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From Late Night With Conan O'Brien to The Dana Carvey Show to Pootie Tang, comedian-screenwriter-director Louis C.K. has a history of getting involved in projects that initially fail, then go on to attract cult followings. This pattern seems destined to repeat itself on his recently cancelled HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, a profanity-laced throwback to working-class '70s Norman Lear sitcoms: Lucky Louie sharply divided critics and audiences, and earned its star the public condemnation of everyone from Catholic League president William A. Donohue to Barbara Walters, who expressed her outrage before C.K.'s appearance on The View. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the cult comedian—whose latest HBO special, Shameless, debuts on DVD June 26—about Lucky Louie's sad demise, mixing it up with Barbara Walters, the politics of television, the Eric Rohmer remake he co-wrote with his friend Chris Rock, and duck vaginas.
The A.V. Club: What's the humor in Shameless like?
Louis C.K.: It's a very mixed special. I talk about my wife and kids a lot. I defend a woman's right not to blow her husband. 'Cause who'd wanna blow their husband? You'd wanna blow a date, or a dude who picked you up and is wearing a nice shirt and said something funny. But you don't want to blow a guy and then go to Ikea with him and argue in the aisles. So I've started to understand my wife's side of the story. But I also talk about going to Chinatown and seeing duck vaginas in a big barrel and being afraid to eat one, because I don't want to find out that I love duck vaginas and I gotta have them, and at 4 o'clock in the morning, I'm having a craving for duck vaginas, and Chinatown's closed, so I have to go to a dark park with a knife.
AVC: How did The View initially approach you to come discuss Lucky Louie? Did they say "Barbara Walters has seen your show, she thinks you're the antichrist, you're vulgar, and we'd like to have you on so you can defend yourself"?
LCK: Oh no. Wouldn't that have been nice, if that's what they did? I actually reached out to them, because I had been on the show before. Joy Behar used to do a thing called "Comedy Corner," where you'd sit with her and she would set you up and you'd do your jokes. They asked me to do that a bunch of years ago and I said no, because The View is not my crowd. But the producer of the show called me at home and said, "What are you doing Tuesday that you can't take a town-car and just go be on a ladies' TV show?" So I said sure, and I did it, and I had a great time. The thing about the audience there is, they're very enthusiastic, positive people. And I like ladies. I like all ladies of all different ages. Ladies 40-plus, they're a great target for Lucky Louie. They come up to me in droves on the streets. That's a big demographic of who comes up to me to say they love my show, these older ladies.
So I said, "Let's get on The View," and we called them, and they said sure. The producer told me, "Oh we got the tapes, and the shows are great. It's a great show, it's going to be so much fun, we're excited about it." And then I get there, and I meet Fonzie. He loves the show, and everybody keeps coming—people with headsets and in suits and clipboards keep coming by my dressing room to say that they just love the show. And then the segment producer comes in my dressing room and says, "Okay. I have to talk to you. It turns out Barbara and the ladies didn't really watch it 'til last night, and they were horrified, and Barbara's going to say something about it in her 'Hot Topics' moment." Then she turns on the fucking monitor and I'm watching her, live, saying that it's a terrible show. So it was a bit of a sandbagging. I didn't expect it.
AVC: It wasn't just her saying, "I watched your show, it's not really my cup of tea," it was her saying it's vulgar, it's disgusting what your character does with his wife, the whole idea was sexist and racist…
LCK: Yeah, that made me really mad. She said that, and they told me this before, too, that her objection to the show was that we're having sex and my wife looks bored. This is what's fucking wrong with cunts like her, is that she thinks women should be depicted, you know, the way my wife on the show makes fun of. Like, with her hand on her head, "Oh, it should be romantic." And the idea of letting a woman—and, by the way, it's her story, it's the wife's story—letting her show what it's like to be bored in bed with your husband and trying to find something in bed without cheating on him, like fucking Desperate Housewives and all these whorish shows that people like Barbara love… They love shows about cheating, they love soap operas, and on the segment before me, they're telling women how to eat malnourishing food while keeping their figure. I mean, it's just all so obscene to me. They do nothing for women, and then she goes and calls [my show] sexist. And yeah, we do an episode where we confront race, and we talk about the awkwardness of race relations, and she calls it racist. So inside, I was shaking. I was like, "I fucking hate her right now."
I remember hearing from somebody who worked on All In The Family, that they went on the air and were going down fast. It was a disaster. Then the New York Times wrote a two-page article about the importance of the show, and that saved them. Nobody stepped forward and said, "Hey! Say what you might about the show, something important is going on here." Nobody did that. I mean, The New York Times gave us a fucking great review, but nobody cared. So did The L.A. Times, and so did fucking what's-his-name from the Washington Post who's very hard.
