For much of his career, comedian, actor, writer, and director Louis C.K. was better known for failure than success. He infamously wrote the Bill Clinton-breastfeeding-puppies sketch that began the ill-fated run of the fabled but quickly canceled Dana Carvey Show. He wrote and directed Pootie Tang, a resounding commercial failure that picked up a dedicated cult following. And he created and starred in Lucky Louie, an homage to blue-collar 1970s Norman Lear sitcoms, which divided critics and audiences, and was cancelled after a single season.
C.K.’s fortunes seem to be on the rise, however. He recently appeared in a multi-episode story arc on Parks And Recreation, saw his aptly named new movie Hilarious become the first stand-up-comedy film to be accepted into Sundance, and played Ricky Gervais’ best friend in The Invention Of Lying. He has become one of the most respected, consistent stand-up comedians in the business. He’s currently starring in Louie, which premières June 29 on FX; the series is loosely based on his life as a newly divorced single father raising two daughters. The A.V. Club recently spoke with C.K. about the craft of comedy, getting a pilot deal without a script, making a show with a network that’s at his mercy, and why he has no plans to stop using the word “cunt.”
The A.V. Club: The last two times I talked to you, we did post-mortems for Pootie Tang and then Lucky Louie. But now it seems like everything is going well for you.
Louis C.K.: This is pre-mortem.
AVC: Does it worry you when things seem to be going too well?
LCK: Not at all. I expect there to be a cycle and to be back out on the street again at some point. That’s the nature of it. The good thing about living that cycle a lot, like I have, is that you survive the downside, and make use of the downside, so you don’t fear it anymore. I’m not worried about that. I’m enjoying the work while I get it right now. This is really great, and I have high hopes for [Louie], but not expectations. [Laughs.] Actually, in this case, I do, but I’ve had high expectations before, and so much of it isn’t up to me that I’m just enjoying the work. If I lose any of the stuff I’m getting right now, I’ve always got the road. Stand-up makes you so autonomous and self-sufficient that it really helps with that part of show business.
AVC: You have complete control.
LCK: I can go out on the road. I can make money. I can do what I do in its purest form without asking anybody for permission. You can’t cancel my stand-up tours. It’s impossible. There’s too many separate bosses. There is no “bosses.” I rent these theaters now. When I worked the clubs, it was very different. Pretty much you needed to please the Improvs, but if I get cancelled, I can put together a stand-up tour and go on the road and continue generating. I don’t worry that way anymore. I don’t know what it’s like to be an actor, where if your show gets cancelled, really you’re just a bum. [Laughs.] It must be really awful. You can’t go out and do a little acting, you know what I mean? If I’m not on tour, I can run down to the comedy club and do a little stand-up. If you’re an actor, you can’t go—I guess there’s forms of it.
AVC: You can’t run out and perform Hamlet on the streets.
LCK: Yeah, exactly.
AVC: You’ve built this foundation and fan base that will help sustain you through the dry periods.
LCK: Yeah, I hope so. Also, they don’t always sustain me through the dry periods, they get me to the next place. This show has my stand-up actually in it, and if it succeeds, it’s going to be partly because of the audience from the last three years on the road. All the success I’ve gotten through the last couple of years has been through people in theaters. When you put people in theaters for a high ticket price, that is an infallible proof that you’re worth taking a chance on.
AVC: It’s concrete validation.
LCK: Exactly, so if you hang around Hollywood for a couple of years and keep asking, people might say, “Okay, go ahead and try a show.” But to go out on the road and sell tickets and spend one day in Hollywood getting a show is a much better way. And again, it’s because people are waiting, and I don’t take any of it for granted. Being popular with an audience is a very rickety ladder to be on. Because people can decide that they just don’t give a shit anymore. That’s one reason I’ve spent the last three years working the way I have, generating all this new material.
When I did Shameless, my first hour special, that was the first thing that got me selling big theaters out. And when I went back on the road, I decided that maybe I needed to do a totally different show, don’t show them any of the same material, just keep going, make a new hour, don’t go back into a theater until I have a new hour. That was my instinct. I was talking to Chris Rock about it, and he said “If you do a special people love and they buy tickets and come see you, and at that show you do a totally different show, those people will never let you go. That’s it. You got them. Because they just know that when they see you, you’re going to do something new, something better than what they’ve seen before, and that’s huge.” If people pay to see you because they like your special, and they pay money to see the exact same show, they’ll actually be very happy. They won’t complain. They’ll go, “Ah, that was exactly as great as I thought it would be, because I’ve seen it.” But they won’t see you again. If you come through town, they’ll go, “I know what he does. I don’t need to see that three times.”
AVC: In Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up, he talks about how one of the things that made him want to stop doing stand-up was that he would perform at the Hollywood Bowl, and the audience would be performing his set along with him.
LCK: Yeah that’s no fun. And sometimes when I’ve been onstage, people would yell out “Suck a bag of dicks!” from my special, and I would just say, “No, that’s old material. I want to give you new material.” And every time I said that, I would get applause. I got the sense through this kind of ad hoc polling that 95 percent of the audience would really like to see new stuff. So if you’re always working on material that is new to you and new to your audience, and because it’s new to both of you, there’s a precarious feeling like maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, that keeps it exciting also. I always feel like I’m proving myself to the audience. I never feel like they’re carrying me through the show. Because I’m not perfectly confident in any of this material. It’s never older than a year. So that puts you on uneven ground, and that’s exciting. That’s positive.
AVC: On your blog, you recount a show you did in Dublin where you bombed. It seems surprising that people would spend $20 to go to a show for someone they didn’t already like.
