Interview: Louis C.K. Talks About His New Show on FX

Louis CK

If you’re a fan of raunchy stand-up comedy, then you’re familiar with the name Louis C.K. What you may not know is that he has a new show, Louie beginning tomorrow on FX. I had the opportunity to sit down with the comic and the get the skinny on the new show. Of course the first question on everyone’s mind was, what exactly is Louie?

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.

It was interesting to hear how he felt this FX show compared to his old show on HBO, Lucky Louie.

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.

One thing I was wondering after hearing that was how long was it between the end of Lucky Louie and the conception of Louie.

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 canceled it was a bummer, but I shot my first hour special, called, Shameless for HBO about two months after Lucky Louie got canceled.

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 canceled 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.

He also had some things to say about the way FX handles production of the show.

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.

Of course, there are many differences between FX and HBO in terms of the things you can say or do, so I was wondering how that effected the production of Louie.

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 …, 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.

This show, much like FX’s other NYC based show Rescue Me, puts a lot of emphasis on the city itself with C.K. did have some feelings about.

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.

One of the amazing things about the show is that Louie is the only writer, which as I learned, was a creative choice from the start.

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.

The last thing that needed to be addressed was all the other wonderful comedic talent that the show features.

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.

And there you have it, seems like Louie is shaping up to be one heck of a comedy. I have had the pleasure of seeing the first four episodes of the series and it is definitely a Louis CK show. I only hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

Louie premieres on FX this Tuesday at 11pm.

To hear excerpts from the Louis CK interview on the Idiot Boxers podcast, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.

From a young age, TV guru Merrill Barr has been obsessed with the small screen. And one day he decided to put that obsession to good use.

Read More from Merrill Barr
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