AVC: Tom Shales?
LCK: Tom Shales really liked it. He said great things about it. He said almost nothing negative.
AVC: When you were coming up with the show, did you have an inkling that it would be so divisive, that people would love it or they would think it was signaling the decline of Western civilization?
LCK: I thought people would get upset. I thought Bill Donahue would get upset and people like that, but I didn't think we'd get such wrath from certain reviewers. The thing is, comedy's gone in a weird direction. People are really into ironic comedy and fakeness and cleverness. Every show is fucking with you on some level. And our show wasn't. Our show was totally sincere. I think that some people didn't see it that way. I remember reading one reviewer who was just aghast that we weren't a meta-sitcom. He so wanted us to be a meta-sitcom, and he was just writing, "You really are just telling these stories? I mean, you can't do that." And then there's other people that misread the sets being very spare, and the show looking like an old sitcom. They thought we just had a poor designer, as if HBO would let us do a show where we just didn't do a good job. It's like the best-looking network in the history of television, as if they would put out a show that looks spare and theatrical just because they were sloppy.
So I think some people just didn't know what to make of it. But we had some very great reviews from great places. There's two kinds of press that you get when you put out a TV show: The reviews, and the people that just decide what the reviews say. If we got four great reviews and three bad reviews, then somebody just has to write "the beleaguered Lucky Louie, which was a critics-hated show," and it actually wasn't. But people started writing that right away, and then it becomes a fact.
Perception is created and twisted so quickly. I don't complain about this, by the way. This is the landscape the show existed in. That's just the way it is now. Failure comes fast and quick now, on TV. So I'm pretty philosophical about it. I knew we would get into trouble, but I did think we would have lots of fans. And the thing that is very frustrating is, the show got very good ratings. People would just say "It's not getting good ratings," but it was. I mean, in the world of HBO, obviously not against Two And A Half Men, but as a start-up series, we were doing fantastic, and we were getting higher ratings every week. The only weeks where we went down, the whole lineup went down, because of football. And we would go down less than Entourage. We were beating Deadwood in the ratings. It just all happened a little too quickly. We didn't have time to turn perception around.
AVC: Why did the show get cancelled so abruptly? What was HBO's rationale?
LCK: It's hard to say. I didn't ever get a really straight answer, because everybody I deal with at HBO was very positive about the show, all the way up to our recently departed Mr. Albrecht. Chris [Albrecht] called me during the summer while we were waiting, and said "Don't worry. This is taking a while, but HBO is having money trouble with Warner Bros. this summer." They were having trouble making any pickups. And he told me this. He said "We're having money problems," and The Sopranos, what's his name, James Gandolfini hurt his knee. There was all this shit that happened to HBO all at once. He said, "I'm confident we're going to pick you up, but I can't say for sure, and we just have to wait 'til this stuff blows over." In the meantime, they ordered eight additional scripts. They paid us to write eight episode of Lucky Louie, which we wrote, and they even floated my writing staff, the entire staff, which is very unusual. Usually, when you get additional scripts with no production commitment, you just write it on your own. But they let me have a writing staff for another month, to create these eight scripts. And they also threw money at me and my partner over the summer, just to keep us from getting other jobs. They just kept giving us money.
AVC: It seems like HBO is largely going for prestige with its shows, more so than ratings.
AVC: Do you think part of it might have been class-based, that maybe they viewed a Lucky Louie viewer as less desirable than somebody making $150,000 a year who loves Sex And The City?
LCK: I think that's absolutely true. And that's also what made the reviews a little tougher for us, because the expectations people bring to a show is a big part of how they enjoy it, or don't. So people tune into an HBO show expecting to have their eyebrows up, and to be proud to tell everybody how they got it. It wasn't that kind of show. We were going for very gut laughs. We were going for "Oh my God!" type of laughs. This was a very pyrotechnical show, comedy-wise, and they were not expecting that.
There are people in certain parts of comedy that get embarrassed when people are laughing really hard. They get upset. People got upset about our audience being on the track, even though I put in that old, '70s "Lucky Louie was filmed before a live audience," so it would be clear to people that this was not a laugh track. This was an untouched audience reaction. But people just wrote about a laugh track, a fake laugh track. They wrote it as if it was a fact, without checking, even though it said that on there. You can't say that. It's illegal to just lie.
AVC: In the audio commentaries, you're very critical of single-camera, no-laugh-track shows.
LCK: Which is one way to go. I'm just tired of single-camera. I mean, I'm talking as the guy who did that show. It's now a couple years since I shot it. I was a little tired of the whole, "Somebody says something embarrassing, and the other people look embarrassed, and then cut." It's gotten really hacky, I think. It's the same in every show that comes out now. I hadn't seen a series that really succeeded at being a live-form show, the way All In The Family was, the way that Ralph Kramden did. You just don't see that any more.