LCK: Problem with the situation for me lately—one of the reasons I go to the UK is because it’s not my audience. They’re new people, and that’s good, getting out of your element. I go to Birmingham, Alabama for the same reason, although I have a great crowd there. Dublin was a festival. It wasn’t me doing a concert somewhere. It was me at a comedy festival and people just come in droves to see whatever is there. I was definitely not the attraction at that show. Actually, the attraction at that show was a guy named Des Bishop, who is an American. He’s from Queens and he expatriated to Ireland. He’s lived there for years. And he’s a young, good-looking guy who people in Ireland just fucking love. Des Bishop makes girls scream. He’s energetic. He’s a funny guy. But he has a cult there, and I was on his show. And the purpose I was given on that show was basically making people wait to see him. And they didn’t want to hear from me to begin with. And the show, I’m sitting there pacing out this material that I can do for hours that I’m trying to get done in 20 minutes. I’d just gotten to Ireland. I wasn’t into it, and these people just fucking…
You know what’s funny, though? I listened to the tape. I made a recording of it on my digital recorder, and I did fine. I was killing for part of the set. But the time where I got heckled and it started to feel stale, felt so bad. [Laughs.] It just felt so rotten, and it’s also unusual for me to feel that way onstage these days. I remembered it as bombing. I blogged about it, I wrote about it, like “This is what it felt like.” And I think it’s such an interesting and unique experience to bomb. And then it got picked up by a bunch of other comedy blogs, saying, “Louis C.K. bombed!” And it was kind of publicized as “Hey, guess what, this is a secret that it happened, he wouldn’t want you to know this.” I was like, “Well, I put it on my own fucking website.” [Laughs.] You know about it because I told you. I don’t care. All of it is fun and interesting to me.
AVC: In Comedian, the Jerry Seinfeld documentary, there’s a part where he bombed, and this was post-Seinfeld, and there was something incredibly refreshing about the fact that people would see Jerry Seinfeld in 2004 and not laugh just out of respect. It seems like nobody ever gets to the level where people just laugh automatically.
LCK: No, no.
AVC: Though with someone like Andrew “Dice” Clay, the audience seems primed to laugh at anything he does.
LCK: Yeah but even Dice, I see him all the time at The Comedy Store, and he struggles through his sets. But he does it on purpose. Dice is a really interesting case, because he really likes the dark side of comedy. I have a lot of respect for that guy. The act that he packaged into this ridiculous character is very boring to me, the stuff that’s on his albums. But seeing him live in a club in front of like 12 people is a great study. He really knows what he’s doing, and he is really interesting doing stand-up when he is more himself.
He actually has a double album that nobody really knows about called The Day The Laughter Died. It’s him on Christmas Eve, and there’s almost no one in the crowd, and he’s fucking dying, and he’s fighting with people in the audience and getting heckled. People are walking out. He put it on an album, and this was at the height of his fame. The fact that every stand-up—a guy like Jerry goes onstage and gets huge ruckus applause just for being there. He has two jokes to keep it, that’s it. If by joke No. 2, he’s not funny, then fuck him. They don’t give a shit, that’s the way it is, especially in New York.
AVC: Has performing stand-up gotten easier for you over the years?
LCK: Well, no, because I haven’t let it become easier, I try to keep it challenging. It’s easier if you cull from all your greatest hits and just do them. That’s easy, but it’s also probably suicide. [Laughs.] It’s harder now than it was earlier, but it’s way more compelling and inspiring and fun. It’s worth the traveling and everything now. I got really burnt out on travel, but not anymore. Because I don’t really care—unless I’m on some stupid train to Buffalo or somewhere, I’m not thinking of comfort. I’m poring over notes, listening to some old tapes, and being sure I make use of that show, because I start every year with a target date for that special, and it’s always a little too soon, so I’m always in the theater. So it’s harder, and I’m always trying to cull together material that I don’t really know well. If it works out, at the end of the year, I’ve got a completely honed, perfect sweet set. I know right where the sweet chunks are. I know right where the heavy artillery is, and I’ve got a reliably great hour. And I do it in front of a polished, perfect crowd and get it on tape. And that’s easy and fun and great, but it takes a year to get there. And when the special is done, I’m back to nothing, literally no material, not even a single joke I can tell onstage. So that keeps the cycle.
AVC: You have to start from scratch.
LCK: Yep, and I’ll be there. Right now, I’m using the material that would have been a special for the show I’m doing, because there’s stand-up in the show. But when I’m done with the series, the next target is, I’m doing Carnegie Hall in November. And I want to tape that. I want that to be the next one, so I’m going to have no jokes in May or June of this year, and I’ll have from then ’til November to build a set. But it’s worth it, performing in Carnegie Hall for a filmed audience.
AVC: Carnegie Hall has quite the vaunted reputation.
LCK: Yeah, definitely, because otherwise, it’s a shitty deal. [Laughs.] The old joke goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.” It’s not true. You get to Carnegie Hall by selling Town Hall out twice. And the day you’re offered Carnegie Hall, the promoter always tells you, “This is not a good room. It’s expensive. It’s got good acoustics for music, but it’s not great for stand-up, and you can make way more money at the Beacon. There are more seats, and the rent is lower, and it’s a non-union crew.” So it’s actually a bad deal to play Carnegie Hall, and the way you get there is just by proving that you can sell that many tickets. But I’m doing it because it’s Carnegie Hall. Jesus Christ, you know? I wanted to be able to say some basic things about how things went for me that are easy to understand. “I played Carnegie Hall.” Hooray.
AVC: No one can ever take that away from you.
LCK: Yeah, it’s fun. I like everybody who’s played there, all that stuff. But it’s funny when you realize there isn’t some kind of committee of guys where they sit at a long table like in Flashdance. There isn’t some big moment where an old man calls you. It’s just “Hey, you’re selling mad tickets, and that’s a room you would fit in this year. You could play another room that’s better, but I know you want to play Carnegie Hall, go ahead.” It’s funny how that works out.
AVC: In a recent podcast, you were asked about the Conan/Leno situation and you asked why The Tonight Show was such an incredible prize for Conan O’Brien in the first place. Like Carnegie Hall, The Tonight Show has symbolic value, but it sounds like you don’t have the same reverence for it that Conan O’Brien did.
LCK: Well, I just think that if you have your own real estate, your own shingle, if you have the Nathan Rabin Store on Main Street, and everybody goes there and it’s huge, and the Sunglass Hut next door says, “Hey, you’re doing so well, why don’t you take over the Sunglass Hut instead of your own store?” [Laughs.] I don’t know. To me it’s a weird.
AVC: The Tonight Show is the same class act.
