Louis CK: Stand-up to Sitcom

Louis CK: Standup to Sitcom

For a stand-up comedy veteran of 21 years — who has gone on record saying he’d never do a sitcom — Louis C.K. finds himself in the most unlikely of places — on HBO, starring in a sitcom that he created.

By Dylan P. Gadino

At a recent show at Carolines in New York City, it didn’t take long for Louis C.K. to get on the topic of his 4-year-old daughter. She’s an asshole,” he announced, prompting those in the crowd to lose their shit in fits of laughter. As he continued to outline why she’ an asshole — in this story, she refuses to put her shoes on — you can’t help but appreciate C.K.’s commitment to his analysis. He never backs down, he never apologizes, he doesn’t modify his original words once the joke comes to an end. And still, he’s likeable.

Maybe it’s his patchy red hair and how it seems to recede before our eyes. Or maybe it’s how he admits that he has no problem eating a giant ice cream sundae in the driveway minutes before dinner. Maybe it’s the vague stains on the front of his navy blue, long-sleeve henley. In short, C.K. (a phonetic approximation of his last name, Szekely) is a lot like u — well, sort of. He won an Emmy in 1999 for his writing work on The Chris Rock Show and has a writing/directing credit for the 2001 cult favorite Pootie Tang. Yeah, maybe he’s nothing like us at all, actually.

But this ‘just like us’ idea is at the center of the 37-year-old comic’s new HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, premiering June 11, in which C.K. plays an average mechanic struggling to get by financially while trying to maintain decent relationships with his wife, children and less-than-successful friends. Punchline Magazine recently had a chat with the veteran comic from his office in Los Angeles.

How has it been prepping for the show’s premiere?
It’s been really fun. I mean, nothing matters until the show airs and we find out if people like it.

Do you feel a tremendous amount of pressure to make sure people like it?
Well, why wouldn’t I want it to be good?

Right. But are you preoccupied with a great fear of the show failing?
I certainly don’t want it to fail. But all I could look after is making it as good as I can. Yeah, I lose a lot of sleep over the show being good enough, sure.

We’ve been hearing a lot about how Lucky Louie is going to be a nod to the shows of Norman Lear. Maybe a lot like All in the Family.
I definitely like that show and there’s a lot that worked on that show that we’re going back to. I remember feeling like I was watching a show shot in front of an audience and that you could hear people reacting. I think there’s a certain kind of comedy — a performed comedy — that you really need an audience for and today’s multi-camera shows really don’t have that. They’re kind of single-camera shows with a laugh track so you hear laughing but you don’t see the actors really being timed out by an audience. Archie would have to freeze for a full minute or two after all the outrageous shit he was saying. So we’re kinda going back to that.

It’s the way we shot and performed it and wrote it. We definitely take that from All in the Family. We’re also able to say more explosive things and to present more ugly honesty. And that’s something they certainly did. I love those shows. I feel like I have a lot more to learn and gain from shows like that than anything that’s being done right now.

So you have some complaints about contemporary sitcoms?
I really don’t have any complaints. I generally just don’t watch them. I don’t find them that interesting. I’m not compelled to watch them. I really don’t know why to watch them. They’re just kinda executed stories about people I don’t really recognize as real people. None of that makes me laugh, so it’s just not interesting to me. I haven’t watched any kind of show like that for a long time. Cheers I thought was boring.

And I have zero interest in watching shows like Frasier or Friends. They’re fine shows that seem to be done very well but they are not something I want to see. I just don’t care. That doesn’t mean those people made bad shows. It’s just not my taste of humor. It doesn’t make me laugh. It’s people in a very nicely lit set wearing nice clothes saying very well-tailored comedy to each other. It’s just not that compelling to me.

Shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons have historically been considered important programs for television. Do you feel Lucky Louie is an important show?
Gee, I don’t know. I think you could only tell by actually watching it air and seeing what kind of impact it has. I think for me to look at what we shot and say that this is important would be ridiculous. I think important means that it has an impact or makes a difference. That’s something that will happen or won’t happen. But I don’t think I could look at it and say it’s important. It’s important to me I guess. I just want it to be funny more than anything else. That’s the most important thing to me and I think it is that. I mean we had an audience there laughing so I believe they weren’t all insane.

Do you feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that your show is cast with professional funny people as opposed to pretty people trying to act funny?
Definitely. Rick Shapiro is a complete nut, a total misfit. Mike Hagerty is an actor you’ve seen play the guy behind a counter in a bunch of different shows but he was never the second lead of a show. I love it. I think it’s great. We’re definitely the misfits. There’s no one in the world that would’ve given anyone on the show the parts that we have. I would never be the lead in a sitcom. It’s crazy that I’m a lead in a sitcom. And Pam Adlon, who plays my wife, she’s way past her prime. (laughs). And Jim Norton, never. We’re all just ordinary looking people. We don’t even where makeup on the show. I’ve never been touched by a makeup person.

Louis CK and Jim NortonReally?
Well, sometimes in the middle of the show I start to sweat just from working hard and they’ll pat me down and maybe put a little powder on to inhibit the sweating but I don’t wear any makeup and nobody touches my hair. There are days where we shot the show when I didn’t shower that morning.

I just woke up, stumbled to work, rehearsed all day and then shot it. And I wear my own clothes or a facsimile thereof. I’ve actually struggled to wear my clothes but that’s hard because there needs to be continuity and they need to be able to go back to re-shoot stuff so they need to have a reliable source of clothing.

But otherwise, everyone is just themselves and I love that about the show. It’s also shot on videotape instead of film. That’s another thing we took from All in the Family. While a lot of sitcoms started to shoot film, they stayed on tape and it gives a much more live feel to it and the show is more unassuming. If the way you’re shooting the show is artistic, it’s very distancing. If it’s sophisticated it’s not a good thing.

So your show is less slick that the typical sitcom.
Yeah. This is just us saying this shit and this is who we are and that goes all the way to the casting, which is great. These are just ordinary folks. I can’t give a shit about really good-looking people in nice clothes in really big apartments. In order for them to have any predicament that’s funny they need to cook up some weird situation that has no relation to anybody’s life. The people on our show are people that don’t have any money and are sick of each other. So all you have to do is show that. There’s not a lot you need to put on top of that for it to be interesting, for me anyway.

Since most of the cast-members are comedians and are adept at improvisation, was it difficult to stay on script?
We don’t do a lot of improvisation because you have to be consistent and you have to shoot it the same way each time. I mean, people sometimes come up with stuff. But we rehearse the show a shit load of times and run through it before it’s ever shot. A lot of times, things will come up during those times and if they’re good enough we’ll put it in the script. But there’s a lot to shoot in a night. You shoot at least once the way it was written and sometimes for an extra take people may come up with something. But generally people don’t ad lib on the spot. We don’t give people that kind of license.

What kind of topics are you addressing on the show?
A lot of it is about raising kids and being married and not having a lot of money. It’s basically me without the career, an average American without a huge amount of direction in life. And the character is hanging out with the same idiots he went to school with. One of my best friends in the show — Jim Norton — plays a guy who sells pot to high school kids. That’s how he makes his money. For a while after I had graduated high school and before I got a direction and a career I just hung around with other people that didn’t go to college like me. And those were the people that sold pot to the high school kids and worked shitty jobs. So that’s who my friends are in the show.

How much of the show, would you say, is based on reality?
The stuff about the family are things I’m going through now and then other parts I take from different areas of my life. I used to work in a garage fixing cars and that’s what my character does. The other characters are amalgams of different people I’ve hung out with in the past or dealt with in the past. So it’s sort of culled together from different parts of my life.

When did you start filming?
September of last year.

