Louis C.K, star of FX’s new half-hour, single comedy Louie [Tuesdays, 11/10C] is a stand up comic with a unique perspective – he’s a divorced/single father of two girls. These are elements that infuse his series, which is also punctuated by bits from his stand up act.
I had the opportunity to tale part in a teleconference Q&A session with him and found him to be thoughtful, conscientious and just really together.
I want to know, what’s the difference been for you in this show and what you did at HBO a couple of years back?
Louis C.K: Well, HBO, Lucky Louie, was an L.A. based studio sitcom. HBO is a very liberal and creative network, but we still went through a network process and did it on a stage with the traditional run throughs and a studio audience and everything. But this is shot in New York City by just me and my little crew, and so it feels more like an independent film the way that we run it, and it kind of comes together. We shoot pieces without knowing what episode they’re going to belong to. The network is completely MIA. They don’t do anything until they watch the episodes when they’re finished being edited. So it’s just us making a show. So I think that’s the biggest difference. Besides that I’m doing a single camera show now instead of multi-cam.
I’ve seen a lot of articles and perhaps some on this call that have actually written articles in which they comment on how your format is very similar to the Seinfeld format in that it opens and closes and is punctuated by bits of your stand up. But I think the big difference, allowing for networks and everything, is where Seinfeld was a show about nothing; yours seems to be a show about everything. Was that the intent? And how did you move the series organically from your stand up?
Louis C.K: That’s well put. I would say that’s the biggest difference. Jerry definitely innovated by putting stand up in with scripted pieces, but we’re as different as night and day as far as what we talk about. Yes, I think the way that it comes out of the standup is that a lot of the ideas start as stand up ideas of what I end up filming, so I kind of make a decision, what’s the funniest way to execute this? Is it going to be to just say it on stage, or is it going to be to see it as a film?
I think part of what makes it different too is I kind of swap back and forth between film and stand up a lot on the show throughout the episodes. Also, every episode is different. We don’t have half hour length sitcom stories that have a first act and a second act. Often there’s something that’s just one scene, because I just wanted to show that one scene.
In the same way that stand up gives you the freedom to choose how long you talk about something or just drop in one word about something, it’s kind of like a collage, an eclectic kind of a form. This show, I wanted it to feel like that. I wanted it to feel almost like a stand up set. It’s sort of herky-jerky different, different lengths of pieces, different … on things, different reasons and tones for talking about things or showing things. And, yes, I guess I am trying to make it about everything. It’s such a simple situation of just, I’m just a guy on the Earth, is what I really feel this show is about. So I can talk about a lot, a lot of things.
I appreciate that you had a lot of the Tough Crowd guys, Bobby Collins is your brother and Nick DiPaolo, who has great scenes with you; you guys have excellent chemistry. I wanted to know if we’re going to be seeing more of them as the series spins out.
Louis C.K: Yes, definitely. Robert Kelly, who played my brother, I don’t have a brother, and the way we’ve built this show cast-wise was that there is no cast. It feels like when you cast a show up front, when you do a series, you’re making a series of bets that you kind of have to stick by. You hire eight people, or whatever it is in a cast, and you just have to really hope they stay compelling and interesting, and if they don’t, you still have to service all those people. That’s actually how you talk about it in the sitcom writers’ rooms, is we have to service these characters, even if we don’t like them.
So instead, we kind of retro-fitted it. I don’t think that’s a good word for it, but I’m not that eloquent. The way we did the show is that it started just with me, and I would hire somebody who I liked to just do one episode and see how it felt with them, and then if they were good, they sort of played their way onto the scene. If it was a compelling enough character we’d keep that person around.
I only hired Bobby to play my brother for one episode just because I felt like having him for that one episode, but he was really good and compelling and pathetic, so he’s in two more, I think. Nick is in three total. Nick DiPaolo and I were roommates back when we were both struggling stand ups in the early 90s. He’s still a struggling stand up, and that’s only because he’s a miserable guy. He’s never happy in success, either. But anyway, Nick and I have a very easy rapport.
So he’ll be around, Bobby is around, but I didn’t want the onus of having to say, “What does this character say about this story?” or “What does this one say?” Even if they’re not necessary, you feel like when you watch some shows, you just got to check in with everybody. So there’s whole shows where you don’t see any of these people. But yes, Nick and Bobby are the main ones, and Bobby doesn’t play himself. He plays my brother. Nick does play himself.
