Five women have told The New York Times that the comedian’s riffs about masturbation have a disturbing connection to real life.
By CHRIS CIRILLO and MARK SCHEFFLER on Publish Date November 9, 2017. Photo by Andrew Toth/FilmMagic, via Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
In 2002, a Chicago comedy duo, Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, landed their big break: a chance to perform at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. When Louis C.K. invited them to hang out in his hotel room for a nightcap after their late-night show, they did not think twice. The bars were closed and they wanted to celebrate. He was a comedian they admired. The women would be together. His intentions seemed collegial.
As soon as they sat down in his room, still wrapped in their winter jackets and hats, Louis C.K. asked if he could take out his penis, the women said.
They thought it was a joke and laughed it off. “And then he really did it,” Ms. Goodman said in an interview with The New York Times. “He proceeded to take all of his clothes off, and get completely naked, and started masturbating.”
In 2003, Abby Schachner called Louis C.K. to invite him to one of her shows, and during the phone conversation, she said, she could hear him masturbating as they spoke. Another comedian, Rebecca Corry, said that while she was appearing with Louis C.K. on a television pilot in 2005, he asked if he could masturbate in front of her. She declined.
Now, after years of unsubstantiated rumors about Louis C.K. masturbating in front of associates, women are coming forward to describe what they experienced. Even amid the current burst of sexual misconduct accusations against powerful men, the stories about Louis C.K. stand out because he has so few equals in comedy. In the years since the incidents the women describe, he has sold out Madison Square Garden eight times, created an Emmy-winning TV series, and accumulated the clout of a tastemaker and auteur, with the help of a manager who represents some of the biggest names in comedy. And Louis C.K. built a reputation as the unlikely conscience of the comedy scene, by making audiences laugh about hypocrisy — especially male hypocrisy.
[HBO Cuts Louis C.K. From ‘Night of Too Many Stars’ Special]
After being contacted for an interview this week about the on-the-record accusations of sexual misconduct — encounters that took place over a decade ago — Louis C.K.’s publicist, Lewis Kay, said the comedian would not respond. “Louis is not going to answer any questions,” Mr. Kay wrote in an email Tuesday night.
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Neither Louis C.K. nor Mr. Kay replied to follow-up emails in which the accusations were laid out in detail, or to voice messages or texts. On Thursday, the premiere of Louis C.K.’s new movie “I Love You, Daddy,” was abruptly canceled, and he also canceled an appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
The stories told by the women raise sharp questions about the anecdotes that Louis C.K. tells in his own comedy. He rose to fame in part by appearing to be candid about his flaws and sexual hang-ups, discussing and miming masturbation extensively in his act — an exaggerated riff that some of the women feel may have served as a cover for real misconduct. He has all but invited comparison between his private life and his onscreen work, too: In “I Love You, Daddy,” which is scheduled to be released next week, a character pretends to masturbate at length in front of other people, and other characters appear to dismiss rumors of sexual predation.
At the same time, Louis C.K. has also boosted the careers of women, and is sometimes viewed as a feminist by fans and critics. But Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov said that when they told others about the incident in the Colorado hotel room, they heard that Louis C.K.’s manager was upset that they were talking about it openly. The women feared career repercussions. Louis C.K.’s manager, Dave Becky, was adamant in an email that he “never threatened anyone.”
For comedians, the professional environment is informal: profanity and raunch that would be far out of line in most workplaces are common, and personal foibles — the weirder the better — are routinely mined for material. But Louis C.K.’s behavior was abusive, the women said.
“I think the line gets crossed when you take all your clothes off and start masturbating,” Ms. Wolov said.
‘You Want to Believe It’s Not Happening’
Ms. Corry, a comedian, writer and actress, has long felt haunted by her run-in with Louis C.K. In 2005, she was working as a performer and producer on a television pilot — a big step in her career — when Louis C.K., a guest star, approached her as she was walking to the set. “He leaned close to my face and said, ‘Can I ask you something?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” Ms. Corry said in a written statement to The New York Times. “He asked if we could go to my dressing room so he could masturbate in front of me.” Stunned and angry, Ms. Corry said she declined, and pointed out that he had a daughter and a pregnant wife. “His face got red,” she recalled, “and he told me he had issues.”
