Louis CK: Comedy legend in the making

Over the last few years, its become clear that Louis C.K. is fast on his way to owning legendary stand-up comedian status. Sharper and funnier than ever, C.K. premieres his new hour-long special, Chewed Up on Showtime this weekend.

When his HBO One Night Stand aired in 2005, Louis C.K. was one of the most well-respected, nationally headlining stand-up comedians— not a bad place to be. In less than three years, the 41-year-old has become something of a major comedy star in the eyes of the masses, not just hardcore comedy fans.

He spent a year writing and playing the title character on HBO’s Lucky Louie, filming another special – this one, a full hour – for the network called Shameless and began touring not only bigger clubs but also began selling out theaters. He’s currently in the midst of yet another national tour (this one dubbed Hilarious) wherein he’s performing all new material; that is, you’ll see no overlap with C.K.’s new hour-long special, Chewed Up, which premieres on Showtime Oct. 4.

The contents of Chewed Up are what C.K.’s fans have come to expect from him: soul-baring honesty, an incredible knack for getting the audience on his side despite his major character flaws and a Carlin-esque surgical strike on the English language (see first video clip below). Perhaps most compelling about C.K., however, is what he represents to middle class Americans: He’s a normal looking guy in a black t-shirt and jeans – and not the trendy kind – who’s afforded the opportunity to tell a thousand or so people at a clip that once when young, he let (or was it made?) his dog lick cottage cheese off his testicles.

We want to do that! But we can’t. We can’t bare ourselves without severe social consequences. We can’t walk into work tomorrow and start telling everyone how we can’t stand the way we look but still find it near impossible to do anything about it because we’re paralyzed by self hatred. But Louie can. And for that, we’re thankful.

We’re also thankful that Louie took some time to chat with Punchline Magazine while he was in Phoenix set to play the Orpheum theater. We talked about his recent split from his wife, why he’s changed the way he talks about his two daughters onstage and much more.

Last we spoke, Lucky Louie was about to premiere on HBO. What’s changed most since then?
I think mostly it’s been that stand-up has become my full-time job again over the last couple of years, which has been great. I really enjoy that— not worrying about whether I have a TV job anymore.

But you’re working on a new pilot for CBS with Pamela Adlon, who played your wife on Lucky Louie. That show was canceled after a season on HBO. What’s different about this show?
For Lucky Louie, outside of the FCC problems, it would probably have worked on CBS. It’s a populous show. It’s a show about regular people. And there really are no shows on HBO that are about anyone normal. They sort of like to reach to this one percentile of people and that’s more and more what HBO has become. The great thing about HBO is they don’t care as much about ratings as networks. They’ll just keep doing the show. Lucky Louie was on the other side of that. Our ratings kept going up each week. And they didn’t give a shit. They still canceled the show anyway.

But they gave me a whole season, they’ve given me a special, they’ve given me everything. The greatest benefactors of my entire life by a long shot is HBO. I owe them more than I owe anybody. This new show is back to being about a family just living in the real world and trying to do it as real as possible. I still think that’s a show that doesn’t exist that needs to. And so CBS came calling. They said we really want something from you. And Pamela and I had always wanted to write something together. We wrote together on Lucky Louie and we collaborated a lot on that series. So CBS bought the show and we’re writing it and hopefully we’ll do it and be in it together. We’ll see; you know how these things go. The odds are is that it will be a pilot that we’ll shoot and no one will ever see it. But I have hope. I feel really good about the material.

Is there less career pressure on you now, since stand-up is your main concern?
If anything, there’s more pressure because the money comes a little slower and I’m on the road all the time. But when you’re in Hollywood and you’re trying to climb up this invisible ladder that has very many colored rungs, it doesn’t add up to much. Now, I have a more pure, simple project, which is trying to be as good as possible onstage. And Lucky Louie and the special I did after it, Shameless, kinda made this possible because all of a sudden I could hit the road and start doing theaters and make real money that I could live on. So that kind of let me focus on stand-up as its own thing. I started now to try to do one special a year; it’s been an obsession for me.

