Louis C.K. gets a second shot at being a television star, as his FX series Louie premieres tomorrow. Regardless of ratings, however, the veteran performer has long ago locked up his position as one of the most important comedians of our time. Here’s why.
As sharp a comedian as he is, Louis CK has never quite succeeded in translating the dark hilarity of his stand-up into his other work. In FX’s Louie, however, he’s finally done it, distilling the fearless, painfully funny insights of his acclaimed specials Chewed Up and Shameless into a wholly original series that’s unlike anything on television. Louis exerts a degree of authorship almost never seen in TV: he is Louie’s star, its writer, its director, and its editor. He does everything but hold the camera himself, and as such, the show reflects his vision with few constraints of format or of content: it’s funny, it’s filthy, and it’s a little crazy.
Unlike his previous sitcom, the cancelled HBO series Lucky Louie, episodes of Louie unfold with a kind of loose, associative structure, often cutting between Louis (who plays himself) onstage at a comedy club and digressions into scenes that work like self-contained short films. Rather than follow a straight-ahead narrative, the show takes on the feel of an absurd trip through Louis’ angst-ridden mind. As such, it’s hard to say what it’s “about” exactly.
The first episode gives us a glimpse of his domestic and dating life as a divorced father of two young girls, while the second episode provided by FX (which is episode three of the series), features a heated confrontation with comedian Nick DiPaolo as well as age-related health problems that send Louie to see a doctor played by Ricky Gervais. Some segments are breezily funny, and some carry surprising dramatic impact, and we never quite know where we’re headed or how we got there.
In his best material, Louis often travels to a lonely, genuinely sad place, and yet the journey is always achingly funny. His comedy is never escapist. The jokes manage to be relatable and confrontational all at once. Louis examines the humiliations and injustices of life with honesty so unflinching that he forces us to be conscious of even the little lies that we tell ourselves to get by. If Curb Your Enthusiasm is the comedy of cringe, then Louie is the comedy of hopelessness.
“Everything that makes you happy is going to end at some point,” he says, in one of the more optimistic stand-up bits from the first episode. “And, nothing good ends well. If you buy a puppy, it’s like you’re bringing it home to your family saying, ‘Hey, look everybody, we’re all going to cry soon…here we go, countdown to sorrow with a puppy.’” The whole routine is startling in its ability to cause both belly laughs and deep, existential depression. It’s a complicated idea that represents the best of what Louis can do, a product of his extraordinary skill in transforming the brutal indifference of the world into comedy.
Louie premieres Tuesday night on FX at 11pm EST.
Louis called me from Los Angeles last week to talk about the show, his comedy, and some of his influences. With a few edits mostly for clarity, this is our complete conversation.
You pretty much run Louie behind and in front of the camera, from the beginning of the process to the finished product. It really feels like completely your own show, which seems rare in television. Do you feel like you can claim ownership of Louie in a way that you couldn’t even with Lucky Louie?
Absolutely. There’s definitely a massive difference. I mean, I would say that Larry David probably had his own show. And has. I don’t think anybody tells Larry how to do it. I think he’s doing things exactly the way he wants, which is, by the way, why Seinfeld was as good as it was. Because Larry did the same thing there. He’s a guy who is not going to do anything any other way. But, he did have to push through a gauntlet at NBC. I don’t know what it’s like for him at HBO, but I think he pretty much does what he wants.
Yeah, I don’t know a lot of examples of it. I’m extremely lucky to be getting a chance to do it. Literally, the way the show works is I write it, I don’t show the script to anybody, I just start making the show. When people come for casting, when actors come to read for stuff, we don’t send them the material ahead of time. They have to come, they have two minutes to read it, and then they come in to read for us. And, they leave the script there. FX hasn’t read it. They don’t read anything. They just see the show when it’s finished, and there’s no mandate to do the show any way specifically or to have stories be long or short.
Every episode is a new project. And, actually, every bit is a new project, because I don’t necessarily have to make an episode the way I said I would. Sometimes, I’ll write something that I think is going to be an episode, and it will feel like it’s not working, so I’ll cut it down to half an episode, or I’ll cut it into two different episodes with other pieces. It’s very organic, which is a word I hate.
Is there more room to do something different when you’re shooting a single-camera style show like this, as opposed to being on a set with a multi-camera format?