LCK: Exactly. I mean, it’s a brand. And it was a brand that was created by Jack Paar and the network. You know, Leno was a terrific comedian. He was one of the best, and he never really showed that as the Tonight Show host. Even when he was a guest host, he was better. He was freer and more himself. And then when he took it over, there was sort of a responsibility. I remember reading an interview with him saying that you make changes on The Tonight Show very slowly, because it was like a big ship that you have to turn, slowly and carefully. And I just remember thinking “Ugh. Who can watch that?”
AVC: That’s a recipe for shitty, safe comedy.
LCK: And you know what? Everybody has different tastes and different wants. The fact is that he made those turns, and he took that show to a place where it belonged to him, and it was his, and he still had it despite losing it. I remember when I was in Iraq with the USO, I did a tour there, and we flew in these huge C17 planes, and I hung out with the pilots, and they let me hang out and talk because I love airplanes. And I asked them if they really wanted to be pilots, because I just assumed anybody who was a pilot would want to be a fighter pilot, like if you’re a pilot in the military, you always wanted to be the Top Gun guys. You fly an F16, you become Tom Cruise and all that stuff. But these guys were a different breed of pilot. They loved the heavy stuff. They call it the heavy stuff, just these massive planes. And the pilot of the plane I was in, the main pilot, his big dream is to fly Air Force One, that’s where he’s heading. He’ll probably get it, too. He’s getting rated on bigger and bigger planes until he can’t fly anything bigger, and they’ll give him Air Force One. So that’s that way. I personally would rather be in a fighter jet, although I’m 42 now—I’d rather just stay home and watch these people do these things on television.
AVC: I recently found a clip of Leno on Letterman in the ’80s and it’s remarkable how affectionate they are with each other.
LCK: He was goddamned funny. And you know what the thing about Jay is? He’s hilarious in those little Letterman jokes, just doing those because he just doesn’t give a shit. And he’s still the same guy, but he’s like, “I’m not going to stop talking about airplanes until I run out of funny shit to say about them.” His humor was so pedestrian and basic back then, but it was undeniably great, and I learned to respect that from him. It doesn’t matter what your subject is, you don’t have to be edgy in your subject matter. That’s just superficial horseshit, that you want to be talking about things nobody else does. If you have a strong point of view about something, choose that to talk about. He was so fucking good. No, he was amazing. You could see Dave lose control and fall apart laughing during his sets on that show.
AVC: How did your USO tour come about?
LCK: That was pretty intense. It was great. It was hard traveling and hard work to get you up at all hours. Sometimes you go to sleep at 2 in the afternoon and wake up at 6 in the afternoon, but then you push on to the next invaded nation. [Laughs.] I was in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And we were in two different parts of Iraq. One of them was a place called Balad, which is not even a place, it’s like a place that’s been created in the desert by the army. And these are really strange places to be, so the personal experience was bizarre and educational. But the shows were phenomenal, because the audience were these soldiers who were just so happy to have something to do. It’s all the things you would expect from a USO tour. They’re happy you’re there. They’re happy to see somebody from home. And they’re also, because they’re in the army, they have a sense of responsibility. They’re a different type of audience. They’re in a supportive role. They want the show to go well. It’s a really weird feeling. [Laughs.] They’re not customers who paid money, and they’re not, you know, that thing that came from the Internet, that “meh” people with that attitude. These guys don’t feel that it’s their prerogative to say something like that. They feel like “We’re the audience here, we’re going to give you the best show that we can, rather than the other way around,” and that’s a really interesting place to be.
Coming from people who feel like they’re customers all the time, that gets a little grating. Not to me as a comedian. I don’t have that problem with my audience, but just seeing how people—I put a thing on YouTube recently that was just a set I did at the Comedy Cellar, trying new material, so it was about a 40 percent hit rate—a lot of it bombed. I was just going up with a notebook and trying stuff. So for the hell of it, I put it on YouTube. I took it down. I only put it up there temporarily. I’ve kind of gotten into doing that lately, like putting something up and then taking it down rather than just letting it live there for forever. And some people that know me said, “Hey, some of this stuff is working. It’s interesting.” Other people were like, “This kinda sucked.” Or “Less than half of that was any good.” I actually wrote that in the introduction. That’s why I put it there. [Laughs.] That is exactly what I said, and I put it there, but people were writing in comments, like, “Nah, it’s unpolished.” Yeah, exactly. That was the whole point.
AVC: Is it just a way of road-testing your material without actually going on the road?
LCK: Yeah. Also, I used to just post videos on the Internet, before YouTube. I used to post material on the Internet that I was unlikely to do onstage again. Or other little things that happened, little riffs that were probably not going to grow to full material, I would post them to have them live somewhere. Because it was like “This thing happened, and I doubt I’ll ever do them again, and I’ll at least let it be out there in that one form.” I don’t do it as often as I used to, because all that stuff these days usually grows into material. I don’t waste anything anymore. I eat the whole pig, basically.
AVC: What can you say about the new show?
LCK: Well, I was in L.A. to meet with big network people. It had really come from this one show I did at the Wiltern. I sold out the Wiltern, and had an amazing show there. My manager brought all these TV-development managers to the show, so I got a bunch of interest from NBC, Fox, and the networks. They were trying to develop a series, and we were just trying to drive up the quote. To make money—that was really the point of it. I needed the cash, because I’d just gotten divorced; that was kind of where I was coming from. [Laughs.] But then my manager, Dave Becky, had me meet with John Landgraf, who runs FX, and he said “You can come do a show here, which will give you a lot of freedom, and it would just be a very cheap show.” He said he would give me $250,000 per episode to do a show there. That’s an enormously low number. It’s a gigantically small budget for a TV show. Most TV shows are around a million or so, and that’s cheap.
So I didn’t really want to do it, because I really didn’t want to struggle. Also, he said he wanted me to use the same sort of material I was going to use for—I said I wanted to do a sketch show, and he said “No, we want you to do what you do onstage, which is talk about being a dad and stuff.” And I was like “Well, that’s got a high price tag on it over at NBC. They’re offering to pay me half a million bucks just to write the thing, let alone the cost to make it.” So he called me at home and talked to me for about three hours about his model for making television. And he said, “We just take a little bit of money and we throw it at somebody who is funny. We can do this without asking anybody, we can make this deal right now. You don’t have to pitch anything, and I’ll just write you a check, and we make a pilot.” And I said, “The only way this is interesting to me is if you literally wire me $250,000. I’m pitching you what the show is about. I don’t want to write a script for a pilot, and I don’t want to show you anything until it’s finished. So if you give me $250,000, I’ll give you a pilot in two months.”