Word quickly reached the show’s executive producers, Courteney Cox and David Arquette, who both confirmed the incident. “What happened to Rebecca on that set was awful,” Ms. Cox said in an email, adding that she felt “outrage and shock.”
“My concern was to create an environment where Rebecca felt safe, protected and heard,” she said. They discussed curtailing the production. Ms. Corry decided to continue with the show.
“Things were going well for me,” Ms. Corry said in the statement, “and I had no interest in being the person who shut down a production.”
A fifth woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy because she has not been publicly linked to the incident with Louis C.K., also has disturbing memories about an incident with the comedian. In the late ’90s, she was working in production at “The Chris Rock Show” when Louis C.K., a writer and producer there, repeatedly asked her to watch him masturbate, she said. She was in her early 20s and went along with his request, but later questioned his behavior.
“It was something that I knew was wrong,” said the woman, who described sitting in Louis C.K.’s office while he masturbated in his desk chair during a workday, other colleagues just outside the door. “I think the big piece of why I said yes was because of the culture,” she continued. “He abused his power.” A co-worker at “The Chris Rock Show,” who also wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that the woman told him about the experience soon after it happened.
Ms. Schachner, a writer, illustrator and performer, admired Louis C.K.’s work. They had met in the comedy scene; Ms. Schachner’s former boyfriend was a comedy writer who had worked with Louis C.K. In 2003, when she called Louis C.K. with an invitation to her show, he said he was at work in an office as a writer on the series “Cedric the Entertainer Presents,” she recalled.
Their conversation quickly moved from the personal — Louis C.K. had seen photos of her on her boyfriend’s desk, he said, and told her he thought she was cute — to “unprofessional and inappropriate,” Ms. Schachner said.
She said she heard the blinds coming down. Then he slowly started telling her his sexual fantasies, breathing heavily and talking softly. She realized he was masturbating, and was dumbfounded. The call went on for several minutes, even though, Ms. Schachner said, “I definitely wasn’t encouraging it.” But she didn’t know how to end it, either. “You want to believe it’s not happening,” she said. A friend, Stuart Harris, confirmed that Ms. Schachner had described the call to him in 2003.
For years afterward, Ms. Schachner said, she felt angry and betrayed by an artist she looked up to. And she wondered what she could have done differently. “I felt very ashamed,” she said.
A Run-In, Then Fears About Speaking Out
During Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov’s surreal visit to Louis C.K.’s Aspen hotel room, they said they were holding onto each other, screaming and laughing in shock, as Louis C.K. masturbated in a chair. “We were paralyzed,” Ms. Goodman said. After he ejaculated on his stomach, they said, they fled. He called after them: “He was like, ‘Which one is Dana and which one is Julia?’” Ms. Goodman recalled.
Afterward, they ran into Charna Halpern, the owner of influential improv theaters in Los Angeles and Chicago, where Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov performed, and relayed what had happened. “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to tell them to do,” said Ms. Halpern. Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov decided against going to the police, unsure whether what happened was criminal, but felt they had to respond in some way “because something crazy happened to us,” Ms. Goodman said.
Hoping that outrage would build against Louis C.K., and also to shame him, they began telling others about the incident the next day. But many people seemed to recoil, they said. “Guys were backing away from us,” Ms. Wolov said. Barely 24 hours after they left Louis C.K.’s hotel, “we could already feel the backlash.”
Soon after, they said they understood from their managers that Mr. Becky, Louis C.K’s manager, wanted them to stop telling people about their encounter with Louis C.K. Lee Kernis, one of the women’s managers at the time, confirmed on Thursday that he had a conversation in which he told Mr. Becky that Louis C.K.’s behavior toward the women had been offensive. Mr. Kernis also said that Mr. Becky was upset that the women were talking openly about the incident.
Mr. Becky denied making any threats toward the women. “I don’t recall the exact specifics of the conversation, but know I never threatened anyone,” he wrote by email on Thursday. Ms. Halpern and Robert Schroeder — Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov’s agent at the time — said that the pair told them that they felt they had been warned to stop talking.
Mr. Becky arguably wields even more power in comedy than Louis C.K. He represents Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Amy Poehler and other top performers, and his company, 3 Arts, puts together programming deals for nearly every platform.
Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov moved to Los Angeles shortly after the Aspen festival, but “we were coming here with a bunch of enemies,” Ms. Goodman said. Gren Wells, a filmmaker who befriended the comedy duo in 2002, said the incident and the warning, which they told her about soon after Aspen, hung heavily over them both. “This is something that they were freaked out about,” Ms. Wells said.
In the years since, Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov have found some success, but they remained concerned about Mr. Becky and took themselves out of the running for the many projects he was involved in. Though their humor is in line with what he produces, “we know immediately that we can never even submit our material,” Ms. Wolov said.
Private Acts, Public Jokes
Jokes about masturbation have been a regular part of Louis C.K.’s stage shows. In one bit, he complains about not being able to find a private place in his house to do it. “I’m on the streets now,” he says, “I’ve got nowhere to go.” In another bit he laments being a prisoner of his perversions. “Just the constant perverted sexual thoughts,” he says, then mimes masturbating. “It makes me into a moron.”
Tig Notaro, the comedian whose Amazon series, “One Mississippi,” lists Louis C.K. as an executive producer, is one of the few in the fiercely insular comedy world to speak out against him. Her career received a huge boost when he released her 2012 comedy album, about her cancer diagnosis. But their relationship has crumbled and she now feels “trapped” by her association with him, she wrote in an email.
Her fear is that “he released my album to cover his tracks,” she said. “He knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman.” Ms. Notaro said she learned of his reputation after they sold the series to Amazon, and a recent story line is a fictional treatment of the alleged masturbation episodes.
“Sadly, I’ve come to learn that Louis C.K.’s victims are not only real,” she said by email, “but many are actual friends of mine within the comedy community,” like Ms. Corry, who confided in her, she said.
In his forthcoming film, about a television writer whose teenage daughter is wooed by a Woody Allen type, one character aggressively mimics masturbating in front of others. The content has raised eyebrows. Given the rumors surrounding Louis C.K., the movie “plays like an ambiguous moral inventory of and excuse for everything that allows sexual predators to thrive: open secrets, toxic masculinity, and powerful people getting the benefit of the doubt,” Joe Berkowitz wrote in Fast Company.
Yet in an interview with The Times in September at the Toronto film festival, where “I Love You, Daddy,” was shown, Louis C.K. dismissed stories of his alleged sexual misconduct as “rumors,” and said the notion that the masturbation scenes referred to them never occurred to him. “It’s funny, I didn’t think of that, ” he said.
Apologies With Troubling Implications
In private, though, he appears to have acknowledged his behavior.
In 2009, six years after their phone call, Ms. Schachner received a Facebook message from Louis C.K., apologizing. “Last time I talked to you ended in a sordid fashion,” he wrote in the message, which was reviewed by The Times. “That was a bad time in my life and I’m sorry.” He added that he had seen some of Ms. Schachner’s comedy and thought she was funny. “I remember thinking what a repulsive person I was being by responding the way that I did,” he wrote.
Ms. Schachner accepted his apology and told him she forgave him. But the original interaction left her deeply dispirited, she said, and was one of the things that discouraged her from pursuing comedy.
In 2015, a few months before the now-defunct website Defamer circulated rumors of Louis C.K.’s alleged sexual misconduct, Ms. Corry also received an email from Louis C.K., which was obtained by The Times, saying he owed her a “very very very late apology.” When he phoned her, he said he was sorry for shoving her in a bathroom. Ms. Corry replied that he had never done that, but had instead asked to masturbate in front of her. Responding in a shaky voice, he acknowledged it and said, “I used to misread people back then,” she recalled.
The call confounded her, Ms. Corry said: not only had he misremembered the incident, which made her think there were other moments of misconduct, he also implied she had done something to invite his behavior. “It is unfair he’s put me or anyone else in this position,” Ms. Corry said.
Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov said that with other allegations swirling around the entertainment world, they could no longer stay silent. “Because of this moment, as gross as it is, we feel compelled to speak,” Ms. Goodman said.
Ms. Notaro said she was standing in support of those with the courage “to speak up against such a powerful figure,” she said, “as well as the multitude of women still out there, not quite ready to share their nightmares.”