Redemption doesn’t mean another shot at the microphone.
By Jo Longley
Back in October of 2018 the comedy community’s response to C.K. and his dead sprint back to the spotlight was perhaps best summarized by Noam Dworman, the owner of the Comedy Cellar— where C.K. made his surprise appearance — who commented, “I didn’t think it was going to happen as soon as it did… but he decided to just rip the Band-Aid off.”
Dworman also remarked, “There can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.”
C.K.’s return was a mere nine months since he admitted to using his “power” to perpetuate sexual misconduct against several women. This raised the questions: How long is long enough? What rehabilitation plan should abusers follow?
Public conversation concerning abusers’ redemption has so far centered around the accused’s journey back to their previous celebrity. As though for rehabilitation to be complete, for what Mr. Dworman dubbed “a life sentence” to be over, abusers need to reclaim their right to an audience.
Society’s obsession with entertainment, our craving for comeback narratives, blinded us to the nature of C.K.’s problem. By making a triumphant return to the comedy scene the final stop in this story, we’re missing the underlying plot that’s been driving it.
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times about C.K.’s return Roxane Gay states, “It is easier, for far too many people, to empathize with the predators than it is to empathize with prey.”
Gay makes a valid point. After waiting over a decade for a social climate that would consider their stories—these women have watched their abuser saunter back to good public standing in less than a year.
But would allowing C.K. to re-enter the public eye actually be empathetic to him?
C.K. himself states he “wielded his power irresponsibly.” Jokes that previously worked to mask his sexual misconduct, now fold back on themselves as cries for help.
In a 2011 show at the Beacon Theater C.K. joked, “The constant perverted sexual thoughts, I’m so tired of those.” He said, “You’re a tourist in sexual perversion; I’m a prisoner there.”
Abusers don’t need redemptive arcs that end in standing o’s; abusers like C.K. need rehabilitation from fame.
For those who find celebrity too intoxicating a high to handle without brandishing it in the face of unconsenting women, the kindest thing to do is not let them have it.
In C.K.’s statement confirming his misconduct he wrote, “I didn’t think I was [taking advantage] because my position allowed me not to think about it.”
Abusers that return to the spotlight after a salvific hiatus are admitting that any ‘rehabilitation’ they’ve pursued, hasn’t worked. A person truly sorry for their actions doesn’t take steps to repeat them, but perhaps C.K. didn’t take long enough to think about that.
Even his surprise performance grotesquely mirrored his sexual misconduct: taking advantage of his standing in the community, not giving audience members a chance to opt out, and acting as though his actions don’t hold deeper meaning.
No compassionate person picks up the weapon they wielded in view of the people they attacked, and no responsible society should allow them to.
An important part of the rehabilitation process for these abusers will be to accept the moral obligation of never exercising their fame again.
That’s a heavy price to demand, especially from abusers like C.K. whose entire adult life has been built not only around curating an audience, but turning his very existence into a brand. From this perspective one can see how being banned from the comedy community could seem like a “life sentence.”
But continuing to live a life assembled from one-sided conversations and pantomimed intimacy seems even worse than excommunication.
C.K. said of himself in his 2011 special, “I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of them… I just like believing them… They make me feel good about who I am, but if they get in the way of a thing I want or I want to jack off or something, I just do that… I wish I was a good guy.”
An audience isn’t a right, and in this case it isn’t a medicine. If we want to empower C.K. and abusers like him to “run from [my actions]” and ”reconcile them with who I am,” it’s our responsibility to keep stages and adoring audiences out of reach.
Refusing abusers stage time isn’t a life sentence; it’s an invitation to find an identity outside the echo chamber of a public persona.
Stepping away from the burden of turning themselves into auto-fiction for our consumption, abusers can begin the challenge of building a life around open dialogue.
Without the distraction of restoring a reputation, the real work of rehabilitation can start—using celebrity to champion voices they’d previously silenced; admitting the darkest parts of themselves, not to get a laugh, but to overcome them; learning to find joy in just listening.