IAR INTERVIEW: Louis C.K. Discusses 'Louie' Season Three

Tuesday, 10 July 2012 11:05 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR INTERVIEW: Louis C.K. Discusses 'Louie' Season Three

It's a frequent refrain that we're living in a golden age of television, a time in which the previously safe, formulaic tropes of the medium have given way to exciting deviations, more cinematic styles, daring storytelling, and – gasp! – actual artistic expression on the idiot box.  The auteur theory of film is now evidence on many shows, but even with meticulous dramas like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad, there is no series on television that is more the product of a singular vision than Louie.

Currently in its third season, the FX series is an almost astonishingly direct expression of Louis C.K.'s sensibilities.  That makes perfect sense, since the show's creator not only writes, directs, produces, and stars in every single episode, but for the first two seasons, he also served as his own editor.  If that sounds like a crushing workload for any mortal, consider that C.K. is also a father to two daughters almost undoubtedly the most respected stand-up comedian on the planet.

Even amongst the notoriously jealous, petty tribe that stand-ups comprise, Louis C.K. is accepted as a luminary.  Unlike most of his contemporaries, C.K. generates a new hour of material every year, disposing of his familiar work annually and creating new material that comprises both his stand-up and serves as a framework for Louie.  Last year, C.K. made an unconventional move by selling his stand-up comedy special Live at the Beacon Theater directly through his own site.  With that having proven a huge success, he's now selling tickets to his latest tour similarly, eschewing price-gouging ticket services.

Along with other outlets, IAR was lucky enough to participate in a phone interview with Louis C.K. during which the comedian/director/producer/writer/actor discussed the third season of Louie, working with guest stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, and Melissa Leo, working with an editor, story structure, becoming more recognizable, and what you can and can't do on cable television.

Here's what the world's foremost stand-up comedian had to say:

What was it a few years ago that clicked for you and kind of gave your standup new life? And also, what were some of the technical things you’ve forced yourself to work on over the years?

Louis C.K.: Well, standup-wise, I mean, I think it’s just time spent onstage. I had been doing it for about 20 years when I sort of figured it out. That’s just kind of how long it takes. And also, you grow up. I have kids now, and that puts real, actual-life pressure on you rather than just some guy kicking around with a show-business career. There’s not much to draw from there. So I think that made a difference. And technically, I’ve learned that being in—having good legs and wind is good for being onstage—if you’re in shape and have endurance. I just learned some things from guys. Chris Rock taught me to always look up; you don’t look down at your feet. A lot of comedians want to look down at their feet. You break contact with the audience. So he told me just a really simple fact of the whole thing, which is just look at the back of the room. Don’t look at the front row; look at the back row.

Also, you make an effort to put a lot of younger, especially New York, comics on your show, and last year in Chicago you had a couple of sold-out shows with some of the older comics who influenced you when you were starting. Can you talk about why it’s important for you to do stuff like that?

Louis: Well, I do love standup. I love comedians. They’re my community. And Comedians work great as actors because they’re good under pressure. A lot of actors you have to sort of make them feel like everything’s going really well to get a good performance out of them. But if you have a comedian on the set, you can tell them, “Hey, you really are screwing this up,” and then they just get better. So they’re valuable that way. And I loved, yeah, I loved bringing Steven Wright and Richard Lewis to my show in Chicago. That was really fun to do. They paid me a lot for the show, so I figured, “I don’t need all this money. I’d rather have a great, great bunch of opening acts.”

You write, direct, you act—you do everything on this show. Is that hard? I mean, is that a lot more work doing all of that together? How do you have time for all of that?

Louis: Well, I love doing all of it. It’s all stuff that I really enjoy. It is really hard, but it’s not too hard to do. I like it. I like being full every day with stuff I have to do. And also, I’ve learned about management of time and brain, so it’s just something I—you got to get good at it, at doing a bunch of things at once and not thinking about things you’re not doing while you’re doing other things. You have to be disciplined about not trying to do everything all at the same time. But yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard and fun.

