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At Toronto Film Festival, a new doc explores how the comedy world enabled Louis C.K.

By Jen Yamato, Los Angeles Times
Published: September 17, 2023, 6:04am

TORONTO — As filmmakers Caroline Suh and Cara Mones began interrogating the sexual misconduct scandal that halted — at least, briefly — the career of comedian Louis C.K. at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, they came to a realization: Debates around C.K.’s behavior, subsequent cancellation and eventual return to comedy success were centered on the wrong person.

At first, the knotty questions were a springboard for curiosity. Suh, a self-described C.K. fan, wondered in private if the comedy star really deserved to be banished from public life after allegations of sexual misconduct, which C.K. later admitted to, were levied by five women in a New York Times report. “Is what he did that bad?” she says she asked herself.

Probing that notion and parsing C.K.’s comeback nine months later — which would eventually include a return to touring, sold-out comedy specials and a 2022 Grammy Award win for best comedy album — led to an evolution in the thinking behind Suh and Mones’ feature documentary “Sorry/Not Sorry,” which has made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It wasn’t re-litigating the details of C.K.’s behavior, or pondering who gets to come back from cancellation, but hearing the experiences of women who spoke out about C.K. and the invisible repercussions that followed in their lives and careers that brought their film into focus. “We realized those aren’t really the essential questions to ask,” Suh told The Times. “It’s not about Louie. It’s about all these other people — and why do we not care about them at all?”

“Sorry/Not Sorry,” produced by the New York Times and based on Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley and Jodi Kantor’s bombshell 2017 expose, first blends archival footage and interviews with fellow comedians and cultural critics to revisit the C.K. the world knew before the revelations: A perceptive comedy star at the top of his game, who in his own act was frequently self-effacing about his own sexual compulsions. (Ryzik, Buckley and Kantor are consulting producers and appear in the documentary.)

Comedian Michael Ian Black, “Parks & Rec” co-creator Michael Schur and Noam Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar where C.K. made his post-scandal stage return, also appear in the film. Jon Stewart, who declined to participate, is seen in archival footage juxtaposing “The Daily Show” host’s testy 2016 exchange with college student Dan Ackerman with his contrite “Today Show” appearance addressing his friendship with C.K. a year later.

“It’s stunning to watch,” said Mones, who produced Suh’s 2020 Netflix documentary “ Blackpink: Light Up the Sky “ before the pair teamed up to co-direct “Sorry/Not Sorry.” “Of course, we’ll never know what Jon Stewart did or didn’t know. But I think being able to watch public figures speak about this over a course of years is striking, and to hear his real-time reactions and how he responded to that question being posed is pretty incredible.”

But at the heart of “Sorry/Not Sorry” are the women interviewed onscreen, some of whom, like artist and comedian Abby Schachner and TV writer Jen Kirkman, describe sexual harassment by C.K., while comedian and writer Megan Koester shares the antagonistic reactions she received after reporting on C.K.’s then-rumored behavior. All say private and career anxieties followed as their accounts were ridiculed and challenged in the court of public opinion.

It’s those women’s accounts in the new documentary that Suh and Mones both applaud, and worry over.

“There’s trepidation, and we’re very concerned about the women in the film, if the people in the film are going to get hate mail or hate,” admitted Suh of the exposure the film will bring once again to those who spoke out about C.K.

Reactions to “Sorry/Not Sorry,” which is seeking distribution out of TIFF after Showtime pulled out in June, will reflect how the legacy of the #MeToo movement has affected the culture around accountability — or not, they say. “I think that whatever the response is to the film will be pretty telling about how things have or haven’t changed since 2017,” said Mones.

What was it about the Louis C.K. story that made you want to revisit it five years later?

Caroline Suh: I was a huge fan and had watched the show religiously and watched all the specials. When the article came out, I was surprised. I remember having mixed feelings, but only speaking privately about it to my husband — Is what he did that bad? — so I knew that I had some mis-thinking about it, even then. And then there was a “Daily” episode, the New York Times podcast, with Noam Dworman, who owns the Comedy Cellar, the first place Louis performed when he came back nine months later. He asked a lot of questions that I thought were really interesting, like who decides who comes back? Are people supposed to become wards of the state, or are they able to ply their trade again? I really wanted to get my head around all of these questions that were popping up and to understand my own blind spots about it.

I reached out to some of the people in the article and that made it more interesting because their experiences were a lot different than I had anticipated they would have been. When the article came out, they got a lot of blowback. And there’s a tendency to group them all together as having the same kind of monolithic experience. But in reality, they have different lives. They’re different people. Some of them knew each other, but they had different reactions from each other.

Cara Mones: I wasn’t a Louis C.K. fan. I knew that he was beloved, but I didn’t watch “ Louie “ or watch his stand-up. When Caroline asked me to join this project, I had a lot of questions: What is this going to be about? Are we platforming him? Why are we spending time on him? I realized that I actually knew very little about the women as well, that I hadn’t known their personal stories deeply and I also hadn’t been aware of the backlash that they had experienced. I didn’t know about the things that Dave Chappelle had said about Abby, for example. I had no sense of what they had gone through. So it became a very exciting prospect to actually delve into what it’s like to come forward and what those repercussions look like.

The film questions who knew what about Louis C.K.’s behavior. What did you learn as you reached out to people in the comedy world who knew Louis C.K.? Were you surprised by anyone who said yes — or no — to being in the documentary?