AVC: That’s a ballsy thing to do.
LCK: Well, from my standpoint, I was on a tour doing really well, and I was just about to shoot the special I shot, and I had offers from other networks for way more money. [Laughs.]
AVC: Which equals power.
LCK: Yeah, and I felt like I could do this to the guy. He’s a very smart guy. Also, he could have said no, and I could have said, “Well, let me look at it another way,” and I could change my mind. But you can always say stuff, so I said it. I said “That’s the way I’ll do the show, the pilot,” and he said, “Fine, I don’t care.” And I have this personal connection with him, because then I would get calls from him. We got the money. We formed the company, and I didn’t even have anything written down. I didn’t even know what I was going to make. But I started thinking of places to shoot, and I hired a location scout, and got locations, and I started renting cameras and producing without a script, which is a motivating way to work for me.
And I started getting calls from people from FX, and they said, “We want to know who you are casting, so we can make deals with them,” and I said, “Well, I’m not telling you. I only deal with John Landgraf.” And I called him and said “Listen, tell them not to call me, because I don’t want to tell them who I’m casting, and I want to make the deals with my cast through my company. I don’t want them to have anything to do with you.” And he said fine, and he just called them off. We just kept working that way, and I shot the pilot, and they loved it. And I was told we’d get another four episodes, but then they said “We’re going to make the whole season,” and gave me 12 more. The budget went up to $300,000 per episode, which is still very low. And my deal is that I get the money, and I make the show, and nobody tells me how to do it. I only showed them two episodes, because I finished them last week, but I shot four episodes without showing them a script or even pitching stories. So that’s how this is working.
AVC: Was stand-up always going to be a part of the show?
LCK: In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to use stand-up. I knew I wanted the show to have different little pieces and not just be a standard sitcom with an arc. I was really tired of writing two-act sitcoms, and it’s hard to write without doing that. I knew I didn’t want to have a writing staff, I knew I didn’t want to have an institution of a show. And I wanted to have something handmade. I wanted to use what I used as a filmmaker. I wanted to go back to independent filmmaking in New York with the people—I’m using the same people that I made short films with in the ’80s here. I wanted to stay at home. I wanted to employ a lot of New Yorkers, and I wanted to find a way to incorporate stand-up. I didn’t want to take away from stand-up; I didn’t want to stop doing it. I gotta give John Landgraf credit for what the show turned out to be, because when he called me that day, he said, “Is there something you can do that feels like a sketch show in terms of having a loose format, in terms of having an unconventional format, but that has your specific autobiographical and personal take on things in it? It isn’t just sketches about anything.” And I thought, “That’s very limiting for a sketch show. But it’s very liberating for a sitcom.”
That’s sort of the seed of when I started things, “Yeah, if I open this up”— Because I’ve always made short films, but they’ve always been crazy, like the Catholic Church being all about blowing boys or whatever. It’s never been about what I do, and I thought “If I make a short film instead of these stories, a lot of the stuff I think of is one idea, but it’s part of a whole. So I want to be able to do just like I do onstage—some bits are 20-minute stories, some bits are 10-second one-liners, and if I could do the same thing with a visual that’s a really interesting format and let the films be part of—I would narrate the show. And when I first sat down to write the pilot, I wrote my name at the top, like ‘Louis talks into a camera.’ And then I though “Ugh, I can’t do that.” I was sort of picturing Annie Hall. The way he opens Annie Hall, when he’s just talking as Woody Allen to his film audience, then starting to show them what he’s talking about in little pieces. I thought “That’s kind of what I want to do, a TV show like Annie Hall.”
AVC: There was a similar structure in Whatever Works, with Larry David spending a lot of time directly addressing the camera.
LCK: I didn’t see it, but it’s something Woody Allen really innovated to me—just talking. “Here’s what I want to talk about,” and shooting, and then coming back and saying, “This is how I felt about that.” It’s a very direct way. It’s a no-bullshit way, non-pretend-y way to do this kind of thing. So I started to write it that way, but I got sick to my stomach at the idea of me talking to a camera. I’ve never been able to do it, and it just feels dumb. And then I thought, “Well, what if I did stand-up?” My first thought was, “What material would I use? Because I’ve got a new hour, but that was going to be my next special, and that stuff is really good, but I can’t tap it for this. It’ll be wasted.” Then some voice in me said, “What are you, a fucking idiot? This is a huge shot. This is a TV show. Just use your top of the cream material in the show. That’s gonna take down the amount you have to write to a huge amount, anyway.” So I started taking from the stuff I had developed up to that point, and then putting it on paper and adding film to it. It just came to life. Then I just knew what the show was. It just became very clear to me that I could churn this shit out forever. That’s where it is now.
AVC: I’ve only seen the pilot.
LCK: It’s got these two segments about two different things. The stand-up relates to the films, but not directly. I’m not setting up a short film. It’s not like Chappelle’s Show, where I talk about a subject and then say “Watch this.” It’s just stand-up about a certain subject, and then the film relates to it as another piece of stand-up coming subsequently might—peripherally or directly, sometimes not. Some of the episodes coming up are different. They’re a little more story-based. I’ve hit a rhythm where the first half of a show is a more balls-funny, profane short film about my life, putting myself into these weird situations. Then the second half is more grounded. The pilot is almost that, because the date is pretty crazy, with the helicopter and stuff. Then the story of the bus is more a story you’re following.
AVC: Were you worried about Seinfeld comparisons?
LCK: I don’t really care, because what people say and what people enjoy is two different things. I think my show has a gigantically different voice from Jerry’s, just like onstage I’m different from him. I think people hearing a synopsis about what the show is might say that, but I don’t think that would turn people away from it. At the outset, I think everything new gets compared to something else, favorably or unfavorably. Nobody believes there can be a new show, amazingly still. People think, “We have what we have, and the new guy’s a piece of shit.” So the easiest way to haze the new guy is “Trying to be like Jerry, eh?”
