Comedy Cellar Owner on Louis C.K.'s Surprise Performance: "I Don't Know What the Standard Is"

Noam Dworman, the owner of the New York comedy club that hosted the controversial comedian Sunday night, says that C.K.'s performance came as a surprise, but also shows "this is a dark period for discourse in this country."

Louis C.K.'s 15-minute set at the Comedy Cellar on Sunday night, the comedian's first public performance since he admitted to sexual misconduct last fall, came as much of a surprise to the venue's owner as it did the audience.

According to Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman, the former Louie star made it to the stage after dropping in to the club unannounced, asking the night's emcee if he could do a set and getting the green light due to his fame. Dworman says that C.K. arrived "spur of the moment" at the Comedy Cellar after he performed a disappointing set at the Long Island club Governor's of Levittown. (When reached by The Hollywood Reporter, Governor's did not respond to a request for comment.)

According to Dworman, he has so far received only one complaint from a patron about C.K.'s appearance.

This is the second time that one of the men accused at the height of the #MeToo movement has performed a set at the Comedy Cellar: Aziz Ansari, who was the subject of a controversial Babe.net story in January, has performed on at least five occasions at the Manhattan club since accusations that he took a sexual encounter too far.

C.K. was accused by five women of masturbating in front of them in a New York Times story written by one of the journalists who wrote the first exposé on sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein in November. C.K. later admitted to the allegations. And though the comic made an appearance at the Olive Tree Cafe restaurant above the Comedy Cellar in February, comedy clubs largely dropped C.K. since the scandal emerged.

Industry observers have predicted that C.K. would most likely attempt a "comeback" by way of performing stand-up at clubs. In the wake of the performance, THR spoke to Dworman about C.K.'s set, his interest in booking disgraced comedians and what he's heard from female comics since the performance.

How did C.K.'s appearance come about?

He just walked in; I was home sleeping. He just walked in and went on. That's it. No advance warning.

Well, actually, there is something I just learned. We're not the first place he appeared. He did a spot at Governor's [of Levittown], which is a comedy club in Long Island, apparently before he came here. I found this out late in the day. And it was a very, very light crowd and he apparently wasn't happy with it and he decided on a spur of the moment to come to the Comedy Cellar.

Did a staffer let him onstage at the Comedy Cellar, or was this an open-mic situation?

No. He just went and told the emcee that he wanted to go on, and it's pretty much autopilot at that point — the emcee let him go on. It's not an open mic, but it's Louis C.K., somebody famous like that.

Have you talked to the emcee about that decision?

Well, I haven't spoken to him because I didn't feel he could say anything other than "OK." I don't consider it a decision.

There's a rumor on Twitter that C.K. paid to come to the Comedy Cellar. Is there any truth in that?

No, there's no truth to it. I swear on everything that matters to me in life, there's no truth to it. Let me add that Louis C.K., although we're a prominent part of his comedy life, he and I are not close friends, and when he had us in his show, it was very, very important to us, but I don't believe he did it other than because he thought it was the best set for his show and his art. No: absolutely not. There was no payment because this is not helpful to us. On principle, I believe that the man is entitled to his livelihood and that it's up to the audience to go or not go, I believe that in principle. But in terms of the Comedy Cellar, this is nothing but a difficulty for us — there's no benefit here for us.  

You said that you were sleeping at the time, but do you know how he was received by the audience?

Warmly. There was one man who was there who complained in an email the next day and then he and I spoke about it at length. But we had four or five positive emails from customers and if you hear the audio, you hear a real ovation for him.

Having said that, what he didn't do is that he didn't go on and address the issue — he just went on and did a regular set. And I think that was a missed opportunity for him. I think that for a man who signed off from the public with this promise to, "I've talked for a long time, now I'm going to listen," he created the expectation of, "Well, now you're back after nine months, what did you learn?" And I think that if he had just said something that showed a different side of him, I think the headlines today would be much gentler. And I think that even people who don't realize they would feel this way would feel a pang of forgiveness if they heard something from him that seemed to deserve forgiveness, if they thought he felt bad or whatever it is. And I'm sure he does — I don't know, he's never spoken to me about it — but I presume that he does, and I don't know why he didn't take that opportunity. Maybe he just thought it was under the radar, but I don't know, I can't get in his head. It was certainly a missed opportunity.

What kind of jokes did he tell?

Just the most plain, everyday Louis C.K. stuff. He talked about some wordplay that he had come up with, he talked about parades, he talked about overtipping waitresses, he had some commentary on racism, you know, all undeveloped premises. It was a typical set from a guy who's starting fresh and developing a new hour of material.

Did you speak to him after the show?

No, I wasn't there. I wish I had been there.

Have you heard anything about the reaction of the crowd as people were leaving?         

Yes, I spoke to the door guys. Everyone seemed kind of buzzed about it. I think that people recognized it was a kind of historic event. And I think that whatever their feelings were about Louis or what he did, there was still a feeling like, "Well, we were here when he came back." Except, as I said, this one customer who felt really upset by it and said he felt ambushed. And the ambush is a real issue, I think he makes a strong case about that ambush, and I need to think about how to handle that in the future. But everyone else — and I got positive emails, I've been talking to staffers all day about this.