Can you talk about how the show started in the very beginning—how it came to be?

Louis: Well, I was doing just my standup, and I was in L.A. and taking some meetings about doing a TV show, and FX approached me about doing a show cheaply and with a lot of freedom. So we tried the pilot that way. I told them if they could just give me the money and let me try to do the pilot my way, it would be worth it. So they gave me a very small amount of money, and I made a show with it that they liked. So that’s it. That was the model we’ve been working on since then.

Are there any guest stars in particular that you’re looking forward to that we’ll see this season?

Louis: I got a lot of great people this year. I won’t tell you all of them, but Melissa Leo is in the second episode. F. Murray Abraham comes back; he’s one of my favorite guys ever. Robin Williams does a thing on the show later in the season. Jerry Seinfeld is on the show. There are a lot of guest stars that are piling up, and I’m excited about it.

For you personally, do you feel that there’s a particular formula that works for good comedic TV?

Louis: I think you just have to be new all the time, and different. You can’t do the same thing all the time.

The third episode of the season takes place in Miami. There’s a lot of happiness in that episode, and it’s a nice in the past where you’re in misery the whole time. So can you talk about doing that particular episode?

Louis: The Miami episode was so fun for our whole crew. We all got a trip to Miami, but it was very hard work because we went all over the city. But yeah, I loved celebrating Miami. All the music is original. That’s all music that we made with our musicians. A lot went into creating the colors and the energy of Miami, and we have this young actor who had never really acted, and he did a really great job. But yeah, I spend enough time onscreen looking hangdog and depressed, so I think it was okay to let me smile and chase a chicken for a minute.

Also, you put in scenes with your ex-wife now who was kind of a silent character in the past. Can you talk about that choice to bring her out into the show now?

Louis: Well, the show needs to keep going, and so I’m introducing new elements each year. I try to do something new that’s new to the show. The stories that I wrote really led me to her. The show has really broken off into fiction much more in the last year and this year, and so it’s really not drawing from my life so much anymore. This ex-wife character is completely not anything like my real ex-wife. When I was drawing from my own life, I didn’t want to have the story be about an ex-husband and ex-wife. That relationship wasn’t what I wanted to write about. But I arrived at a version of it for this character that I thought was really good, this woman who’s well put together and kind of an added pressure to his life. And the actress was so good. A lot of the stuff that we do on the show, I’m not sure I’m going to do it until I see who’s playing it. It’s part of having the freedom without a network, that you don’t have to run all the scripts and casting by people. I wrote a script with her in it, and I had the casting people go look for someone, and I told them open it way up and just bring anybody. And I really liked what this woman did, so I decided to stick with the character.

Will Robert Kelly be returning as your brother and will see more Allan Havey in future scenes.  Is Pam Adlon is going to be coming back as well?

Louis: Allan is not in any other episodes this year, although I really liked what he did. I was very happy with him, so, yeah, I may bring him back. Robert is not in any of season three, but I always think about bringing him back, so maybe season four. Pamela is not in this year. Her story kind of ended in that airport—and that’s not to say she may not come back some other time.

There’s a romantic wistfulness about this season. We really sense that you’re ready for—you’re ready to reclaim your family and have peace, you know? I mean, the Miami episode, especially that whole scene when you were with his family and it was like you were not only just hungry for male friendship, you were hungry to be around people that loved you. Your character seems ready to commit to something. Am I wrong?

Louis: No, that’s a really good observation. I think that’s what I felt like writing this one was that this guy—let him try, let’s say, take a little bit bigger swings at being with somebody is kind of like what I feel like was going on too. I never have, like, a defining sense of it exactly, but I’d say that that’s definitely true of this year, and it gets to be more so. Yeah, I’m definitely trying to—it’s more about family and missing being in a family and being in a relationship and that kind of stuff. That keeps happening.

So your standup obviously informs the show, but has the show affected your standup at all?

