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CLARENCE PAGE: Louis C.K. cancels his cancellation; is it OK to laugh now?

Compared to the instant shock of watching Will Smith slap Chris Rock at the Academy Awards, the Recording Academy seemed to be delivering a quieter but just as profound slap to cancel culture a week later when it awarded a Grammy to embattled comedian Louis C.K.

Born Louis Szekely, C.K. was one of the nation’s most successful comedians until November 2017, when he admitted to masturbating in front of four female colleagues, according to a New York Times investigation, and a fifth who said he had asked to do so.

“These stories are true,” he admitted in an apologetic statement. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

He sounded contrite enough. But, as kinks go, this particular offense was too bizarre for a lot of us to imagine, let alone forgive.

So after multiple awards, including two other Grammys and six Primetime Emmys, C.K.’s rising stardom crashed. His stand-up career stopped. HBO purged his previous projects from its on-demand service. A planned appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” was canceled. So was the release of a comedy he had filmed with John Malkovich.

But show business can be quite forgiving for a comedian who can still get laughs.

In August 2018, less than a year after his downfall, he was back onstage for an unannounced appearance at a New York comedy club, where he reportedly was well-received. He continued his slow trek back up the comeback trail and has since released two comedy specials directly through his website.

Such is the world of show business in the internet age. As countless politicians have learned, you don’t need a lot of startup money if you can help a niche audience find you online.

But where does this leave the many people, particularly women, who feel their legitimate concerns about sexual harassment or worse are being ignored in pursuit for more laughs from Louis? Doesn’t that make our society just that much more coarse, vulgar and inhumane when we ignore voices that get ignored too much already?

Just as the internet has given a stage to performers such as C.K, the twitterstorm that followed his Grammy gave voice to many of those women, among others on both sides.

Comedian and TV writer Jen Kirkman, who talks about C.K.’s inappropriate behavior toward her on her latest stand-up album “OK Gen-X,” complained that male comedians had expressed alarm when Rock was slapped, but were “SILENT 2nite on Louis CK winning a Grammy for an album where he jokes about his assaults” on women.

She also slammed Dave Chappelle for blaming the victims in his defense of Louis C.K. on his Netflix specials. Like numerous other female comics, she pointed out how many nasty tweets and emails she receives for calling out sexual harassment, inspired partly by Chappelle’s comments.

Indeed, that’s not only true of women in comedy. Although I know better than to expect gentle treatment from all of my readers, I’ve often been astonished and dismayed by the depth of vitriol that I have seen in emails and tweets — and, based on what I have witnessed, it’s worse for women.

That doesn’t mean C.K. and other comics like him need to stop being funny. Quite the opposite, the talent of great comedians shows itself best, in my view, when they can dance along the edge of public sensibilities without falling over the edge, perhaps landing themselves in comedy exile.

His fellow comedian Amy Schumer spoke for many when she reacted to C.K.’s Grammy-winning, self-released stand-up special “Sincerely Louis C.K.” in a New York Times interview with, “Yes, I laughed at a lot of it. But it’s hard to not think of what he has done, what he has and hasn’t learned. But I definitely laughed.”

Indeed, the wise old advice still holds true that, if you really want to hurt a comedian, don’t laugh. When enough people do that, even Louis will get the message.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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