Ryan J. Rusak

How Louis C.K., back on comedy stage in Addison, addressed his sexual abuse of women

Comedian Louis C.K. brought his redemption tour to North Texas last week.

But here’s the thing: He’s not directly asking for forgiveness for the sexual misconduct that derailed his career in 2017, at least from the stage. And he’s definitely not changing his act to win people over. If Wednesday’s early show — one of five sold-out performances over three nights at the Addison Improv — is any indication, he’s defiantly sticking to the crude but smart humor that made him a comedy superstar.

Louie, as just about everyone calls him, is an important test for what happens to men who cross the line in the #metoo era. Not the Harvey Weinsteins or Bill Cosbys — surely we can all agree we never need to hear from them again, let alone resurrect their careers.

But at the other end of the spectrum, what about, say, former Sen. Al Franken? There were enough credible allegations that he touched women while posing for photos and tried to kiss others that his political career needed to end. But should he be banished from public life entirely? Could he return to show business?

One of the keys is for the offenders to admit what they did. Louie checks that box. Offering what he called “advice only I can give,” he said: “ If you ask someone, ‘Can I [masturbate] in front of you,’ and they say yes, ask: ‘Are you sure?”

That’s honest, perhaps uncomfortably so. It was also funny.

No apology

What it isn’t, though, is an apology. Louie talked plenty about the consequences of what he called a “tough year.” Noting the sold-out crowd, which numbered more than 200, he lamented: “I used to play arenas, sports stadiums. It’s a far fall, not easy to watch.”

And, by way of explanation, he noted, everyone has “a thing. Now you know my thing.”

After maybe 10 minutes on the elephant in the room, it was a pretty standard Louie set: clever, funny and not for the faint of heart. The audience loved it, offering a robust standing ovation once Louie left the stage after about an hour. But it was clearly a self-selected group of fans who got word of the show just a week in advance and snatched up tickets.

When the stories broke about his behavior, Louie apologized and disappeared. He should have — whether he meant to or not, he abused a very powerful position and took advantage of women in a professional setting.

It cost him a critically acclaimed TV show, and a studio shelved a finished movie he wrote, directed and starred in. As Louie said, he went from the arenas that comedians dream of back to the clubs they toil in to hone their craft. And he may never climb back. We don’t know what he paid in settlements to atone for his abuse of power.

What he didn’t do, unless last week was an aberration, is change his act. So if you didn’t like him before, you probably won’t like him now.

As a fan, I feared he would come back with a political routine, likely a scathing anti-Trump one, to try to win over some critics. Remember when Weinstein initially tried to deflect from his conduct by promising to fight the National Rifle Association, a desperately ingratiating attempt to change the subject?

Too soon and not sorry enough?

For some, the comeback is too soon, and Louie hasn’t learned his lesson. I don’t agree. He paid a steep price, and for his offenses, it seems just.

Ultimately, the market will decide his fate. He can probably maintain a group of dedicated fans and make a decent living. He may never have another massive standup special on Netflix or HBO, but he could rebuild an audience that would pay him directly to watch his specials, a model he pioneered years ago. Or most people could decide that he went too far and needs to go away for good.

Enough men have done enough vile, abusive things that fall short of outright sexual crime that we need a way to figure out if they can seek, and gain, redemption and continue to contribute to society. Each case is different.

In a world that increasingly wants us to slash through nuance with bright lines, that answer may not satisfy. But like Louie’s show, it’s honest and direct.

Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.