Last month, I booked Louis C.K. in my Toronto club for eight shows over five nights. It was the most controversial booking I have ever made, in a history of controversial bookings that have included Sam Kinison, Andrew (Dice) Clay, Timothy Leary and others.
Rattling the cage of polite society is part of the job of comics, onstage and off. In case you’re not aware, C.K. was one of the most successful comedians of our time until two years ago, when four women accused him of indecent exposure and C.K. was swept up into the #MeToo movement.
C.K. admitted that he exposed himself to the women, on separate occasions, back in 2005, and swiftly apologized, noting that it was done with their consent, which the women agreed was the case. But they regretted letting him do it, as they were working with him as opening acts on a tour and felt he was taking advantage of his position.
But the reaction in the comedy world was severe. Netflix cancelled his planned comedy special. His new movie, I Love You Daddy, was dropped by its distributor (and C.K. was forced to buy it back, for $5 million). His live bookings dried up instantly. He estimated he has lost $60 million in the last two years.
Eighteen months ago, I participated in a panel at Just For Laughs composed of club owners and bookers, and we were asked if any one of us would book C.K. I was the only one who said yes. Not long afterward, Vulture, an online arts website, asked the same question to over a hundred bookers, and I was one of only three who said yes.
C.K. and his people must have been aware of this because they contacted us and wanted to know if we would make it a reality. Aware that the last time he played Toronto he sold out the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena), I figured there had to still be some kind of an audience left for one of the most brilliant comedians of our time. I said yes.
I knew there would be blowback. There were pickets outside the club in San Jose that he performed at a few months earlier. In Leeds, U.K., the reaction was so hostile, the shows had to be cancelled. But I decided to press on anyway.
Why would I put my business in jeopardy? Why would I risk the public shaming that would surely accompany this decision? Because over the past year, I’d conducted an unscientific market survey to see what people thought of C.K. and I found that a lot of people felt he had been treated unfairly.
There was a world of difference between his transgressions and those of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes and others. There was no assault, there was consent (followed by regret), and for that, many believe that he shouldn’t have to be subjected to permanent exile. There was a very vocal minority of the public who wished he would go away forever, but it turned out that it was just that – a vocal minority.
I’m in a sweet spot in the entertainment business – big enough to make a risky decision, but small enough not to be threatened by government or big business interference. I take no grants or sponsorships from anybody. So I knew I could take a stand on behalf of this comedy genius.
The tickets went on sale and we sold 2,400 seats in four hours, which was a record for us. We could have easily sold twice as many. Tickets were seen on resale sites selling for up to $1,000 a ticket (face value was $35).
His shows were brilliant. The protesters never showed up. Negative press was met with overwhelming disagreement by those on social media. After his shows in Toronto, C.K. listed a series of concert venues he would be playing, including a big one in Tel Aviv. I’d played my part in his career resurgence, and felt great about it.
In his show, C.K. revealed that his grandfather was a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Nazis and was the only one in his family to do so. Everyone else was wiped out. He made his way to Mexico and, eventually, his offspring made it to the United States.
When I heard about C.K.’s history, I felt even better about my decision to book him.