Q&A: Louis C.K. on 'Louie,' lenses and knowing when you're lucky
The most interesting and beautiful comedy on television right now, to my mind, is "Louie," from the comedian Louis C.K., who not only stars in the show but produces, writes, directs and edits it as well. The series, now in its second season — the third episode of that season airs tonight, Thursday, on FX — is not really a sitcom and not really a sketch comedy, though it has elements of both. Intercutting shorter and longer stories with complementary scenes of C.K. doing stand-up, it is a sort of fictional, mosaic self-portrait of the artist as an aging man, divorced with daughters: artful — art, I'd argue — without being arty, and a rare bit of auteurism in a medium most often ruled by committee.
C.K.'s dominant mode is a kind of mournful hopefulness that reminds me, the talkiness of his humor notwithstanding, of the silent-movie comedians of old, for whom the world was a long line of open manholes. He is willing to go a long time without a laugh to get a bigger laugh, as in the season opener, which built through passages of relaxed conversation and subsequent frantic action — surrounding a pregnant sister fearful of miscarriage and Louis' reluctance to trust his neighbors — into the world's biggest fart joke. A story in last week's episode, in which a sexual appointment turns at once strange (his date wants to be spanked) and domestic (he is sent for blueberries), was, in a quantum, Schrödinger's cat way, funny and not funny at the same time. It's the sort of situation that "Seinfeld" would have played for maximum wackiness ("So you spanked her and she sent you for blueberries?" "I know!") but from which "Louie," playing for authenticity — and understanding but not sentimental about human frailty — exacted a measure of tenderness. It also went to the show's recurring theme of the need for connection and the horror of what connection demands.
I spoke with Louis C.K. by phone recently, on the day the current season began.
Was stand-up comedy always the obvious outlet for what you had to say?
Louis C.K.: Well, I used to want to make movies a lot. But stand-up was always the thing I was able to do best. And it's such a gettable job for me — TV and movies take so much work getting the job before you can do the actual work, but stand-up you can just go and find an audience.
LCK: That's right, that was a road I was trying to go down for a while. I made short films and then I did a little feature called "Tomorrow Night" and took it to Sundance and tried to get some movies made after that. But that's really hard. [Laughs.] You know, I got that movie "Pootie Tang" [a parody of blaxploitation films, based on a sketch from "The Chris Rock Show," on which C.K. was a writer], and that turned into a studio movie in the middle of the project. Originally it was going to be Paramount Classics, which was their little-movie arm; it was just a throwaway for them, because Chris Rock was hot and that character was popular. Then they got some higher hopes and the budget went up, but then it started getting overseen by Paramount [proper]. It didn't really stand for that kind of scrutiny, and neither did I. I wasn't ready for all that. But it was a great education. Meanwhile stand-up was surging, and television. I had started having this rule of "Go take the jobs people are really asking you to do instead of trying in vain to get a job they don't want to give you."
Are there filmmakers whose work you see in your stand-up?
LCK: Maybe. I always loved Woody Allen, although he was both. I grew up watching all these crazy movies, European movies and stuff, and I guess that I always laughed at things that were a little more offbeat. So I was willing to try things onstage that weren't strictly joke-telling, I had some faith that they would be compelling to do.
I was struck by that small moment in the episode "Moving" (it airs tonight) where you're looking out the window of an apartment you might rent and a car pulls up on the street outside, exchanges one homeless person for another and drives away.
LCK: Moments like that, they're crazy, but they feel weirdly real to me. And I just had an instinct that that would be really interesting to watch and funny in its own way. I don't know, but for some reason that means something to me in that story.
Was it an idea you'd had before, or did it just come up in the moment of writing the scene?
LCK: Yeah, that's exactly right. Sometimes I feel that the story is telling itself to me, like I was sort of writing myself through that apartment and I got to that place where I'm looking out the window and I just kind of saw this thing happen in my head. And it made me laugh, so I just jotted it down. The freedom of the show, the ability to make it without any kind of restriction, makes it possible, 'cause if I had to send that idea up the chain, I'd be asked, "Who are those guys? How does that come back?" There'd be a yearning for context.
Does FX give you any notes, or are you just out there on your own?
LCK: They give me notes when it's edited. They don't have any idea what's in the show until it's completely shot and cut together, and then their notes are generally pacing notes for the editing. Occasionally there's something that's not working and they'll give me some suggestions; they've always been good. But I've never got a note from them where they've said, "You shouldn't have done this." They don't read the stuff, they don't get story pitches.
