Louis C.K. is one of the most honest and respected comedic voices of his generation, was recently named the world’s greatest comedian by Entertainment Weekly, and has amassed a huge following of fans who enjoy his hilarious stand-up and his FX comedy series Louie, for which he serves as show creator, executive producer, writer, director, editor and star. Along with the show kicking off Season 3, Louis is going to launch a 39-city tour of his stand-up in October, with tickets all priced at $45 and available for purchase through www.LouieCK.net.
During a recent interview to promote the return of his popular comedy series, Louis C.K. talked about the challenges of juggling everything that he does, the guest stars that he’s excited about this season, how FX really leaves him alone to make the show that he wants, his motivation for selling tickets for his stand-up tour directly through his website, what it’s like to be recognized more often now, and what he typically likes to watch when he has the time. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
LOUIS C.K.: Well, stand-up wise, I think it’s just time spent on stage. I had been doing it for about 20 years, when I figured it out. That’s just how long it takes. Also, you grow up. I have kids now, and that puts real, actual-life pressure on you, rather than just some guy kicking around with a show business career. There’s not much to draw from there. So, I think that made a difference.
What were some of the technical things you’ve forced yourself to work on, over the years?
LOUIS: Technically, I’ve learned that having good legs and wind is good for being on stage. You have to be in shape and have endurance. I just learned some things. Chris Rock taught me to always look up. You don’t look down at your feet. A lot of comedians want to look down at their feet, but you break contact with the audience. So, he told me just a really simple fact of the whole thing, which is to look at the back of the room. Don’t look at the front row; look at the back row.
You make an effort to put a lot of younger comics on your show, especially ones from New York, and last year, in Chicago, you had a couple of sold-out shows with some of the older comics who influenced you when you were starting. Why is it important for you to do stuff like that?
LOUIS: Well, I do love standup. I love comedians. They’re my community. Also, because I know so many of them, I know the value of them. I know what they can do. Comedians work great as actors because they’re good under pressure. With a lot of actors, you have to make them feel like everything’s going really well to get a good performance out of them. But, if you have a comedian on the set, you can tell them, “Hey, you really are screwing this up,” and then they just get better. So, they’re valuable, that way. And I loved bringing Steven Wright and Richard Lewis to my show in Chicago. That was really fun to do. They paid me a lot for the show, so I figured, “I don’t need all this money. I’d rather have a great, great bunch of opening acts.”
How did this show initially come to be?
LOUIS: Well, I was doing just my stand-up, and I was in L.A. and taking some meetings about doing a TV show, and FX approached me about doing a show cheaply and with a lot of freedom. So, we tried the pilot that way. I told them that, if they could just give me the money and let me try to do the pilot my way, it would be worth it. So, they gave me a very small amount of money, and I made a show with it that they liked. That was it. That was the model we’ve been working on, since then.
LOUIS: Well, I love doing all of it. It’s all stuff that I really enjoy. It is really hard, but it’s not too hard to do. I like it. I like being full, every day, with stuff that I have to do. Also, I’ve learned about management of time and brain. It’s just something you’ve got to get good at it. You have to be able to do a bunch of things at once, and not think about things you’re not doing while you’re doing other things. You have to be disciplined about not trying to do everything, all at the same time. It’s hard and fun.
Are there any guest stars that you’re excited about this season?
LOUIS: I got a lot of great people this year. I won’t tell you all of them, but Melissa Leo is in the second episode. F. Murray Abraham comes back. He’s one of my favorite guys, ever. Robin Williams does a thing on the show, later in the season. Jerry Seinfeld is on the show. There are a lot of guest stars that are piling up, and I’m excited about it.
Since she’s not known for doing comedic roles, how did Melissa Leo get cast on the show?
LOUIS: I love Melissa Leo, very much, as an actor, so she was in my head. When I wrote the thing that she’s in, I wrote it, in my head, for the kind of women I knew in Boston, growing up, and then it just hit me that Melissa Leo would be amazing. It was very simple. We sent it to her reps and, in a few days, she said yes. She just really responded to the material, and she showed up and took it very seriously. She really approached it the way I wanted her to, as an actress. On my show, there’s not really a comedy muscle you have to use. We play most of the scenes real and straight for comedy. Our eyebrows don’t all go up, like they do on most sitcoms. SO, somebody like her is perfect for my show.
And she didn’t have any hesitation about the material itself? Was that all scripted, or was some of it improvised?
LOUIS: It was all strictly scripted. We don’t really improvise on my show. I guess, if she would’ve had any problems, she wouldn’t have shown up. It was hard for her to get to our set. She was shooting something in New Orleans, so we flew her in for a quick two days, and we had to jam everything in. But, that’s how much she wanted it. She really wanted to do it.
LOUIS: Well, you can’t show sex and you can’t show people’s parts, and there are words you can’t say, but you can discuss things. You can discuss sexual acts with somebody, and negotiate about them. The people at FX that do standards and practices are very smart, and I trust them. I never argue with them. When they tell me that it’s too far, I believe them. They don’t act as an authority. They act as a safeguard for me because I will do whatever, but they try to keep me within that place. On basic cable, it’s not an FCC thing. It’s about where they’re going to get their phone calls from and who’s going to bug them. Also, my show has more of a fan base now. With the first season, more people probably sampled it and then went, “That’s not for me.” Most people watching it now know what they’re going to get.