Louis: Oh, not really. I always think that’s kind of boring when comedians start getting TV and movie jobs and then they talk about being on sets and movies and stuff. I think that there’s something disappointing about that. It would be like a novelist writing a novel, and in one of the chapters he says, “Oh, I did a book reading at Barnes & Noble the other day.” Yeah, you don’t want to hear that. You want to hear stories. You want to be told stories. When I’m on the set, I’m telling stories that way, and onstage I’m telling stories that way, but they all should draw—I mean, on the show I play a comedian, so the stories can be about comedy, but that’s different.

Melissa Leo is not well known for comic parts.  How did you cast here and what did she bring to her role?

Louis: I love Melissa Leo very much as an actor, and so she was in my head. When I wrote the thing that she’s in, I wrote it in my head for the kind of women I knew in Boston growing up, and then it just hit me Melissa Leo would be amazing. It was very simple: we sent it to her reps, and in a few days she said yes. She just really responded to the material, and she showed up and took it very seriously. She really approached it the way I wanted her to as an actress, you know? On my show, there’s not really a comedy muscle you have to use. We play most of the scenes kind of real or to—we play them straight for comedy rather than—you know, our eyebrows don’t all go up like they do on most sitcoms, so somebody like her is perfect for my show.

Did she have any hesitation at all about the material itself? Was everything in here scenes strictly scripted, or was some of it improvised?

Louis: It’s all strictly scripted. We don’t really improvise on my show. I guess if she would’ve had any problems, she wouldn’t have shown up. But she was eager to—I mean, it was hard for her to get into our set. She was shooting something in New Orleans, so we flew her in for a quick two days, and we had to sort of jam everything into two days. But that’s how much she wanted it. She really wanted to do it.

One scene with Melissa Leo is pretty extreme, adult material, especially for commercial-supported television. What are the restrictions, if any, that you work under with FX? Is there nothing out-of-bounds anymore?

Louis: Well, there is. I mean, you can’t show sex, and you can’t show people’s parts, and you can’t really explicitly—there’s words you can’t say. But you can discuss things. You can discuss sexual acts with somebody and negotiate about them.

The language with which you did that is language that up until recently we didn’t hear on commercial television.

Louis: Oh, definitely. I mean, the people at FX that do standards and practices are very smart, and I trust them. So what I do is I don’t—I never argue with them. I mean, when they tell me that it’s too far, I believe them. I don’t think if they’re not—they don’t act as an authority; they act as a safeguard for me because for me I will do whatever. But they try to keep me within the place where it’s really not—on pay cable it’s about getting—I mean, not pay cable, but basic cable—because it’s not an FCC-thing. It’s about where they’re going to get their phone calls from and who’s going to bug them. Also, my show has more of a fan base now, so the people who—the first season, more people probably sampled it that then went, “That’s not for me.” And most people watching it now know what they’re going to get.

With all the critical praise that’s being heaped on you and your show right now, how do you are you able to stay out of your comfort zone and stayhungry in terms of your comedy and the show?

Louis: Well, yes. And one way I do that is to make it harder. I mean, this season was a lot harder than last season. It’s just that the production was more difficult, and I did stuff—more things that I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull off. So I always kind of keep the bar ahead of myself; I keep moving it up. I mean, that’s the intention anyway. I don’t know if I pull that off. But, yeah, if you’re doing something that gets really easy, make it harder because then that’ll be easy if you do it right.

In the second episode your daughter tells a joke and you mention that you get this feeling where you love it because you don’t know where it’s going to go already when she starts it. I feel that way when I watch your show, but the scenes have a feeling that you’re trying to get out of your viewers, where they don’t know where the scene is going to go, and they just trust you that it’s going to be funny?

Louis: Yeah, I think that’s a great thing to be able to do if you can is take people down a road that they’re really unsure of, and have something down that road happen that they like what they saw. There’s definitely well-worn paths to laughter, and everybody knows where they are, and one way to do it is just to walk down those paths cheerfully and everybody laughs. But it’s really fun to go into territory where they’re not sure how to—that’s what I enjoy. It’s just what I like. I like when I’m watching something and I kind of feel like I’m in a wilderness. I don’t know where it’s headed, and then I get somewhere and I go, “Wow, that’s what he was doing.”