AVC: When Seinfeld first came out, critics labeled it as a knock-off of the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. When Friends premièred, critics said it was ripping off Seinfeld. No matter how new a show might seem, it is inevitably compared to something that came before it.
LCK: Yeah, and I think you have to resist worrying about the first wave of reactions, because there’s nothing you can do about it, and if you react to that and try to make that your success, it’s very short-sighted, and has very little to do with what you actually want to do on the show. I didn’t think about Jerry when I did this show. I didn’t watch that show that much. I respect him enormously, and he’s been a friend to me in the past. It’s like when—and I’m not trying to compare myself highly here—but I learned a lot from Barack Obama, personally. I think he’s a really smart guy. When he picked Joe Biden to be his vice president, I think he knew he was going to make Hilary Secretary Of State, which is way, way more powerful than vice president. And so everybody that said, “Oh, you’re going to totally lose everybody that liked Hilary. You’re going to lose every woman,” he said, “Well, Joe’s great. I like Joe.” And he just let people say it. It didn’t matter. And then after he got elected, based on that choice, he said, “By the way, I’m making Hilary Secretary Of Fucking State.” He didn’t get any political hate for that. It was a smart thing to do. He picked her, because he wanted her, but he didn’t go, “Look, I’m going to make her Secretary Of State, so please don’t…” [Laughs.] What I saw from that, when I saw that happen, was he’s willing to let people go ahead and say what they will, and not let that talking-head spinny thing happen. I don’t believe I’m going to get canceled because somebody said the show is like Seinfeld. So I’ll go ahead and let that happen, and get canceled because nobody’s watching instead. That’ll be easier.
AVC: The pilot doesn’t establish the usual domestic-sitcom features, like a supporting cast. Will that become clearer as the show develops?
LCK: There’s been one or two people that have come back to do more than one episode. But what I’ve learned from doing the show is, there’s an amazing pool of actors in New York City. There are literally thousands of gifted and originally voiced actors, and I haven’t come even close to exhausting them yet. This one episode where there’s a city worker, and this guy says one line to me, and it’s such a fucking beautifully delivered line, I remember thinking, “God, I wish this guy was on every episode.” But that’s it. We’re done with him. He did one line, and we can’t use him again. I really like that about the show, that there’s a lot of actors and nobody knows who they are, but they’re doing beautiful things on the show. I’m going to let it happen organically. If somebody is interesting enough to use again, I’ll use them a second time, and keep going show-by-show that way. The reason casts seem like such a big deal on shows has so little to do with how a show works creatively. A lot of it is financial pressure. When they cast shows in Hollywood, there’s a much smaller talent pool that’s certified approvable network cast members. When you do these series, you have to go to the same fucking pool every year. And they have these monster agents. You have to make these series deals with them, and you have to promise to put them in every episode. They’re enormously expensive, and the networks are only willing to take a shot clearly on 20 or 25 people per year. You end up with the same voices, and you write them because you have to. In the writing staff, they call it, we have to “service” these characters. You’re servicing the people you’re writing.
AVC: There’s a sexual connotation as well.
LCK: Yeah, exactly. But if anybody’s going to be blowing anybody, it’s the fucking character that should be blowing the writer. And I’m not talking about the actor. I’m talking about the character. You’re writing for this character because you have to, because there’s pressure to, also because the networks like having this idea of these people on an easy chair, looking lazy and funny. So they want you to pump each character up, and that’s awkward. I remember when I was on the set of a show I was working on, some time ago—I don’t want to name anybody. There is a scene being shot of two characters talking that made no sense. It was just useless. They kept shooting it over and over again, because they couldn’t get it to work, because it didn’t need to exist. And I asked one of the writers, “Why are you doing this?” And he said, “Because they don’t have anything to do in this episode, these two. So we just have to do something with them.” It was so depressing, and it took way more time than it did to shoot the valid dialogue between the main characters. Those are the kind of mistakes I’m avoiding with this, because literally nobody talks to me from the network except to say, “We hope you’re doing well.” I don’t have to do that. Nick DiPaolo, he’s a comedian friend of mine, he’s in one episode and he did really great, and I think I’ll probably bring Nick back. Pamela Adlon, who played my wife on Lucky Louie, she plays a mom who has a kid in my kid’s class, and she’s in a couple episodes right now. So there’s a little bit of that, but there isn’t a central cast.
AVC: There are a lot of forces in the industry that foster homogeneous programming. Louie seems to be bucking that trend.
LCK: Yeah. For instance, my show is probably skewing a little older than FX’s usual fare. They’re definitely a young man’s network. I’m 42 and divorced. There’s not a lot of 42-year-old divorced guys with two kids. So while that is a lot of my audience, young men who come to my shows and stuff, I’m not their usual thing. If I were on Comedy Central, they would say, “Change the show. It’s too old.” That’s what they’d do over there. They just force it down your throat. “You’re skewing too old. Write other shit, please.” But these guys aren’t doing that. And we discuss it. We talk about where they want to put the show in their lineup and stuff. They’re making decisions in the other direction: How can they accommodate the show to fit that audience, instead of telling me to conform to what they do? The whole process of dealing with the network is a very arduous process. And I’m not even complaining about it, like it shouldn’t be that way. These people invest a huge amount of money in their shows, but that’s a big part of it. If you want to do a show with a huge, premium price on it, if you want to do a $3-million-per-episode sitcom, and if you want to get paid half a million dollars to develop it, you want to get paid $100,000 per episode, then they’re going to need to look after that money. You know what I mean?