Are there things you learned from the first season that you brought into the second?
LCK: I think [the episodes] just got better — there weren't any hard lessons learned. Well, some were learned and not applied. I learned that I really have to write more before I start shooting, and this time I did, a little, and we built a month into the middle of the schedule with no shooting so I could take a month to write. But unfortunately I was just exhausted from shooting, and I just didn't get inspired, so I didn't write much. [Laughs.] I did learn that there was more territory that the show could go into that I just didn't necessarily expect before the first season. And it succeeded; people liked it when we tried these other things. So I'm going into even more territory that's unexpected, I hope.
Can you give some examples?
LCK: Well, one thing is this season the kids are way more in the show; often in adult shows kids are just suggested as a backdrop to the person's life. Part of that is it's just easier: It's hard work to shoot with kids. But this year there's way more dialogue between me and the children, and engaged moments.
Those kids are amazing.
LCK: They are; they're incredible. They're very natural, and yet they're consistent. The little one [Ursula Parker] is just a spark plug.
You used her to start the new season, telling you in this lovely, sweet voice that she prefers being at her mother's "because she makes good food — and I love her more."
LCK: Yeah, she is a piece of work. I wrote that scene pretty quickly, and she and I just went into the bathroom of the apartment we were shooting in and shot eight takes of it, all one shot. Pamela Adlon, who is on the show but is also a consulting producer, she kind of made that one happen. Because we shot the scene so many times, and it was always very sad, tragic. But Pamela said, "Do one more, and make her laugh, make her happy — tell her it's not bad news, tell her it's a fun thing to say, and she doesn't know she's hurting your feelings. Have her say it in an upbeat manner." And so we did one more take, put a longer lens on, and had her do it that way. And the instant we played it back, I said, "That's how we're opening the season."
Does the show tap into different parts of your brain in terms of creating humor?
LCK: I would say so. There are so many tools at my disposal with this show. A lot of the struggle I had with movies is I really loved moments and tones and feelings in a scene, and I loved creating those, but I never really had great stories to string them together. And this show, because there's no expectation to hang things out for a whole episode — if they're only good for one scene, then you just do one scene — that allows me to do a lot of stuff like the two bums being exchanged. That scene doesn't have any bearing on the story, it's not bearing the weight of the story, it's just something that happens.
With "Lucky Louie," you made a straightforward three-camera sitcom, and you made a pilot for CBS ["St. Louie"] that I presume was more or less a traditional situation comedy. How did you come to this structure, mixing shorter and longer pieces with interludes of stand-up?
LCK: I guess through not being good at those other ones. [Laughs.] I think you have to try and fail, because failure gets you closer to what you're good at. I just kept searching for different ways to put stuff together, and with "Louie" I just decided, "Here's all the things I don't like having to do — I'm not going to do them this time. I'm going to try anyway; I'm going to see if a show without any of these constrictions works and still has something worth looking at." So far it's working out.
How do you see the relationship between pessimism and optimism in your humor?
LCK: Well, I think that the guy in the show that I am is pessimistic, but the stuff that happens to him is optimistic. The show is happening to me, I'm not driving it, which I like. I'm the same, the same, the same, which is generally pessimistic, and life in the show keeps throwing at me all these different examples where I'm wrong.
Does your comedy change as you get older?
LCK: Oh, definitely. I mean, I just grow up, more happens to me, more ideas and more stuff to draw from — dealings that I have and interesting people that I've met, human impulses and interactions I've observed that I can put in the show.
Do you think it's possible to be a dishonest comedian?
LCK: Sure. I say a lot of things that aren't true, I'll take on bad ideas and things I don't think are right to say because I want to try on that point of view and give it a voice. And I feel strong enough and confident enough, especially onstage and more and more on the show too, to go ahead and try on a different ... like last year when me and Nick DiPaolo are fighting over politics and I'm calling him a Nazi, I don't believe that. I can be very conservative sometimes; I can empathize with a conservative point of view. But it was more interesting to me to go ahead and be the jackass who's calling somebody a Nazi because he doesn't like the president. It's a really dumb point of view, but I was happy to take it on as a good counterpoint to Nick. And then I can discard it.
This kind of relates to the Tracy Morgan blowup. You defended him when he was criticized recently for making anti-gay remarks onstage. Do you think that comedians get any kind of free pass as to what they can say?