If a hostile stranger on the streets of New York City asks you what your show is about, what’s your 30 second pitch to them?
Louis C.K: Could you repeat that? I’m sorry.
If an angry person comes up to you and just says, “Hey, what’s your show about?” and you have 30 seconds to pitch it to them, what do you say?
Louis C.K: I don’t know. I think I’d do what I’m doing now. I’d go, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s just me, and it’s funny. It’s just comedy. It’s comedy in many forms.” That’s all I would say about it, a lot of different kinds of comedy. I’ve learned how to be funny in about 20 different ways over the last five years. That’s less than one way a year, which is not that good, and I’m trying to use them all.
This show is like every idea I ever had all dumped into this show. This isn’t at all the answer to your question, but it just occurs to me I’ve got all these movie ideas of movies I wanted to write and make over the years, and a lot of them are in this show. I just hacked them up and made them ten minutes long and put them in the show.
What is it like working with FX? Are you happy that they saved you from having to make that scandalous video tape?
Louis C.K: Yes, they’re pretty amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a situation like the one that I have right now. I mean, I never even heard of it. I’ve heard of networks that are very liberal, and I had what I thought was the best situation when I was at HBO. I never thought I could beat that. I remember after Lucky Louie was over that the main thought I had was, “I’ll never see that kind of creative freedom again.” But this is nuts, because they literally don’t know what I’m doing. They have no idea what I’m shooting, what I’m writing.
When I write stuff I just hand it to my line producer, Blair Breard, and she sets it in motion and we start shooting pieces, and that’s an amazing amount of freedom. Not only creatively, but like because my ideas get to be whatever, blah, blah, blah, but also it’s enabling for making the show. There’s a huge amount of work that goes into placating a network in regular television. It’s literally 70% or 80% of your workload, is showing them the material, getting their notes and presenting it to them and making sure they weigh in. It’s a huge amount of work. And FX has deleted all of that from our workload, which has let us put way more time and energy into what we do.
It also means I can do stuff like, sometimes I’ll write a scene, and I know that there’s more to it but I don’t know what it is yet. I can go ahead and produce it, and shoot it, which is crazily irresponsible if anybody is watching you. Like, I’ll write one scene with me in a character not being sure why it’s there, and then once I’m shooting it I’ll think of the next scene and get that one going. So I’m able to do that and let stuff grow really organically. The hard thing about work in TV, even at its best, is that you have to prove yourself. You have to complete something on paper before you are allowed to execute it. And with FX, that doesn’t exist, because literally the first time they see an idea is when it’s edited.
I know that I’m earning that right with every episode. If I turn in two bad episodes in a row, they’ll come visit me and they’ll want to read the scripts and they’ll want to visit the set. They have that right, contractually, but they’ve laid off so far because they’re happy with what they’re getting this way, which is that they leave me alone.
I’d like to thank you and thank FX for putting you into the lineup. I think it’s a great fit in so many ways. One of the things that really stands out with this for me is it’s a real sense of place with New York. How important was it that the city could be almost another character more than just a backdrop?
Louis C.K: Absolutely, I very much wanted that and I’m glad it came across. I love New York City very much. I love New York City in the way immigrants love America, like more than the natives. Well, natives, that’s not fair because they’re all gone now, but meaning that I was rescued from the city of Boston by New York City, so I thank whatever every day for New York City. I love it. I don’t think it gets seen for what it is very often, because the New York that I love are the greasy wall pizza places and the Lower East Side, and places like that. So I wanted to show that. You know, Sex in the City, there’s a lot of sort of wet street beauty shots of New York, but you don’t really get to see the New York that everybody inhabits. You don’t see the subway a lot.
And to me, part of what I loved about the idea of this project was that, the way I looked at it was, I’m going to California and conning these people out of $3.6 million of Hollywood money that would have just sat there. That’s the thing about these shows. If I hadn’t pitched the show and it hadn’t worked, it’s not like the money would have gone elsewhere, it just would have sat there in whoever, Rupert Murdoch’s house, I don’t know where it is or lays. But I stole this money from them and took it to New York and we’ve injected it into the New York economy, and we’re using a lot of crew people that I’ve worked with for years in New York that I’m really happy to be employing in this. New York is just infested with great actors that are just laying around, and we paid very little, but we got some of the best actors there are in the city, and they were eager and loving to work with us.
