Forgive, But Don’t Forget

I have a confession to make: Louis C.K. is my favorite stand-up comic. The bootleg of a recent C.K. performance had me in stitches. His witty observations about the world he inhabits coupled with his endless self-deprecation make his performances truly hilarious. It is impossible to deny that Louis C.K. is dedicated to perfecting his craft. While his edgy humor may not be for the faint of heart, there is little doubt that he consistently delivers to his audience in the most genuine way he knows.

However, I would be remiss if I did not say that two things are able to be true at once: Louis C.K. can be one of the greatest comedians of our time, and his own personal behavior can be deeply disturbing and just downright disgusting. His recent appearances are forcing us to consider a tough question: at what point do we as a society extend forgiveness to someone who’s had a serious moral lapse while simultaneously not forgetting their past behavior?

When C.K. (whose real name is Louis Szekely) admitted to sexual misconduct in 2017, I was shaken. Not completely surprised…just shaken. This appeared to be the consensus of most people familiar with his work. I cannot find anyone who would even think of condoning his disturbing behavior, but, knowing the content of Szekely’s specials, I was not the slightest bit surprised by his actions.

After his past infractions came to light, Szekely released a statement confessing his sins and decided to “take a step back and take a long time to listen.” In fact, Szekely actually appeared to be genuinely remorseful for what he had done. He not only recognized the pain and anguish he caused the women he encountered, but he also recognized the pain he caused his ex-wife, his two daughters, his manager, and the countless number of people who depended on and trusted him.

In the time between November 2017 and August 2018, Szekely’s upcoming Netflix special was cancelled, his film I Love You Daddy was shelved, he was replaced by Patton Oswalt in the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets 2, and he endured countless attacks from the online hate mobs that permeate today’s internet spheres. Nevertheless, during his period of self-reflection, Szekely managed to keep himself out of the headlines until he made a surprise thirty-minute appearance at the Comedy Cellar in August of 2018.

Predictably, his mere appearance in polite society sparked outrage. The New York Times, for example, published an article entitled, “Louis C.K. Slithers Back, Whether We’re Ready or Not.”  He received the same treatment when his recent bootleg surfaced at the end of 2018. But I think people have overlooked the fact that he has made exclusively small, private appearances since his return, and he isn’t trying to broadcast his work or throw himself in anyone’s face. In that sense, Louis C.K. genuinely appears to be a changed man.

Szekely admitting to his gross behavior and withdrawing for self-reflection is a far bigger gesture of repentance than many of his celebrity colleagues have made. It raises the question: if a public figure genuinely demonstrates regret for causing others pain (rather than merely being sorry for having been caught), should we as a society show some sort of mercy and accept their apology?

His defenders assert that he is a human being, guilty of serious mistakes but deserving of some sort of mercy for showing true remorse. His detractors, on the other hand, believe that he is exclusively a menace to society whose only justice is permanent exile from the public sphere. But he has made a genuine apology, taken appropriate time for reflection, and remained quiet about his return. I think the time has come to forgive, but not forget. His leash should be short, but we should allow him to continue giving society what it desperately needs: a good laugh.

One of Szekely’s most popular bits is a joke entitled “of course…but maybe.” The joke centers around an obvious thought that, of course, Szekely feels he ought to believe because it is the right thing to believe in; however, he also has a second thought he rarely expresses about the same topic that is more controversial but may be true. Perhaps a good approach in assessing the Szekely controversy is to apply this sequence to real life: of course what Louis C.K. did is morally reprehensible and inexplicable, but maybe he has shown some remorse and deserves a chance to demonstrate that he has changed.