AVC: It's become sort of the shorthand for sophistication, earned or not.
LCK: Right. It's just that some people did it. I don't know. To me, there's a huge difference between criticism and reviewing. I really love reading good criticism of television and film. To me, a critic is someone who analyzes a show, describes it, talks about the people in it, puts it in historical context of other shows like it, compares it and stuff, and then talks about the intent of the show and whether it failed or didn't. At the end, they usually say, "By the way: not for me." But reviewers now just go, they're like bloggers, they go, "Ha ha hi. Don't bother seeing this, it's shit. Trust me, it's crap. I like this show. That show I just saw sucks. Fuck you. And by the way, I ate a muffin today."
AVC: Do you think Lucky Louie would have been better received if it had been shot single-camera, no live audience?
LCK: Absolutely not. I think that would have been a completely different show. This was just a very specific thing, a performed sitcom, where the audience reaction mitigates the performance, where it isn't a film that's guided by the editing and the direction and the placement of the camera. That's a whole other world. I didn't let the director bury the cameras deep into the stage. He had to stay back and film it, like a basketball game. He'd say, "I can only see one eye of the person." I don't give a shit. I don't want to have to stop so you can move a camera and then start again and take all night to shoot the show. I want the audience to… because I had Jim Norton, who's a comedian, Laura Kightlinger is a comedian, Pam Adlon, who played my wife, is a fucking electric performer. You take a performer of a certain kind and you put an audience in, and it changes everything. It changes how the momentum of a scene goes, if they start saying something and you feel the audience hitch onto it, it kicks you into a higher gear. There's just a million things that change when you have an audience.
AVC: When you're taping in front of a live studio audience, do you find you're playing to them as much or more as the people at home?
LCK: It's not so much that you're playing to them, it's just that they tell you what's working. It's like doing stand-up. You would never do stand-up without an audience. I mean, no one would even consider it. It's like they're the instrument you're playing. It's that intimate of a relationship, and they're that essential to each other. Performing comedy, you develop a rhythm of ideas and laughs. I live for it. It's the greatest thing, and when I realized there's this other way of doing it that's been done, I was excited. [Jackie] Gleason wouldn't rehearse. Other actors had to be great because they had to work around his improvising, but also just not knowing his lines. He would find these great moments. It didn't matter that some shit wasn't done in focus. When I watch shows like Friends, where every shot is framed perfectly and manicured, you don't have a sense that the audience is there. They're just talking to each other, even when they're not. The last few seasons of Friends, they didn't have an audience. They put in a laugh track. There is a man. His name is The Laugh Man, and he puts canned laughter in every show in Hollywood.
AVC: That's got to be the most soul-crushing job.
LCK: It would be if you cared. Everybody in Hollywood does it this way. They take a show and they want to compress it as much as possible so that it has that Just Shoot Me kind of clever-clever-clever-clever little laughs. Because most TV writers have disdain for audiences. There's this snobbery that regular people are just not good enough to laugh at your show. If comedy writers put their stuff before audiences and they don't get laughs, their faces turn red and they go "Fuck these people," and they fake the laughs. The energy comes from somewhere else. The show moves along quickly, and they put in these tiny little ha-ha laughs that you just know are fake, because they're all precisely the same size. A show like Lucky Louie, the laughs are coming through my microphone because the audience is right on top of us. There's no separation. Sometimes they laugh for too long or make weird noises or cough. Fuck it. It's a show.
AVC: The last time you spoke to us, you were taping a pilot called Saint Louie. What happened with that?
LCK: It went through the paces. It was tested. It did okay. It didn't destroy. We were considered a contender to go on the air. The day of the upfronts, they told us, "Don't come down."
AVC: How was that show different from Lucky Louie?
LCK: Well, it was shot on film. We were supposed to be a couple just barely making it in Brooklyn, so we had an enormous apartment that would have cost literally $12,000 a month. The script was re-worked and re-worked and re-worked and punched up and punched up and over, over, overwritten to the point where there was no real life to it. I'm really glad it didn't go on the air.
AVC: So it was more of a conventional sitcom.
LCK: Yeah. There were times on Lucky Louie where we overwrote. There's a kind of religion people have of how you do sitcoms. I ran into that on my own show, because I wasn't doing it on my own. It was hard. Saint Louie was a real learning process for me.
AVC: What character did you play on Saint Louie? Was it basically yourself?
LCK: It was me, a couple of years before Lucky Louie. There was one baby, a 2-year-old. There was definitely a lot more hand-wringing, a lot more "C'mon, honey!" But it was me. I was just playing myself.
