Can comic canceled for 'right' reason light the way for those canceled for wrong reasons?

#Me Too casualty is forging a comeback on his own terms, and his success may offer a path for comedians willing to push beyond what mainstream gatekeepers allow.

Updated: October 15, 2022 - 11:04pm

Comedians fear cancellation for telling the "wrong" joke or mocking the "wrong" group.

Louis C.K. got canceled the old-fashioned way. He behaved very badly and fessed up to it.

Now, C.K. is forging a comeback on his own terms, and his success may offer a path for comedians willing to push beyond what mainstream gatekeepers allow or those for whom forgiveness remains out of reach.

C.K.'s stardom included a beloved FX sitcom, "Louie," roles in major films ("The Secret Life of Pets") and a budding directorial career ("I Love You, Daddy"). It all ended in 2017 when he admitted to exposing himself to multiple female comedians following a New York Times expose.

"The power I had over these women is that they admired me," C.K. said in a statement at the time. "And I wielded that power irresponsibly … There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with."

His career collapsed overnight. He lost all his current and pending gigs. Comedy clubs slammed their doors on him. The comedian vowed to go away for a while and consider the scope of his actions.

And he did.

When he returned a year later with a 15-minute unannounced set, he faced sizable media blowback and a reticent public. 

The comedian has been building back his career slowly ever since, all without the help of Hollywood studios or platforms. He independently released two comedy specials, "Sincerely" (2020) and "Sorry" (2021) and earlier this year released his first film as a director since "I Love You, Daddy" got shelved following his admission.

("Daddy" remains unreleased, with even its costar Chloe Grace Moretz hoping it stays that way.)

C.K.'s "Fourth of July," cowritten with star Joe List, follows a musician coming to grips with his dysfunctional family ties. C.K. rallied his comedian pals, including Nick Di Paolo, Robert Kelly and Allen Havey, to flesh out the cast.

According to C.K.'s email newsletter, the film drew a sizable crowd. He said many screenings sold out across the country, forcing his team to add more theaters.

He recently played London's OVO Arena Wembley, a gig which drew a scathing op-ed from left-leaning Slate, and will be visiting Australia later this year in addition to other U.S. dates. Many shows are selling out stateside.

His London gig showed the unexpurgated comic hasn't dulled his act, hitting on abortion, pornography, pedophilia and the Nazi camps at Auschwitz.

Early next year, he's set to return to Madison Square Garden, a venue he once sold out for three straight shows in 2015. He hasn't sold out the new gig yet, but more than 10,000 seats sold in the first day, he reports.

C.K. may be ready to expand his comedy empire. His web site is the exclusive home for Kelly's new special, "Kill Box." That comes on the heels of Andrew Schulz, another comic who traffics in challenging material, self-producing his 2022 "Infamous" stand-up special after being rejected by a major streaming platform.

That gambit earned Schulz more than three times his initial investment, he claims, along with an additional 6.5 million views on YouTube.

C.K.'s comeback came from leveraging his comedy brand and email connections. His email newsletter serves as a key marketing device, allowing him to promote his work, share personal stories and circumvent traditional marketing paths.

He's hardly a social media sensation. The comedian's Instagram page boasts 90,000 followers, large but hardly as potent as some comic peers — Jim Gaffigan (1M), Bill Burr (1.9M), Bert Kreischer (2.2M). 

C.K. isn't doing traditional press interviews, either, relying on popular podcasters (Tim Dillon, Joe Rogan) to spread the word about his current work and upcoming shows.

C.K.'s career, in a traditional sense, may never be the same. He previously produced TV shows for FX beyond his signature "Louie," like "Baskets" and "Better Things." His work with animated films may remain beyond his grasp, permanently, given his personal track record.

He's still able to tell jokes, get paid and draw crowds that dwarf what most stand-up comedians can summon.