How have your days changed since filming began?
They’re crazily long days. And the weeks are long because we shoot two shows a week; that means two shows of one episode. It’s an ongoing thing. You take a little breather in the morning. It’s not 14-hour days but toward the end of the week it gets to be that. I generally work from like 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It’s pretty punishing. You’ve got to be in shape for it. That’s one thing I’ve learned about this stuff.

You mean you have to be in good physical condition?
Yeah. Before I go into production I try to train and get a better diet and start running. It’ really good. During the best parts of production I was riding my bicycle to work every day. That really kept me well balanced. It’s stamina. What kills a lot of people in this business is not being able to get through the grind or if you do get through it you start doing a shitty job because you’re tired.

I never thought about it like that, like you have to be physically prepped to do these things. It’s definitely something that takes you down if you’re not in shape. You start feeling it and you start getting tired and you start making concessions to make your days easier and it really fucks things up.

How long of a bike ride is it to work?
It’s 11 miles from my house to the studio so about an hour to get there. Getting home is a little quicker because it’s more downhill. It’s like 45 minutes. It feels good.

In a 2000 Variety article, you said that you would never do a sitcom. What changed?
I guess the stuff I do on stage got closer to things that made sense for TV. I talk about being in a family now. So I was acting shit out on stage doing stand-up anyway. And I also wrote this thing. So it’s more that I wrote something that I could deliver. I could never go and be in someone else’s show. I don’t think I could ever do that. But this is all the same shit that I do on stage. It’s the same muscle so it feels natural to me. Also, there’s an audience. In order to act, you have to audition. You have to go in a room and act in front of a few people.

I couldn’t do stand-up that way. If somebody asked me to go into a room with five people and do stand-up, I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even try. I would just say, “Whatever the job is, I don’t want it. It’s impossible. So to me, I’m not acting; I’m just playing to an audience. I’m doing comedy for an audience. And that’s second nature to me because I’ve been doing it for 21 years now. So it’s a no-brainer to me. But I could never act in a movie or in a TV show that doesn’t have an audience where I’m not doing jokes that I know and that I wrote. I need all of that to make it work.

How has your stand-up act changed over the last 21 years?
I definitely used to just string together a lot of funny ideas and just think of funny, weird shit. I think as I went along I started to observe life more and do more things that I was thinking about, things that had more meaning to me. And when I had kids and got married I started to talk about that a lot because that was on my mind. I started to do more about what’s on my mind and what I find interesting and funny instead of trying to be funny and thinking of weird shit I could talk about. Like oh, here’s a joke I could do about this

I also I tried to think more about being a good performer and being a good stand-up. Like I used to just get up. there and tell my jokes but now I take stand-up very seriously. I didn’t used to when I was younger. Then I watched guys like Pryor to see how they nailed their specials and see how they came across on stage. I approach it much more as an art than I used to and I take it much more seriously. I also watch myself. I used to hate watching tapes and stuff but now I analyze the shit out of myself. I used to be able to talk to someone about baseball or whatever until the second I go on stage. I just didn’t need preparation.

But now I force myself to sit down and think about what I’m going to do for a while and stew about it. Like if I’m driving to a gig I won’t listen to the radio in the car. It makes a difference. I think a lot of comedians, including myself in the past, are kinda lazy and think that you’re supposed to be loose and cool. But it’s such a hard thing to get good at. So why wouldn’t you fucking really try hard. So that’s what I do now.

Do you have a ritual? Or do you literally sit backstage in complete silence before a show?
Sometimes I do that. I try not to talk to people before I go on stage. Sometimes I’ll sit in the back of the club while the other comedians are on. But I’m not watching him; I’m watching the crowd and feeling the room. I get antsy. I don’t like waiting to go on stage. I get very anxious and it’s just uncomfortable. I learned that it’s important to seize on that instead of running away from it. So I stay in the back and bottle up the energy so that when I go on stage I’m more connected.