The personnel we used in the city was great. And yes, we really wanted to see the city for what it is, and what it’s like to just sort of muddle through it. You know, a year of life in New York City. That was a big part of it for me.
I want to know if you believe in astrology because this is the most Virgo-centric show I think I’ve ever seen on TV.
Louis C.K: No, I just don’t. I was married to a woman who believed in it. I’ve had a lot of people say those things to me, you know, “Geez, you’re really Virgo-y,” or “Hey, that guy must be a Pisces.” I mean, there’s got to be something to the fact that when you’re born at certain times the magnetic fields of the universe are lined up and …. But I guess I really doubt that it could possibly have to do with—you know, the thing is, if you know enough about history it makes it hard to believe those things.
Like I read this stuff about how the calendar that we live with was built. There’d be a Roman emperor who would just say, “You know, I feel like giving a month to my uncle Augustus, so let’s just make August.” I don’t think the planets give a … about our calendar, so that’s why I find it hard to believe. I didn’t know it was Virgo-centric. I don’t know anything about being a Virgo.
I don’t believe in astrology either, but I’ve had it shoved down my throat enough to know, and I saw your show and it spoke to me in a way, I was like, this guy has got to be a Virgo because this is exactly what everybody says about me. And I looked it up and your birthday is September 12th, right?
Louis C.K: That’s right.
Yes, and my September 10th, and I was like, oh, my God, this is like a voice for me. So thank you for making the show. I love it. I’ve never had anything speak to me in quite the same way.
Louis C.K: I’m glad you like it. I bet though if we talked we’d find about 15 similarities other than our birthdays that are probably more the reason why you’re connecting with the show. So it’s probably not that, but I’m glad. Obviously, I love to hear that somebody is connecting with the material.
First a little quick thing. I want to make sure that that was David Patrick Kelly playing the shrink, but that’s not my real question. My real question is, looking at the pilot and then the first episode that follows it, there’s quite a bit of a difference between them that I kind of want to see, what evolved between the making of the pilot and that first episode? Which, they’re all fantastic. I mean, as somebody who has seen you live many, many times, it was amazing to see that captured, both the live stuff and then just your personality that comes through a lot of your work. What evolution took place between the pilot and then that first episode?
Louis C.K: It’s a good question. First of all, it is David Patrick Kelly, who I love from The Warriors and 48 Hours and Dreamscape. He’s an actor I always connected with. We did an audition for that therapist part and a lot of people did a really corny, kind of beard stroking Freudian therapists, and he just did this really wild, really freaky character and it made me laugh the instant I saw the audition, so he came in. We only had one scene planned for the therapist, and as we started shooting it, he was just so funny I started throwing things at him, saying, “Try saying this,” and he would do it and it was perfect. So I think we have about eight therapist segments. I’m not done editing all the shows yet so I don’t know if I’m going to use them all in this season. I think we’ve used about four.
It was a huge victory seeing him.
Louis C.K: He’s so great. He’s another example. There’s actors that you love, that you’ve seen in great movies, and they’re just living in New York City, and they’re so happy to work. And it’s so much a better process to just call New York actors and pay them just a … check to come in and really work hard for a day. When you’re in Hollywood, and you have to make agent to agent deals and you have to clear all these hurdles to get one of the seven people who a network will approve to be on a TV show.
As far as the pilot, I think it’s very typical that a pilot is a little disconnected from the rest of the series, because a pilot takes like a year to make, present. And then by the time you’re doing the series you’re a whole different person. But this show also, there’s no reliable format to the show, and that’s something that I was always encouraged to do. John Landgraf said, “I don’t care if any shows looks like any other shows.” We both agreed that one thing that makes television hard to watch now and to enjoy for a lot of viewers is the predictability, and that so many formats have been hit so hard that you know what’s coming and it makes it hard to enjoy it. So this show, I think that people really never know if it’s going to be a whole long story or it’s going to be a couple, a few pieces. Are you going to watch me do one bit of stand up to punctuate something, or really sit and watch me do my act for like a good ten minutes? It changes every time.
