Comedian Louis C.K.: Finding Laughs Post-Divorce On the FX series Louie, comedian Louis C.K. plays a divorced father of two — in other words, a guy just like the real Louis C.K. The series is a sequel of sorts to his first show, Lucky Louie, in which he played a married father of two — which he was at the time.

Comedian Louis C.K.: Finding Laughs Post-Divorce

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Married life wasn't easy for comic Louis C.K., and neither is being a divorced father, at least that's the impression you get from his comedy series. He was a married father when he created and starred in the HBO series "Lucky Louie," in which he constantly quarreled with his wife.

In his new FX series "Louie," he plays a stand-up comic who is divorced and shares custody of his two young daughters, which pretty much describes C.K.'s current situation.

Earlier in his career, he wrote for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "The Late Show with David Letterman," and "The Chris Rock Show." In his new show "Louie," we get to see his character at work, doing standup in a small club. Let's start with an excerpt of him performing at the club.

(Soundbite of television program, "Louie")

Mr. LOUIS C.K. (Comedian): It's hard to start again after a marriage. It's hard to really, like, look at somebody and go, hey, maybe something nice will happen. You just don't - I know too much about life to have any optimism because I know even if it's nice, it's going to lead to (BEEP). I know that if you smile at somebody, and they smile back, you've just decided that something (BEEP) is going to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: You might have a nice couple of dates, but then she'll stop calling you back. Or you'll date for a long time, and then she'll have sex with one of your friends, or you will with one of hers. Or you'll get married, and it won't work out, and you'll get divorced and split your friends and money, and that's horrible. Or you'll meet the perfect person, who you love infinitely, and you even argue well, and you grow together, and you have children, and then you get old together, and then she's going to die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: That's the best-case scenario.

GROSS: That's Louis C.K., doing stand-up from the opening episode of his new series, "Louie." Louis C.K., welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a real pleasure to have you back on this show.

Mr. C.K.: Thank you. I love this show. It's my favorite radio show, so I'm very happy to be back.

GROSS: Oh, gee, thank you. Thank you so much.

Mr. C.K.: Yes, easily.

GROSS: So in your first series, "Lucky Louie," you were finding it hard to be a family man, lots of friction with your wife. In the new series, you're divorced, and so are you the real person divorced.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: Yes, I am.

GROSS: So when you the real person got divorced, was there just a little voice in your head saying you know, this can make a good new series?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: It took me about a year and a half to catch up to it. I actually, you know, you never can look forward in life. Like, every door you walk through, you think oh, that's the end of everything now.

So when I got divorced, I thought well, there goes my act. I mean, I've been talking about being married for so long. And I also thought being a dad was really part of being married. So - and then I got divorced, and then everything changed, and I became a father in a whole new way and found a whole new set of difficulties also.

So it took about a year for me to go hey, I'm accumulating stories here that are worth telling.

GROSS: Are you doing joint custody?

Mr. C.K.: Yes, yeah, definitely. So I have the kids about half of every week. And they're with me, just me in my apartment, and then they go with their mom.

I mean, their mom is still a very big part of my life. We are sharing raising the kids. So yeah, it's new.

GROSS: So when you decided to do your new series "Louie," about Louie C.K. as a single man, single father. What were some of the first situations that came to mind that you wanted your character to experience?

Mr. C.K.: Well, the things that jumped out immediately that I dealt with that felt unique to me or new to me were raising kids as just a dad, which is, you know, when you're a father in a marriage, you sort of become the mother's assistant, and you sort of get a list from her every day, and you do, you know, you run down the list, and it feels very much like a chore. And a lot of fathers live in kind of an avoidance. They sit on the toilet for several hours a day...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: And, you know, just run errands that take all - oh, honey, it took me 40 minutes to go to the post office, you know, and - but then once you take it on on your own, I always loved being with my kids, and I spent as much time as I could with them. I've never done any - when I'm not working, I'm with my kids. That's always been. When we were married, it was like that, too. I never went and played golf or hung out with my friends, because I really am attached to my children.

But once you become a dad without the mom there, you have to take it all on, and you sort of activate male skills that you didn't know you could apply to fatherhood.

I mean, I'm a filmmaker, and I direct movies. I produce TV shows. I should be able to dress a couple of kids and get them out of the house in the morning.

GROSS: But, but...

Mr. C.K.: Well, I mean, it's hard because you're fighting chaos constantly. It's just a constant fighting of chaos. But I definitely have a different style as a father than I did when I was doing it in a partnership.

Now, it's - I let a lot of chaos happen because I kind of can - I can handle it. When two kids are being completely berserk, and they're naked and throwing food around, sometimes I just let it go because I can see a future where they're going to be dressed, and they're going to be at school. So I kind of let stuff go sometimes.

Other times, I clamp down on everything and say you just - anything, if it's - sometimes with kids, you have to say if it's the thing that you want, then you can't have it, based on that, based on the fact that you want it because kids needs period of withholding constantly, you know.

But these are all things that I discovered on my own as a dad because before, I just sort of was doing what I was told. And now it's, you know, it's up to me. So that's exciting and overwhelming at the same time.

GROSS: Do you find it challenging to be responsible for the lives of two people or, as you put it in one of your stand-up routines, you're responsible for somebody I have to make not die?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: Yes, that's your primary responsibility is to deflect murder and death off of your children. But on top of that, you have to make them comfortable. You know, there's layers here. Make them comfortable, make them not die, make them, you know, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and then there's actually raise them and do something.

That's the hard part because every parent, you're just trying to get through the day. It's just the days of, they wake you up at six. And there's no time - you know, I'm a person who tends to fall into depressions and sleep a lot and eat a lot. I can't really do that because if my kids are with me, there's nobody there to cover for me.

So at six in the morning, they're next to my bed, waiting to seize life. And I can't just go back to sleep. I have to get up and drag them to school, you know, and pick them up at school.

The days that I have custody with them, I'm never working. I just drop work and I do kids. I pick them up at school, I feed them breakfast, dinner, lunch, put them to bed, give them their baths, get their teeth brushed, all that stuff.

GROSS: So what was it like for you to start dating again after your divorce?

Mr. C.K.: Well, it was - that was one of the strangest things because you sort of feel like you just got out of prison, you know, and they give you the suit you were convicted in, and they give you a paper bag with a few, you know, with a watch and a wallet in it. Maybe it's got two silver certificates.

And then they give you, you know, some nominal eight dollars and a bus ticket. And then you're like, what? And the cars are going way too fast. You can't cross the street, you know, and you're considering going into the hotel room and hanging yourself after carving your initials.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: You know, it's definitely like - there's not a lot of women my age single. If they're single, it's because something happened or didn't happen. So I started immediately, immediately, dating women that were younger than me, and that's a very strange dynamic. You know, and from their point of view, it's like they're dating a dead person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: Like a corpse. I think that's how I see myself through their eyes, the way they look at me. It's like, is this guy - he smells weird. He's sort of half-dead.

GROSS: But that's the thing that always gets me about men who date much younger women. Does it make the older man feel younger or older?

Mr. C.K.: No, God, no, it makes you feel older. And actually, it's interesting because you don't - I never - I used to look at older men that date younger women and kind of go ew, or he must be really shallow, you know, to need to be with somebody who he outweighs experientially that much.

But what happens is that younger women really like older guys, and they pursue you. Like, I didn't go after young women. I just stood there, and here they came and said hey, I'm interested in you because they don't look - it's kind of hard to describe. Like, I know why it won't work because I've lived 42 years. If she's lived, whatever, 28 years, she doesn't know how it's going to go. So she just goes hey, this is fun.

And women are more creative sexually. So they can look at a guy who is decaying and see something in that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: You know, like the way that certain people like the fall, you know, instead of the spring. But men aren't like that. That's kind of, you know, I think that's kind of what's going underneath.

GROSS: You know, in some of your standup, you're really funny about your body and, you know, having what you describe as a bit of a belly or whatever, which you actually lift up and show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: Sure. Take a look, everybody.

GROSS: And you're really funny in describing it. So dating younger woman must, especially if they're, like, you know, very attractive, must make you feel more self-conscious about things that you don't like about your body.

Mr. C.K.: It sometimes - you know, I don't know. I have a weird thing about me which is that I'm pretty self-confident. I don't - I definitely look at my body, and I go yuck. This is, like, look at the lumps and the irregularities and the mismatched, you know, the bottom doesn't match the top.

I don't, you know, but I don't care. It doesn't bother me. It's not something that makes me feel bad. I definitely see it, and I - you know, objectively looking at my body, I'm not impressed, but if I'm with a woman, and she wants to be with me, she must like me. I don't worry that much about - I definitely have sex with my T-shirt on always.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: I haven't had sex without a shirt on, God, since I was about 23.

GROSS: Is that true?

Mr. C.K.: Yeah, I just don't think it's fair. I mean, you know, let her think she's with somebody decent, you know.

Like on the show, I do have sex sometimes on the show, and there's a rule in my head that I have to be on my back because...

GROSS: Because your stomach flattens?

Mr. C.K.: Well, no, no, God, no. I don't think - I'm not laying back in the bed thinking I look awesome right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: It's because I think I should always be the victim of the sex. I shouldn't be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: I don't think anyone wants to see me looming over her. I think that's an upsetting image for most. And then also, the puppy - the stomach I get. The mother-dog stomach that I get when I'm kind of - you get the point. It's not good.

So yeah, on my back, T-shirt, I'm okay. I can hang with that. I can be okay with a young woman, on my back, T-shirt on. Anything else, it's not fair.

GROSS: That's funny. All right. My guest is Louie C.K., and he has a new series called "Louie" that's on FX Tuesday nights right after "Rescue Me," and it's kind of a sequel to his earlier series "Lucky Louie." That series was about being a married father, and this series is about being a comic and a divorced father.

Louie, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is comic Louie C.K., and he has a new series, in which he stars as a character named Louis C.K.. It's on FX Tuesday nights, right after "Rescue Me," and in this one, he plays a comic and a divorced single father.

There's a great scene in the second episode. You're playing poker with a bunch of comics. One of the comics is gay, and so everybody's kind of ragging on him, but they're also kind of curious about certain things that gay people do and where they hang out.

And then you ask if he minds when you use the word faggot in a routine. And I want to play an excerpt of that scene.

Mr. C.K.: Sure.

(Soundbite of television program, "Louie")

Mr. C.K.: (As Louie) Does it offend you when I say that word?

Mr. RICK CROM (Comedian): (As Rick) What word, hello?

Mr. C.K.: No, faggot.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Yes, does it bother you when he says the word faggot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROM: No, it bothers me when you say it because you mean it.

Mr. C.K.: Yeah, but really, it's like, as a comedian, a gay guy, you're the only gay comic I know. Do you think I shouldn't be using that word onstage?

Mr. CROM: I think you should use whatever words you want. I mean, when you use it onstage, I can see it's funny, and I don't care. But are you interested to know what it might mean to gay men?

Mr. C.K.: Yeah, I am interested.

Mr. CROM: Well, the word faggot really means a bundle of sticks used for kindling in a fire. Now, in the Middle Ages, when they used to burn people they thought were witches, they used to burn homosexuals, too. And they used to burn the witches at a stake, but they thought the homosexuals were too low and disgusting to be given a stake to be burned on. So they used to just throw them in with the kindling, with the other faggots. So that's how you get flaming faggot.

Mr. C.K.: So what you're saying is gay people are a good alternative fuel source.

Unidentified Man #1: That's how they get the term diesel dyke.

Mr. C.K.: I'm sorry, go ahead.

Mr. CROM: You might want to know that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them when they're being beaten up, sometimes many times, sometimes by a lot of people all at once. So when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. But, you know, by all means use it, get your laughs. But, you know, now you know what it means.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Okay, thanks, faggot, we'll keep that in mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a scene from Louie C.K.'s new series, "Louie." So who is the comic who is explaining what the word faggot means?

Mr. C.K.: That's Rick Crom. And Rick is a comedian, lives in New York City, and he's just this guy who I met. I started in Boston, when I was about 18 years old, doing standup. And in Boston, you didn't meet a lot of openly gay people.

Usually, when people said I'm gay, the next thing they would say is ouch, you know. People - it wasn't a very giving place that way. And when I moved to New York City, he's probably the first openly gay person I ever met, I think. It's possible. I don't know, but definitely the first gay comedian I met.

Anyway, Rick, when I met him, I had that conversation with him about the word faggot. I asked him about it, and he said pretty much that to me. I mean, I wrote that scene as written. But he said it that way too, that he didn't lecture me or say you shouldn't say it. He just said, hey, if you're interested, it's totally devastating, and he gave me that information. And I never forgot it. I mean, I was about 22. I have said faggot on stage a number of times since then, but I don't - I know what I'm saying, and I know what it means now.

GROSS: So if you still use the word faggot on stage, how do you use it? What's the context?

Mr. C.K.: Well, I feel like when I get asked that, I get defensive about it. I start saying oh, well, no, it's okay that I say faggot because this or that, but to be really honest with you, I'm not sure why I say it.

I feel like I'm not sure I should be saying it. I say it sometimes, but it's an open question to me, and that's one of the reasons that I had this scene because I wanted - I thought that was something unique that I could show as a stand-up is that we do wonder about this stuff.

It feels right when I say it because I'm just saying it to be crazy or to be funny or to be extreme. But there are times I go, is this okay, really? What does that mean that I'm hurting people that I don't know, like, who are watching me on TV? What does that mean? And where are they coming from when they get hurt? And is it okay to hurt people?

Sometimes I think it is. Sometimes I think it isn't. It's an open question to me. I'm not sure. I'm not sure why I'm so often disgusting on stage. I don't always know where it comes from. So that's one reason I put this out there, to say, well, you know, I don't know either. I do ask once in a while. I am doing the research.

GROSS: Who do you ask?

Mr. C.K.: Guys like Rick, you know, guys like Rick. And when I ask, I talk to - I have black friends. Chris Rock is one of my best friends, and we talk about racial topics on stage. You know, so I don't...

GROSS: So do you run things past him and say does this sound offensive, or is this okay?

Mr. C.K.: No, I don't think that way. I don't think that way. I don't think - like, I'm not worried about offending people. I feel like if I say something...

GROSS: You just said you were worried about offending people.

Mr. C.K.: I know, isn't that interesting? I go back and forth. It's not that I worry about it, but I think about it, and I don't - I think if you're using nitroglycerin, you've got to read the label, and you've got to be responsible and know what the dangers are. But I do think that if you know that something's dangerous, it doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't say it.

I think that to take hurtful speech that's running around the country and take it in and then regurgitate it back out in the form of comedy in order to take people to these dark places, my instinct is that that's a good idea because it makes them laugh in scary places, and it makes them think about them.

I don't think that that's a bad - when Chris and I talk about race, we just go to the worst places. And he used to call me and say how was it like being white today? Is it still great?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: And I'd go, oh, you don't have - and I'd say it's so good, Chris. You have no idea. I mean, I can walk down the street, and cops just are friendly to me, and you know, I get the benefit of the doubt.

I said that to him once, that I can get in a time machine and go to any period in history, and I'll be treated with politely. And I said Chris, you'll never be able to do that. You can't go past 1975 in a time machine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: But then I go, I can't go in the future because I don't want to find out what's going to happen to white people.

So these are all things that I arrived at by saying really inappropriate things to my black friend Chris Rock and to other people, and I think you've got to say them on stage to get to those truths, you know.

And to say it's awesome being white is a really arrogant, horrible, disgusting thing to say. But because I said that out loud on stage, and then I defended it and talked about it, I came out with a bit that I always get told by black people is so interesting and so real and so interesting for them to hear that perspective.

So that again, to say yeah, I'm a fat faggot, and then find out what gay people feel about it and then say it, talk about that. I think that's all positive. Talking is always positive. That's why I talk too much.

GROSS: I never heard that explanation of the word faggot or flaming faggot before. Is that, like, etymologically true?

Mr. C.K.: I don't know, and I've actually read things online where people are saying that's not accurate. I don't think it matters. I love that on all sorts of websites and gay blogs and stuff that this scene has sort of, like, stirred up conversation, which I think is just healthy.

And this scene is about a guy who believes that to be the true origin of the word, and it's about his feelings about it and what impact it has on me.

If it's not the real explanation of the word faggot, I don't think it matters. The point of the scene isn't to be accurate. It's not a news show. It's an exchange between characters.


GROSS: Do you have poker games like the one in this scene with other comics?

Mr. C.K.: Yeah. Not as much as I used to. It's hard for me, because everybody's smoking and I'm 42 and I can't stay up all night and play poker anymore. But those - that game - there's a guy in the game, Eddie Brill, who's really there because we play poker at his house every Monday. I don't go to that game very often anymore.

But that is something - comedians do get together sometimes and play poker. Rick and I had that conversation at the Comedy Cellar. And that scene starts with him telling us stories about a gay club, a sort of floating club called City Jerks in New York City. And what I love about Rick is that he's very centered in his sexuality. He's very confident. But heterosexual men are very not confident about gay s--like when they hear about it, they giggle like little girls. And there's been a lot of times at the Comedy Cellar where he'll tell stories about gay gatherings and all the hetero comedians who think they're so tough just turn into little children and they shriek.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: And they go, really? Is it really like that? What's it like? And he just says well, it's like this. And it's funny because, you know, gay men have to - they're put sort of a crucible. And I'm speak--you know, it's not - I'm just taking liberty in saying this. Gay men have to go through something to own their - who they are. They get beat up. They get ostracized. Whatever they go through, if they survive it, they come out very confident people.

They come out having been tested and having to really figure out who they are to get through it, because I think that's how you get through any kind of a test is by really finding your strengths and believing in yourself. So a lot of gay people who are still standing and still strong, that's who they are.

Heterosexual men have never been put through that test. We don't get -nobody goes, oh, my God, you like women? And you don't have to defend it for your whole life. So we're not so sure about our sexuality. I think that's one reason why heterosexual men attack gay people or are afraid of them because they're now confident and they've gone through this, but we don't know who we are sexually. We're a mess. So I think that that's why the two sides of the sexual barrier is such an interesting - it's such an interesting conflict.

GROSS: Since we're talking about your feelings about your body...

Mr. C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: I want to play a clip from the series "Louie" in which you're talking about feeling like you're in bad shape. And this is from an episode in which you think, like, maybe there's something wrong, and you go see a doctor. And the doctor is an old friend of yours who's played by Ricky Gervais, and he's really funny in it. But anyways, you're worried about your health. You're worried about your body. And so here is some of the standup that you do in that episode.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Louie")

Mr. C.K.: My days start poorly because of the shape I'm in, because now, also, I'm 42, so I'm getting - I'm really on the decline. There's never going to be another year of my life that was better than the year before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: That's never going to happen again. I've seen my best years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: And when I wake up in the morning, I just sit there, and I'm like, oh. Like it's an awful way to start your day. Every day starts with me, like, my eyes open, and I reload the program of misery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: I just open my eyes, remember who I am, what I'm like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: ...and I go, oh. I guess. I guess, do it. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: I guess. Oh, my God.

GROSS: That's Louie C.K. doing...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...standup from his new series "Louie."

So what really does get you most depressed about getting older? And really, 42 isn't very old.

Mr. C.K.: No, it's not, and I definitely have a heightened sense of the decay of my body. I think - it's fascinating to me. It doesn't bother me, really. Like it's - I feel like I'm definitely - I think that that's true what I say in that clip. I don't think I'm going to get better. And I do think the decline is pretty exponential. But I'm so happy to be getting to see it, you know? I like being witness to things. It's interesting. And it's much more interesting to be fighting the fast death of your body than to just be young and be able to do anything.

When you're on the upswing and you just can't really get hurt in a way that you're not going to heal from, I just think life is less interesting. When you realize that you've got about 12 days left and they're not going to be as fun as the last 12, it kind of puts you in a really heightened place. I like it, so I don't wake up and get - I mean, definitely, waking up is the hard part. Waking up and starting to move your muscles for the beginning of the day is hard. But, yeah, I know there's people listening who are, you know, 58, 62, that are just saying just shut up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: You're 42. You have no idea how springy you are right now and how elastic your limbs are. I'm sure it's going to get harder. But I feel more capable as a person than I did in my 20s and 30s. I look back at that person and I just kind of shrug, like, what was the point of any of that?

GROSS: So did you lose weight after separating from your wife?

Mr. C.K.: Yeah, I did. Because I went on the road and did standup for a good, solid - you know, I mean, that's what - it took me four years to get back on television, and during that time, I've been doing standup and touring heavily and doing standup specials. That became my - I got this new obsession to do a different hour of standup comedy every year and shoot a special and then throw the material away and start fresh. That's how I've been spending the last four years. And to do that, you really have to be at a top physical shape. And I've trained in boxing gyms with boxing trainers and sort of approached every special as the fight, you know, my new title fight.

So, yeah, I didn't have a goal to lose weight or to look better, but I lost weight because I was trying to get more stamina and trying to get -you know, when you're boxing, you have to think under pressure, and that's what standup is like. So it was a good kind of metaphorical training.

GROSS: So you actually trained with a boxer, not just lifting weights, but doing boxing?

Mr. C.K.: Yeah, I did, and sparred and stuff. I trained with Micky Ward for a while, who's this guy they're making a movie about. I think it's called "The Fighter." I'm not sure. But Micky Ward is this amazing Irish boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, and he - Micky is famous for fights he had with a guy named Arturo Gatti, where they went - they did three fights that are considered, by some people, the best three fights in history.

They just pummeled each other for 12 rounds every time, and they had a draw and they each won one. So they were just so perfectly matched. And I can't imagine how he did it. And so I met him, and what I learned is that it's, ah, it just - Micky will tell you, it's just training. You just got to train. You just got to be in shape. That's all it is. It's just getting in the gym and being dedicated enough to do the grunt work and the boring, constant training so that you'll be fit enough to take the beating.

It's no great - he didn't go to the North Pole and have an ice forest like Superman. He just worked out. So that's why I asked him to train, and he travelled with me a little bit. He came on the road with me, and we trained together, and I tried to draw from him and learn how to do that.

GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K. He created and stars in the new FX comedy series "Louie."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Louis C.K., and he has a new series on FX, right after "Rescue Me," which is called "Louie." And he plays somebody named Louis C.K., who is a divorced father and a father of two, and also a standup comic.

So since you play yourself, or a character with the same name as yourself in the series, do you wear your own clothes?

Mr. C.K.: That's a funny question. Yeah, I do. I wear - always - I just get dressed and go to the set. And, you know, it's just pretty much, I'm a guy that'll wear T-shirt and jeans, and sometimes I throw a polo over the T-shirt. And if it's cold, I throw on a sweatshirt. That's it. That's me. And I've tried throughout my career to - I'd love to be a guy in a suit. I thought when I started doing standup, I would wear suits because I just love that look of a dude in a suit, but I can't -If I put on a suit I just start melting, and it comes out, you know, the shirt comes out of the pants and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: I don't have a waist, so the pants go down to my, you know, halfway down my legs, and I can't pull it off. I need to wear cotton, and I need to wear simple, cotton clothes. So that's - on our show, we don't have any makeup. Nobody wears makeup. And I always try to get people to wear their own clothes, the other characters, also - though if there's somebody who's a specific kind of character we do - we dress them.

We have a very - a great wardrobe person. She's really smart, but I don't need her for me. Nobody touches my head when I'm working. I don't get makeup. I don't get hair. I mean, people don't walk around with coiffed hair and even facial tones and crisp, new clothing. It's just not reality. So - and it's not compelling on film to watch, either. You know, I grew up watching films in the '70s, you know, watching characters like Popeye Doyle on, you know, the "French Connection." They're just sweaty, gritty people. So I guess that's the way I see myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So there's one episode where you're wearing a suit. You show up for a date, and you're wearing a suit, and she's shocked. And she thinks...

Mr. C.K.: Yes.

Right ...what is this, some kind of formal thing? And you're making all kinds of excuses. And you do look very uncomfortable in the suit.

Mr. C.K.: Yes. Yeah, I had - that was the first thing I thought. I mean, what I wanted to do in the pilot was...

GROSS: You kind of look like your parents said to you, you have to wear a suit for this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: Yeah, it's like I'm going to the prom.

GROSS: Yes. Exactly.

Mr. C.K.: And that definitely was a good way to show - and, you know, the guy that I am on the show is definitely me without any of the anything I've learned. It's just me making horrible mistakes that I don't make in real life, but that are inside of me. They're the things I would do if I didn't think for a second. And wearing a suit to pick up a, you know, kind of an alt chick in the Lower East Side who's wearing a, you know, a T-shirt and jeans is a mistake I could make if I didn't think for a second. Yeah.

GROSS: Now, there's an episode in "Louie" in which the comic Nick Di Paolo costars and...

Mr. C.K.: Yes.

GROSS: ...he's on stage saying really nasty things about, not only Obama, but anyone who supported him or still supports him.

Mr. C.K.: Sure.

GROSS: And you get into a big political fight with him that ends up in a physical fight with him.

Mr. C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Then you go with him to the ER after he's injured in that fight. And in the ER you have a genuine heart-to-heart conversation about the difficulties of marriage. And I found that a really interesting scene, because obviously - I mean, these are such divisive times, and people who disagree politically sometimes find it really hard to be together at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: Yes.

GROSS: And I thought this scene just kind of got to that, and also got to what you still had in common and the kind of emotional depth that you could still share together. And I was hoping you could talk about writing that scene and why you wrote it.

Mr. C.K.: Well, that was a really important one to me because, you know, Nick and I used to be roommates. We were both comedians from Boston. I mean, I grew up in Newton, which is a pretty liberal place, and in he grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts, you know, which is just a place. And we both ended up in New York at the same time and we shared an apartment just because we were - we knew each other. We barely knew each other. And Nick has always been very conservative. And I've always been - I mean, as I grow older, I'm both things.

But - so Nick and I always had these great conversations where he would start on the total opposite end and I would start on the opposite end, and we'd find either middle ground or we'd find - you know, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot about conservative thinking from him, and it's made me able to watch conservative shows, and I know where they're coming - I know where their heart is, and I can see it. I don't think of them as the enemy.

But anyway, Nick and I have this - I had this idea that we get in a political fight where it gets physical. That never happened with us, but that, to me, was just interesting to see a fight because of politics between two guys. And in order to do that, I made myself the more unreasonable guy. I didn't want - because I am the more liberal, I didn't want to have him be such a jerk that I'd beat him up. That would be just kind of like a fake heroic thing. So I call him a Nazi over and over again, and I call him Himmler and tell him to go to a rally and stuff just for saying - questioning Obama's leadership. And that's not fair. But I wanted to be the unreasonable one. It was more interesting to me.

And his arguments are actually reasonable. He says in the thing that, because my argument to him is why don't you give us a turn? You've had Bush for eight years. Why can't you just give liberals a turn now? And he says, well, you're not giving us a turn to complain, that whenever anybody puts down Obama, they're called a Nazi, and that so - you got to complain when Bush was president. Why don't we get to criticize now?

It's a very valid point, I think. But I just call him a Nazi again, and he throws water in my face. And then we fight like a couple of 42-year-old guys, just grunt and then fall down, get out of breath very quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: So, but anyway, and then, yeah. We go to the hospital because my friend got his hand hurt. I don't care that we're not agreeing, and I go and I take him to the emergency room. And we start talking about what we really share, which is we're both plus-40. He doesn't - he's married happily, but he has no children, and his wife and he have passed that sort of point where they can have kids and now they're faced with just each other till one of them is going to lose the other. And that's -there's a melancholy feeling to that. But I envy it, because I'm alone.

I have my kids and that means a lot to me, but I do miss having somebody there all the time. So, you know, you could have that, both those conversations with a human being. I liked - I did like showing that.

GROSS: So in the series, at the end of the credit sequence, you're eating a slice of pizza and then you just walk downstairs into the Comedy Cellar, this kind of, you know, brick-walled downstairs, small club...

Mr. C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: ...where you're doing standup. Do you play those kinds of places anymore?

Mr. C.K.: Oh sure, all the time. I mean that's where you develop material. You know, almost every night that I'm in New York City I go down to the Comedy Cellar and just do 10 minutes - 20 minutes, sometimes half an hour. And the audience is often like people who don't even speak English, just people who kind of wandered downstairs so it's a real challenge.

I mean I do - when I'm really making a living, I go do concerts in theaters, but you don't really get a, you know, you get a good reaction, but in a club when they're just sitting there eating falafel, it's just a more honest response.

So yeah, I do clubs. I do the Cellar all the time. That's my life.

GROSS: So that's how you develop your material.

Mr. C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: To see what gets laughs when it's not even your audience.

Mr. C.K.: Yeah, and I mean you can't - there's no practicing comedy. You have to just go out on stage. So that's where I go on and I develop and I keep the chops up too. I have to stay good. If I don't do comedy for two weeks I completely forget how to do it and when I go back out, it's -I'm a little shaky, so.

GROSS: So you are part Mexican, part Jewish, part Catholic, part Eastern European.

Mr. C.K.: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You were born in Mexico, spent the first few years of your life there, before moving to the states.

Mr. C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: How do you identify ethnically and religiously?

Mr. C.K.: Well, I don't. I don't identify. I think ethnic identification is kind of a mess now. Like people are so, they really want to identify people. I was with my friend, visiting a friend of mine who had kids, and they were watching some show on Nickelodeon. And there was a black young kid in the show, and one of them was trying to say which kid. She said that kid, that one. And I said you mean the black one? And she said oh, that's mean to say he's black. I go, no, it's not. He's black. And I realized I've kind of stumbled into something.

I don't know what she's been taught. Well, you're supposed to say African-American. But the kid hasn't opened his mouth. He could be French. I mean to me that would be prejudiced, to say African-American. I don't know where he's from. He might be Canadian. So then what do you call him? Well, he looks black so I'll call him black. Well, you could call him a person. You could say that guy, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: It's just this need to identify that's kind of strange to me. And I'm Mexican. My dad's Mexican. But I'm white - and most Americans aren't aware that there's white Mexicans, there's indigenous Mexicans, there's black Mexicans. But, you know, I think racial identity is a very mixed bag. My abuelita lives in Mexico in the city. All my relatives on my dad's side are Mexicans.

Well, but are they brown little people that mow lawns? No. They're educated. All my uncles are doctors of something or other - PhD's and they have lighter skin and they're, half their relatives are from Europe and half their relatives are indigenous. I don't know. I don't even - reaching back, some of them are Hungarian. My grandfather is Hungarian, Jewish and migrated to Mexico, married a Catholic woman, raised a bunch of kids that look Hungarian Mexican. One of them came here, married my mom who's an Irish woman, doesn't care about religion, but went ahead and raised us Catholic for a little while anyway. So, I, you know, I don't know.

GROSS: So when people meet you but they only know you from your characters on TV, what mistakes do they make about who you really are?

Mr. C.K.: I think some of my earlier material, where I was a lot more -when I was a young father I did really coarse material about my children because I was very frustrated in having children and the struggle of being a parent. So I said a lot of awful things about my kids. So I think some people think that I don't like my kids or something, and that's definitely not true. They're the whole world to me. But other than that, I don't know, people seem to know who I am.

I don't put on that much of a character. I'm pretty honest on stage. So probably I'm - I'm a distilled version of myself on stage. I'm definitely more quiet and I'm not a loud brash jerk in my real life, unless I get a few drinks in me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K.: But otherwise, it is me.

GROSS: Louis C.K., it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. C.K.: Thank you very much. I love doing the show.

GROSS: Love having you. Thank you.

Louis C.K.'s new comedy series "Louie" is on FX Tuesday nights after "Rescue Me."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews David Mitchell's new historical novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

This is FRESH AIR.

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