Louis C.K. walks us through Louie’s second season (Part 1 of 4)
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Writing, directing, and starring in every episode of FX’s Louie represents a Herculean task for writer, comedian, and filmmaker Louis C.K. It’s also the culmination of everything he’s been working toward as an artist and thinker for the past few decades. The filmmaker and comedian’s work ethic has paid huge dividends as of late: C.K. was recently nominated for four Emmys—two for Louie, including a surprise nod for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series, and two for his stand-up special, Hilarious—and Louie was picked up for a third season. He recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk through the show’s second season, episode by episode.
“Pregnant” (June 23, 2011)
Louie panics when he thinks his pregnant, unmarried sister is going into labor; he gets help from his kindly next-door neighbors.
Louis C.K.: That episode was one of the last ones we shot, actually, and I didn’t have what I felt was a season première yet. I thought about opening the season with “Moving,” which I really loved, but I hadn’t finished cutting it, and we had shot a lot of stuff. I write in fits and starts throughout the season, and I think we’d shot probably three-quarters of the whole season, and I knew I needed two or three more episodes, and I was thinking about what I was missing.
That started to lead the writing at that point. Like, “Where have I gone astray, and where can I right it?” I was talking to [consulting producer] Pamela [Adlon] about how what really makes some episodes work is that I’m failing at stuff, and when I’m trying earnestly to make something happen and it’s not working out. I went to see this play on Broadway called The Motherfucker With The Hat, and I saw this guy, Yul Vazquez, who plays the neighbor, and he really blew me away, just his voice and the way he handled himself onstage, who he was onstage. He was incredible, and I thought, “God, I really want him in the show.” So I went through in my head, “How do I use this guy?” The thing I liked about him was the idea that I would be put into a really intimate situation with him and that he was a stranger. The idea of somebody offering help and you really don’t want to take it for the dumbest reason. But that’s kind of my nature.
Then this story hit me, that some girl I dated once told me about her sister farting in the emergency room while she was pregnant, how she’d lost a kid before and stuff. I’d heard that story from a few sources, it might be an urban myth, I don’t know. But I’ve heard this, about someone farting when they thought their baby was in trouble. So I thought, “Boy, if I was in that situation,” and I started to think about that. And then I thought from there, “Who would it happen to that matters to me?” Because I’m divorced, so it’s not a wife/husband thing. And it had to be a single mom, because a pregnant single mom is a really interesting person. What pregnant single mom would I have in my house that I would feel that upset about? I thought, “Well, what if it was my sister?” I had a brother last year, and I had a neurotic sister who I’d already shot all the episodes with. Her phone call and the “Niece” episode were shot long ago, and then I thought, “Fuck it, well, I got another sister.”
Because I didn’t want to put her through that, and it made no sense for her to be pregnant, it was just too much. I felt, “Let’s make another sister, and let’s have her be strong, and let’s have her be independent.” For me, that made the horror of something happening to her even more terrifying, because of how strong she was, and she’s in my care. Once I had those pieces together, I just started writing it. As often happens in this show for me, these scenes were very elastic, so when I started writing the holding point, the first scene is when she arrives. What am I doing when she arrives? Well, I’m making dinner for the kids. And then I thought, “You know what? Let’s really show me making dinner for the kids. Let’s show what that’s like. Let’s show what my daily life is like.” And I wrote that. It’s a much longer scene, and the argument with [Louie’s daughter] Jane and everything. The great thing is that no one is making me finish something I don’t want to finish. I remember telling myself while I was writing this dialogue with Jane, “This could go on for 20 pages and be the whole episode. Fuck Yul Vazquez, he doesn’t even know he’s being considered. There’s no obligation here.”
So I just let that go on for a while, and it didn’t matter to me that it was dominating the first act. Then once I’d written that, when she shows up at the door, well, she’s coming into my home while I’m raising my kids, and that means something. She says a line, “I didn’t know if you were going to show up for this,” which is actually something that Marc Maron said to me years ago, when I first started being a dad. He said, “Some of us didn’t know if you were going to show up for this.” I didn’t exude a very fatherly or family-like attitude when I was younger. I don’t think anybody really does. Anyway, I put her in that position, and thought about her, her wanting to be a mom by herself and stuff. I just imagined all that. That just sort of came out of her for me.
The A.V. Club: The opening scene, where your daughter tells you she loves her mother more than you, is tender and heartbreaking at the same time.