And every episode, to me, presents like a different game, a different visual game for the cinematography, and a different comedy game with the actors that I’m with. The cast is different every episode. We’ve shot in every borough in New York City. We’ve had helicopters, we’ve had school busses and all these different crazy props. We’ve been on boats, airplanes. There’s been a lot of variety in it. To me that’s good that you can’t quite peg, from episode to episode.
You are listed as the only writer on IMDB. I don’t know if I missed some press materials where it lists other writers, but if that’s the case, what exactly is your writing process for writing these episodes?
Louis C.K: I am the only writer. That was a decision I made because I just wanted to write and make the show. Writers’ rooms, they kind of gravitate towards a certain place. There’s a need to perfect things in a writers’ room, and that can take a lot of fun out of a show sometimes. It’s a struggle. It depends on your personality. Some people love working with a writing staff. I had a great writing staff on Lucky Louie, but it sometimes felt like Congress or something. It’s like if you’re the president and you have the ability to just fire Congress, life would get kind of fun all of a sudden.
I remember when I got the green light to do this show, and my daughter was asking me about it. She was about seven at the time, and asked me, I don’t know why, she said, “Are you going to have writers on the show or are you going to write it all yourself?” And I said, “I think I might write them all myself.” And she said, “I think that would be easier because you don’t have to explain to all those people what you want to do. You can just do it.” And she was right. Seven years old, she was very savvy about production.
So it does really make it easier. And again, like I said before, I can write stuff incomplete and start working on it. I don’t have to prove it to anybody. I like doing it that way. The writing process for me is different according to what I’m writing. With this show, I usually start with a moment or a scene or a feeling that’s funny to me, like these two people having a conversation. I want to see that. So I’ll write out that conversation that I want to see, or that moment, and sometimes it will just sort of lead into a story. Sometimes I’ll get interested in the voices I’m writing for and wonder what happens to them and then go find out, or the situation I’m writing about. Other times I have the conversation on paper and it stops being interesting, so I go, “That’s it. That’s done.” So we shoot that as a one off instead of a whole episode, or just one segment instead of a more chronological story.
Like the Ricky Gervais thing is an example of … doctors who you know personally who are inappropriately boundary-less during an exam. It was a very simple premise, and I could have done like, let’s flash back to us as kids, let’s see what happens, you know, a bunch of things. But I got Ricky in my head and wrote that out and it was done, and it just fit perfectly as a one act beginning and end, and then we did sort of a call back to it at the end with the phone call.
So that got to be just exactly what it was. If I was working for a sitcom and I had a room full of writers we would all talk about, well, why are we doing this scene? Is it part of an episode about doctors? Does he get his comeuppance? That kind of painful bull …. And then you’d actually probably throw it out, or you’d soften the scene. Somebody in the writers’ room would say, “That’s not very believable, so we have to find out why he’s like that,” and the fun starts to unravel. So what I do on this show is very much like what I do in stand up. I just throw it up there, work it for as long as it’s good, and then toss it.
If I may ask, how many of these experiences, and maybe specifically the horrible dating experiences, come from your real life? Are you tapping past experiences?
Louis C.K: I like to think of the show as autobiographical fiction. It’s me, and it’s what my life feels like, but very few of these things have actually happened to me. I’ve never worn a suit on a date with a girl who wore a t-shirt, but I wanted to live those moments. I feel that way sometimes on dates, like I’m wearing a suit and she’s wearing a t-shirt. I feel like I make horrible train wreck decisions, like kissing a girl at the front door the way I did on that date. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, but I feel that way. That date definitely encompassed a lot of moments that I feel like I’ve had. I’ve never had a doctor like Ricky ever. I’ve definitely had play dates where the kids play and the grownups drink wine and smoke out the window, and let their hair down. That’s pretty common stuff, and it’s pretty much the only comfort you get in the world when you have kids in grade school, so I wanted to show that. So some yes, some no.
The people in the show, none of them match my real life. The girls in the show, my kids aren’t like that. I’ve got two great kids. They’re really engaging and they’re very sweet and they’re easy, but that’s not funny. So the only thing I take from my real daughter and gave to the fictional daughter is that she is reading constantly. She just shuts the world out and reads books, but that’s great. But yes, everybody else I make up. I wanted to be careful not to sort of draw pictures of people in my real life, because I’ve got to live with those people. So the parents that are like in the PTA scene, I don’t know anybody like that. Those are all people I made up.