I hate to say this, but there is a difference in what people will say, the nuance of a situation in private and what they feel they're allowed to say in a black-and-white way in public. We're living in the dark ages of people having things they believe that they know they can't say out loud and feeling that you have to come to a conversation with already the correct point of view. You're not allowed to discuss it, be wrong, be informed by someone else's opinion. Conversation is meaningless: Conversation in this day and age is just for two people to agree to talk about what they agree about.

Would you let C.K. come back on soon, given what happened last night?

There is the matter of principle here, in my ACLU mode, which is that I don't feel that there's a clear standard out there in the world of when someone is supposed to be fired or denied an audience. And I don't think anyone's come after the theaters and stages that allow Mike Tyson to tour the country with his show, and Bill Clinton is still invited to charity events, and Monica Lewinsky disinvited [in one case]. I would just like to be a platform.

And I'll say additionally that nobody should ever confuse that with how I feel about what someone has done badly. However, I've said many times that if I found that someone applying for a job had a sordid past but he doesn't do that anymore — he cleaned himself up 10 or 15 years ago, he was involved in assaults — people would congratulate me for being so progressive. "Oh, you hired this kid who had a bad past." Or if I found out I had a bartender today who had a past like Louis', would anyone expect me to fire him? I don't know what the standard is, and that makes me uncomfortable. 

I'll say another thing: Richard Pryor — who is like the most revered comic ever — he talked at length about domestic abuse and violence that he was involved in, and nobody thought he shouldn't be able to speak that way. In other words, we can watch someone we don't approve of on a platform talking about what he did and that doesn't mean we approve of it, and we can learn from that.

But the ambush thing is a problem. So this long-winded answer to your question is that in the future I have to find a way where nobody who doesn't want to be there feels like a captive audience. And I don't think that will be that hard to do. If I had been involved in this in any way, I would have gone about it differently.

How would you have gone about it?

I know what the downsides of what I'm about to say would be, but I would want to have announced shows where everybody came in knew that Louis C.K.'s coming. I would have [wanted him to] treat it with a certain gravity. That first five minutes I think really needed to have a lot of thought. From his point of view, for what's best for him and him getting past this, this is best; it's not just in terms of satisfying the people who are his detractors. In his own interest, he needs to take it very seriously how he presents himself.

Do you think he is due for a comeback?

I don't know. There's another element to it. I know people will roll their eyes because they hate Louis, but there's something unique about stand-up comedy, which is that as an art form, it only exists in front of an audience. So a musician can always play music alone in a room, and a painter can paint [alone]; even an actor can shoot in front of a camera. But for a stand-up comedian — and Louis is at heart a stand-up comedian, it is the most important thing to him — for the world to think, "You shall not have an audience again, you shall not get up in front of people and be an artist," it is similar in a way to "We think your punishment should be that you shall never pick up a paintbrush again" for an artist. And that deserves at least some thought. Maybe I'm overstating it, but it is in the picture. And that he should only be in front of an audience that wants to see him. Especially in this case. Because people really are upset by it, I've seen that and I respect that.

But on the other hand, Sarah Silverman, who's pretty left-wing, she said pretty much the same thing I'm saying. And that informed my feeling that my opinion was valid, when somebody who I know thinks deeply about these things is able to utter the same opinion. I'm not sure I'm right about this, but it's not completely off-base or ridiculous if Sarah Silverman feels the same way.

Have you heard from female comics about giving him a platform?

What I've heard from comics today, and not just female comics, is concern that if he goes up that them appearing with him will be read as an endorsement of him and if so that it could damage them, so they're concerned about that.

I've spoken to many, many, many female comics, many of whom take this issue very seriously. I don't remember anybody feeling that he shouldn't be able to perform anymore. Although some have said that they don't want to sit at the table with him, things like that. But there seems to be a general feeling that "I don't want to deal with him, I don't want to deal with him, but I understand the man has the right to do his art." There is that general feeling, even from females. Having said that, that doesn't extend to the female comics that were involved in these things with him, and I know that they feel quite differently about them, I'm just responding to what I'm seeing, I have not spoken to them.

Comedy clubs are the first way of entry for comedians to establish comebacks. How do you feel that the Comedy Cellar opened that door for Louis C.K.?

That's a good question. Listen, we are really a free-expression outfit, so let me digress and say that I've heard and seen comedians who work for me engage in real vile anti-Semitism, and I've never thought I would book them less or even said "boo" to them. I always felt this is their business. I don't have to like them, and people should not take me allowing them to perform as my approval of their character or the things they've done in their lives.

Just to clarify, you're Jewish?