LCK: Oh yeah, the first one. That was shot somewhere in the middle of the season. It’s one of the first things I wrote. The toothbrush scene. It was its own thing. A lot of these things are just floating agents. The toothbrush thing, I wrote it early, and shot it somewhere in the middle of the season. I think I shot it on the same night we shot the ducklings. We shot the ducklings’ scene, and then we shot the toothbrush thing, it was a fucking brutal night. No, it couldn’t have been. You know why? Because Pamela was there. She was there when we shot the toothbrush; it was a different night. We shot a bunch of takes. They were all one take. We never shot any coverage of that scene; it was just that from the side, two profiles. We shot like, I don’t know, eight takes, and they were all really wretchedly sad. But I like it, so I was like, “Good!”
Then we put on a longer lens, and made it a tighter two-shot, just for the hell of it, optically speaking. And then Pamela, who had been keeping her mouth shut, she thought we were done, so when she saw we were just shooting an extra shot, she said, “You know what? Can you just do one when she’s not sad? You’re sad, but does she have to be sad? Could you make it that for her it’s fun to think about how much she loves Mommy’s place?” I said, “Okay,” and I told Ursula [Parker], “You know, even giggle when you do this one. It’s fun.” And she doesn’t give a shit, she has no soul, so she did it, nailed it, and at the instant that that happened, I knew that’s got to open the season. That’s got to be the whole season opener.
It’s one of the reasons, by the way, I wasn’t comfortable using “Moving” as an opener, because I thought that, and then opening credits, and then me and her arguing about moving the desk—and also, “Moving” is about me being competitive with her mother—it was too direct. It was very sitcom-y. “Oh, she got in my head about liking Mom’s better, so now I’m going to do something about it.” That’s not at all what I want to be doing. So it was way better with “Pregnant.” But yeah, kids when they’re little will say those things. They’ll also say things like, “I like your house better than Mommy’s,” and it’s equally meaningless.
AVC: There’s no filter at that age.
LCK: And my kids are sort of the opposite, in that they really want me to feel good all of the time, to a point where I’m starting to realize it’s not a good thing for them to have that impulse. But when kids have empathy for grown-ups, it’s not a bad thing to let them.
AVC: The episode is poignant in part because a lot of people have that kind of relationship with their neighbors: They don’t know them until they need them.
LCK: Yeah, exactly. It became so interesting to me. I knew what the force of this guy would be; I knew what his character would be like. Also, there’s a bunch of things at play with that character for me. One is that there is a guy I met when I was growing up in Boston, when I was already 17 or 18. He was gay, and he was from South Boston. He was really tough and extremely effeminate. He grew up in tough South Boston, and he had a clearly gay demeanor, but he was raised in an Irish Catholic family, and he was just like them. So if anybody called him “faggot,” he’d just beat the living shit out of them. He didn’t fuck around, but that was the way he grew up. When I met him, he was in his 20s, and he was just a very capable, well-centered person. He made an impression on me, because besides the way gays are depicted stereotypically, with their voices, on television and movies, they’re also depicted as worthless or hopeless. So I met this guy who was really strong, and I’ve known gay people all my life who just got their shit together, because you kind of have to, I guess, to make it. You’re put through a big test as a gay person in America. Of course, I’m speaking without any experience. I’ve met gay people who have impressed me by how they’re just fucking strong.
So it didn’t matter to me that Yul and his roommate were gay, but it just was a detail, and one that said something to me. I kind of knew what his nature was, and I didn’t know how it was going to play out, and once I have this sister horribly moaning, to me, I felt like I could take this to as dark a place as I want. I can make people really scared that a baby is going to die, and it’s going to be fine. It’s going to end in a giant fart, so it’s okay to go, “Really, holy shit” with it. And the more, the better.
We employed this style of shooting, the camera was in the bedroom with me, and I was asleep. It was really intense to shoot, because we shot it in one take a bunch of times, and a lot of those takes are cut together. It’s something I started to do last season. The first time we did it was in “Bully,” in the Staten Island house. We did all one complete take of me going up the steps and into the house, watching the kid get hit, and then being thrown out. All of it. But we cut those takes together. So we had to rehearse it and kind of know what we’re doing, and shoot it all in one piece, and it was really intense, and kind of scary feeling. It was emotional for me.