Your stand up is very dark, as is the show, and you said how FX is never really breathing down your neck in terms of the content. But has there been kind of like, you’re writing something or your shooting something and you’re like, there’s no way in hell the network is going to allow this to go through once they see the final product, and were you kind of like surprised, it’s like maybe, “Oh, yes, that’s fine. Let this go.” And along those lines, being that HBO kind of let you do anything and FX , of course, has the obvious restrictions of like you can’t say things like the F word, does it cause trouble when you try to avoid just these certain things that are very prevalent in your stand up?
Louis C.K: Well, HBO, first of all, they let us say any words we wanted to, but HBO is a very thoughtful network. The people that were working there while I was doing the show were creative people who were very interested in how the show was made. So we did talk to them quite a bit. There were things they said they didn’t want to see, and it wasn’t about language. They just [had] feelings about the show. I’m saying that as a positive thing; it was a good experience.
But FX, I feel like there’s no subject I can’t talk about, which is a big one. I feel like there’s no story I can’t tell. The tricky thing about my situation is that if you write a script and they flag something as, you can’t do this, you at least save time. Because they don’t see anything until it’s been shot and cut, I run the risk of shooting things that they will then not approve, because they do have a Standards and Practice department. But the woman who runs it is an extremely intelligent woman, and she’s great. I kind of know what her limits are.
It’s kind of fun to play inside of limits sometimes. I feel like there’s nothing I can’t say on stage except for the certain words that they don’t like to hear, because they don’t have an FCC thing, it’s just Standards and Practices, which is them thinking about their advertisers and what they want to present as their standards. You can’t say …, you can’t say …, you can’t say retarded, although since I said that on the Jon Stewart show they came back and said, “Well, not necessarily you can’t.” So I don’t know where the line is with that one.
There’s a few buzz words. And then there’s sort of a general note about if you’re going to describe sexual moments, she calls it tonnage. That’s the word, there’s tonnage. Like when I did the thing with Bobby Cannavale before we went on the air of him describing the gay porn that I would have to make to make money, I showed that to her and I said, “What, of this, would you have approved?” just as an exercise. And she said, “There’s nothing in there that, on its own, couldn’t have gone through, but it’s a tonnage thing. I wouldn’t have let you do this whole scene.” She said, “The only thing I might not be okay with is two guys … in your mouth and laughing.” And I said, “Really? … in the mouth, that’s out?” And she said, “Well, it depends on the context.” I said, “What if I said something about … in Hitler’s mouth?” She said, “Maybe. We haven’t had anybody on this network say … in the mouth, but maybe you’ll find that.” So there’s a feeling like I could get to whatever I want; and obviously, I don’t have some hell-bent need to say awful things on FX, but I like to know where my limits are.
They have surprised me with what they’ve let through. Sure. There’s been a few things where I’ve been like, when Ricky Gervais said your … looks like a dog was sucking it off, and then he started chewing it because he thought it was a bloody tongue filled shoe, as I was standing there watching him say that I thought, “That’s never going to be on television.” It’s on television. So who knew? I didn’t even get a peep from them from that.
We had one discussion from the Nick DiPaolo episode because we used the word … and the word …, in that episode. And that was the first time that she called me and said, “We don’t want you to use those words.” And I defended the use of them because I felt like, there’s a difference between if I’m doing a scene where I’m buying an ice cream cone and the guy is black and I say, “Thanks for the ice cream, ….” There’s a difference between that and doing a story about race and about racial tolerance and about me thinking that I’m being a good liberal when I just didn’t know what I was talking about, and being pulled so heavily by this black woman and she uses this word, so it goes to an extreme, that’s a difference. And she agreed with that. She let me keep it.
When Lucky Louie came out there were several stories that talked about how it would sort of save the sitcom from its current sort of boring state. Did any of that reach you? I know you were trying to do something different, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into, “I’m trying to save the sitcom format.”