When you write the show, they’re going to need to see drafts. They’re going to need to give you notes and have you rewrite the script before you go into production, because it’s costing them millions of dollars. They’re also going to need to come to the set. You have to put the show on for the network and the studio. You have to do these run-throughs that are a huge effort, before you ever get to shoot the show. I would say that 60 percent of the effort you make on a network show is spent making the networks feel comfortable about what you’re shooting, and I don’t blame them. You’re asking for a huge amount of money. These people in Hollywood, they make so much money to produce these films—they’re fucking themselves. These guys are literally giving me a 10th of what most shows cost, and the risk is very low for them. If I make a piece of shit, they’ll flush it through their system. They’ll make a little money back on some Hulu deal, and it’ll be over with. It’s not a big deal. Landgraf is a very smart guy that he’s willing to do that. He has, whatever, $10 million to develop with. He’d rather break it into little pieces and try with a bunch of different people and let them do whatever they want and see which monkey with a typewriter comes up with a good show than to have this corporate science go into making two pilots that nobody wants to watch.
AVC: Did they do any test screenings for the series?
LCK: They tested the pilot. I had one phone call with John where we talked about the last piece of stand-up, where I talk about my dog dying. The last thing I say in that episode is about having to put my dog to sleep, and then he came back in my dream, and then we realized again, we have to put him to sleep. That’s the end of our show, and he said a large portion of our test audience found that really depressing. And he said, “That’s the one piece of feedback I can give you from the pilot, because people thought that shouldn’t be the end of the show, because it’s such a downer.” And I started to feel depressed, and he said, “I also think it’s hilarious, and I think you should leave it in and ignore them.” [Laughs.] So that’s the kind of pressure I get from the network. “We have data that this is bad. Please leave it in the show.”
AVC: On the show you play a divorced father named Louie C.K. On what level are you playing yourself?
LCK: Well I’m playing me, but I’m not depicting my real life. I’m not reenacting moments that I’ve lived, but I’m playing myself. I’m projecting myself into these situations that I write for the show. That’s the best way to describe it, I think. Also, I do let myself make mistakes on the show that are mistakes I wouldn’t make, because it’s just more interesting.
AVC: Like what?
LCK: There’s an episode I have with Nick DiPaolo where we have this political argument. He’s very conservative. I’m somewhat liberal. To make that a more interesting argument to have, I called him a Nazi. So he’s Himmler, and he hates minorities. I don’t believe anything I said. As a liberal, I think that flawed liberals are more funny, so that’s what I’m being on the show. On the other side of it, there’s a gay father on the show, a gay guy who has a kid in my class, and I shot a scene the other day where I’m trying to relate to him, and I’m not doing it well, because I’m uncomfortable. So I’m trying too hard to get along with this gay guy, and it’s not working because I’m trying too hard. I’m having trouble relating to a gay guy. That doesn’t exist at all in my life. There’s a lot of gay fathers at my kids’ school, and they’re friends of mine. I don’t think of gay people as a separate category of persons. I don’t go, “Oh my God, it’s a gay guy. What do I say?” But to me it’s a funny thought, a guy that would do that. And I could understand somebody feeling that way, so it’s an interesting thing to reveal. That awkwardness, even with the willingness to be one with everybody, that if people are new to you, it makes you feel awkward and makes you feel stupid when you try. Instead of just walking up to somebody and saying, “Hi” because they’re a person, thinking, “Oh it’s a gay guy, better say the right thing.” That’s a very stupid thing, and I wouldn’t do it, but I’m willing to do it as myself on television, because it’s a worthwhile thing to explore.
I think I do that a lot onstage during my stand-up too. I’ll take points of view and positions and stuff and stories about myself that aren’t true, but they’re worth revealing, and I’d rather reveal them as myself than criticize other people. I’d rather take on the stupid behavior to reveal it, even though it’s in other people I’ve seen it in. Because for one thing, you’re kind of infallible when you’re using yourself. You’re not attacking anybody. And also, it helps me relate to it better. Rather than depicting somebody like “There’s that character over there being a piece of shit.” These straw-dog moments like in West Wing, where they make conservatives just stand there and get pummeled. [Laughs.] It’s almost more interesting for me to play the guy I’m putting down—not putting down, but revealing, because I don’t think any of these behaviors come from a bad place. I think they just come from confusion. I think most homophobia and racism is just from fear and cultural pollution and lack of experience—and selfishness and stuff. A lot of the stuff I do onstage lately, I talk about what a piece of shit I am. I’m better than the guy I’m talking about, but I think it’s a valid way to reveal these things.
AVC: Your stand-up material can be pretty brutal in its depiction of human nature. How do you separate your stand-up persona from your offstage personality?
LCK: [Laughs.] Well, I would say I’ve learned about that as I’ve gone along. The first couple of specials I did where I talked about my family, I really just talked about them. I don’t think I would do that again. I think I was too direct. I mean, my kids are different. When I talk about my kids onstage, I create characters of them that don’t really exist. I have two daughters, and they’re unbelievably great. We’re partners, the three of us. We do a lot together, and they’re reasonable, and they listen. They’ve always been that way, and I’ve had tough moments with both of them. Any kid has a right to a lot of totally unfair, ridiculous behavior. But when I talk about kids onstage, I feel like I’m being more a part of a collective of all parents saying what it’s like for us to raise these kids. If you really love your kid and you really make a huge effort with them, you’re going to have moments when you’re intensely angry at them and resent them. It happens. It’s part of really trying. I’m not ashamed to say that about my kids onstage, and I know that in their future, they’re going to understand that, because they’re being raised by me.
If I was a father who was absent from them, and I was saying stuff onstage and that’s all they knew of me, I think that’d be painful for them. But I’m with them all the time. My kids are with me half of every week or more, because we share custody. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this show, is because I’m able to do it inside a child-custody schedule. Because if I had a show on NBC, I’d have to go out there seven days a week. I wasn’t willing to do that when the rubber hit the road. I’d say that was 70 percent of the reason. I know I’ve been talking percentages a lot, but I think that was 70 percent of the reason I took this deal, because of knowing I don’t have to do anything that’s purely for the show, so I can distill the experience down to a few days a week. It drives my production crew crazy, but every Wednesday at 1 p.m., no matter what’s going on, we wrap, because I have to go pick up my daughter, and I don’t work Wednesdays, Thursdays, or most Fridays, because those are my kid days. I don’t get a nanny. I don’t get a babysitter. I take care of them. I feed them. I do their homework with them. When my kids are in my home, I’m a full-time dad, and that’s a really big deal to me, and I’m not willing to let go of that.