“Bummer/Blueberries” (June 30, 2011)
Louie has an awkward non-date with an attractive woman after seeing a bum’s head pop off his body in a freak accident. Later, Louie runs a series of depressing errands for the mother of one of his children’s classmates after the mother expresses interest in having a no-strings-attached sexual fling with Louie.
LCK: Yeah. “Bummer” is just something that occurred to me. I think I was walking down the street and a bum yelled close to my head. I don’t think he yelled at me, but something happened that led me down that train of thought. And I thought about the notion of a bum coming after me randomly. Just choosing me as the devil and that, in defending myself, I would precipitate the horrible death of this person. And then I would go about my day. [Laughs.] To me, that was the whole thing. Trying to get on with your day. And I had a lot of versions of where I might’ve been heading. If I get to play any character, it would’ve been great if I was going to do a presentation for her company, you know? And what are you gonna do? Fucking cancel? That’s your job, you know what I mean? If you’re really faced with that? Are you gonna fuckin’ curl up with a blanket and some tea? No, you just get on with your life.
Anyway, a date seemed like the funniest way to go about it. And then the next step was what happens to the guy. To me, it was really important that his head come clean off. For really a logistical reason, which is just that if the guy’s lying there, I’m staying. Even if he looks dead, I’m gonna stick around in case there’s anything I can do, you know what I mean? But if his head comes off, he just becomes a piece of garbage. [Laughs.] If a stranger’s head came right off his body, all that’s gonna happen is his body’s gonna be disposed of. I have no role there.
Once I got to that, it was like, “Wow, are we really going to behead a human being on the show?” So I started to put that together. We’ve gotten into a great rhythm on this show, making very difficult things happen by spending a lot of time on them and shooting them later in the season. So we shot around it. You know, they told me it was $17,000 to get a good head. So I said, “Well, let’s beat that.” And we went around it. It’s a competitive business. We found a $4,000 good head. And we worked with the city for a while to find the right intersection to shoot it in. And then, “What kind of vehicle? Is it a van? Is it a car?” I don’t remember if it was me that said, “Garbage truck?” I think Amy Silver, the production designer, had heard about someone getting hit by a garbage truck and their head came off. But that seemed perfect. Those things are just fucking monsters. The only thing we ever used effects for, we got a CGI guy to come and paint a matte for us. And we hung a dummy from a big crane, a big Condor in the middle of 10th Avenue. We really caused a lot of havoc on the West Side for a few hours.
AVC: You tend to handle surrealistic or absurdist scenarios in a very deadpan, casual sort of way.
LCK: Right. There’s no juicy shots, really. A lot of what we ended up using was just that I was running next to the truck while somebody kind of tossed the head a ways down the street so that it rolls away from the camera. A lot of really bullshit shots ended up being the meat of that sequence. Yeah. And then the story around it, to me, was funny if I was nervous about the date. And it was also funny for the audience to know and me not to know how hopeless the date was to begin with. With this woman’s attitude.
AVC: It’s one of the only times where they make reference to you actually being on camera.
LCK: That’s right. And I really have never made a rule for certain decisions about what my success level is on the show for my character. I’ve just never really decided. It’s whatever serves the purpose of the particular story.
AVC: In this particular story, you are a guy on TV.
LCK: Right, which could mean a lot of things. It could mean I do specials, it could mean… It’s also the way those fucking people talk. It’s really interesting if you ever get to hear two executives talk to each other.
AVC: There’s a total calculation to everything. But there’s also something honorable to how naked the calculation is.
LCK: Yeah, exactly. And she’s even laughing. But she’s like, “Fuck it. I’m not gonna date the guy, but I’ll let him think he’s going on a date with me. And who knows where it could lead?”
AVC: And then the second half of that, “Blueberries.”
LCK: Yeah, “Blueberries” was, I think, the first thing we shot. And it was one of the first things I wrote. Yeah, I wrote “Blueberries” right after I found out that I got picked up for a second season.
AVC: It has a very triumphant quality.