Louis C.K: That’s definitely not my responsibility, I don’t think. With Lucky Louie I just wanted to do a good show. I just wanted the show to be maximum funny, and I was inspired by the older sitcoms, like All in the Family and The Honeymooners, because there was this straight from the mouth to the audience laughter feeling. There were these great performers on a stage in front of an audience. To me it’s like, sitcoms had been perfected to this point where they weren’t shot in front of an audience any more, they were putting this little kind of perfectly timed laughs between these kind of Harvard graduate written jokes, and it just didn’t feel like fun anymore. So I wanted to go back to kind of a messy, ruckus, a more like—I’m not a good speaker. You know, you talk, they laugh and the next person talks. Like they’re feeling more like a performed stage show, which is what sitcoms originally were.
So that’s all. I just wanted to do it because I wanted to see it again, and because I thought it was my best way of being a funny as possible with the show.
Are there any other fellow Boston refugees other than who has been mentioned so far?
Louis C.K: On my show now?
Louis C.K: Robert Kelly is on the show and Nick DiPaolo. Let’s see, who else is on the show from Boston? The second episode was called … where I go Facebook a girl from my junior high school days. Her name is …, and we looked at about 300 actresses in New York City to try to find the grown version of her that would feel like this was a girl from back home, and none of them worked. They just felt like New York actors.
So we actually went to Boston and had a very cheap … casting session there on like VHS tape. And this woman, Kim, whose name is escaping me, and I’m sure the DVD would have the episodes, but Kim was so authentic and so real, and I think we pretty much blew her mind by flying her to New York and giving her this huge part in the show. She stepped up, though, and she was awesome. I often get comments about her, that she seemed really real, and she was. So she was my favorite Boston rescue.
A lot of shows, they’re skipping the opening title sequence. They don’t want it. So why did you decide to have one, and how did you decide what it should be?
Louis C.K: What was the word you used before opening title? Oh, you mean they skip the opening title sequence.
Yes, they don’t use it any more.
Louis C.K: It’s true. I think a lot of people do that for time, because it does rob you of some story time. I don’t know. I made one because— I didn’t decide I wanted one. I think I was not going to have one, but when we were in the Village shooting at the Comedy Cellar the first time, when we did the pilot and we shot all the stand up at the Comedy Cellar, we had a steady cam on stage with me. That was the main camera, that was the camera that you see the stand up on. So we shot an exterior of me walking down into the Comedy Cellar with that steady cam, and I watched and I thought, there’s something good about that. You see me go to work. So I said, “Can Louie just walk into the subway and let’s just walk back with me from the subway to the Comedy Cellar. Let’s just do my nightly going to work. It’s like Fred Flintstone going to the quarry.” And so we shot it, and again, I have to keep saying what I love about FX for letting me do it this way. I didn’t have to use it.
I’ve shot a lot of scenes I haven’t used. There are a few scenes I’ve shot for this show that aren’t going to even be on the DVD. They’re just things I discarded, but I got to try. So we just shot me walking backwards, eating pizza and going to the Cellar. And I cut it together, I cut it to that music, and that kind of made me laugh, and that’s kind of actually how the title of the show came out. I watched that scene, put that music behind it, stuck the name up there, and it was like, “Yes, this is fine.”
I’m kind of old fashioned. I’m 42. I started watching TV when there were three channels, so opening title sequences, like The Jeffersons, like all these shows, they still feel like part of a TV show to me. I always think that you should make your show thinking that someone is watching any episode for the first time. I don’t think it’s fair to kind of be an inside crowd with your viewers, like we all know what we’re doing here. I kind of try to reload the program for any new viewer who might be watching episode nine and they’ve never seen the show before, so I think the opening title helps with that. But who knows, next year I might get impatient with it and start cutting it to one shot, because I only get 21 minutes per episode and it can be tough.
You had mentioned earlier about not feeling obliged to carry the torch for the future of the sitcom with Lucky Louie. The state of comedy is actually pretty good now, in that you can’t have always said that. There’s been a lot of shows on TV that were named after a comedian that didn’t really represent their aesthetic and didn’t really embody what they stood for. And this really does. This is definitely an extremely rare animal, and I’m kind of wondering, and you’re involved in some of those comedies that are on TV now that are good. Is there a sense of somewhat pioneering a new look at how to do comedy on TV with this show?
