A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

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When Shane Gillis performed his monologue on Saturday Night Live last month, he opened with a joke about why he was previously fired from the show. “Don’t look that up, please,” he says with a smile. “It’s fine, don’t even worry about it.”

If you do look it up, you’ll come across Seth Simons’s reporting for the Los Angeles Times, which details Shane’s long history of using slurs against Jewish, Chinese, and Black people. In one podcast episode, Shane shares his enthusiastic support for Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist militant organization that promotes political violence. In another, Shane says, “If the blood rushes to my head, all my blood’s racist. I do have racist blood.”

After Shane’s racism was thrust into the spotlight, he defended himself by saying, “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.” Groups like the Media Action Network for Asian Americans called his bluff and asked for a genuine apology. He didn’t give one.

Instead, Shane followed the conservative tradition of refusing to apologize, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness. He implemented a strategy he outlined in a podcast episode in 2017. “I tone it down so much onstage, compared to this,” he told his most fervent fans behind a paywall. “All you have to do is listen to any one of our podcasts and be like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s pretty ra—.’” He cut himself off. A wink to a knowing audience.

This strategy worked. When Shane got fired, his career didn’t end—it escalated. He released a hit special on YouTube, which led to another on Netflix. Last month, he inked a deal with the streamer to release yet another special and a sitcom. “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast” is currently the most popular show on Patreon.

Shane had just guest starred on SNL when I went to see a screening of Sorry/Not Sorry, a documentary I was contractually obligated to watch given this column’s title. The film explores the leadup and aftermath of the sexual misconduct of Louis C.K.—whom Shane opened for during Louis’ 2022 tour.

Louis C.K. was perhaps the biggest comedian in the country when he was accused in the New York Times by five women of sexual misconduct, most notably for masturbating in front of some of them. The accusations had come at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, following public allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and Bill Cosby.

Sorry/Not Sorry, co-directed by Caroline Suh and Cara Mones, is surprisingly free from moralizing. After the screening, the directors emphasized their efforts to keep the film fact-based and to include the full context of everyone’s statements so that audiences might make up their own minds. They also reached out to “everyone in the comedy community” to comment, even if only “a few brave souls” were willing to speak. Louis was not one of those brave souls.

Louis C.K. had previously made a career out of courageous self-deprecation. His comedy criticized the way men could terrorize women, himself included. “How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men?” he said in one of the most popular bits from his HBO special Oh My God. “We’re the number one threat! To women! We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them!”

Perhaps that’s why, after the accusations, something unusual happened: Louis C.K. did not deny them. “These stories are true,” he said in his statement. He went on to admit that he had power over these women who all worked in comedy, and that he “wielded that power irresponsibly.” He even explained that the consent he sought wasn’t real consent. “When you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them.”

This was remarkable. As the New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor said in the film, it was “the rare case where there was no dispute about the facts.” It felt like an opportunity had emerged for someone to do this right, to apologize well and address their wrongs in a way that helped people heal and move on.

But then Louis went from sorry to not. Instead of reaching out to his victims privately or doing any public work to ensure he had accounted for his actions, he stayed silent—until he reappeared nine months later at the Comedy Cellar without any acknowledgment of his bad behavior. He did finally address it in his stand-up special Sincerely Louis C.K., lamenting that now the whole world knew about his kink. He talked about enthusiastic consent, comparing his confusion on the subject to thinking enslaved people were happy when they sang spirituals.

Sorry/Not Sorry also shows what happened to the women in the aftermath of the allegations. They were ridiculed by Dave Chappelle, hounded by Louis fans, and boxed out of the comedy careers they were trying to pursue. Two of the comedians from the New York Times piece are absent from the documentary—the filmmakers explained the duo had received so much harassment that they just wished to move on with their lives. The remaining women also say they wish they had nothing to do with any of this. “It will be the first line in my obituary,” exclaims Abby Schachner, obviously frustrated.

In Louis’s second special after the allegations, he bounds out onto the stage like Elvis in front of giant lit-up red letters that spell SORRY. The joke is a middle finger to all the commentators upset that the word “sorry” didn’t appear in his apology statement. The implication is one we’ve previously discussed, which I believe holds a kernel of truth: in liberal circles, apologies get scrutinized so much that it’s almost impossible to be forgiven.

But is it impossible? A few months after Louis C.K.’s statement, the comedic world heard another attempt at an apology for sexual harassment from another comedian, Dan Harmon, the cocreator of Rick and Morty and the showrunner of NBC comedy Community.

The apology started from the same place as Louis, by admitting the truth of what he had done. But then Dan went further, clinically describing in detail the way he abused his power to punish an employee who had rebuffed his advances. He made his apology without excusing his own actions, stressing how he had said horrible things and treated her cruelly, which he “would never, ever, ever have done if she had been male.” He even confesses that he would have gotten away with all of this had his accuser, Megan Ganz, not asked him for a fuller apology on Twitter.

Then something beautiful happened: Megan forgave him. She had tuned in expecting to be mad at a disappointing non-apology, but instead, she heard an honest reckoning. “It was cathartic in a way that I could never have imagined,” Megan told This American Life later. “It was like receiving the antidote to a poison I’d been self-inflicting. It’s the only way I can describe it.”

This healing power is the reason public apology is worth all the fuss. It may be easier to never apologize and embrace a conservative or indifferent fanbase. It may be difficult to deal with the “sorry scrutinizers” among the progressive set, nit-picking your attempts at contrition. But Dan Harmon and Megan Ganz persisted all the same, and it gave them both their lives back. So, while Shane and Louis can certainly get away with their failed apologies, and maybe even gain some fans in the process, you just have to think: it’s a shame they didn’t try harder.