LCK: Yeah. [Laughs.] Exactly. Well, I was with Pamela at the time, and she has the only writing credit I’ve ever given anybody on the show. She shares the “story by” credit with me on that show. Because we sort of paced out “Blueberries” together. It was completely her idea. That was its own idea that I would be spanking a woman sexually, who would be saying something like, “Daddy.” And then she would burst into horrible tears. That was Pamela’s idea. And then the “Blueberries” woman came from the kind of single people you meet at my age, and the way that they feel. Sometimes I start with a voice that feels authentic to me, then I just put myself on the page in proximity with this voice, and then I kind of figure out through writing it why the person is the way they are. And what I decided about this woman, what I felt like her voice was telling me, was that she wanted to have some drab husband/wife sex. She was lonely in a very specific and unique way. She wanted to rub lotion on her arms and bitch about school right before fucking. You can’t do that on a date.
AVC: It was like preserving the worst parts of being married.
LCK: Right, but she wants it. In other words, she is horrified by the idea that in order to have sex, she has to be single and act single. You know? But I guess what I’m learning from it is that sometimes when there’s a married couple and they’re like that, it’s not just an accident of misery, it’s because she likes it that way. [Laughs.] She’d like to declare that it’s time to have intercourse. She likes to put her hair up and send him out for shit. And then it’s a mess. She’s also got a messy collision of desires, because she also wants to be spanked. She’s a very unusual character. To me, a lot of unexpected things come out of her when she says, “I’ll suck you off, I promise.” There’s a lot going on with her.
AVC: There’s a certain pathos to the character as well. There’s a real depth. It’s not making fun of the character, it’s trying to, as you said, get inside.
LCK: Yeah, I think a good way to go about it, instead of just making fun of their surface… I think the only way to do it credibly is not to really succeed all the way in figuring out who they are. You know what I mean? If you get in, if you dig in a few places inside of her and you’re not sure what it adds up to. If you add up too much, then it all becomes surface again.
AVC: People’s fundamental mysteries have to be respected.
LCK: Yeah, I think that’s true.
“Moving” (July 7, 2011)
While looking for a new apartment, Louie becomes obsessed with buying a $17 million dream home previously rented by a “somewhat famous comedian” named Lenny Bruce.
LCK: “Moving” was an early one that I wrote ’cause I thought about what kind of desires I was gonna have at this point. I remember when I got divorced, I stayed in the home I was living in, and I remember what a huge transformative step it was to go get my own place. The first time for my kids and me. So I thought, “That’s a compelling story,” and what it inevitably crashed into was the hilarious reality of New York City real estate, and what that’s like. And I went back to an old experience I had with a seemingly Israeli realtor in the East Village who threw me keys and told me to go look at a place, and there were people living there. So that really happened.
Then I got into this idea, the dream of the home. What if it’s really a dream? So I wrote this realtor. It’s the kind of thing you do in New York sometimes. It’s depressing that you can never get out of where you’re stuck financially and real-estate-wise. And I think I’m probably not the only one who has tried to put on a credible face and go see a place that’s out of my range. And all of a sudden, you’re treated with all this respect. And it’s like a true home with real scale. [Laughs.] So that was that scene.
And then it turned into this crazy thing for me at the end. The wall thing happened on the set. The original script was just a thing she said that she would be staring into my face and I’d be hearing her say this stuff, and then, all of a sudden, I’d realize she wasn’t really saying it. And it took a long time to find the right place to shoot that. It had to be perfect. It had to be something that would make your mouth water.
And then Gayle Keller, the casting director, had this fucking inspiration to have Donna Hanover play the realtor. [Rudy] Giuliani’s ex-wife. She loved the script. And the reason she loved the script is because of her experience in divorce and the feelings of competition and how you feel guilty about them, but they’re real. And so she came, and she was so goddamn good. And when we were shooting in the garden, I started spinning for the camera for myself, and it was supposed to be imperceptible that I was kind of spinning on my heels. And then she was behind me, and I said, “Why don’t you spin too?” And the version of it was just her spinning and me spinning like a couple of tops, and then I said, “Let’s link up and dance.” And she was just like, “Sure.” She just nailed it so well. So that turned out to be really fun.
And then the accountant is based on my accountant, who had to have the sit-down with me all the time where he says—he always has this kind of half-laugh to him when he says, “You know, come on, buddy. You can’t really be thinking about this.” And he’s always forced to cruelly lay it out in numbers like that. Funny enough to me, so much happens in that episode with the switching of the bums and the guy in his underwear and fucking Pamela and the realtors and Donna Hanover and the dancing and all that stuff. The funniest scene is just me and the accountant and the sadness of that. It ended up being the funniest scene, and it’s so simple.