Well, yes. And also, we did that show [Lucky Louie] at Hollywood Center Studios, and we had a writers’ room, and we had a network executive run through. You spend literally a week of your time on network stuff. There’s a process to making a TV show, especially on a stage, work. It’s hard for a network to come to visit you on set when you shoot like I shoot. I shoot my show in New York City. I’m in all five boroughs and a different place every day. So, FX is invited to my set, but they’re rarely in New York, and when they are, they’re like, “Can we come?” And, I say, “Well, I’m shooting just me in a room, and there’s not really room for another person.” They’re like, “All right. Fuck it.”
But, when you have a set, which is like your address to the show, then people can come. And, there’s a process. There’s a process that’s old and tried and true. When I started Lucky Louie, I said, “We’re not doing it.” I said, “We’re not having a big screen in the writer’s room, where everybody gangs in on every word of dialogue. We’re not going through the re-write process and punching up every scene. We’re not doing the thing where we do one take, throw in a bunch of new jokes, and do another take. We’re not doing a network run-through. We’re not rehearsing and blocking forever and ever.” And, by the end of the season, all of those things were being done.
It’s a very hard force to fight. The reason for that is that’s how you make a responsible TV show. That’s how a conscientious staff of a show does a show. It’s an efficient system. It’s been done since the 40s, or whatever it is, and that’s how you do it. It’s very hard to do it any other way.
But now, I’m in New York, I’ve got a camera, and a pencil, and I do whatever the fuck I want, and nobody asks me.
The thing is I’m allowed to fail. I’ve shot some things that won’t be on TV. Because I just tried them out. I shot things that I weren’t sure were going to work. And, some of them destroyed, and some of them didn’t at all. You have to be able to try things that are unlikely to work to get to really special stuff. Either you’ll fail, and it doesn’t hurt anybody, or you’ll find success in a place nobody has found it before. That, to me, is the best thing. So, the way the show is done gives me that freedom.
It’s just like being onstage. You have that same ability, if you’re willing to bomb with something, and you surprise yourself by killing with it, not only did you kill, but you found an unlikely kill. That’s the difference between going to Florida and catching one of the million swordfish or going to the Galapagos Islands and finding some fucking two-headed weird thing.
As far as the little scenes that surround the stand-up, they don’t seem to be straight autobiography, but they definitely provide a sense of who you are.
What I call the show is autobiographical fiction. It’s about me, and it’s about how I feel my life is, and the way my life feels, but it’s not my life, really. Most of the stories are fictions. Even the flashbacks to when I was a kid, none of those things happened to me. I made up friends I didn’t have.
Robert Kelly plays my brother. I don’t have a brother. I didn’t plan to have a brother in the show. I just liked the idea. He’s such a puppy dog, that guy. He’s this big Boston kid, but he’s very sad. And, my relationship with him in real life is that I feel like he’s my younger brother. So, that’s what I made him, and it worked, so we kept him for two more episodes. But, next year, I might decide to have the reality be that I don’t have a brother, because in real life, I have three sisters. So, I’m able to do that.
You wrote a movie with Chris Rock, I Think I Love My Wife that was a reworking of a film made by [French director] Eric Rohmer [1972’s Chloe in the Afternoon]. Are you a fan of that era of French cinema and art cinema in general?
Oh, definitely. I’ve loved movies my whole life. Foreign films. I grew up in Boston. Most cities have one art house, and when I was growing up in Boston, there were like ten. There was one in Harvard Square. There was one in Central Square, this place called Off The Wall Cinema, which is actually where I started doing stand-up because they had comedy at midnight. There was the Coolidge Corner Theater and a place called the Nickelodeon. There was a lot of that out there. I also had a teacher in junior high school, who was technically a junior high school social studies teacher, but he would just show us weird Czechoslovakian dada films. I mean, he taught some history, but he mostly showed us really cool, startling, strange films that I’ll never forget.
When I moved to New York City, I discovered Kim’s Video, which was a place on Bleecker Street. They had the films or the videos arranged by director, instead of by the names of the movies or the genre. They had, like, a lighting designer section. If you like this lighting designer, here are his movies.
I didn’t go to college, so I educated myself at Kim’s Video. I would go to the Godard section, and just watch it. Spend two weeks watching [Jean-Luc] Godard. Or [Pier Paolo] Passolini. Or [Ingmar] Bergman. Martin Scorsese. Sam Peckinpah. And, French New Wave.
