Louis C.K. on the Words You Can't Say on FX (NSFW)
by Joel Keller, posted Jun 25th 2010 11:45AM
Here is the mostly-unedited version of my interview with Louis C.K. Here, we discuss how disappointed he was in HBO for not supporting 'Luckie Louie' more and he talks about the words and phrases he was told he couldn't say on FX. Believe me, it's worth reading this whole thing just for that part.
'Louie' debuts on FX on June 29 at 11PM ET.
How has the process for 'Louie' been different than your last show, HBO's 'Lucky Louie?'
(With 'Lucky Louie') I was doing a sitcom in Los Angeles, which is an institutional undertaking, you know? You really gotta assemble a big crew of people and we had a writing staff, and we had executives that came and watched our run-throughs, and we did their notes and all that stuff. So it was a process, and it's hard to get it, especially with sitcoms, it's hard to get out of that.
So we had to do it just like everybody else did. And it was hard. It was hard for me to keep ideas fresh and inspiring through a process. So I think we did it. I think I was, I'm always happy with the way that show turned out, but this show is just me directing and writing. FX doesn't even read the scripts before I shoot them. They don't have any input until it's been shot, and they give me editing notes. I mean, one big note will be whether I get to continue or not.
Are you confident now that FX is going to let the show breathe, and nurture it?
Well, it's up to me. But I sort of look at it the way I look at standup as a business, which is that when you're younger and you're working for clubs, you want them to give you work, and you go, "Why don't I get to work? I see other guys up there. I got less weeks at the Acme in Minneapolis than I did last year." And you sort of think of it as this guy who's sort of deciding who gets to try and who doesn't.
Well, now when I go to Minneapolis, I rent a theater and sell as many... a shitload of tickets... and I get a piece of the money. And it's a very tangible, simple thing, which is that I draw, because of the work I've done, and because of the ground I've laid.
And so I look at this as the same challenge, like I have to bring viewers to FX. I have to prove that the show's worth it. I have people that know who I am and who like... I don't think I have an FX-ratings-shattering amount of fans, but if everybody who likes me watches this show, that's a lot of people. You know, everybody who's ever seen me live or anything. So I think it's my responsibility to prove the show is a business for them worth trying. But I think I do have more of a platform now, because they do have a comedy that they didn't have before.
When I think of the whole idea of little vignettes being told with standup being the glue, you know, the first thing that comes to mind is early 'Seinfeld.' Did you have that in mind at all when you were kind of conceiving of this show?
No, it's funny, because I didn't think about Jerry's show until somebody else pointed it out. Like once I'd arrived at what I wanted it to be, I mean, I arrived at it the same way he did, which is, I'm a comedian and that's my favorite way to communicate, and yet I want to tell stories visually.
And I think my standup has a different role on my show than it does on his show. On my show, the standup is something you watch as almost part of...I'm a comedian on the show. Yeah, he's a comedian on the show too, but when you're watching that club footage, it's kind of almost like documentary footage of a club set. By the guy who's in the show. So the set is almost part of the story. And also, every standup, and TV shows are a vessel, it's the people who are doing it, so Jerry's show was about nothing... I mean, declared about nothing. And so my show and the stuff I talk about on the stage is, it's about life, and it's about pressure, kids, all that stuff.
Do you see a day when maybe, and obviously it's hard to kind of look down the road this far, but that the stand-up part of it might not be as necessary?
Well, I don't know. Because I've done three hours of standup in the last three years. I mean, the last (special) was an hour and a half. And it just keeps coming out of me. And I like the idea of doing it this way now. That I won't be putting out specials for at least a couple years. I'll be putting out these.
It's actually been a great process, in terms of like, sometimes I'll be writing the show, a story about the show, and I'll be thinking about what am I trying to say with this story or what's the point of this? And I'll think about it, and something will come out, and I'll go, that would be funny to say on stage. And it doesn't really have a context in my act. Like my act is a very... it's like a samurai sword that I keep holding. It's a very well-honed thing, and sometimes there's not room for stuff that doesn't fit somewhere.
But because of the looseness of how I do this, I just run down to the Comedy Cellar with a steadycam rig. And there's little one-off asides and unhinged pieces of standup that, for this show, they're like the big turning point in the show. So the two things are feeding each other a lot.
When you do those standup segments, are you doing them as part of a set you're already doing at the Comedy Cellar, or you're just doing it separately?
