Louis C.K. is the best comedian in the world right now. His honesty, sense of observation, and willingness to embrace any topic fearlessly makes him a weird blend of subversive and mainstream that simply works. His new FX show Louie debuts tonight and they’ll be playing two half hour episodes this week, the pilot and Poker/Divorce. The pilot is more raw, a little more experimental, but not without its charms. The first true episode is drop dead funny and a perfect distillation of what makes Louis so great. A little stand up, some fun stuff with other comedians, and little vignettes and films to balance it all out.
I’ve seen the first four episodes and couldn’t be more happy and excited that we’ve got a nice no-holds barred comedy from one of the really special talents out there. I had a chance to participate in a conference call with the man on the eve of the debut of his new show and the man behind the scenes is just as intriguing and sharp.
Nick Nunziata: 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.
Nick Nunziata: 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.
Nick Nunziata: 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.
Nick Nunziata: 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.”
Since it was a conference call and we had limited time (and some folks wasted it on assy questions), I figured I’d include some more gold from the man.
On the differences between this show and Lucky Louie:
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.
On working for FX:
Louis C.K.: Yes, they’re pretty amazing. It 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.
On the importance of making a New York show…
Louis C.K.: 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.
On being told what’s taboo:
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 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 fuck, you can’t say cunt, 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 cocks in your mouth and laughing.” And I said, “Really? Cocks in the mouth, that’s out?” And she said, “Well, it depends on the context.” I said, “What if I said something about cocks in Hitler’s mouth?” She said, “Maybe. We haven’t had anybody on this network say cock 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 cock looks like a dog was sucking it off, and then he started chewing it because he thought it was a bloody cum 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 nigger and the word faggot, 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, nigger” 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.
And that is why he’s the best and that’s why you need to watch this show LIVE on Tuesdays on FX because it’s as close to taking a stand as many of us will ever do. Check out the official site and tune in tonight.
And it’s fucking hilarious.