LCK: Well, nobody gets a free pass. But I think that comedy has a premise to it, which is that we're going to take the filter off and just say things, be reckless with feelings and thoughts. That's a really healthy thing to do, I think, and the human race has created comedy throughout history as a way to do it -- like, "Let's just go in this room for a minute and just say everything. And then laugh." And that's a catharsis. Now, when you take it out of the chemistry of that, sometimes people get hurt; I think that's a shame. But I don't think it's a negative thing always when somebody says something that ends up lighting a fuse, because then a lot of folks are given a voice to refute it, and that's positive too. It causes discussion. I don't think we [comics] are insulated from criticism; I think you have to expect it. But when I spoke up about Tracy's thing, it was because people had completely stopped mentioning that it started with a comedy show; it was being discussed as if it were something he said with a straight face, like, reading off a paper for a press conference. I don't believe in this idea of, "That's hate speech, stop it." If somebody is saying something that is the voice of what's dangerous to you, I think you should listen to it; I think there's more value in asking, "Where did this come from? What makes him say that?" I wish that discussion had taken place, rather than just a total refuting and effigy burning.
Can we talk a little about the look of the show? It's unusually beautiful and atmospheric, especially for a comedy.
LCK: Oh, a lot goes into that for me. I love filmmaking. It's something I get a huge satisfaction from, technically — I take a lot of photographs, and I'm into lenses and how they're ground and all that stuff. We use the [high-definition digital] Red camera, because it's got a huge sensor, and that lets you have a great range of depth of field. The lenses we use are the best lenses you can get in the world; they're [Zeiss] Master Prime lenses. They're set focal lengths — there are no zooms on our show — so you have to make a choice, we have to talk about what size lens we're going to use. And you don't have to use as much manufactured light because the lens is fast enough, it's drinking in enough light; it lets us shoot at night with just a handheld camera. This year we bought a set of vintage Super Baltar lenses — it's rare to have a whole set of those, but we have them on set all the time, and occasionally we'd say, "Let's run this whole thing on the Baltars." Like the [upcoming] Joan Rivers episode, the scene with her and me in the hotel room is shot on the Super Baltars and has kind of a vintage, almost Doris Day movie feel to it. I think it's important for the show to have a distinctive look because there's so many images being pelted at people — I think people don't know why they like to look at the show but that it's pleasing. And that's great.
Do you do much to the picture in post-production?
LCK: The Red gives you a very simple image — it's called RAW, and it's like the negative of a movie, and you color-correct and there's a lot of latitude and directions for saturating it and stuff. That's something I wish I had more time to play with, 'cause I can't really be there when they're color correcting, so they send me jpegs and I give them notes. But if I had another body I would put it in the color room.
That scene with Joan Rivers, where she gives you career advice after you've alienated the management of the Trump casino you're both working, was that based on actual talks you'd had?
LCK: I always loved Joan Rivers. With comedy there's a lot of people who like young rising comics, but they forget that comedians only get better when they get older; she's still great. And when I saw her movie [the 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"] and the way she talked about the perspective she had on her road in life, it really hit me hard. There's part truth [in the scene] in that I was in Atlantic City once and I mouthed off about Trump onstage and got fired, and I was just a sulky little ... about it. And I just took that version of me and put it into a room with her and wrote it up. So I sent it to her, and she loved it, but she called me and said, "There's a lot of crap in the script. I'm lecturing and it's boring, I'm not funny." So we went through it together and she made a lot of suggestions that were really funny, like the stuff about the plastic-lined pocketbook and stealing stuff from the cafeteria — that was her. And "Know when you're lucky" — that was her phrase, and that sort of became the center of the thing.
Your conversation seems very real. Were you working from a script, or do scenes go where they may?
LCK: No, we do what's on the page. I don't improvise much on the show because it's shot like a movie, so you have to repeat everything.
How much do the stand-up segments in the show allow you to get away with the parts of the show that aren't keyed to getting a laugh?
LCK: Oh, it's a huge benefit. Because when you're writing a sitcom, you need to go out on what they call the blow, you know, you need to go out on a laugh, and often having a laugh destroys the reality of a moment, takes away from everything. Somebody has to ramp up to a joke, and that act-break feeling, that is a huge chore in writing half-hours. I'm able to have moments in the show that kind of linger and are broken and uncertain, but I'm there to bail it out: I tell three jokes and people go into the commercial happy.
— Robert Lloyd
Upper photo: Louis C.K. Credit: Katy Winn/Getty Images. Left photo credit: FX