Is FX really hands-off with the content you have on the show?
LOUIS: Oh, yeah. I get nice emails from them. They’re really nice people. The FX people are my friends now. I get nice emails from John Landgraf or Eric Schrier or John Solberg that say, “Happy Father’s Day. Hope your kids are good.” That’s my contact with FX. Occasionally, they’re curious about how the show is going, but we stay away from each other, mostly. We live 3,000 miles apart. If the FX executives come to town, I always invite them to the set. I’m not afraid of them. But, I think they enjoy that they get to be viewers of the show. It can be very tedious, as a network executive, to get a script pitched to you as an idea, and then you read it, and then you read a second and third draft, and then you watch a run-through and a rehearsal, and then you see dailies. By the time it’s cut together, there’s no enjoyment in it. But, these guys get to be the first people to watch my show, and they have no idea what they’re going to see. As long as I’m doing good shows, I’m going to keep that. If I turn in four stinkers next season, they’re going to come calling. I’m aware of that.
What can you say about what Jerry Seinfeld will be doing on the show? Will he be playing himself?
LOUIS: Jerry is in the 10th, 11th and 12th episodes of this season, which are going to be a whole story of their own. It’s going to basically be a three-part story, and it’s what we put the most effort into. I don’t want to say anything about any of it because it’s got a lot of guest stars, and a lot happens. It’s a big turn for the character, and it’s a cool, fun story. I just don’t want to talk about it. But, Jerry did a part in that, and what he did was very different than what you’re used to seeing Jerry do. He turned in a really, really great performance. I was really happy.
LOUIS: I think you just have to be new, all the time, and different. You can’t do the same thing, all the time.
This season, you have scenes with your ex-wife (played by Susan Kelechi Watson), who was a silent character in the past. What led to the choice to bring her into the show now?
LOUIS: Well, the show needs to keep going, so I’m introducing new elements, each year. I try to do something new that’s new to the show. The stories that I wrote really led me to her. The show has really broken off into fiction, much more in the last year and this year, so it’s really not drawing from my life so much anymore. This ex-wife character is completely nothing like my real ex-wife. When I was drawing from my own life, I didn’t want to have the story be about an ex-husband and ex-wife. That relationship wasn’t what I wanted to write about. But, I arrived at a version of it, for this character, that I thought was really good. This woman is well put-together and an added pressure to his life. And the actress was so good. A lot of the stuff that we do on the show, I’m not sure I’m going to do it until I see who’s playing the role. It’s part of having the freedom, without a network. You don’t have to run all the scripts and casting by people. I wrote a script with her in it and I had the casting people go look for someone, and I told them to open it way up and just bring in anybody. I really liked what this woman did, so I decided to stick with the character.
Will Robert Kelly be returning as your brother?
LOUIS: Robert is not in any of Season 3, but I always think about bringing him back, so maybe in Season 4.
There’s a romantic wistfulness about this season and a sense that you’re ready to reclaim your family and have peace. Do you feel that’s the case?
LOUIS: That’s a really good observation. That’s what I felt like, writing this season. I wanted to ry to take a little bit bigger swings at being with somebody. I never have a defining sense of it exactly, but I’d say that that’s definitely true of this year, and it gets to be more so. It’s more about family, and missing being in a family and being in a relationship, and that kind of stuff.
With all the critical praise that’s being heaped on you and your show, are you still able to stay out of your comfort zone and stay hungry, in terms of your comedy and the show?
LOUIS: Well, yes, and one way I do that is to make it harder. This season was a lot harder than last season. It’s just that the production was more difficult, and I did more things that I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull off. So, I always keep the bar ahead of myself, and keep moving it up. That’s the intention, anyway. I don’t know if I pull that off. But, if you’re doing something that gets really easy, you have to make it harder because then that’ll be easy, if you do it right.
For your upcoming stand-up tour, you’re selling tickets directly through your website. How difficult was that to pull off, what was involved, and what was your motivation for going that route?
LOUIS: It was really hard, but it was really fun. I’m a very curious person, so whenever I get into a new facet of what I do, I like to learn about it. And then, when I learn about it, I start asking questions like, “Why does it have to be this way?” So, as I’ve toured, over the last couple of years, in the big theaters and found out how it works, and I get angry emails from fans about how much they’re paying that’s not even part of the ticket price, and I start to understand the economics of promotion and ticket sales, I got really curious about whether I could do what we did with Live at the Beacon on the Road. So, my agent, Mike Berkowitz, and I started to go around the country, and it was a lot of work. But, something I learned from doing Louie is that, whenever we’re going to do something that’s really difficult, we do it much later in the season and we just spend a lot of deliberate, careful time preparing it. So, in this case, with the theaters, we had to go to every city and, any city that we couldn’t play the usual venue because of how the ticket companies have it set up – they have these places locked down or they own a lot of them – we had to find places that were willing to do it our way. It was a risk because, if that didn’t work out, it was just going to be this pile of tickets sitting there that nobody wanted. But, in this case, it worked. As of today, we’ve sold 92,000 tickets and the tour has grossed $4.1 million. That’s not all money that I get, but that’s how much is in our box office. We’ve sold out 20 shows now, and added the show in about 10 cities. So, it worked. It’s really fun, when you do something like that and it works. It’s worth the hard work.