Well, it's different on different episodes. One thing that's really freeing about the show is that there's no set format. The pilot was two stories told with standup as bookends to the stories. And the standup doesn't set up the story, like and then here's what happened, it just sort of is I'm talking now, and now I'm telling you about the stuff through visual, that's all.
There's other ones where I do a set, and then I come off stage and you follow me. There's this thing that happened with Nick DiPaolo where we got in a fight. I don't know how many people caught wind of it. Well, he and I did an episode where he and I got in a fist fight, and an extra taped it and put it on the internet. And Howard Stern played it the next morning and said it, because they thought it was real. But anyway, that story starts with me doing a set and coming off stage. And now the story includes the standup. I've only done that in one episode so far. And then I watch Nick, and then we talk about his material, and then we end up fighting.
But the logistics of it, I mean, is it a real audience at the Comedy Cellar?
Oh, OK, well I usually do two shows when I do the Cellar. I do one where I bring, I Twitter an audience. I just tell people, if you want to be part of this, come at 6:00, and then whoever comes gets to be in the audience. Usually we fill the place up. And we do a 6:00 show, which I do because I want to be able to stop and start. I want to be able to do stuff that doesn't have setup. Just go here...I'm just gonna jump into this. I want to be able to spell the camera if he needs it, without pausing. I want to control the way it's shot.
And then at 9:00 when the Comedy Cellar has their real audience, I go back in and just catch what I can. Because that audience is usually a little more... my audience is really excited to be there. I even tell them, cool it. Don't act like it's a big deal. (It's) supposed to be just an audience that I'm trying to pull teeth from. I mean, that's part of what I like showing here is not the usual standup, this is the perfect set. It's I'm working on shit that's not always good.
Even amongst standups who have a particularly bleak worldview, which is most of them, yours is probably bleaker than most. But do you think 'Louie,' the FX series, reflects that more than 'Lucky Louie' did, or differently?
Well in both of them, like for me, the thing about 'Lucky Louie' was that it was a struggle, that life that we were portraying. But we loved each other and there was love in that house. But it was hard. And I feel like this show has a similar feeling to it, which is, I'm not any worse off than anybody else, and there's a lot to live for, it's just hard. It's just hard, that's all. One thing I would say is that 'Lucky Louie' might have been more bleak, because the fact is, I was... I wasn't aware of it when I was making the show, but I was in a marriage that was going to end. I didn't know that. And 'Lucky Louie' didn't end up being much about my marriage, because it just didn't look like my marriage. But the fact is, I was in a marriage that eventually ended. Now, I'm in a open-ended life that I'm excited about. I have possibilities now.
So in other words, even though you say you're waking up running out the clock, just like you said, the work and the kids, that's what really keeping you going?
Well, and also, life after divorce is full of potential. Life in a marriage that is not working, it has no potential unless you get out of it. But now, I have infinite amount of things I could do with my kids, and with work, and also my love life. I'm alone and I'm in an awkward position romantically, but who knows.
So despite the awkward dating, despite all that stuff...
So at least I'm trying. And at least I get to try.
Dating at 41 must be just... I mean, I met my fiance a couple years ago so I was dating into my 30's, but it can't be good.
Well, you know what? The good parts aren't funny. So the fact is, I got my share of good, young pussy. But nobody wants to see that. There is a story that we're doing that we're shooting next week about a younger girl. But I was with a girl who was 21. That's the youngest I got. And after we had sex, I said, you have such a great body. And she said, I think you'll find that most 21 year olds have very nice bodies.
So, but anyway, for the most part, it's awkward. 90% of it is. I had some fun, and I kind of... One of the things, when you first get single, you get really excited at this age. You realize, God, the world's my oyster. You also have an ease that younger women are... older guys have something that younger women want. That's a fact. And so you find out you got game that you didn't think you had. But you exhaust it pretty quickly, the fun. And then you go, I don't want to go fuck around a lot. I am too old for that. I don't want to do it. It feels weird and hollow, and it's a little upsetting.
You mention Nick DiPaolo. Is this going to be the Nick we know and love?
Yeah, I mean, he's... But you know, I'm glad I'm showing the Nick that I'm showing. Because he's a very good guy. We were roommates for some years, and we've been friends for a long time. And I couldn't disagree more with anybody than I do with him about politics, and about everything in life, but he's a friend. I mean, that's what... our episode is about two people having polar opposite views and being able to be friends. Because that's one of my, when I was growing up, that's the way it was like. I had a lot of Republican friends that I was close to and disagreed with. And now with Glenn Beck and all this s---, you can't agree about anything anymore. Nobody can like each other even when they disagree.
