Culture

Louis CK’s sold-out show at Madison Square Garden proves there’s no such thing as cancel culture

Louis CK's career was meant to be over after he admitted multiple cases of sexual harassment, yet he has just headlined the world's most famous arena. Where now for consequences?

Louis CK performs his Netflix comedy special 2017, pre-'cancellation'. Image: Cara Howe/Netflox

“Can we stop cancelling guys who are such brilliant artists over, like, hearsay?” deadpans TikToker Talia Lichtstein filming herself outside New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. “Like, women have stories of them being creepy but, like, nobody knows the real story. And yeah, sure, a couple of people have the same story. But, like, just so we can tell that story, that guy never gets to work again?… Their career is fucked forever?” Behind her, with impeccable timing, a digital billboard changes to read ‘Tonight: Louis CK. SOLD OUT’.

It’s an impeccable bit of satire, which Lichstein says she’s been planning for months, and involved her delivering her speech to camera over and over until the billboard lit up at exactly the right moment. At the time of writing it has been viewed 1.3 million times, just 15 hours after being uploaded.

This viciously effective bit of skewering has a point. On Saturday, January 27 the comedian Louis CK sold out the most famous arena venue in the world, with a capacity just shy of 21,000 seats. It was the cap of a triumphant 13-date US tour, and fans who had missed out on tickets could also pay to see the show streamed live. It’s all a bit of a surprise, because Louis CK was supposed to have been “cancelled” in 2017 after it was revealed he had repeatedly exposed himself and masturbated in front of several female comics without their consent. His management had also threatened his victims with “professional consequences” should they speak out.

CK, at the time considered one of stand ups’ all-time-greats and enjoying a run of extremely high profile success stories on stage and screen, eventually admitted to the incidents and issued an apology, though only after an expose in the New York Times quoted five different women, all involved in the comedy industry and all with similar experiences. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me,” he admitted. “And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

The outrage was swift and the professional consequences immediate. CK’s upcoming feature film, I Love You, Daddy, was pulled from distribution and co-stars Charlie Day and Chloe Grace Moretz refused to have anything to do with it, the financial impact of which was huge since CK had self-financed the film. The second of two Netflix specials was pulled, several TV series in the pipeline vanished, appearances were cancelled. Louis CK, you’d think, was all washed up. He claimed it cost him $35 million in lost income.

That was at the end of 2017. It’s now the beginning of 2023. In the intervening four-and-a-bit years, a good chunk of which of course consisted of twiddling our thumbs in a pandemic, CK crawled back to comedy, at first appearing at small New York clubs, where he was filmed doing material at the expense of school shooting victims, then doing smaller theatre tours. By 2021 he was selling 10,000 tickets for a two-night stint in New York, releasing a new special and appearing internationally. Two small UK club dates were cancelled after protests in 2019, but by October 2022 he was playing back-to-back shows at Hammersmith Apollo and Wembley Arena, two of London’s biggest indoor venues. Admittedly to mixed reviews.

Here’s the thing. “Cancellation” doesn’t exist. Jeremy Clarkson writes about being cancelled from his column in the UK’s most-read newspaper. Katie Hopkins turns her own cancellation into a well-selling stand up comedy tour. Ezra Miller has been accused of harassment and assault and faces a charge for burglary, but Warner Brothers is still planning on releasing The Flash in June. Chris Brown is a violent abuser; last year he had five songs in the Billboard top 100 in the same week and next month will play a UK tour that includes six nights apiece at the O2 in London and Manchester Arena and four nights in Glasgow. That’s 300,000 tickets in just those three cities. Edgy columnists, celebrities and podcasters rail against a “cancel culture” that simply isn’t real. This isn’t cancellation – this is wealthy people receiving a slap on the wrist, staying quiet for a bit and then getting on with their massive success.

Discussing the outrage that erupts when well-known figures do or say something horrible, people often claim that we have “freedom of speech but not freedom of consequence”, meaning that, sure, you can say what you like, but you’re going to have to accept the fallout of those comments. If Louis CK’s recent success is anything to go by (and it is) those consequences don’t seem to be making a great deal of difference.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'Whose voices have the right to be heard?': Censorship of Black culture has existed for decades
Theatre

'Whose voices have the right to be heard?': Censorship of Black culture has existed for decades

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him
Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, 1981.
Film

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him

Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community
Soweto Kinch
Music

Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know