Visitors never know who they’ll see on any given night at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. Sure, there’s a posted list of acts, but much of the audience secretly hopes for an unannounced drop-in from a comedy titan such as Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, who use the brick-walled basement space to work out new material.

Until recently, Louis C.K. was frequently on the posted list, despite persistent rumors of sexual harassment, namely that he frequently, and nonconsensually, masturbated in front of female comedians.

In November 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and film producer Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace, C.K. admitted that the rumors were true. He retreated from public life, leaving the public to argue about the severity of his actions, and whether and how he could achieve redemption. That is, until Sunday night. In an unannounced appearance, C.K. returned to the Comedy Cellar, less than a year after he admitted the rumors were true, Jezebel’s Anna Merlan reported Tuesday.

During his performance, C.K. never mentioned his sexual misconduct. Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman told The New York Times that he covered “typical Louis C.K. stuff—racism, waitresses’ tips, parades.” Dworman said it felt like any other time C.K. had come into the club to test-drive new jokes. Mo Amer, another comedian sharing the stage that night, said, “It was like a ‘wow’ moment.”

Merlan didn’t see it that way, writing that C.K. was “clearly testing whether the time is right for his comeback.”

Multiple female comedians say that they have faced backlash for going on the record about C.K.’s misconduct.

Megan Koester, a writer and comedian who attempted to report on the allegations in 2015, during the Montreal Just for Laughs comedy festival, wrote a Vice article titled “I Tried to Break the Louis C.K. Story and It Nearly Killed My Career.” In it, she tells of not only numerous incidents of being harassed online but how she got thrown off red carpets while reporting. In addition, she said, she could never tell whether she had lost jobs because she was legitimately not a good match for them or because she had dared to question the conduct of a famous man.

Comedian Rebecca Corry, another C.K. accuser, wrote on that “I’ve received death threats, been berated, judged, ridiculed, dismissed, shamed, and attacked.”

Merlan believes that C.K.’s return to the Comedy Cellar stage is part of what she sees as a larger image-rehabilitation push for men accused of sexual harassment, even assault:

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.”)

She notes that journalist Charlie Rose, chef Mario Batali and actor Jeremy Piven are also all exploring comebacks.

Dworman told the Times that while “[e]very complaint goes through me like a knife,” and “I care about doing the right thing,” he’s not ready to ban C.K. from his club, emphasizing that “there can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.” He didn’t say how long the sentence should be, however, or offer suggestions about what abusers can do to win their redemption.

The Times coverage didn’t mention plans for any future C.K. appearances at the Comedy Cellar, or any new television or film projects.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.