Right, it's like if you have different political views, you have to be the enemy.
Yeah. And everything's compartmentalized. Everybody used to watch the same news show and make their own conclusions. Now it's...people literally don't communicate who don't agree. And that's really dangerous. Nobody's talking.
I know you say that you're happy that you got the 13 episodes of 'Lucky Louie' that you did, but it did seem like a lot of people thought that HBO didn't give you a shot.
Yeah, I think they should have given us another season. I just personally don't take it as an affront, or as a loss. It's not a personal loss to me. But it's just less gain than what I wanted. But the way I care about that show is it's own thing. I am sad that it didn't get more time. I think that's exactly what we needed was another season. We were doing something that looked so different and challenging from everything else. I am certain that everybody who didn't like it would have just gotten used to how it looks, and just started to go "OK, well let me watch this." Then they'd go "Eh, this shit's pretty funny."
We also were learning as a writing staff. I mean, I was writing with a staff then. And that's something I don't, I was going to change the way we worked for the second season. We were hired to write eight scripts. HBO paid for 8 additional scripts and we wrote them. So we reformed our staff, and reformed like the way we were doing things. Because I think creatively, we did need to travel to another place. I mean, this show, I don't have a staff. I'm writing the entire show myself. And I wouldn't have done 'Lucky Louie' that way, but my partner Mike Royce, who's now doing Ray Romano's show, he was great. I think he and I would have centralized the work a little bit more, made it one voice.
What did HBO tell you when they let the show go? Ratings are not a big thing for them...
No they're not. And they have pressure of different kinds. And at the time, we were hearing a lot of things. One of them was that Warner Brothers was sending word out to every company, that you have to make big cuts. And so I knew that Chris Albrecht was up against it trying to renew us to begin with. I knew he was, he had pressure. And he didn't have enough proof that we were definitely going to keep growing. I think that they are really into critics. I mean, on one hand, NY Times, LA Times, and Shales all loved the show. I mean, those were all positive reviews, and there were others.
Some people really targeted the show. There was a guy at the Daily News who wrote, 8 episodes in, they should cancel it even though they don't need to cancel shows, because there's no advertising to sell. But they should show that they know they made a mistake. Like it was really vicious. And that hurt. It was hard to go through that. HBO told us very little. I mean, they told us at first, you're going. Write more. They paid Mike and I to sort of hold on. And it was months before we got the call. And all I got told was...
Carolyn Strauss called me. She said, "this is a bad phone call." And she just said... she was crying, she was really upset. And I know Chris loved the show. Chris gave me 'Shameless,' my first HBO special, like a week later. And then they let me come and do Comic Relief, which did great for me. And then they gave me a pilot, a little pilot presentation that I did for them that ended up being clips on the internet, on YouTube, the Catholic church bit that I did an all that. It was all stuff that I did a few months after 'Lucky Louie' got cancelled. I mean, those people gave me a half hour special, my own series, an hour special, Comic Relief, and a pilot all in the same year.
So it's not like they didn't like you.
No. They really wanted me on HBO. I also know that there was other people in another part of HBO who hated my show, and who now are running the network. Everybody who supported me is gone now. And the network was going through that change a little bit, I think. It was a fight for the soul of the network It got really intense, from what I was half told. There's one specific guy at HBO who was a very kind of Little Lord Fauntleroy kind of guy who hated, just hated the working class element. And even when he was shown that our show had ratings increases almost every week... the only weeks that we went down in ratings were weeks when there was football, and the whole network would go down.
And we always showed less of a decrease than everybody else. It would be like 'Entourage' lost 54% to football, we lost 12%. We were performing really well. We were beating 'Deadwood.' That was our big like, right out of the gate, we were beating 'Deadwood' every week. And this guy said, "I don't care that a lot of people watch it. I think it's polluting the network and making us look bad." And so you can't... And he won. And now he's running the place. (laughs)
So no more HBO for Louie. At least for a while.
Because I know FX pretty much takes everything to almost the limits it can go. You swear a lot in your act, but it's definitely not dirty. So FX, is that a comfortable spot for you as far as content is concerned?
It's perfect. It's perfect. I'd rather be on FX. In every way, I'd rather be on FX than HBO. Because their line is a line I can definitely live with. Like I mean, the word line, we can't say "cunt," "fuck," "cocksucker," "retarded," and "twat." I don't know who the twat lobby is. And by the way, you can say "suck my cock." You can't say "cocksucker." You can say "Stick that dick in my ass." You can say "I came on her face." You can say "I ate her asshole out." I mean, holy shit, you can say "asshole," you can say "shit."