AVC: Judging from your audio commentary, it seems like you read a lot of the negative reviews and online chatter regarding Lucky Louie. Why subject yourself to that? Isn't that like pouring salt into wounds?
LCK: I usually don't, but I wasn't doing anything. I was going crazy. Because we stopped taping the show in February, but we didn't go on the air until June. Then we had to wait week after week for a pick-up and news. So you start going nuts. We were desperate to know if we'd be back on the air, and the sum of these blogs does have an influence. So I ended up taking the temperature of the show every few days. Some pieces, I didn't make it past the first two sentences. One woman wrote that I was ugly. Some people were just petty and gross about it. One guy wrote "Lucky Louie? F that guy!" Like, fuck you too! Those were the meanest, because they had no basis in what the show was. People used words like "revolting." There was one guy who hated it and wrote that it was disgusting to show sex the way we did, and it was overly vulgar, and he complained that the sex wasn't sexy enough, that we didn't have a girl with nice tits sitting on my dick.
AVC: Were any of these reviews constructive? Did they make any valid points?
LCK: One place where I think some reviewers were right was that some of the scripts were common. The show set a standard for itself for being different. It didn't help that HBO's ads said "The end of the sitcom as we know it." I really didn't want that out there, but you can't tell people how to promote your show. It's a losing battle. They're going to do what they do. Some people said that we were trying to be subversive and interesting, but they'd already seen some of the writing. I think that's true. I think there are lots of places in the episodes where we did great stuff, and I think "That's a beautiful show." I love the episodes. But there are some deeper into the production where I wasn't able to keep an eye on all the scripts, where they got sitcom-y, where they got boring, mediocre. I do think that happens, and we got bit for it. Some people who worked on the show felt "We're already groundbreaking, so now it's okay to get safe."
AVC: It's tricky, because you're going for simplicity, but you don't want to be overly simplistic.
LCK: I think it takes a certain approach to watching the show to really get what we did. First of all, the idea "I want to be innovative" is just stupid. I just wanted to tell these fucking stories. The conventions I wanted to do away with were ones that were getting in the way of communicating these ideas, and being as funny as we could be. What I do onstage as a comedian isn't groundbreaking. Every year, the sitcom-writing Emmy goes to some episode that's like, "This one was done backwards." So fucking what? I don't get off on that. I think that's what a lot of people hoped for, that we'd do a sitcom that'd be subversive because it wasn't real, like I'm going to look at the camera or walk off the set.
AVC: You have a co-writing credit on I Think I Love My Wife. Whose idea was it to remake an Eric Rohmer film as a Chris Rock movie?
LCK: Chris sent me the DVD [of Rohmer's Chloe In The Afternoon] and asked, "Can I do this movie?" I thought it was really interesting. I said, "You'd have to do it entirely differently from any movie you've done before. You can't fall prey to needing a laugh every two minutes. Embrace it for what it is. Let it build slowly and open small, like at Sundance. That's how to do this movie if you really want to." Eh, he didn't do that. I wrote a draft with him, it got re-written, and then I started doing Lucky Louie, frankly. He took it from there. Then I went to the première and was pleasantly surprised. I thought he directed it pretty well, and acted it much better than he's acted in anything else. I think the script was kind of a hatchet job with a few good moments in it.
AVC: Did much of what you wrote make it into the film?
LCK: Not really. I had the idea of things getting worse and worse, and going to Washington D.C. was my idea. But then he took it to the guy getting shot and beaten up by the cops, which seemed a little much for me. Chris is really bright, and I love working with him. He's one of my best friends in comedy, but that's something that kind of got away from me because I wasn't on hand to work on it much. But I think it's one of the better things he's done on film. He's learning how to make movies right in front of everybody. He's making movies himself rather than accepting the shitty roles offered him. And they are really bad. But he also made it with Fox Searchlight, and they opened it on thousands of screens.
AVC: Because of your experiences with The Dana Carvey Show, Pootie Tang, and Saint Louie, did you go into Lucky Louie with lowered expectations?
LCK: Commercial success, I can't think about when I'm doing a show. You have to do a show as honestly as you can. But you also can't afford skepticism, because it's preparing for failure, which is useless. You don't need any preparation: Failure's just gonna suck. When you do another show, you gather up steam and use what you've learned from prior projects. You get ready for a network that says it loves the show, and then suddenly I get a call that they're recasting me or whatever. You have to expect the worst from anybody, not because they're evil, but because I'm unproven. It's amazing to me how young TV artists around me expect a huge amount of multi-million-dollar benefit of the doubt with no proven track record. You have to make people some dollars before they trust you. Why wouldn't they? They've seen a million young punks waste their money. It happens all the time. I learned all kinds of shit from Saint Louie.