What’s the main difference for you about performing theaters as opposed to clubs?
It’s more pressure, and I like pressure. I can also kind of breath more on a big theater stage. I perform material a little more; I put a little more thought into what I’m saying and how it feels as a whole show. That’s opposed to working at a club where I’m fighting for attention a little bit because of the nightclub atmosphere. But I still do both. I have a pattern where I start in the spring and summer doing clubs because the clubs are better for writing; you get a more honest sense for how you’re doing and you could build a momentum that will start to generate its own laughs. If I only did theater shows I think I would start to stink.

Also you do more shows in the clubs. If you’re doing theater, you usually do two shows a week, two cities two shows, but at a club, you camp out there; you’re there two shows Friday, three Saturday and a show Thursday and Sunday so I’m hammering my stuff more.

You performed a lot in England this year for the first time. Did you notice a major difference between performing overseas?
In London, stand-up comedy is more part of their culture. It’s not this separate thing. In the States, a lot of times stand-up is thought of as the dirty old cousin of art. There’s nobody that writes about stand-up in newspapers. Like the New York Times will send one of their TV reporters out and they’ll do a ‘What’s so funny?’ article, every 10 years— and it’s the same shit. But there’s not really any critique and analysis of stand-up in newspapers. And that’s part of what makes art interesting: how people digest it.

When you do a show in London, everyone reviews it. It’s in the London Times and The Guardian and people of all stripes come. And some people are watching you with a finger on their lip, like hmmmm interesting. It’s a whole different approach. And its not so much fans. After shows in the states, I’ll go to the lobby and fans ask for camera phone pictures, so I’ll go out and meet my fans. It’s a small and easy thing for me to do and I know they appreciate it a lot. In London, I come out to the lobby and they’ll all stand around talking about how they liked the show but they won’t come say hi. It’s a different world.

But really, the biggest difference to me is that it wasn’t here. No one knows me there and I don’t sound like them, so I don’t have their trust in that sense; I’m not one of them. I also come from a country that a lot of people think is ruining the world. But I think because I don’t have that trust automatically, I with helps with the material. It makes it better because I had to work on it from the ground up, which is an important thing to do as a stand-up. When I’m in New York, I stop into places like the Comedy Cellar because nobody knows I’m going to be there. It’s not people that were eager to see me and laugh at my jokes. You have to get out of your comfort zone. It keeps you honest.

It’s strange that stand-up is better integrated with the rest of live entertainment in England than it is here, even though stand-up started in the States.
We just have a different culture here. It’s more about money and capital. Comedy gets big in America when it starts making money. That’s when people start writing about it. I’m definitely getting more press now than I ever used to– partly its because I’m bigger and partly its because folks like me and Jim Gaffigan are playing theaters now. That wasn’t always the case. There was always like one or two theater acts in the comedy scene, but now the theaters is sort of a new circuit and its more lucrative now. And in America it something’s making money, you write about it.

It’s the capitalist system. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just different than England. I still would much rather live here. And I like the approach we have to stand-up here The neglects that we get from the press or whatever I’m grousing about is pointless because we have good stand-up here and its well attended. Whatever we’re doing, it’s working.

I watched a screener of your new Showtime special, Chewed Up. In the past, my eyes haven’t teared very many times while watching stand-up, but the bit you do about once you hit a certain age, doctors just don’t even try to fix you anymore hit me hard.
Thanks. Yeah, that bit came about when I was in Cleveland at Hilarities. My ankle had been hurting for ages so I decided to go to the doctor and I had that experience exactly. [The doctor said there was basically nothing he could do to help him]. I went onstage and told the story that night. And that was it. It was imprinted.

So you’ve retired all the material on Chewed Up and you’re touring with your show Hilarious. How is your material changing these days? You’ve recently split from your wife, right?
Yeah, so that’s changed. I don’t talk about that very much. I don’t at all really. I don’t talk about her. I figure that now she’s a private person and her private life isn’t mine anymore, it isn’t part of mine. So I’m not going to talk about her life anymore. My life now is about me and my kids. My wife and I share custody of our kids so I’m with them every week. When I’m with them, we’re alone. It’s just the three of us. There’s more pressure on me as a parent. That’s really changed the way I talk about them onstage. So they’re certainly still part of what I talk about. But everything that happens in your life changes the way you look at the rest of the world.

