily paused by #MeToo allegations. The conversations we’re having are still too new, shockingly, despite harassment being the oldest story ever told. But as long as the double standard exists, and men are let off the hook while women bear the burden of undertaking real apology tours, it just isn’t enough to waltz back, pick up a microphone, and hope that everyone will laugh along when you return. ●