I started that as a stand-up, because when I was just on the road, I was able to go on the road half the week and be with them half the week, and I found a way to do this show that way. And there are times when my line producer says, “I need more focus from you,” and I tell her, “You can’t have it. This is the way I’m doing this.” And it’s working so far. I’m juggling it. So that’s who I am to my kids, and they know me, and they’ve seen some of my stand-up from earlier days. Most of the stuff I’ve done lately is not okay for their age, but the stuff I always used to do about their mom, I always saw it as a thing that was about a couple that loves each other, and is in a marriage struggle. So this is what that’s like. I learned something there as far as talking very specifically about things that have happened with another grown-up person in your life. I wouldn’t do that again. I don’t talk about her anymore onstage or in the show. She’s not represented in this show. She’s like Charlie Brown’s mother in this show. You never see her, and I’m not going to cross that line with her, because she and I aren’t in a relationship anymore, so there’s no implied contract that I can talk about her.
But also, I’ve changed. I’ve looked at the show carefully, okay. I’m telling stories about being a dad and having kids in public school. I am a dad, I have kids in public school, so I wanted to make a conscious effort to make these two separate worlds. Like I said, I’m the same guy in both worlds. But in the show’s world, my two daughters are very different from the daughters I have in real life. And the characters that are in the school don’t exist at my kids’ school. They’re not knock-offs. They’re just different people I’ve created for this show. So to me now, they’re separate. It used to feel like it was kind of a mess, and I learned from it, and I don’t do that anymore. Lucky Louie was never my marriage. I never had a marriage like that. That was very different. [Laughs.] Lucky Louie was a totally different life than I was living at home at the time. So that’s where I had started to learn that already.
AVC: When you create art or entertainment out of your life, you tend, by default, to turn human beings into characters. Which can be a good and a bad thing.
LCK: Yeah, definitely. That’s why, on this turn, I decided to really deliberately not do that. I think I’ve succeeded.
AVC: As a viewer, it’s nice to see parenting done without sentiment. I feel like any time a stand-up comic has a child, suddenly a lot of their act seems to dissipate and becomes “Here’s this funny thing my child did!” It seems like you’ve gone in the opposite direction, if anything, going a little darker.
LCK: Yes, because if you’re really putting the time in and raising your kids, it ain’t generally that cute, and it ain’t that easy. [Laughs.] And also, the parts that are cute and easy aren’t funny. So I’ve had plenty of lovely moments with my daughters. It’s been most of their lives that I’ve had joyful, nice, sweet exchanges. I don’t want to see none of that shit on TV. Nobody wants to see that. What fun is that? [Laughs.]
AVC: It turns into a big episode of Kids Say The Darnedest Things.
LCK: Yeah, exactly. I mean, somebody’s doing that, and let them do it. But I’m not interested.
AVC: Since we last spoke, you’ve done a lot of acting.
LCK: Yeah. I don’t think I’m going to be doing much more of that. I’m really hoping that if this series becomes a real job for me, if this keeps going, that I’ll never have to be in anybody else’s show. [Laughs.] Because again, it takes me away from home. I got offered a pretty big arc on that [New Adventures Of] Old Christine show, and I just said no, because it was going to be three weeks away from home. I just didn’t want to do that. I don’t like sitting in a trailer, waiting for somebody to tell me to come shoot something. It’s a really boring life. On my show, I don’t sit in a trailer. Being on the set? I love that. But being in a trailer and eating craft services? I don’t like that life. So I probably won’t be in a lot more movies. [Laughs.] Honestly, my agents were begging me to audition for this movie once, the lead in a movie that’s probably going to be a really big movie by a great filmmaker, and they wanted me to audition for the lead, and I said no. They said, “You know, he knows who you are. He really likes you. You have a really good chance to make this movie.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s why I don’t want to audition.” It would have meant spending… I mean, these movies that I have been in, I’ve managed to just do a week or two weeks on the picture. But to go—this movie was going to shoot in Hawaii—for two months? How the fuck am I going to live in Hawaii for two months? How am I going to not see my kids for two months just to be in a movie? You know what I mean? It’s not worth it. I’ve got a job. I work. I don’t need the job, so fuck it. It’s not worth it.
AVC: You had a big role in The Invention Of Lying.
LCK: That was, from what I understand—Ricky [Gervais] and Matt Robinson, his co-director/writer, they both saw me on YouTube, they loved my act, and they just decided to give me the part. I mean, I never auditioned for that. I never auditioned for anything I got, basically. They’re all just things that people sought me out for. Ricky’s people called me and said “We want to put him in this movie,” and I was in it.
AVC: It’s a pretty big role.
LCK: It is. I was really amazed that I got that. And I love Ricky, so I couldn’t believe that happened. I remember at one point, my agent said that the deal wasn’t closed yet, because he said, “You’re getting fucked, because everyone else in the cast is getting points.” He said, “You’re like sixth guy down on the billing, and you’re like the biggest part after him and Jennifer. So we’re saying ‘Fuck you!’” And I said, “Shut up, you idiots! That’s how they’re populating the film. That’s how they’re getting it made. I wouldn’t put me any higher in the credits, either.” Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jason Bateman, all bigger than me. So what did I care?
AVC: Your name is above them on the credits of the DVD.
LCK: Yeah, on the DVD box I did okay. I don’t care. It was so fun to make that movie. I lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, like 20 minutes from where I grew up, for two weeks. I went to Celtics games. They got me tickets on the floor for Celtics games every night. I hung out with Ricky Gervais. It was a fucking ball. It was great.
AVC: In Hilarious, you use “cunt” an awful lot. Are there any words you’re gun-shy about using?