So when you say you’re still talking about your kids but you’ve changed the way you talk about them, what does that mean?
I’m singled out now and that’s just a vastly different life. And I’m alone with the kids now. And also, my kids have grown up. They’re six and three now. They’re both verbal with personalities now. They’re no longer a toddler and infant.

So is it going to be adorable, endearing comedy now from Louis C.K.?
No, it’s the same. I think I’m less angry about them now than I was. I’m frustrated more now than I was before. I was angrier before because I just wasn’t as good at being a dad to them. But I’ve grown up a lot. Sometimes I look at the older specials and I’m like, ‘You’re unhinged buddy’ and I’ll laugh at it myself. I have a little bit more patience and I know a little bit more about what I’m doing as a parent now.

The older material was born out of this frustration about not knowing what I’m doing. And now my act is more about being a shitty father than it is about having shitty kids. That was actually always pretty much the case. If there’s a relationship problem between a 40 year old and a three year old, you have to blame the 40 year old. My act was never about my daughter being an asshole, it was about a person feeling their daughter is an asshole. It’s a flawed feeling but it feels very real when you’re having it.

Are you in a good place psychologically now, being single, having the kids and all?
There’s a good balance now. I have kind of a stable life now. I go on the road every week now. But it’s basically Thursday through Saturday but I’m with my kids the rest of the week. And when I’m with my kids I dedicate my time to them because I don’t have a job during the day. I probably spend more time with my kids than any other working father. I’m really enjoying my time with them.

I’m starting to realize quickly – because my six-year old is in first grade – that it’s going to be really soon that they don’t give a shit about me, where I become their landlord, a pain in their ass. Right now, when they’re with me, it’s the three of us. We’re a team and that’s who we are. That’s going to go by really fast. By the time they’re like 10, their lives are going to center around their own friends and I’m just going to be this embarrassing fat idiot.

You’ve got to be pretty organized to take care of your kids and still keep up with touring.
I am. I’m pretty organized. Thursday morning, the last thing I do is take the six-year old to school, and then I go on the road. I have to somehow adjust myself so that my primetime hours are be 9 pm again. So I go fly to a fucking city, try to shake off the crazy exhaustion from the kids, do the show, go to another city, do a show, maybe go to a third city, do a show and then I usually come home Sundays and I’m a wreck. I’ve been up all night and I haven’t been sleeping. I try to catch up Sunday night on some sleep. And then Monday before I pick them up, I try to scramble to get the apartment picked up again, and get groceries. I also take the kids to gymnastics on Monday; that’s another part of the day. It’s a lot.

Who knew you’d be so domestic?
Yeah, I’m organized in terms that I have to do all these things. I have better days than others. There are some days where I’m cracking through it all. Then there are times on Sunday night where I’ll be up and if I go to bed I know I’ll have a good week, but I’m wound up, and I say, ‘Fuck it’ and I watch a stupid movie and I stay up all night. Then I’m really screwed for the week.

How would you describe the state of stand-up comedy?
I don’t know, I think it’s pretty good. I think that we’re all able to do these theaters is pretty good. There are some really funny people out there. It hasn’t grown that much lately as far as new people. But I don’t know. I have seen everyone. That new kid John Mulaney— I think he’s pretty special. He’s probably the next interesting guy from his generation. Harris Wittels, who just opened for me, and Ted Alexandro is a really funny guy. There’s a lot of exciting, new funny dudes. Then there’s a lot of comedy I hate but that’s always the case.

What kind of stuff do you hate?
It’s hard to say that… yeah, I don’t want to get into the shit I hate.

For more info, check out LouisCK.net. To check out when Chewed Up, Louis C.K.’s new Showtime special is airing, check out the network’s official site.

Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor emeritus of Laughspin.

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