Louis C.K. has written for The Late Show with David Letterman, The Chris Rock Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
This interview was originally broadcast on December 13, 2011. The third season of Louis C.K.'s show Louie starts Thursday, June 28 on the FX network. Season 2 just came out on DVD.
In the FX TV series Louie, comic Louis C.K. plays a divorced father of two struggling to balance his comedy career with being a single dad. The show, which has just been picked up for a third season, is often based on events that have happened to C.K. in his own life.
C.K.'s boundary-crossing humor has always appealed to other comedians, but in the past year, the stand-up comic has also racked up a series of honors from more mainstream sources. GQ recently called him the "funniest comic alive" and named him their "Comic Genius of the Year." Rolling Stone said C.K. is currently the "darkest, funniest comedian in America." And Time called Louie the top show of the year, shortlisting C.K. on the magazine's list of the most influential people in 2011.
C.K. writes, directs, edits and produces Louie, which has been nominated for several Emmys. He took a similar hands-on approach for his latest comedy special, Live at the Beacon Theater. The hourlong broadcast, filmed in front of a live crowd over two nights in November, was produced with C.K's own money, edited entirely by him, and then released independently on his website, bypassing network cable and video.
C.K. asked his fans to contribute $5 directly to him via PayPal, in exchange for two streams and two downloads of the unencrypted, high-definition show. He explains that he chose the unorthodox method of sharing his special to see if releasing a video himself could potentially make money.
"I've never seen a check from a [TV] comedy special," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It never ends up being that. ... This time, I just thought this might be interesting to give this a try. Put it on my website, make it $5, make it really, really easy for people to enjoy. To make it as close to a viral video as possible, instead of having it on TV."
The file comes DRM-free, meaning people can download the file and transfer it over to other computers without entering a password to prove whether or not they purchased it. That also means the video is easier to pirate.
Before releasing the special, C.K. wrote on his website that he hoped his fans would buy his video — and not obtain it illegally through torrents online:
"I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can't stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way."
Within hours, though, C.K.'s video hit the most popular torrent sites. One torrenter uploader wrote:
"i kinda feel bad putting it here but people like louis ck gotta realize without torrents and the net he wouldnt be anywhere bc honestly louis i know ur here and i know u mite be mad at me but u gotta realize not everyone has paypal , not everyone has credit cards, some people use net lounges, some have barely money for food, art = comedy should be shared with the mass [sic]"
C.K. says that particular torrenter received thousands of notes from people who shouted him down and told him he shouldn't have posted the video.
"I've gotten so many tweets and emails from people who say, 'I torrent everything and I'm not torrenting this,' " he says. "Because the gap from stealing and buying with these things — for $5, you're almost stealing it. So it tips the scales more easily. And you don't have to join PayPal to buy this thing. The little things we did for this video ended up being very important."
C.K. decided to ask people for their email addresses, but only under an opt-in policy.
"The opt-out button says, 'Leave me alone forever, you fat idiot,' " he says. "And the opt-out button is chosen as a default. ... So little things like that have made a big difference to people who have bought the thing.
"And a friend of mine who does torrent stuff a lot says that when torrent users do buy something, they act like they're doing the greatest thing ever. ... They're saying, 'I bought something today. I paid for it. And I didn't steal it. I'm the greatest person alive.' "
Louis C.K., born Louis Szekely, is a writer, actor, producer, director and star of the FX series Louie.
The special, says C.K., was an experiment in figuring out how comics should release stand-up specials in the future.
"If I make a profit, that's terrific," he says. "If I don't and I'm outraced by the Internet thieving or whatever it is, it's not that big a loss to me. It's OK — a lot of people saw the video, and it was interesting. This has been such an education for me. ... And I've got the money back already. I broke even — and then some."
C.K's award-winning sitcom mines his own life for material. Take, for instance, the recent episode that dealt with the controversy of whether comedian Dane Cook stole jokes from C.K. Those were accusations that were made in real life on YouTube by C.K's fans.
"People would post his joke and my joke, and then they would comment who they thought stole what, and I always had very ambivalent feelings ... because he's a human being — and I felt a little weird about the whole thing," he says. "So I started to think about him while writing Season 2, and I thought it would be interesting to have us talk about it."
In the episode, Cook plays a fictional version of himself. C.K. calls Cook in for a meeting so that the two men can discuss the controversy and air their grievances — and so C.K. can ask Cook for a favor: to get Lady Gaga tickets for his teenage daughter. Cook explodes, calling C.K. a fraud for staying silent while letting his fans attack him.
"I thought, 'If I can make [Cook] the winner of the debate or at least an even match, then it's worth doing," he says. "Letting him call me a fraud was so much more interesting. I could have had him be a straw dog or had somebody else play him and gotten off on myself. But it was way more fun to go into something [with someone] who stole from me — supposedly — and have him call me a fraud. It's just so interesting."