Louis C.K: Well, I do think we’re doing something different than what’s been seen before. I think that’s just because they’re letting me. I think there’s kind of a two way track in how shows are made in Hollywood. There’s a lot of worry and insecurity that goes into making a show, and a lot of it is great work, it’s just that it’s always kind of the same. I think when a comedian gets a show there’s kind of a process that happens 100% of the time, which is that that comedian gets handed off to a show runner. That show runner assembles a group of writers and the networks send their executives and all those people try to find a way to take this comedian, who’s just kind of this person who can stand in front of people and be funny and have an energy, and try to build stories around that person as a character. And they pretty much take away whatever was compelling about the comedian, usually.
A lot of those show have been great shows, because the specific show runner is very talented, the executives from the network are conscientious and stay out of the way and they’re smart, and they enable the show in its best form, and the comedian ends up being an okay actor. And the rest of the cast, and they always have to have a cast to buttress that person, and that cast ends up being good. That’s a good show. There are a lot of failure versions of it, also.
But the thing is, even the good ones have been the same for so long that it’s hard to surprise an audience with that format anymore. But this thing is, they wire me $300,000 per episode, and I make a show the way I feel like making it that particular week. So it’s so from the gut. And it’s not perfect, my show. I think that’s the trade off. It’s not slick and perfected, but it’s really from the gut. Stand up is like that. You say er, um, a lot, and you don’t cut it out. You get caught picking your nose on stage, but when you hit, you really hit. So I’m hoping that’s what the show is able to do.
Well, it’s beautiful that the show has your name on it, and there’s actual authorship involved.
Louis C.K: Yes. It’s not The Louie Show by John … who did those other sitcoms. It’s my show. The only reason I put my name on it, honestly, is because I just want it to be findable. The way things work now, people kind of go after what they want to see, so if I have people who have seen other shows of mine or what I do—if it was called, Life is Heck, starring Louis C.K., then people would go, “Life is Heck? What kind of bull … is this? Oh, he’s in it.” By the time you get to that point, you’ve cut about 40% of your audience out who would have just gone, “Oh, Louis, I know who that is.”
You’ve written for pretty much every genre of comedy on TV and film, Letterman, Conan O’Brien, SNL, sitcoms, movies with Chris Rock. What would be your advice for young comedy writers looking to break in? What genre, what kind of spec to write, just what advice in general about their career?
Louis C.K: Well, you have to be really tenacious. You have to keep at it. There are many roads to get there. If you can get yourself into Harvard, that’s a good way to go, because every Harvard graduating class, the agencies come trolling around and they’ll look for you. So if you go to Harvard, you’ll get found there. If you’re not that lucky or smart or rich, then I think making your own things is the best way now. Like making something; there’s nothing that beats proving you’re funny by making a funny thing, and right now there are huge outlets for that, with You Tube and all the other stuff online. You can get a good high def camera for very cheap, and you can buy a Mac book, put Final Cut Pro on it and you can make a whole TV show with those two items. I recommend some good microphones, because most little cameras don’t have good sound, but that’s how we’re making this show.
I edit this whole show myself on a Mac book. I loaded the footage into it from a … camera that we shoot on, and I edit it on airplanes, sometimes, in the back of the concourse when I’m on the road. So anyone can do that. And if you make something really good and compelling and funny, people are going to watch it. And then if you back that up with some good material, some original—I don’t think that specs for sitcoms, they can get you jobs once you’re in the market for sitcom writing, but it’s hard to beat original material.
I’ve hired a lot of writers, and when I start reading a spec, when I open up page one, Raymond spec by Joey, I go, “I can’t read this. It’s painful.” Because there’s so many of them out there they all look the same. But when I read Talking Dogs, by Jessica Walter, whatever, oh, what the hell is that? And then I watch this person develop a whole group of people and tell a story, I think that gives you a better shot. The more original, the more unique your stuff is, the better, I think, rather than trying to hit a certain place that’s going to get you employed. That usually just makes you like everybody else.
I remember seeing a short film that you did on black and white film, and I saw it on TV, maybe on the IFC channel or something. How did you use those shorts in the early part of your career to get work or get noticed?
Louis C.K: Well, it was so different back then. I think the one you’re talking about probably was called Ice Cream, and it was so different then, because I shot those on 16 mm film, like with real film crews, and they cost more than they do now to make those things. But at the time there wasn’t an Internet, and there wasn’t … When I made that thing, you had to actually write to a film festival. Like you had to go to the library and get a book that has all the film festival addresses in it. You had to write to film festivals and say, “Can you please send me an application.” And all these film festivals would send you applications and then you make VHS copies of all your stuff, of your film, and send it in and hope you get in.