I had a talk with the standards woman. And we talked about the, I don't know if you saw that I did a promo with Bobby Cannavale. It's a thing where I'm talking about maybe going and doing a porn tape, because I'm worried I'm not going to get another show. And he talks about two guys shitting in my mouth in the thing. And so I asked the woman could I say that, since I can say "shit?" And she said, "That's gonna be hard." She said, "shitting in a mouth is not something I think we can say." And I said, "what if it was like 'shitting in Hitler's mouth?'" And she said, "maybe..." she said, "it's all context. There may be a world where you can say "shitting in the mouth" on FX." And I said to her, "I'm gonna find that."
That'll be your goal.
I think I found it. I think I've found it.
And when I see stuff like the "Chum Guzzler" ship on 'Archer,' and I'm used to FX humor, I'm just like, "what the hell?"
Yeah, they go pretty far. And I mean, we don't do anything just like gratuitously raunchy on this show. It's more the ability to just say "shit" when you're upset, that's pretty great. I still want to say "fuck". It really bothers me that I can't say "fuck." It does, honestly. But we can talk about anything we want, and we can tell stories about anything we want.
And some things, you do self-censorship. There was a moment where I used the word "faggot" in the pilot. And I talked to... it's the only word... and they came to me and said, "for the health of your show, we suggest not using it if you don't have to." Because it wasn't a necessary "faggot." It was just a throwaway. And I just... they gave me the choice. And I thought, I'll trade saying "faggot" for the ability to talk about gay sex and hetero vs. gay issues, and really taking them on and having fun with that. I'd much rather do that than just be called out as a gay hater for an arbitrary word.
Well, for a word that obviously used to be, you used to be able to say it casually 10 years ago, 20 years ago, but now you can't for various reasons, and good reasons.
Right. Good reasons, yeah. And I mean, my last special on Showtime, I opened with a long thing about the word "faggot," and the word "nigger," and the word "cunt." And I think talking about these words, it's really fun. And I think I'll be able to talk about the word "faggot." I'd much rather talk about it.
Than actually just say it?
Yeah. I was watching George Segal in that 'Fun with Dick and Jane' or whatever it is. They had remade it with Jim Carrey. George Segal is in the original. And he's at the welfare office and they guy in front of him is this flitty gay guy. And then the joke is that he goes to the welfare guy and goes, "Can you believe that faggot that was just up here?" And then that guy turns out to be gay, so he gets... But the idea that he could say that... he was like a real person and he was George Segal. "What a faggot." It was fine then.
Any shot that you can go back and do 'Parks and Recreation?" Or just the schedules don't work out that way?
It's hard because I really am very strict about my family schedule. I don't, like my agents asked me to audition for a movie by Alexander Payne. So it was like the lead in his next movie. And they... I don't audition for stuff, but they said "we feel like you have a chance for this. You're a contender." And I looked at it and it said, "shoots in March or June in Hawaii for a month." And I just said no. I don't care if he called me at home and said, "I want you to do this." I would say no. Because I've gotta be with my kids. When I'm not doing my shows, the only thing I could be doing that... I can't go away and go work on something.
And it's that important to you to keep that schedule going?
Oh yeah. I made a decision like two years ago that my kids come before work. They're more important than work to me. It was a big realignment of priorities. Because I've never... I've always thought you juggle. And then I just said no, I actually have to make a declaration in my head of which one's more important and make all decisions based on that fact. And so I chose the kids to be number one, and work is number two. And ever since then, my career has gone far better. Because it's...
When you get your priorities straightened out...?
Well it is. Because your kids guide you to the right things. And I mean, before I came to these guys, Fox and NBC were offering me a shitload of money to write a pilot for myself.
They offered me, as a whole budget of the pilot, was what NBC would have paid me personally just to fucking write an outline. And one of the big guiding principles for me was like "OK, NBC or Fox means moving to California and doing a sitcom seven days a week and all that." I won't be able to be with my kids at all. And then FX, the first thing I said was, can I do it in New York, and can I do it just the way I want to without anybody telling me how to do it?
I said to (FX President Jon) Landgraf, "if you wire me $250,000 I'll give you a DVD a month later." And I don't want to hear from you otherwise, because that's the only way this is interesting to me. And he said, yeah, sounds fine to me. And I was like, seriously?
So that's how we did it. And because I won that little game, I get to do it for the series. There's no reason to change it. It worked. So that's how we're doing the series. I mean, I had a beer with Jon and we talked about a lot of the stories, so he's heard about what I'm doing, but he hasn't read anything.