I’m glad you mentioned Godard, because his movies play with tone and mood in a really weird way, kind of like your show does. I think there’s a sense sometimes that if something is a comedy, it has to be just one kind of comedy. But, with what you do, sometimes the material is really silly but sometimes it’s really sad or dark or angry.
Yeah, that’s something I really love doing. I’m pretty much fulfilling every dream I’ve ever had on this show, whether it has anything to do with sitcom or comedy or not. I’m just doing it anyway. I have unfinished feature films I’ve written that are in this show. I thought, I’m never going to write this movie. I’m never going to make this movie, that’s for fucking sure. It’s too weird. Can I boil it down to a twelve-minute segment. Or a twenty-one minute segment? Or two? And use what I love about it in the show? And, I’ve done it with a few things like that, and some of them ain’t comedies.
I think everything is funny. I don’t think something has to be comedy to be funny. Actually, more cases than not, comedy is not that funny. Like, one of the funniest movies of all time to me is Goodfellas. I probably laughed harder at Goodfellas than I did at any SNL picture, because you’re taken to this real place, and you get to these nervous moments, and then someone says something, and you just die laughing. Raging Bull is hilarious. More comedians quote lines from that movie than they do from Bill Murray or whoever else. And, that’s a dark fucking movie.
I like the idea that no one knows what they’re going to see on this show. They think they’re watching a couple of people trade jokes, and then something happens, and all of a sudden, they’re wrapped up in this story. One thing I recognize is that I’m definitely taking risks. I don’t mean that in a heroic sense. I’m taking risks in the sense that a lot of people may not like this shit. There are going to be departure points for certain people.
I think there’s a sense in America that people are consumers of art. So, they’re like, “I want some laughter, so I’m going to go to the laughter store of this show.” Then, if they’re not laughing, they go, “Hey, can I talk to the manager? Because I’m not laughing right now.” I think it’s more fun, personally, to watch something, and just let it unfold, and wonder why they’re doing it the way they are and just open yourself up to it.
In the article in the New York Times about the show, Ricky Gervais talked about how he thinks that you both do the same kind of thing, but he admires you because you don’t do it with a veil of irony, like he says he does. Do you think there’s too much irony in stand-up comedy?
It’s not that I think there’s too much of it, it’s that I think there’s plenty of sources for it, so that people don’t need it from me. I don’t make a choice not to be one way or the other. I’m just sort of doing what I do.
But, I love irony. For instance, I love Ricky Gervais. He kills me. Ricky is a funny, interesting person. I see that there’s a struggle in him as a performer that I like watching. In other words, the reason he puts irony in stuff is because I think he feels a little guilty about some of the things he says. He has that cackle laughter, where he says really evil things, and then he starts giggling like a child. Because he knows he’s being naughty, and that’s because he’s British, and they put a lot of pressure on people to be proper there. But, I love that about Ricky.
So, I don’t look down irony, because that’s such a great example of it. You don’t know where you’re coming from with Ricky. I really love that. He’s like a knuckleball pitcher or something. Like a knuckleball pitcher who has a fastball, which is lethal. So, when he reaches back to pitch, you’ve got to get ready for some heat, but he might throw this fucking slow, weird pitch that you didn’t know was coming.
I’m more, “Just say the thing.” I just sort of “say the thing.” Although, look, in one of my specials, I said, “You shouldn’t rape anybody. Unless you have a good reason. Like…they won’t let you have sex with them.” I don’t mean that. [Laughs] I don’t think that. But, I liked saying something so bleakly simple and brutal, and for one second, I aspire to be able to do that too. Especially because people get a very reliable sense that I mean everything I’m saying. So, when I pull back and say something completely fucked up that I couldn’t possibly mean, it really throws them off balance. It’s a fun place to go. I think it’s just moderation or something.
You kind of have that little giggle that Ricky does too. We can see you laughing during the most potentially offensive bits. What’s the source of that? Catholicism?