I'm Jewish, yeah. And I have other comedians work here who I've heard accusations of worse things than Louis, worse than sexual harassment. If everybody we know that has done something they're really ashamed of, like that last scene in [Avengers:] Infinity War, we'd see people disappearing all around us. At Thanksgiving dinner you'd see people being vaporized. There's this "he who has not sinned" cliché, which I think there is a lot of wisdom to. Having said that, it would be a hell of a lot easier if he had come up and said something a little contrite.

You also welcomed Aziz Ansari back earlier this year after his own story came out. Are you open to being the first stop for embroiled comedians in their road to redemption?

No, I don't prefer to be the first stop; I wish I would be the last stop. This is nothing but a downside for me. I'm not proud of it, but I do respect principle. As I said before, if I could come up with answers to the questions I said before about Mike Tyson and Bill Clinton, if I could have a unified theory of how I'm supposed to fire people who I don't like, then I would absolutely stand up to all this. But the Aziz thing is a great example, because who the hell knows what went on there? So this is the risk: If I ban Louis, now the next thing is Aziz comes up, and I'm supposed to ban Aziz, even though I'm not sure. And before you know it, it becomes the automatic responsibility that all of a sudden it's not the court system, it's not the criminal justice system, it's not even a procedural HR system, it's that the guy who owns the comedy club is supposed to decide what happened, who's guilty, what the punishment is and make sure the world never sees this guy again. It sounds so good — it's like when Charles Bronson gets the murderer in Death Wish, it feels good to see the murderer get it — but there are consequences to that kind of thing. In the end, a lot of people are going to be treated unfairly when the boss starts taking such poorly investigated decisions. Give me the right to compel testimony and perjury and cross-examination, give me all those rights, and I will be pretty fair in making all those decisions. But without those rights, I don't want to be judge or jury — I don't really know anything.

Earlier this year, you told THR that you predicted C.K. would make a comeback within a year. What made you so confident?

I wasn't confident. That's just what people have been saying. The rumor was that he wanted to wait a year, which is what I had heard, and this came from friends of friends. We were not expecting him so early, absolutely not.

Could you guestimate the gender breakdown of the audience? His audience is typically young men. Is that how you would describe it last night?

It's around 50/50.

For the people who were indeed upset by C.K.'s surprise performance, what is your message for them?

I apologize because I take absolute liability for any unhappy customer. I explained to [the one unhappy customer that emailed] almost in the same way as I explained to you why we did what we did and how it happened. I was sorry that he was ambushed and I invited him to come back and to meet me. It's just important to me for people to put an intention to the position of this owner that they've never met, to understand this is not some "I don't care about women" thing. My wife had bad experiences in the workplace, I have a daughter, I've always been ahead of the curve in empowering my female employees to not have to [deal with harassment]. Twenty or 25 years ago I had a rule that no male could give a female a back rub because I understood the creepy dynamic. It's not at all a softness on these issues.

But in the old days, when the ACLU defended the Nazis marching in Skokie, it was very difficult for them to make people understand, no, we're not pro-Nazi. It's not that we don't care about racism, but we feel that the principles we believe in even mean these people have to march. In the end, is it in some way a call for me to be the censor? We know the government can't censor, so let's get the comedy club owner to censor? I'm worried about that. And I'm not 100 percent sure of anything I've done or anything I'm saying. I think this is very, very hard. Everyday, a new nuance and a new way to look at the argument occurs to me. But I do question anyone who takes 10 seconds and thinks they know the answer as if it's very clear. It's not very clear. The evidence that is not very clear is that we know that 60 or 70 percent of the people in the country, you can Google and find there was a poll that came out recently, have views that they know they can't say out loud. It's a dangerous time where you have to come to the conversation already holding the correct opinion.  We can all have thoughts that we have privately, and some may be very insightful and some may be very dumb and wrong. But you don't know unless you can talk to somebody about them. As a man or woman who has not had the life experience, you may not understand everything about sexual harassment. So you may come out with an opinion on it that's ignorant in a way. But you can't have a conversation about it, you can't even have someone explain it to you. They'll immediately brand you as the enemy. This is a dark period for discourse in this country, and this is a symptom of it. I want people to know that I would rather have people talk about it, explain to me your point of view, I'll explain to  you the problems I have with the logic of it, and then maybe we'll come to some conclusion that we all agree on about how all these things should be handled.

Are you going to be thinking about giving people a heads-up the next time a controversial figure is performing in your club?

Well, he's the only one that's controversial in that way.

Well, what about Ansari?

To be honest, nobody cares. I didn't get one complaint about it. Again, this is my reading on what the general consensus is: People felt that he didn't do anything that warranted banishment. He wasn't even accused of an assault. For whatever reason, people didn't take it that badly.

But the Louis thing is tough. Somehow I don't think he's going to be back tomorrow, but when he decides that he really wants to go into this with two feet, I'm hoping that he'll talk about it with me so it can be done in a way that people feel it's not dismissive of the seriousness of what he's accused of. Not just what he's accused of, but I think people feel that he's become a synecdoche — everything is contained within him. And if he comes back, everyone who has been accused is absolved. I don't think that's the case, but I think that's part of the reason people are reacting so viscerally.

comments powered by Disqus