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, Colorado. 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," 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.
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," Kay wrote in an email Tuesday night.
Neither Louis C.K. nor 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.
Louis C.K. has also boosted the careers of women, and is sometimes viewed as a feminist by fans and critics. But Goodman and 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," Wolov said.
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.
In Louis C.K.'s 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.
In private, though, he appears to have acknowledged his behavior.
In 2009, six years after their phone call, 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 Schachner's comedy and thought she was funny.
Schachner accepted his apology and told him she forgave him. But the original interaction left her deeply dispirited, she said, and discouraged her from pursuing comedy.