It definitely is. In my newest special, which is upsetting me that it isn’t out yet, because it was done less than a year after Chewed Up…I really wanted to go one, two, three with those three, Shameless, Chewed Up, Hilarious…in Hilarious, at one point, I say something really awful. And, I start laughing, and I tell the audience, “I’m laughing because it makes me laugh to upset you.” And, it does. It’s funny to me when people get upset. I definitely laugh sometimes at what’s happening onstage, like, “I can’t believe I said that and look at how they’re reacting. This is hilarious. And, that one lady is leaving. Oh well.”
I caught your show at the Improv in Hollywood a few months ago, and you did a really interesting bit about Bill Clinton apologizing for supporting NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], and how basically what America does is responsible for the fact that people in Haiti can’t feed themselves. And, people in the crowd got really uncomfortable.
It was awesome.
Yeah, I loved that.
How did that bit come to you?
I was workshopping a lot of stuff that night. I was trying to find stuff. And, I had just heard Bill Clinton say this thing to the Senate, about how he shouldn’t have passed NAFTA, and he took personal responsibility and said that NAFTA was directly responsible for starvation in Haiti today.
I got to it because I had done a thing [on nut allergies], which is funny, because I just did this on The Tonight Show, this is how successful a bit it is. I don’t do anything on The Tonight Show that’s not going to kill. I’m not there to fuck around and find stuff. I’m there to get viewers for my new TV show, so I want to succeed.
I did this bit about the school cafeteria, and my kids, and the “no nut” table. How they’re careful to keep nuts away from allergic kids, but then the poor kids that have free lunches all get peanut butter and jelly, and I say that’s because no poor kids have peanut allergies, because the ones that did are all dead now. I usually get a great, big laugh on that, but I also get like an “awww” upset sound from people.
And you did.
I did that night. I also said something like “nobody cares about a little brown child dying…” I said “brown.” And, then, people got testy. When that happens, especially if people are laughing at an idea, but then when I clarify it they find the stopping point, then I go for the jugular. I just leap on it. Because I feel like you should be laughing at B, if you’re laughing at A. So, when, I said “brown,” people got upset. So, I said, “Well, that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about brown people dying, and nobody cares.” And, that just reminded me of the Clinton thing. So, I went down the road. Here’s my thought when something like that happens: I’m going to go down this road, if I find a joke here, it’s going to be fucking good. If I don’t, I’ll get them back, I have fucking great material. [Laughs]
This is something I learned in Boston, from a guy named Frank Santorelli, who still does stand-up. He taught me something that I’ll never forget. Frank Santorelli had a good forty-five minutes of stand-up that you cannot not laugh at, that you must laugh at. Because it’s so universal. He just had a fucking Mariano Rivera fastball that could come all night. Simple bits, about Super Bowl parties and people drinking in bars. Nothing provocative, but so beautifully honed, and he was so fucking good. He would hurt people. He was one of the first people who I watched live who would really hurt people.
What Frank enjoyed doing on stage was just sort of standing up there like a jackass and not saying much of anything. He liked doing that. So, what he did was he kept this A-material as his fastball to protect all of his off-speed stuff. He would just fuck around and fuck around, and you’d see the audience just about to lose patience with him, and he’d go, “All right…Super Bowl parties,” and then they’re in tears, they can’t breathe, they’re gasping, crying. And, he knows he has that, so he uses it that way. He has heavy artillery. So, with that, why not get in there and see what you can do?
And, by the way, what I learned afterwards is that’s usually how you find more heavy artillery. That’s where you find it. You use what you have to protect yourself as you go out there into the nothing to look for more. If you get hurt, you’ve got the horses that come fucking charging in. That’s where I learned that. That gives me the ability to do something like talk about Haiti. If I lose the crowd over the Haiti thing, it’s okay, because here I come with all this shit about the fucking cafeteria and about fucking a monkey.
The idea about “if they laugh at A, they should laugh at B” is such a Carlin-esque thing. You know that bit about capital punishment [in the 1996 HBO special Back in Town]? He’s talking about doing public beheadings, and the crowd starts to pull back a little, and he says, “Don’t bail out on me now, goddamnit. The blood is already on our hands. It’s just a matter of degree.”
No, that’s exactly right. And, Carlin never let anybody claim him as their comic, because he took everybody to a place where they weren’t happy being. Like, his bit about the environment, about we’re not saving the earth and the earth will be fine, and our arrogance [“The Planet is Fine” from 1992’s Jammin’ In New York]. Go back and watch that bit. It could almost be Glenn Beck’s opening monologue. It is beautiful. It forces you, if you’re an environmentalist, to go, “I’m a little bit full of shit.”