You’ve been known to call your four-year-old daughter an asshole on stage and rant about your wife for being a pain in the ass. Do you ever get shit for talking so meanly about your family?
Not really. I don’t say anything I don’t really mean on some level. A lot of people who I think are not going to like it, like nice soccer moms and middle Americans, they really like it. It’s a release for them. Usually people that curse and are nasty and brutally honest are people that are sort of living New York City or LA type lifestyles. But I’m talking about stuff that is very relatable to regular people. My favorite places to do that stuff are like Pittsburgh or Peoria. Those people don’t live any type of lifestyle like me but they have universal issues, like that it’s really hard to raise kids and hang in there. So we relate to each other that way.

You also have a one-year-old daughter. How long until you start laying into her on stage?
Well, I don’t know. It depends what kind of a person she is. We’ll see what she’s like. I don’t know anything about her yet since she’s just a baby. There’s nothing to say there. We’ll see.

She’s just a blob at this point.Yeah, I mean she’s great but nothing happens. I just take care of her.

You’re not the type of comic who says things purely for shock value. But you certainly never shy away from things typically thought of as taboo. Is there anything that you wouldn’t joke about?
Geez. I don’t know. I mean there are things I find boring. I hate current events humor. I just hate it. I just find that fucking tedious because that’s just everywhere. I think there’s so much of that out there on the late night shows. Something happens out there in the world and there’s this feeding frenzy of mediocre jokes and people kinda appreciate them because they know it must have been done last minute. It’s kind of a trick you’re pulling by saying, “Hey, I just thought of this and you know it just happened.”

But I just don’t care. I just don’t give a shit. Like the war– I think there’s a lot to say about that stuff that’s funny but I don’t touch it. It’s just not what I do. And popular culture shit like Paris Hilton and that kind of stuff I hate. I find it really boring and if I see a comedian doing it I just zone out. I’m just not interested.

Yeah, I feel like it’s a sign of laziness. It’s a quick way for a comic to get the audience on his side without really constructing a proper joke.
Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of comedians on the road who basically think they’re doing their own Tonight Show monologue. They use the word “apparently” a lot and other monologuey words. Like “apparently Paris Hilton said.” That joke construction is just fucking tedious and I personally think it’s as bad as doing a joke book on stage. I just don’t think it’s very fair to the audience because you could get that elsewhere. I guess I like stuff that’s more personal. You should be giving the audience something that no one else can. If they’re coming to see something live, they should get something they can’t see on television.

I like listening to someone either talking about their real life or telling someone their real thoughts that are funny or original or shocking or real perverted– like real fucked up notions that someone has. I think all of that kind of thing is interesting. But just making a joke about something that happened on Extra or whatever, Pee- fucking-U. It’s the lowest form of comedy to me. I had to do it when I worked on talk shows. You have to read the paper every morning and see what’s going on. I hate that shit. I don’t find that interesting. I even find it offensive. But I don’t find any other subject offensive.

Personally, I think if you’re a comedian you can say whatever you want. That’s just my feeling. But you have to take responsibility that other people listen to your words and if they don’t find it funny — if they’re tone deaf to your humor — they’re going to get offended by it. Generally, that’s the way it works. And that does happen. That’s the way it goes.

Was your family supportive about you getting into stand-up?
I think they always were. I was always going to do something different. I don’t think anybody had any hope of me having a regular career. I think my mom got irritated at one point because she had to come and give me rides a lot but mostly they’ve always been supportive. I did a lot of drugs in junior high, like a shocking amount. And I was in trouble and going to jail a lot. So whenever I had any sort of clean pursuit they were just thrilled. I set the bar pretty low.

You were in jail multiple times?
Yeah, just for dumb shit. Just stupid fucking little things. I fucked around and did a lot of dumb things when I was a kid. But it’s good I got it out of my system because there are drugs and drinking and stuff in comedy and I never was interested. I was only interested in doing the comedy because I had that shit out of my system. I mean it would’ve been a waste of time getting high instead of doing stand-up.

That’s a good message for the kids.

Louis CKFor more info, visit www.louisck.com.

Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor emeritus of Laughspin.

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