LCK: My feelings about “faggot” are starting to change. I did this long bit about the word “faggot” in my last special, and about how to me it’s always just meant “annoying.” I grew up with a different meaning to it. So I’m not talking about gay when I call people faggot. But I know I can’t ignore the way that it makes gay people feel. It’s not really responsible to just pretend other people aren’t offended. I’m not worried about offending people, but I don’t want to offend them for no fucking reason. Just because I’m being lazy. So I’ve cut down on “faggot” a little bit. “Cunt” I feel differently about, honestly, because “cunt” is culturally different in England and here. When I do something where I call a deer or a telephone or a man a cunt… “What is it with taxis today?” When I call an object or a man a cunt, and women get offended, it’s puzzling to me, because I’m like “I wasn’t talking about you.” I don’t think that these groups of people get to just own words and say when you can and can’t say them. I think a lot of being offended is very narcissistic. If you’re telling a story about a pony—I remember I was telling the story that’s in the show about my daughter getting bitten by a pony, and there was a time that I told that story onstage where I called the pony a cunt, and this woman hissed at me. I said, “What’s your problem?” She said, “It’s offensive to women.” I said, “First of all, I’m talking about a fucking pony. Who was male. Who bit my daughter. And why are you getting in the middle of this?” You know what I mean?
AVC: “This is between me and the pony.”
LCK: Yeah, exactly. “What does this have to do with you? How do you step into this and say you’re offended?” So that’s the way I feel sometimes. But I don’t know. Everything is context, I think. I don’t think there’s any word where I’m “I won’t say this,” but I don’t say them without reason. On my show, FX is extremely liberal about language, but they do have words that they want you to justify using. It’s an interesting exercise, and I think it’s worthwhile to make sure you’re not just throwing something out there just to say it. I don’t do that onstage as a stand-up. I just say whatever the fuck I want. [Laughs.] It just comes out of my mouth. Often it’s just in the heat of the moment. Often it’s just a guttural feeling I’m wanting to get out. The thing about “cunt” is, to me, it is the absolute atom bomb or neutron bomb of language. It gets you there quick. It’s the express train of emotions, you know? So I like to take it sometimes. I am trying to limit “fuck,” because I’m bored of it. When I watch myself or listen to myself saying it just as a condiment, I think it gets really dull. It just sounds like a drag. It’s just like using any word too much. It’s like teenagers saying “like” all the time. It’s just boring. So I’m trying to take that one down. I also think it comes out of me not getting… Sometimes I use “fuck” because I’m not getting the point across. I think that’s a bad reason to use any word, because the real words aren’t getting you there. I guess what I’d rather do is take “fuck” down to almost nonexistent, and replace it with, where I would have used three “fucks,” I’d like to use two “cunts.” [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s a calculus to it.
LCK: Totally, totally. Because if you take “fuck” out, and you lose that frequency, “cunt” falls hard and fast, and “cunt” has much more bite to it. It’s like not using too much cilantro so the jalapeño will have more bite, something like that.
AVC: In Hilarious, there are times where it seems like you’re surprising yourself.
LCK: Those moments do happen. Hilarious came at the end of a long year of refining that material, so the surprise that you’re seeing is pretty fabricated, but at the moment that originally happened, I was surprised. When I created most of that material—that really actually comes from having done this thing of doing a different show every year, that I don’t really know what I’m going to say, because I don’t have a full hour of material, and I’m in front of an audience that’s expecting one. So I tend to reach and try stuff and let myself go in weird directions. So sometimes I end up saying stuff that I go “Wow, Jesus. Why the fuck did I say that?” Then, a year later, I’ll do the exact same moment and the same feeling. Because the audience is a new player—the audience in front of me is new, it actually does feel new. So there was definitely a couple of moments like that in Hilarious. I think there were one or two moments that were genuinely new. I don’t remember what they were. But I was still screwing around on that show.
AVC: Why do Hilarious as a film?
LCK: I really wanted to try this thing of concert film, to be seen in the theater. I think it’s totally different. I think it’s just in how you approach it. You can shoot something that feels like that. I approached it as a director and had a very specific design of how I shot it, so it would feel like a live performance to people in the live theater. [Laughs.] I just think it’s a totally different world than watching a DVD and eating a tub of ice cream, basically.
AVC: I can’t remember what the last comedy stand-up film was.
LCK: Well, the last one that was a big success was [The Original] Kings Of Comedy. I saw that in the theater, and I loved being in the theater, watching it. I loved being in an audience watching these guys in front of an audience. It was a really unique experience. It used to be the way you could see a comedian was that way. Most people couldn’t afford to see comedians in concert. It was a lot of fucking money; it still is. When Bill Cosby and Pryor and these guys made stand-up films, you could all the sudden go for five bucks and see Richard Pryor Live In Concert. There wasn’t an HBO thing then, you know? That was it. You could listen to Richard Pryor’s records, if you were rich and lucky, you could see him in concert, or you could go to his movie. The making of those movies was designed for film, for a theatrical audience. Then it went to HBO, and it became George Carlin and the specials, and everybody else was doing specials. But even Eddie Murphy made Delirious, which was an HBO special, and then Raw as a theatrical film after that. They’re very different, because they have different approaches. Anyway, there hasn’t been one that worked in a very long time. To me, it was worth trying, because I figured, at the worst, if we get into a festival, and we get a little bit of press on it being theatrical, then maybe it goes to the Angelika in New York and that’s it, it’s still going to be a more interesting birth of the special than just having it start showing on Comedy Central after Weekend At Bernie’s, to no fanfare. So far, it’s worked out well.
AVC: It was apparently the first stand-up film to make it into Sundance.
LCK: Yeah, and then when I saw it at Sundance, I realized “Shit, this really does work.” A lot of people that wrote about it said “It’s interesting, the feeling of seeing it live”; it made me think “Now I really want people to see it theatrically. I really hope it gets distributed.” But I have no idea if we will. If we don’t, then we don’t. We’ll see.
AVC: The Dana Carvey Show just came out on DVD. Did you watch it?
LCK: No. I can’t really watch that show. It represents too much pain in my life. It was a very difficult thing to go through. It was a struggle. I’m very proud of the work we did there, but that was a hard show to work on. It was just taxing in my life. It was just difficult.
AVC: You didn’t feel that if you watched it now, you’d be able to able to separate yourself from the experience of making it?
LCK: No. No, no. [Laughs.]
AVC: It sounds like it brought up all manner of Pavlovian anxieties.
LCK: There’s just some stuff you just don’t look back at. You just let that—I don’t care. I’m glad people like it, but we were fighting our network every week, and that was a very painful place to be.