LOUIS: Not really. I always think its’ boring when comedians start getting TV and movie jobs, and then they talk about being on sets and movies, and stuff. I think that there’s something disappointing about that. It would be like a novelist writing a novel and, in one of the chapters, he says, “Oh, I did a book reading at Barnes & Noble, the other day.” You don’t want to hear that. You want to hear stories. You want to be told stories. When I’m on the set, I’m telling stories that way, and on stage, I’m telling stories that way. On the show, I play a comedian, so the stories can be about comedy, but that’s different.
You’ve said that the show has a bit more fiction in it this season, but in the past, how has your family felt about the inspiration that they’ve had on your show?
LOUIS: Well, my daughters have seen parts of the show. The pilot episode had a whole disaster on a school bus that came from a jumping-off point of a real thing that happened with my daughter, so she enjoyed watching that. This isn’t on HBO, so there are some scenes my kids can watch. But, the kids on my show are vastly different than my kids, in real life. They’re really not even close, as characters, so it’s just a different life. There isn’t so much of a parallel anymore.
LOUIS: Well, I guess as long as those tools are out there, I’ll keep trying to use them. Right now, I’m doing stand-up and I’m doing this show, so that’s a lot. Next time I try something, I’ll probably keep trying to find ways of doing it.
Having handled everything yourself previously, was it hard to give up that total control and bring on an editor?
LOUIS: It’s been pretty great, working with Susan [Morse]. The editing was the one thing that was really starting to suffer with my overload. I feel like I was turning in episodes that could’ve been cut better, towards the middle of last season. There’s a part of the season where I’m shooting and cutting, at the same time, and that’s really difficult. So this year, I spaced everything out. I wrote all the shows ahead of time, which I hadn’t done before. I tried to make three sections of production. And, Susan is a great editor. She edited all these Woody Allen movies that I loved. So, to me, if I could get somebody who could improve what I do and bring a new perspective, that was the goal and she’s done that. She cuts differently than I do. I’m still editing. I’m still in there with her, and I usually do a cut after she does, but she has a great eye.
With your popularity blowing up over the last three years, you’re exposed to a lot more people and you probably have a lot more fans than you did, before the show came on. Have there been any negative consequences from that, or has it all been pretty enjoyable?
LOUIS: Well, it’s like anything else in life, in that it brings a pretty steady ratio of good and bad. That’s most of life. Becoming more well-known has presented some challenges. I get recognized on the street a lot, and it’s awkward to eat alone in a restaurant because everybody’s looking at me, and they know who I am, sometimes. But, there are some times where nobody knows who I am. It’s like anything else. I just have to think about how to deal with it. How do I cope with being recognized and being asked to take pictures and all of that stuff that’s new to me? I’m used to it now. It’s no big deal. It’s just part of the job.
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of the show is the way that the story is told. Some episodes feature multiple stories, while others tell a single story that spreads across an entire episode. When you begin writing an episode, are you aware of whether you’ll be writing one or multiple stories, or does that decision formulate as you’re further along in the writing process?
LOUIS: The whole reason the show has worked for me, as a format, is that I don’t have a formula. It’s crazy to think that every story you ever tell should take exactly 22 minutes to tell. Imagine telling somebody a story of a great, funny thing that happened in your life, and then you’re done with the details and you look at your watch and go, “Shit, I gotta keep talking about this for 22 minutes. I’ve gotta introduce other people.” Whenever you’re watching something on television that was created because it was necessary and they needed it, it’s not fun to watch. So, when I start writing a story, I’m shooting it if it’s good, whether it’s just the one scene, or it sprawls and just keep going. I’ll shoot all of that as thirteen 22-minute segments and just put the pieces in wherever they fit. This year is unique because there’s more than one story that took more than one episode to tell. That’s new for this show. There’s still a lot of short stories and two-story episodes. I also like that, when people are watching the show, they don’t know how long they’re going to be told a story for. I think that makes it exciting and it makes it more compelling. Whenever you give people a show where their brain knows what the pattern is going to be, the brain sets itself. One reason that TV like that has always done well is because there is something comforting, where you know what you’re going to be taken through. But, there’s a smaller group of people, who would rather watch a show where they don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. They don’t know if they’re going to see this character’s face ever again, or if the character might be in the rest of the season. I think it’s more organic that way. Life is built that way. You stick with things that are compelling, and you drift away from things that aren’t.
What other TV shows or comedies do you like?
LOUIS: I love Curb. I haven’t seen it in an awfully long time, but I watched it, early on. And then, I watched it again when J.B. Smoove came on the show because I love him. But, I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, and I don’t usually watch comedy. I usually like to watch dramas or sports. That’s more my thing. I like watching boxing, and I like watching people getting shot and looking angry.