The 'Parks & Rec' character, the reason why I enjoyed him so much was mainly because he seemed like such a good match for Amy Poehler's character of Leslie Knope.
Yeah, it just really worked. I thought, when they asked me to do it, I first just said no. Because I thought well, I don't want to go out to LA, and it's going to fuck with my life too much, and I'm trying to get this pilot done and everything else. I didn't know if I was getting a show yet.
But anyway, my manager, Dave Becky also manages Amy, so he really pushed. And I heard that Amy really wanted me to do it, and that she actually lobbied and beat out some other concerns that other people they wanted to try. She'd said no, she wanted it to be me.
Once I read the script, I thought, oh these guys... Because I didn't really watch the show at all last season and I didn't have the feeling it was good. I love Amy Poehler, and I saw one episode... actually that's not true... I saw one episode and I liked her in it. But I read the script and I'm like, this is really good. And I saw this guy was being very earnest, very dedicated, and having a very practical approach to being with this woman, but that there's this passion burning underneath it. And it just worked. We just clicked together. And that show's so easy to shoot. They don't even know where the cameras are. You just burn through a couple of takes and you keep moving, so...
But you took the part, and they gave you the part, knowing that the 'Louie' pilot was being shot?
Yeah, they knew. I told them, I don't know how many of these I can do. I think we agreed to two first. And then I said I'll do as many as I can, if you want. It was like if they want me to keep coming back, and I said, if I can. And then after two, they said, we'll take as much as you can give us. And so I did I guess five total. And then I had to get out.
So they came to New York actually to shoot our last episode. I couldn't shoot anymore, but we had to close the character out. So they came to New York when we shot the last scene of me and Leslie together in New York.
That also explains why... although she likes it back there, but it also explains why Amy was in NY quite a bit.
Amy and I live in the same building in NYC and I love her. I think she's so good, and I think she's so good on that show. I really think that's a really good show. It has a really great feeling to it, and it's really funny.
In its second season, it's really improved. It really has.
Yeah, I think every show needs a second season. I really do. You need to, the first year you learn how to do it. Then the second year, you apply what you learned. And it just seems weird to me to not give people one more try. But I mean, I get it with advertising and that they need to sell their space.
But it seems like rather than starting a whole other thing over again, or going back to shitty old wells, like reality, and throwing together Ted Danson and Chris O'Donnell or whatever, you know what I mean? Like just try these fucking things again. You have something that isn't a complete disaster.
The only thing that made me feel anger about what happened with 'Lucky Louie,' as far as people that didn't like it, was people that aggressively tried to stop it from existing, I felt like, well now you get 'According to Jim.' That's it. You didn't even want to let a bad show that's different from other shows just try? OK, then, you're left with just that flatline. I mean, that's what TV is about, flatlining. When they test shows, they have peaks and valleys on the, you know, the test material they get, they get a graph and it's all about the valleys. They don't worry about the peaks. They figure they'll take care of themselves They try to rub out the valleys by recutting.
And what happens with every time you take down the valleys, the peaks come down. So all these shows are flatlines. And our show was a very erratic (tracing a jagged line) gig-a-gig-gig-a, gig-a-gig-gig-a . To me, if that's your cardiogram of a show, you keep that on the air.
And also, it almost helps to be in a network like NBC that doesn't have anything else going on.
They don't really have a choice right now.
If there was any show, at this point, that you haven't been a guest on that you'd want to be a guest on, what would it be?
I don't know. I don't watch a whole lot of television, honestly. I don't watch the other NBC comedies. There's a frequency they operate on that doesn't, that I'm not tuning into. And so I don't care about them. I like the, I like dramas. Like I would love to be on one of these FX dramas. I would love that.
You mean like be on 'Damages' or something?
Yeah, something like that. Like 'The Shield,' before it went away, that would have been my favorite show to come on and be like a real disgusting, piece of shit cop, or a criminal.
I could see you doing that.
See, that's what, when I did Amy's show, that thing, I thought, I'd love to be a cop on something. That would be really fun to be a cop on a show. So that, to me, any really good drama like that, and to me, the FX ones are like Dickens, these shows. The way they arc, and yet they're serial, which is... his books were written as serials in magazines, and then he compiled them in the novels.
But so I love those. The big glossy dramas like 'Law & Order' and stuff, I get put to sleep by those. But I love the FX dramas. They're really good. It's really my favorite channel. I don't need to kiss their ass, they've already given me the show, but I really think they're great.
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