But, I’m learning on stage right now that one thing Americans really don’t like being reminded of is that they are living in a life of pleasure, and it is provided to them by other people’s suffering. And, that is an absolute truth. Piles of brown people have to die so that we’re comfortable, not even so that we can survive. It’s not even like a Darwinist dog-eat-dog. It’s a dog-use-dog-as-kindling-for-a-fire-just-so-it-will-be-cozy. There’s no need to eat that dog at all.
That’s what you seem to be saying when you talk about how you drive an Infiniti. [In the bit, from the Pilot episode, Louis riffs on the idea that “there are people starving, and I drive an Infiniti…it’s totally my fault.”]
There are times where people really like that stuff, and there are times they don’t. Also, there are times where when I do that bit about the homeless guy that my friend’s cousin saw on the street, and I start describing the homeless man, and I say, “He smelled like pee. So much that he was pee. He had garbage all over him. I don’t know if it was gathered for warmth, or if people just went ‘Ugghhh’ and threw it on him all day. He had dreadlocks.
Not medical marijuana dreadlocks but just clumps of hair from neglect.” Up to this point, people are howling. Everybody. Laughing, laughing, laughing. Then, I go, “A clump of hair for every year that no one knew his name or cared.” And, everyone goes, “Awwww.” They always moan and boo. And, I go, “Yeah, that’s who you’ve been laughing at for the last five minutes.” Because people have a point where they don’t want to hear anymore. That’s funny to me. It’s funny.
That’s actually an example of something that’s new to me that I really like, which is that I can take them to that place, and then I can make fun of them, and that always gets a laugh when I say that. “That’s who you’ve been laughing at for the last five minutes.” They even laugh at their own discomfort from seconds before.
Part of it is that we kind of trust you. There seems to be this core of decency that we pick up on, even as you call someone a “faggot.”
I don’t know why I sort of have a license. I’ve kind of become for some people, kind of a pharmacist for this stuff, do you know what I mean? Like a pharmacist that has a huge brown bottle of cocaine in his place. Like pure coke. “It’s okay, he’s a pharmacist, he’s not going to fuck up with it, he’s not going to bother anybody.” I think people trust me with certain material.
I think I’m trying to do the same thing with the show. There will be things that you will be watching, rather than hearing me say, that you will go, “Wait a minute, why am I watching this? I’m getting a little creeped out.” But, I generally do pay people off on some level. There are a few things on this show that do something that I don’t do onstage, which is there are stories that end with no payoff. There are stories that just end because I don’t want to tell them anymore. Usually, at that point, I go to me onstage. I try to pay it off that way.
But, it does do the same thing in story form that I do on stage, and I think it has the same feel, because the show feels so personal, and because I think it’s pretty clear to the audience that this is all me doing this. If they trust me onstage during the opening parts of the show, they’ll trust me when I take them down the road of these stories.
Do you like doing this kind of material because it pushes the audience to think of comedy as more than something that’s just supposed to make them laugh?
I do that just because I think it’s more fun. It’s a richer experience than just watching something. I read some review of the show, where it said, “I felt very pensive and melancholy.” Like, “It left me contemplative,” like as a gripe. [Laughs] Well, what’s wrong with that?
I remember seeing some film of speaking to people in France about movies, because in Europe, watching movies is like a sacred thing, or it used to be. They just watch the same shit we do now, and, by the way, they make it too. The idea that America is exporting bad films to Europe is bullshit, because all of those movies are seeded with European dollars. I know that now for having tried to get movies made. The key to getting a movie made is to get the foreign rights sold ahead of time, because that’s where they make the real money. Because they have worst taste than we do, so fuck them.
But, I remember seeing some black and white grainy film of a guy with a cigarette with no filter, in a French film, saying, “You go to the cinema with someone, and you watch the film. And, then, you go to a café and you talk. And, you talk and talk and talk.” And, you talk about what your thoughts were because of the movie.” To me, that’s was always what it should be like. Now, the way TV and movies are made is that a film is made to just satisfy you. Just satisfy you so you can walk out of there and feel like you got what you wanted, and you’re done. And, I think that’s a drag. I think it should leave you questioning. It should provoke. It’s more fun.