In October 2017 — another look at the news, another thrill of horror.
In December 2017 — we assessed our grim situation — if they were out there making our movies, running our restaurants — weren’t they in our workplaces? Could they be in our homes?
And by 2018, we began to miss them.
My friends and I played a cynical game we called “Which One Do You Miss Most”? Al Franken, who could have been president? Charlie Rose, who was always so comforting? For me, it’s Louis C.K. I found — I find — his comedy prophetic. I molded some of my adult self around his wisdom. But he’s gone, and he can’t come back. At least, not the way he wants to come back.
When a person commits a crime, there should be channels for him to eventually reenter society, provided that he has worked to repay his debt and is no longer dangerous. Louis C.K. has not repaid his debt to society, and there is no reason to believe he isn’t a threat. C.K. committed a crime — sexual misconduct — at least four times. It’s a crime for which other people serve jail time. C.K. lost money and status — that’s not a fitting punishment.
For him to work in comedy now would not be to give him a second chance, but a fifth. It would also ask women comedians to risk their safety so he can be famous. And why should they? C.K. admitted to a series of crimes that could be charged as a felony, but it won’t be. He did not apologize. He did not try to address the charge that those women’s careers suffered. He took a few months off work. He is not on the record as having given charitably. He is not on the record as having sought counseling. He is not on the record as having reflected.
Louis C.K. deserves a chance at repentance, but it’s not a chance he’s taken.
And that’s all he deserves. Celebrity is a privilege. It is not a human right. By committing sexual misconduct, Louis C.K. abdicated his celebrity position. He is no longer eligible for massive amounts of positive attention. He is no longer eligible to give social commentary. He is no longer eligible to accept extreme rewards for his talents.
There seems to be some underlying anxiety that because we, the public, gave Louis C.K. his job, we are obligated to keep employing him. “He knows no other trade!” We find ourselves arguing. It is as if we think we owe it to Louis C.K. to help him put food on the table for his family, though we know he’s a man with tens of millions of dollars that he earned while committing criminal acts he knew were wrong.
We do not owe him. We did not offer Louis C.K. a lifetime contract. The position of a celebrity is at-will, and it is at the will of the people, and we would do better to confer it on someone who isn’t an unreformed criminal.
We create celebrities.
We don’t have any rules for them. We don’t know why we love the ones we love and why we hate the ones we hate, and we don’t care. We cultivate them — it takes a village to raise a Disney star — and we freely let them die on our watch. We have given standing ovations to convicted child rapists, and seen our so-called American sweethearts off to jail. In exchange for a prolonged public performance, we give piles of money. We give them enormous platforms. We give them power.
And we can take it away. Celebrities exist to serve us, and we, in turn, worship them. That worship is conditional. We are not obligated to them. We are their employers.
The idea that Louis C.K. has been punished sufficiently and can now come back is hooey, because “back” for a celebrity means a platform of millions of people and an exorbitant salary. Saying he should come “back” suggests not just that he is owed a place at the table (which he isn’t), but that he is owed a throne.
Besides, C.K. has so many options. He won’t need to work another day in his life, and neither will his children. He could give free comedy classes (under heavy supervision and guidance, of course). He could start a community garden. He could pursue countless worthy professions. He could lift a single finger to help people in a way that doesn’t involve himself on a stage, with a spotlight, earning a huge check. His future is more open and limitless than most.
By virtue of living through 2017, we all played a role in what would turn out to be the #MeToo movement. None of us — not the accused, accusers, journalists, bystanders, consumers — were prepared. We count on our lives being governed by laws, but laws weren’t strong enough to stop a herd of (mostly) men from allegedly harassing, abusing, and assaulting (mostly) women. The next line of defense is us, our willingness to build social norms that say abuses of power are unacceptable.
And, come on: they’re just not that funny.
Jenny Singer is the deputy lifestyle editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny