DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli of Broadcasting and Cable Magazine and tvworthwatching.com sitting in for Terry Gross. Our first guest today, comedian Louis C.K., has a new standup special called "Chewed Up." It premiered last weekend on the Showtime cable network and will be released in December in both CD and DVD formats. Here's a quick taste.
Mr. LOUIS "C.K." SZEKELY (Comedian): Kids are like buckets of disease that live in your house, and you get sick from them all the time. I got some - last week, I had a flu that I caught because my daughter coughed into my mouth, just hit me right in the back of the throat. Why thanks, honey, I'm sick right now. I can feel it already. She did this, by the way, because she was trying to tell me a secret, and she thinks you tell secrets into people's mouths. She takes her whole face, which is inconsiderate, brutal, and retarded behavior, if you ask me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SZEKELY: And by the way, she's five - five years old. What secret does she have that I really need to hear? Like, she's going to tell me a secret, and I'm going to go holy (bleep), are you serious? Oh my god. Honey, I won't tell anybody. That is (bleep) up seriously. She got an abortion on Christmas Eve? Oh my god.
BIANCULLI: Louis C.K. from his new standup comedy special "Chewed Up." Before going solo as a comic, Louis C.K. wrote for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "Late Show with David Letterman," and "The Chris Rock Show." He then starred in his own sitcom, HBO's short-lived "Lucky Louie." He's currently on a national tour of an all-new comedy act called "Louis C.K. Hilarious." And next year, he'll appear in the movie "This Side of the Truth" along with Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner. Terry spoke to Louis C.K. in 2006 and asked him about his early work writing for other comics.
TERRY GROSS: How did you end up in comedy? Your first career, I think, was working as a mechanic.
Mr. SZEKELY: I do. Well, yeah, it wasn't really a career. I just - I did it while I was doing comedy at night. I would go working in garages, fixing mufflers and brakes and stuff. And I loved fixing cars. I actually did think at one point that that's what I want to do because I was able to do it. But I just loved stand-up my whole life. And I grew up in Boston, and they had - I heard something on the radio about open mic night at a comedy club, that anyone that wanted to could go in and try it.
And I - just as soon as I knew that existed, I went and tried it. And I was very bad and unfunny, and I bombed. And I tried it again, and I was bad again, but I just kept at it. And yeah, it was an obsession with me. And when I was in junior high school, I did a lot of drugs, and I got in a lot of trouble. So I think that when I started doing that stuff, my mother was unbelievably supportive. I lived at home at some ages that I shouldn't have. I would leave and then come back, and she was always very helpful because I just wasn't any longer a criminal charge or a drug addict. She was so happy that I was doing anything legal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Eventually, David Letterman hired you to be a writer on his show, and this was after you were a guest on his show. Did you so impress him as a guest that he hired you as a writer?
Mr. SZEKELY: No, it was kind of the other way around because I had written on Conan. Conan - I was there from the beginning of the show. Me and a bunch of guys got hired as writers before it was on the air, so I got to launch that show as the first writing staff, which was a singularly great experience. And after I was gone from there, I'd been there for two years, and I left.
And then the Letterman show kind of heard that I was sort of one of the good writers on Conan, so they wanted to snap me up, and they offered me a writing job. And I said, you got to let me be a stand-up on the show first because that was my dream, to do stand-up on Letterman. So they let me do stand-up on the show first, and the following week, I was hired as a writer.
GROSS: Well, let's talk about being one of the first writers on Conan O'Brien's show and launching the show. You know, just to refresh everybody's memory, when Conan O'Brien's show started, everybody thought he would fail. Like, who is this guy, and why was he chosen to get this prestigious late-night spot that everybody wanted? So what were some of the things that you tried to think of as a writer to help establish, like, who he was and what the show's identity was?
Mr. SZEKELY: It's funny. We didn't really think that way. We just were - we were very young. I mean, everybody was young. When I met Conan, he was 30, which amazes me now. And Robert Smigel, who is the head of that show, was 29. And I was 25, I guess, and the writers ran the range between those ages. But anyway, we just were trying to be really funny.
And Conan, what I really admire him more about anything was how much courage he had then because he really was an unpracticed, uncertain performer, but he tried bits that I've seen really veteran comedians and broadcasters walk away from because they're just too risky and too strange. But he'd go, sure, I'll try that. For all of his greenness, he was like, I'll try that completely ridiculous bit that will probably bomb, and he would stand there and sell it. That was...
GROSS: Can you give us an example?
Mr. SZEKELY: Yeah, there was last night on "Conan O'Brien," and then we'd show this really lush action sequences that we - that would make it look like Conan's show is like "Dallas," with cliffhangers at the end of every show. And we had, like, cars going off cliffs that we, you know, that we borrowed footage from like, you know, stock footage companies. But, yeah, him - and they'd be having fist fights and, you know, women dressed in, you know, gowns yelling at each other and stuff. That's the first, actually, pretty easy to laugh at, pretty fun.
But then I'd hang Conan out to dry on other stuff like, oh what's a good example? I remember it's kind of that - it's kind of an important thing for a writer to go through to watch somebody bomb with your material and feel that empathy for them and realize the positions you put them in. We did a show, a thing on Conan that I created called Actual Items, where we do the thing where you show small town news, and you're amazed that how silly the items are, and you say how they're real. But we would make ours up so they'd be ridiculous, you know. We had one that I wrote that was for coins. Sometimes in like "TV Guide," you see old coins for sale that you can mail away for.
Mr. SZEKELY: And the things - the things said these coins are so old that you could buy slaves with them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SZEKELY: And, you know, awfully offensive joke. And he didn't really want to do it, but I said, come on, don't be a baby. And he did it, and it got roundly booed. And he sat there with the big smile on his face, and he just took that boo. And I was sitting safely by the doors, nobody was clobbering me. I learned at that moment, like, it's just not fair to make other people bomb with your stuff, as cute as you think it is.
GROSS: You - you used to write for the Chris Rock show, his HBO variety kind of show. And I think people are probably very surprised to hear that because so much of Chris Rock's humor is about being black, and you're not black.
Mr. SZEKELY: Hmm.
GROSS: So did you have - did you end up writing sketches that are - or writing monologues that were about being black. And if so, what's that like?
Mr. SZEKELY: Well, it's funny, when I started writing at "Chris Rock," I think a lot of us, the white writers, were conscious of it. And at one point, Chris said, stop thinking of this is a black show. This is not a black show. Just write the weird stuff you did at Conan and write it here. Like we had two fake PSAs, like those Latter-Day Saints PSAs, a black guy and a white guy see each other on a dark street, and they're both scared. And you hear their interior monologue, you know, what is he doing in my neighborhood, you know. Is he going to rob me? Those were always funny to me, too, because, like, the black guy is worried the white guy is going to rob him? You know, come on now, really? So the black and the white guy meet on the street, and they're both kind of scared, and they say, what do you want? You want something? Maybe I do want something. And then also they start making out, like just kissing, really.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SZEKELY: And we got this interracial gay couple to shoot this with us. And then the voiceover says, gay sex brings men together of all races.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SZEKELY: And that is like, you know, gay sex, whatever. It was brought you by the Latter Day - Church of Latter-Day Gay Sex. That was HBO. You could do that. Anyway, that got about four minutes of sustained laughter and screaming from his audience. That was one of my favorite moments of my life, probably. It's only for a show that - to Chris' audience. And they just went berserk. It was great.
BIANCULLI: Our guest today is comedian Louis C.K., who's currently on tour with a new standup routine. Here's another piece from his standup act "Louis C.K.: Chewed Up," which premiered on Showtime last week.
(Soundbite of TV special "Chewed Up")
Mr. SZEKELY: So I'm driving to Walgreens. It was nighttime, and I'm driving, and then I see a deer. And (bleep) I hate deer. I hate them because they're everywhere up there. I used to live in the city, and I loved deer then because I was this liberal in the city. I'd see deer, and, you know, you drive with your friends out to the country, and you see a deer, and everybody is like, turn off the car. Don't scare the deer. It's just so beautiful. Look at the beautiful deer. Look how he looks around. It's just so mysterious and beautiful. God gave us a gift. Everybody just enjoy it and just enjoy the gift of a beautiful deer.
But now I live - and deer are in my (bleep) yard everyday, and they suck. They're just rats with hooves. They don't matter. They have ticks that give you Lyme disease, and they (bleep) everywhere. And they make a noise, did you know that? They go (noise). I go out every morning and throw rocks at them. And I try really hard to hit them on the head with rocks.
BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Louis C.K. in 2006 when his HBO series "Lucky Louie" was on the air.
GROSS: What were some of the sitcoms that you grew up with, the ones that you particularly liked and one that you particularly did not?
Mr. SZEKELY: I always liked "All in the Family." I loved, and I always loved "The Honeymooners." When I would see it in reruns and stuff, even more so later in life, "The Honeymooners." But I just thought "All in the Family" was such an awesome show. And I also like "Good Times" and also "Barney Miller," which doesn't have much relation to this show except for that - the people in "Barney Miller" are very ordinary. You would never see a guy like Jack Soo being the star of a sitcom today or the dude that played Wojciehowicz, you know. Those were just average Americans. And - so there was a lot I loved about that show, too.
I didn't like shows like - and this is just personal, subjective. I don't judge these shows. They just didn't hit with me - shows like "Cheers," when I started getting older, and "Frasier" and those shows and "Friends." I just don't connect with those shows. They're very slick, and they're very perfect. And the people are pretty, and they're shot very nicely, and they stopped feeling like these raw theatrical productions that I grew up watching, these Norman Lear shows where people are just dropping wild, wild statements in front of an audience, and you just feel the kinetic energy of this kind of honesty. That's what I thought that sitcoms where supposed to be, so when they became this kind of trading of Harvard-written-writerly lines and, you know, cuteness, I stopped being interested. That's just personal.
GROSS: The thing is, you know, you're talking about these working-class type of sitcoms that you're really related to and not relating to the more, you know, middle class or upper middle class ones, though "Cheers" was officially working class...
Mr. SZEKELY: Officially, right.
GROSS: But, you know, your character, Louie, on the sitcom is a part-time mechanic. Your parents met at Harvard, from what I read. So if they met at Harvard and were going to school there....
Mr. SZEKELY: Well, my mother was from Michigan, and she went to school in Michigan, but she went to Harvard for her summer school one year. And that's where she met my dad, who was a Mexican migrant student, I guess you'd call it. He was going to take some grad school classes there. They're not like two well-raised rich people that went to Harvard. My mother sort of saved and got it - bought herself some classes at Harvard. My dad came up to try to finish his schooling there.
But my dad is - I mean, when I was growing, he was still trying to pursue a degree, I think. And my mom raised us. She'd taught school part-time, and she worked as computer programmer, which she still does today. And so she really supported us. And actually, my parents were divorced when I was about 10 years old.
So I was really raised by my mom, single mom, with four kids in a half - we had rented the lower half of a two-family house with - cramped little place. And so, we didn't have anything. When I was growing up, we had no money. And one memory that my sisters and I always laugh about is saying to my mother, mom, I'm hungry. And she'd say, well, make yourself a baloney sandwich. And I'd go, well, I don't like baloney. And she'd say, well, then you're not that hungry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SZEKELY: So, that's how we were raised. And notice that I'm making myself the baloney sandwich. My mother never made us any. We had a microwave, which meant she never - we made our own meals. And it was just that we fended for ourselves. She worked all day. She had a huge amount of work to do raising us, so everyone had to sort of pitch in and - so I watched her go through a lot of times where there wasn't a lot. And she educated herself. She went and got herself computer experience and started to do that.
GROSS: But when you were getting raised by your mother, and she had four kids and worked all the time, were you sympathetic to that? Were you like angry with her because she wasn't like cooking you dinner, or were you sympathetic there or helpful to the fact, you know, to her because you saw that - how difficult it was for her?
Mr. SZEKELY: I did, absolutely. That - I always thought of that. She never made us feel guilty or anything, but I always felt like - we all felt like we're in the effort together. We'd go shopping together, you know. And my mother tried - you know, she was very kind. So, like. if you've got to go shopping with her, it was great because she would always just - when she - she'd open - get a bag of cookies and open them while we shopped, and we'd eat them while we shop.
So, you know, I liked her. I liked my mom. She's nice. So, yes, I did sympathized her, and actually, I didn't go to college because she had three girls in college when I graduated high school. And she was really struggling mightily because, when Ronald Reagan was president, and he didn't care what you're coping with, you just had to pay on your own.
So when I graduated high school, I was such a lousy student that I thought, I can't just go like some of my friends that have more money were just going to college just to go drink because that's what you do next. But I really couldn't see doing that because I knew she couldn't really afford it. So I just passed and didn't go, didn't continue school because I didn't want to cost her the money. I guess that was the one thing I did that was the most sympathetic.
GROSS: One of the things that your character is dealing with in your show "Lucky Louie" is, you know, trying - he's trying to make friends with his neighbors next door. They're an African-American couple. He wants to be their friends. He's also very self conscious of the fact that they're black, and he's white. So in wanting to do the right thing, he often does the wrong thing. Can you talk a little bit about trying to right that relationship and what issues you're trying to raise there?
Mr. SZEKELY: Well, that comes out a lot of reality in my life because it's just - my generation was segregated from black people. And I grew up in - near Boston, which is a very segregated city. There was zero black people lived where I lived, and they were in our school, and I used to just awkwardly sit at their table because I wanted to know them. And eventually, I did make friends with a lot of them, but it had to be done awkwardly, that the races are still segregated amazingly, and the only way to actually come across and make contact is to do it self-consciously, kind of racistly, you know.
Because you're really saying, I want to know you because you're black. There's just no other way to do it, and it is important to me that my daughter know black people. I wanted her to know everybody - I don't want her to have this - so I have to make this dumb effort. So that story became really important, and actually, the part that I tell in the pilot is a true story, that a black fellow...
GROSS: You describe the story, yeah.
Mr. SZEKELY: We were living, actually, in Upstate New York at a time and black guy - there's nobody black where we were up there - black guy came to fix our refrigerator, and my daughter really bonded with him over the course of the day. You know, she was like two, and when kids are that age some - knowing somebody for a day, it's like she's known him forever, you know. She just really liked the guy and he - she would say refrigerator, and he'd say, yeah, refrigerator, refrigerator. And then we came to New York City, and we're on the subway, and she pointed at the first black guy she saw and said refrigerator.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SZEKELY: And I was so shocked and horrified, and I thought, oh my God, I have to get this little girl around some black people. This is not cool. So, it's, yes, it's weird. Because of the segregation, you have to make these awkward unnatural efforts.
GROSS: You're a father of two kids?
Mr. SZEKELY: I have two kids, yeah.
GROSS: Has it been hard for you to be the authority figure and set limits for your children because it seems to me that when you were young, you were probably the kind of kid who was always violating those limits and defying the authority figures in your life.
Mr. SZEKELY: Yes, that's - I don't know how you picked up on that, but that's true. No, it is weird to be saying, now, don't you do this because I identify with anybody who does something they shouldn't be doing, including my daughters. And, you know, part of you wants them to build that strength, too. Like part of you, when your daughter is screaming at you because she doesn't want to put on her shoes or whatever crazy thing, you want to, you know, throw her in a garbage bin, but at the same time, you're proud of her, and you're happy that she's building the strength and the skill to stand up for herself, you know. I mean, it's just, there's so much drama in just trying to do the simplest thing with your kid.
Every time I tried to discipline my kid, my wife would - will undercut. Like, I would be locked in a battle of wills with my daughter, and to the point, here's the point that it got to - I was giving my daughter a bath, and I said, it's time to brush your teeth. And she said no. She just refused to brush her teeth. And I said, OK, if you don't brush your teeth, then no books tonight. You're not going to get any books. And she said, yes books and no brush my teeth. She's like a monkey, you know, that just learned to talk. I'm like, no no. No brushing teeth, no books. It's that simple. Yes books, no brushing teeth. And so - and then she said, you brush my teeth. This is how it goes, see, it's like really tricky. You brush my teeth. And I'm thinking, is that compromise? Am I giving in by brushing her teeth? And I just made a quick judgment, I said, no, you brush your teeth or no books.
And then my wife said from the other room - my wife was listening, and my wife said, can you please come in here for a minute? And my - and I go, no, I can't. And then my daughter said, yes, go talk to Mama, go talk to Mama right now because she knew what's going to happen. So I go in the other room, and then my wife says, it's not a good idea to use books as a weapon. They are important to her. And also, I brush her teeth sometimes for her, and you should do that. And I go, no, that's not the point. The point is you - it's I'm right no matter what. You have to go with me. You can't do this to me. And so I go in the other room, and she says, what did mama say?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SZEKELY: And I'm like, nothing. She didn't say anything. No yes, she said that I don't have to. She said I don't have to like she knew it.
BIANCULLI: Louis C.K. speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. His current TV standup special, "Louise C.K.: Chewed Up," is available on Showtime on Demand, and it will be released in December on CD and DVD. He's currently on tour with an all new routine called "Hilarious." I'm David Bianculli, and this is Fresh Air.