For C.K., the episode worked exactly the way he had intended it to.
"You felt like you were in a really private and stressful and intense place with two people," he says. "It worked perfectly for me. ... Dane, I think, was seen as a human being. [Previously,] I was seen as a victim and he was seen as this monster. And neither were true. I wanted us both to become human. He's not a terrible guy. He's a human being. He might have made some mistakes — but he's a person. ... Dane's success was so massive. I think it's really hard to go through something like that. There's no way people lift you that high without tearing you down."
Other comedians featured on the show have included Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Doug Stanhope and Joan Rivers, who plays herself in an episode where C.K. is doing stand-up at an Atlantic City casino. After the owner tells him to clean up his act, C.K. quits — and Rivers tells him that his principled position — quitting because he couldn't tell jokes about the casino itself — is a really dumb move.
"She said, 'Know when you're lucky,' [to me in the episode],' " says C.K. "And the entire early part of my career was learning that lesson. I've said what she said here to young comics. I've had comics complain to me, 'This place didn't let me do this.' And I've said, 'Shut up. You're a comedian for a living.' "
C.K. says he has long admired Rivers.
"She's just so good, and she tries so hard," he says. "And on the phone with me, she just started saying, 'Why not try this, this, this?' And I'm furiously writing it down. And she made it funnier. And then she showed up and put in a harder day of work than almost anybody I worked with. She just worked so hard. She was great."
On limiting what you can say onstage
"When you're young as a comic, you don't have a lot of leverage. So if they don't like what you're doing, they tell you to shut up. It's not based on some morality. ... So you think you're high and mighty, and you think [you're taking a] principled position, but if your principle is that you want to say your art and say your speech to the world, then shutting yourself up because you don't get to say [inappropriate things] is dumb. It's not a principle. And also, you gotta work."
On doing jokes for wounded soldiers at Army hospitals
"When you do USO, the last thing they want you to do is turn around and say anything controversial — sexually or otherwise ... because they don't want any trouble. So here's what always happens: You find yourself in front of a room of wounded veterans, and they just want to have fun. They want to see you go crazy. So every time I did these shows, I would start polite, and then I would maybe test the waters with one something dirty, and they would go crazy. And I'm looking at a bunch of guys who want relief, who want to laugh. And listen, if you had an IED take away part of your sex life, I think laughing about sex is actually a relief for you. These guys just laughed so hard at the sex jokes that I just got dirtier and dirtier."
On his USO appearances
"I would be told by a battery of people to keep it clean, keep it clean. And then I'd go onstage and the soldiers would beg me to get dirty, and I would get really dirty. And then I'd come offstage and apologize. And I started to realize that's what they all wanted me to do, including the people who were telling me to keep it clean."
On emails from people who saw some of his clean stand-up
"I get a lot of email from people saying, 'I saw something you did on TV that was clean.' Like I did this clip on Conan that went viral that everything is amazing and no one is happy, and it just was about appreciating what the world is like and not grousing about it. And it got really popular with Christian groups. And I heard that a lot of pastors would play it before their services and stuff. So a lot of people that saw it would go to my website and be horrified by everything else that I say.
So I got a lot of emails from people saying, 'Why can't you just keep it clean? Because I am now shut off from your act by the horrible things you said, and that's such a shame.' And I would not usually respond to them because I don't return emails, but in my head and to a few of them I said, 'Well, you're the one putting the limit. Not me. I'm saying a bunch of stuff, and you're the one saying I should only say one facet of it.' That's a limit. But at the same time, when these people would write to me I'd kind of like them. Whenever I've encountered a Christian saying, 'Why don't you stop talking like that so I can hear you?' I think, 'Well you're the one putting the earmuffs on, but I wish you could hear me because I like you.'
On people who identify as 'right-wing'
"There's been a lot of simple vilification of right-wing people. It's really easy to say, 'Well, you're Christian, you're anti-this and that, and I hate you.' But to me, it's more interesting to say, 'What is this person like and how do they really think?' Do I have any common ground with people like that who find me really, really offensive? Do I have common ground with them? It's worth exploring."
On the recent death of comedian Patrice O'Neal
"I lost my friend Patrice. I'm sorry. [pauses] Patrice died of a diabetic coma. He didn't take good care of himself. And there's part of me that's upset with him for not taking good care of himself, because he took himself away from us."
On letting his young daughters see his work
"There are things in the show I'm able to show them. There's an episode about Halloween that I showed them parts of. There's a lot of things they're able to see. They're just fun stories. And my daughters, I think they really enjoy what I do. There are certainly some things they can't see in Louie because ... the language is grown-up and is for adults. They know that. They get it. I've played them some George Carlin clips that have cursing in them. I explain it to my kids that some people get uncomfortable or their feelings get hurt by certain words, so you want to respect that in regular life, but there is a reason for these words. They're not just 'bad.' So I'm bringing them along. They'll see this stuff when it's appropriate to see it."