Suh: I think we were more surprised by the people we got yeses from, and really grateful to them because we couldn’t have made the movie without them. There’s a lot of archival in the film of people’s commentary, and I think a lot of people commented at the time and then just didn’t want to speak about it again. I mean, it’s a hard subject to talk about.

Mones: I think it’s kind of surprising that there are some people who were willing to speak critically about Louie in 2017, but were resistant to do it again because of whatever blowback they had experienced. And I think it says something that people are still reluctant to talk about this, even though it’s six years later.

Michael Ian Black is an interesting figure in the film as he reconsiders his own tweets at the time in support of a C.K. comeback.

Suh: There are several examples in the film of people who have their own personal journey of thinking throughout the story. As he says in the film, he wanted to have a conversation he felt like everyone was having behind closed doors, but no one was willing to talk about. And then he didn’t realize the negative impact that those comments would have. Now as time has gone on, he has reevaluated his thinking about it and has come out the other side with a more nuanced version of his thinking. And I personally empathize with that because I had my own similar journey about it.

He and Mike Schur look back and think, OK, these are ways in which I might have acted differently. And I certainly feel that myself. I think the film has made everyone who worked on the film really think about their own lives. It’s hard to always know how to act and what to do and reevaluate the history of their experience and also [decide] moving forward, what should you do? It’s not always clear.

Mones: I think it’s sometimes easy to see something as harmful, but hard to actually say something. And I really like what Mike Schur says about — I’m poorly paraphrasing — how he didn’t think it was his problem. And that’s the problem: If we don’t think it’s our problem, then whose problem is it? So I think it was really refreshing that Mike Shur and Michael Ian Black were willing to think out loud about the evolution of how they thought about this, and what they did.

You titled the film “Sorry/Not Sorry” as a direct response to C.K.’s 2021 comedy special, “Sorry.” What connotations does that hold for you?

Suh: I always wanted to call the film “Sorry” from the very beginning, because I like the double meanings of it. Sorry, like a sorry situation. Sorry in terms of being apologetic. There’s a slash mark in the middle, hinting at different sides. And one thing that we didn’t realize until we were making the film was how his version of an apology morphed after he came back. He was one of the few [accused of misconduct] to actually admit [the allegations] were true. Then it changed over time, that it was a sexual [fetish] more than anything. That was really eye-opening to us.

The comedy duo Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, who alleged that C.K. masturbated in front of them at a 2002 comedy festival, are discussed in the film but do not appear in it. Were you in touch with them about participating?

Suh: I think our biggest ethical issue in the whole making of the film is that dredging this all up again could potentially have a very negative impact on the people who came forward, who already put themselves on the line by coming forward. That’s just a real consequence of making a film. You hope that it’s going to move the conversation along in a positive way, but you also don’t want to kind of bring back this negative experience for a lot of people who’ve already gone through a lot of negative experiences. So we had asked them to participate and for various reasons they’re not in the film.

Jen Kirkman appears in “Sorry/Not Sorry” and shares not only her accounts of harassment by C.K., but why she declined to be part of the N ew Y ork Times story in 2017. Why was she an important voice for your film?

Suh:I don’t think she was chomping at the bit to participate, but she felt like it was important. And, as she says in the film, the conversation hasn’t changed. Nothing’s changed enough, so she’s talking about it again. And she is obviously key in the film. She is a voice of reason and wisdom and sanity, and she’s also obviously very brilliant and funny. And she established his history of doing this to various degrees in the past. I think just hearing her story and the number of incidents that she had with him, to me that’s really interesting and really powerful to hear. It’s a pattern of behavior.

Mones: There’s so much I learned from her story, like when she talks about not doing press [to promote her own career] because they kept asking about Louie. That helped me understand how long something like this can impact a person in ways that you might not have expected. And also how she talks about how this is like the Scarlet Letter: she says one thing and that becomes who she is. Why is it that these individuals can’t speak honestly about something and also be a lot of other things? This comes to define them … I think we think about this behavior in black-and-white ways — is it illegal or not? And I feel like this pattern was over so many years but is very insidious. It made me think a lot more about, is this behavior fair? That feels like a better question than, “Well, was it illegal?” I’m grateful to her for making all these questions a lot more clear.

You use archival footage to illustrate patterns, not just connecting C.K.’s behavior with women and his comedy act, but post-expose, how male peers including Dave Chappelle mocked the women who came forward. When sifting through the last five years of discourse were you surprised at how much these women were used as fodder for jokes?

Mones: It’s like, why is Dave Chappelle harping on why Abby didn’t hang up the phone instead of asking why was Louis doing this repeatedly to various women over the years? Bringing all those archival clips together is where you really see what the focus was — that it was on Louie and there’s not a ton of commentary on what the impact was on women or what it meant to come forward. That’s where you really hear people harping on, “Oh, was it a crime?” and in those kinds of terms, and there is just so much missing.

Suh: I think what surprises me over and over again is how unsurprised I am, and how that discussion is so reflexive. As Cara Buckley says in the film, the more important question is, why is everyone so upset that these women were just telling what happened to them?

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After making the film, how do you feel about the legacy of #MeToo in 2023?

Mones: Cautiously optimistic is my feeling. As you see at the end of the film, Louie is selling out shows. It says a lot that he won a Grammy. But on the other hand, I do think that progress around the conversations that #MeToo started is still here, and I think that there’s something to be said about that. So I think that is a question of, as we continue to hear these stories, where are we putting the attention? Does it continue to be on the accused or will we see more of a shift of attention to the people who are coming forward and speaking out? That’s what I’m interested to see.

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