TAMPA — Louis C.K. performed the first of six sold-out shows at Side Splitters Comedy Club on Wednesday and received a standing ovation after his hour long set.
There were no protestors, no phones allowed and no jokes involving the Parkland school shooting, though the comedian did allude to the outrage he stirred up with a previous joke on that topic, as well as his own admitted sexual misconduct.
If you want to make people forget that you masturbated in front of someone, "tell a joke about some kids that got shot at a school," C.K. said, drawing big laughs. "That's worse. ... They tend to forget the first thing."
C.K.'s first show in Tampa in nearly five years comes under wildly different circumstances than when he headlined the Oddball Comedy Festival at the MidFlorida Amphitheatre in 2014.
Then, he was the reigning king of standup with a critically beloved FX series. Now, he's attempting to rebuild a career derailed by actions outlined in a New York Times investigation in which five women accused him of sexual misconduct. He admitted their stories were true.
After nine months out of the spotlight, he returned and began playing smaller venues last year, drawing protestors in San Jose, Calif. and New York City.
"I used to play arenas," he joked in Tampa to a capacity crowd of about 250, who'd paid $30 each for tickets. "Lucky for you, I've had a bad year."
C.K.'s comeback has been scrutinized every step of the way, but never so much as in January when audio from a comedy set on Long Island, N.Y. leaked online. That set included a joke complaining that "not interesting" students who'd survived Parkland were testifying in front of Congress. In another joke, he complained about young nonbinary people wanting to be identified by they/them pronouns.
"I want to be referred to as 'there,' because I identify as a place," C.K. said in the 2018 recording — a joke and topic that did not make it into Wednesday's set in Tampa.
To prevent recording at Side Splitters, the audience had to place phones inside locked Yondr pouches before entering the main room. A host repeatedly asked the crowd not to record anything, and off-duty, uniformed police officers stood outside and in the lobby providing security.
For many critics, the crux of the problem with C.K.'s new material that surfaced in the leak was that he wasn't talking about what he'd learned, or signaling growth, since pledging to "now step back and take a long time to listen" in the wake of the 2017 scandal.
His defenders have said he deserves a shot at redemption, and that the leaked set was an unfinished product never intended for an audience bigger than the confines of Governor's comedy club.
On Wednesday, he talked about the many ways his life had been ruined by his actions, but little about the way he ruined it. He lamented losing a ton of money, then feeling foolish for owning a luxury watch. He complained about having to flee New York for small American backwaters, and later, Paris.
He also said he wanted to offer the crowd some advice from what he'd learned.
"If you ever ask somebody, 'Can I [masturbate] in front of you?' and they say 'Yes, you may,' just say 'Are you sure?' ... And then if they say yes, just still don't do it."
Outside of that stuff, C.K.'s set wouldn't seem out of character pre-scandal. He conjured outrageously vile and unrepeatable scenarios that were presented with seriousness to the point of absurdity. He told self-deprecating jokes about his own health and habits. He talked about his daughters and the blessings of divorce. He wore a rumpled, all-black shirt.
The crowd contained many couples, men and women, and was unremarkable except for how hard they laughed.
Contact Christopher Spata at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.