Louis C.K. has been a major success story in comedy. Not only a respected standup, his FX show “Louie” continues in its third season, and his self-released comedy central became an instant hit with direct downloads.
Meeting with the Television Critics Association, C.K. shared his wisdom, in great detail with some cases of catastrophes that taught him profound lessons.
CraveOnline: What themes did you deal with in the third season?
Louis C.K.: The ones this year, my kids are getting more complicated. They’re older so I’m getting into a more combative relationship with them a little bit and that I think is going to be a big part of it. It’s easier for a parent when you’re in total control, but when your kids become energetic adversaries, I think this year that’ll be the big change. To me that’s sort of the theme.
CraveOnline: FX took a big risk with you. What do you think of the Charlie Sheen risk?
Louis C.K.: I don't know. I don’t pay enough attention. So far everything they’ve done has been great. They’re such smart folks. Putting “Wilfred” in front of the show was a huge boost last year. They get these great movies, they seem to know what they’re doing so I don’t question them.
CraveOnline: What did you learn about the failure of “Lucky Louie?”
Louis C.K.: Well, I did a lot of things to try to keep that show on the air that I didn’t think were good for the show. I wanted this very natural dialogue and I wanted the show to not have this sitcom arc. There’s an arc to sitcoms. There’s a pattern that they all fit. We were hitting that pattern and I thought that was a mistake. I thought the show should have a jarring non-sitcom non-pattern to it.
Mike Leigh, you know the English filmmaker, he made these TV plays that weren’t sitcoms. They were multi-camera dramas which doesn’t exist here, but they do it in England or they used to. I watched one of them and I thought, “F***, I want to do that, a show that just feels really strange and different.” We didn’t do any of that because we were trying to protect the show and keep it on the air.
And of course nobody was interested in another version of the pattern, so it went away. It just wasn’t of any consequence. Some people loved “Lucky Louie” and I’m happy for that and we had some moments that I’m really proud of. I’m proud of that season of TV but we could’ve really been something new.
CraveOnline: Was the studio audience format a problem too?
Louis C.K.: No, I think that was worth trying. I liked it. We performed in front of an audience. It’s just different. Single camera is a film and you get your laughs from your cutting and how long you keep each shot and the way you act in an actory way. Multi-camera is about performing in front of an audience and having it feel like live switching. It’s just different so I liked it. I thought it was smart to do it that way.
CraveOnline: How do you feel when you step out on stage and feel the love from the audience?
Louis C.K.: Well, when I go on tour it’s like that. This year I did the Sony Center in Toronto, two shows, and they sold out in about an hour. They put them on sale and then sold out really fast. Then I go there and people go nuts. It’s something you have to handle actually because it’s weird. It’s a bunch of strangers whooping and hollering.
That’s not normal for a human being and there’s part of you that knows this isn’t good for me, this is bad for my soul somewhere so I have to protect against it a little bit. It’s because I know how to do 90 minutes on stage. You can’t get around that. There have been guys who have tried to tour and do stuff and do standup who have a TV audience, but if you can’t do 90 minutes or an hour at least, they’re not going to keep coming back. That’s my main job, the standup. I earned that.
CraveOnline: If your special had not done so well and been downloaded 1 million times, did you have a backup plan?
Louis C.K.: Well, I had so many options. I could sell it to a network, Comedy Central or somebody. So it was a no lose thing and I kind of knew it would work, but Netflix, Comedy Central, everybody would’ve taken it.
CraveOnline: Do you think the success of your special will encourage other performers to follow, and is that the future to put things on the internet?
Louis C.K.: I think it’s one of them. I think there’s always a sense of when something works, everybody goes, “That’s how you do it now.” But still, putting something on HBO is still successful. It depends on what you want. The good thing with my special was it made about a million bucks in 10 days.
Other things have made a million bucks in 10 days. The big difference is that that’s literally in my pocket immediately. That part doesn’t happen. I’ve had other specials and I don’t even know how much they made. The fact that I was getting each $5 bill one at a time directly into my bank account, that’s a really interesting model for selling stuff so I’m sure other people will try it.
CraveOnline: What did you do with that money?
Louis C.K.: I gave $280,000 to charity and I gave $250,000 to my crew, people that work for me because they also work for the show. Then I replenished the 250 I spent on the special and I kept the rest. I still have some. It still makes money.
CraveOnline: In return for control, what do you give up when you do that?
Louis C.K.: Well, you give up some of the trappings that people really want, like feeling like a star, like getting a trailer and being on a big network, having your name on a bus and a huge budget. Just a kind of personal wealth that you get from big network shows that come with all of this scrutiny.
CraveOnline: Is that why not everyone has followed your lead?
Louis C.K.: It is because our show is really cheap. Our show is extremely cheap and so the risk was very low for them. If the show didn’t work, they didn’t lose that much money. But I don’t need it. Also I make money on the road and I do pretty well.
CraveOnline: I love the episode where you see the bum get killed and it actually boosts your confidence. Are you dealing with any more mortality themes?