That’s what I did with Ice Cream. I got into Sundance, I got really lucky. It was like the biggest deal of my life when I got that. Then I went out to Sundance and it got bought by European television stations, because in Europe they were showing short films. But Ice Cream started getting known, and that’s a good question, because Ice Cream ended up being what got me the Conan show job. Because when Conan was trolling for writers, I got asked about because I had a good reputation as a stand up, but the stand up only got me in the door. They said, “Do you have any material for writing?” and I gave them Ice Cream and said that this was the film I made. It wasn’t TV writing and it was certainly not late night writing. The other guys who got jobs there submitted jokes and little pieces for desk bits, but I gave them Ice Cream, and they said, “Well, if he can do that and he’s funny on stage, there’s probably a shot that he’ll contribute here.”
Louis, just to show you the difference between the era when you made that film and now, I just looked up Ice Cream on You Tube and I’m watching it right now.
Louis C.K: I know. Exactly. That’s the way things are now. Now it’s just sitting on You Tube for anybody to watch. It’s funny to watch it now because the tone of it is not something that’s supported by today’s You Tube world. What short films on You Tube have become, and little bits and the stuff that people enjoy watching, Ice Cream is a slow paced, kind of really deadpan, dry as a bone, strange little film. It’s been on You Tube now for a few years, almost since You Tube started. I think something like 9,000 people have watched it. My dog fighting with the sprinkler, I put it on You Tube and three days later it had three million hits.
Last question is, after Lucky Louie ended, did you immediately launch your own package to another TV … or did you want to wait it out? How long was it from the time Lucky Louie ended to the conception of Louie? How much time had passed …?
Louis C.K: Well, I kind of had already hit a good rhythm in my career where—the great thing about stand up is that it saves my life every time I have a failure, or the end of something. I never look at Lucky Louie as a failure, I look at it as the end of something that was fun. It just stopped. But I went back on the road. I finished shooting Lucky Louie, all the episodes, in March, and we didn’t go on the air until June, so I had a gap of time there where I didn’t know if I was coming back, where I lived in kind of a void. And having been through a lot of cycles of up and down and up and down, and having kids and having a responsibility to feed them, I knew that I needed to have something ready if it didn’t work out.
So I decided to go on the road and develop an hour of stand up. My thought was, I want to do a special; after this show goes on the air, I want to do an hour special. And the reason for that was, either Lucky Louie is going to get picked up and I’ll never get to do an hour again because I’ll never be able to devote that much time to being on stage, or Lucky Louie is going down and I need to work. So I went on the road and built an hour. So by the time Lucky Louie went on the air, I was really into my stand up, and when it got cancelled it was a bummer, but I shot my first hour special, called, Shameless for HBO about two months after Lucky Louie got cancelled.
Before HBO, by the way, which is why I never think of them as having taken something from me, is they took away the series and gave me a special, and Shameless changed my life. It really changed what I do on stage, and it also gave me the ability to tour in theaters. The next time I went on the road I couldn’t do clubs anymore, so I was doing theaters because I had such a large audience. So I was happy when Lucky Louie got cancelled to forget TV for a while and I went on the road for a good three years and did three specials in those three years. I toured in Europe, toured in Canada, everywhere that people speak English; Sweden. And I got enough of a reputation on the road that I was getting paid enough.
It really led to television in a funny way because I make more on the road now than I make on TV. In the whole 13 episodes of Louie, I get paid less personally than I will in the fall tour I’m about to do, from September to December. That gives me the freedom to do what I really want to do.
So after three years of doing that touring, I went to Hollywood, because a lot of people wanted me to do a show, because I was doing well. And I was able to turn down stuff that was lucrative, and instead do this job, which doesn’t pay much, but it’s the greatest job I ever had. And I was also able to be kind of a ballsy jerk about how I negotiated it. I said, “I won’t show you anything. You have to just wait until I’m finished with the shows.” That was a very reckless thing to do, and they could have said no, but if they had I would have just gone back to the road. But they said yes, so here I am.