Louis C.K.: Yeah, people die in this episode definitely. I think one reason I like killing people on the show, I think it’s because when you have a TV show or you’re making movies and stuff, you have power to change reality within the show. So I get to kill people. I get to decide who lives or dies. I don't think this is good. I think it’s saying something bad about me.
CraveOnline: Do you have any tips on how to be funny?
Louis C.K.: No, I think you have to have it in you. There is a way to manufacture funny. You can study. There is a science and a math to humor. If you study it, you can pattern it, but it’ll only get you so far. If you just have an innate humor about you then that’s where you can succeed.
CraveOnline: Are your daughters funny?
Louis C.K.: My kids? Yeah, they are. They make me laugh all the time. They’re just funny people. They’re just crazy. The youngest one especially, she makes me laugh all the time. She performs and does weird voices. She screws around a lot.
CraveOnline: How does she feel about being fodder for your comedy?
Louis C.K.: They watch bits of the show. Some of it is appropriate for kids, and they laugh because I’m very patient as a dad. We have a very peaceful, good thing going so it’s nothing like this. When they see these two brats and I’m yelling at them, they just think it’s hilarious because they know that’s not me.
CraveOnline: Who watches “Louie?”
Louis C.K.: A lot of different people. When I go on the road, I always look out at the audience. That’s my best guess ever. Besides I get e-mails from people and stuff, it’s a really wide range. I know young kids like it but there’s a lot of old ladies who like my show. I get stopped on the street in New York by old ladies all the time, “I love ya’ show.” They just go, “Oh my God, what’s he doing?” I think they like seeing a young man making bad choices, it kind of tugs at their heart.
CraveOnline: Do they expose themselves to you?
Louis C.K.: They don’t usually. That was more of a fantasy.
CraveOnline: Is putting the standup in the show important for keeping it honest?
Louis C.K.: Yeah, because the standup in the show is not my best standup usually. Like if I have an awkward sweaty moment, I shoot like three or four shows at the Comedy Cellar for the show. I even tell the audiences when they’re excited to be there, I tell them before we shoot, “Cool it down. Make me earn it.”
A lot of guys would like to see everybody watching them kill in front of an audience that loves them, but if you’re watching at home you’re kind of left out of that. So I think it’s more fun to watch me kind of struggle and try new things on stage. That’s the real experience of a comic.
CraveOnline: How do you get your confidence?
Louis C.K.: Well, I’m doing pretty good. Also, it’s not just from succeeding. It’s really from surviving failures. When you succeed, you get a false confidence. You get a bravado, like, “I did this thing and it worked.” Well, one of the reason it worked was luck and the right circumstances and other people making their decisions. So when you go through horrible and difficult things and you come out of it okay, that gives you confidence because you know you can’t be beat.
CraveOnline: Pootie Tang has gotten a cult following. How do you look back on that film?
Louis C.K.: It was a tragedy to me. It was a very huge mistake. Never should have been made. I'm glad people enjoy it. I'm glad for them that they're enjoying it, but I got a little scar tissue still from that experience. It was very painful.
I got kicked off the movie. I didn't do a good job to begin with. I would feel really good if I had been making a great movie and then they kicked me off. But I was sucking at making the movie, and they rightfully fired me. And then it came out with my name on it, but it was a great learning experience.
That was a good example of being in a very bad place and enjoying it. I was sitting in a chair, much like this one, in John Goldwyn's office in Paramount, and he was screaming at me. His face was really red, and I was sitting there going, wow, I'm really a movie guy now, in show business, being yelled at by a studio head. It was a thrill.
CraveOnline: You say you didn’t do a very good job of that, so how did you get good enough to make this show work?
Louis C.K.: I think it was the education I got. I think that a failing at Pootie Tang is why this show is good. It's one of the reasons. It's that and just an army of failures that have wrecked my life, made me good at this because they didn't wreck it. Here's the thing. You do something, and that was the worst thing that could have happened to me.
I got to make a movie finally, which was my dream, and it was terrible, and then it got made even more terrible, and then it came out, and I was just hated. I mean, the first time I was known by a lot of people was because I made a bad movie. I remember watching Roger Ebert say, I grew up watching Roger Ebert doing movie criticism, and he said, "I can't even say this is a bad movie, because it's not even complete. It's incomplete. It's not even a movie."
It was the worst. I think it's probably the worst review he ever gave to a movie. And I'm sitting there reeling. The pain you feel from an experience like that is profound. But the great thing is that after maybe a week, it just goes away, and all you're left with is the forensic evidence of all the mistakes you made and all of the rocks that you've kind of crashed into, and you're left with this beautiful map of where all the dangers are, and you repair all the holes, and then you're so much better.
And so, I've had a ton of experiences like that. "Lucky Louie." That's a show that came and then f***ing died a miserable death. But I produced a series of television that was on TV for a whole season and then was hated and then cancelled. The information that you gain from a thing like that is unbelievably valuable.