There's this DIY concept that you’ve had for a lot of your standup, whether it’s the tour, or last time it was your release. This time you just announced you’re selling tickets directly to your tour directly through your site. Just tell me how difficult that was to pull off, what was involved, and your motivation for going that route?

Louis: It was really hard, but it was really fun. I’m a very curious person, and so whenever I get into a new facet of what I do, I like to learn about it, and then when I learn about it, I start asking questions, like, “Why does it have to be this way,” you know? So as I’ve toured over the last couple of years in the big theaters and found out how it works, and I get angry e-mails from fans of how much they’re paying that’s not even part of the ticket price, and I start to understand the economics of promotion and ticketsales and all that stuff, I got really curious about could we do what I did with Live at the Beacon on the Road. So my agent, Mike Berkowitz, and I started to go around the country with—it was a lot of work. But something I learned from the show, from Louie, is that whenever we’re going to do something that’s really difficult, we do it much later in the season, and we just spend a lot of deliberate, careful time preparing it. So in this case with the theaters, we had to go to every city, and any city that we couldn’t play the usual venue because of how the ticket companies have it set up—they sort of have these places locked down or they own a lot of them—we had to find places that were willing to do it our way. And it was kind of a risk. I felt like it was a bigger risk than Live at the Beacon because if that didn’t work out, it was just going to be this pile sitting there that nobody wanted. But in this case, these are shows in 25 or so cities that it would’ve been empty. Anyway, it worked. I mean, as of today we’ve sold 92,000 tickets, and the tour has grossed $4.1 million. That’s not all money that I get, but that’s how much is in our box office. We’ve sold out, I think, 20 shows now, added the show in about 10 cities. So it worked. That’s really fun when you do something like that and it works. It’s worth the hard work.

You mentioned that the show this year has a bit more fiction in it, but in the past, how has your family felt about the inspiration that they’ve had on your show?

Louis: Well, my daughters have seen parts of the show, and, like, the first episode, the first pilot episode, had a whole disaster on a school bus that came from—it came from a jumping-off point of a real thing that happened with my daughter. So she enjoyed watching that. This isn’t on HBO, so there are some scenes my kids can watch. But the kids on my show are vastly different than my kids in real life. They’re really not even close as characters, so it’s really, like, just a different life. There isn’t so much of a parallel anymore.

You’ve really embraced the social aspect of the Internet with Reddit and Twitter and all the stuff through your website. You just mentioned that it’s about learning. Where do you want to go next with the socialness and sharing of the Internet?

Louis: Well, I guess as long as those tools are out there, I’ll keep trying to use them for future, but I don’t know when I’m going to—right now I’m doing standup, and I’m doing this show, so that’s a lot. Next time I try something, I’ll probably keep trying to find these ways of doing it, yeah.

Having been the editor on the previous two seasons, this year you brought in Susan E. Morse.  Was it difficult giving up that sense of control or did it free you up to focus on aspects of the series?

Louis: It’s been pretty great working with Susan. The editing was the one thing that was really starting to suffer with my overload. I feel like I was turning in episodes that could’ve been cut better towards the end of last season—more like the middle of last season. There’s a part of the season where I’m, like, shooting and cutting at the same time, and that’s really difficult. But this year, I spaced everything out. I wrote all the shows ahead of time, which I hadn’t done before either. So I kind of tried to make three sections of production. Susan is a great editor. She edited all these Woody Allen movies that I loved. So, to me, if I could get somebody who could improve what I do and bring a new perspective—that was the goal. She’s done that. She cuts differently than I do. I’m still editing. I’m still in there with her, and I usually do a cut after she does, but she has a great eye.

Over the last three years, your popularity has sort of exploded, and more people have been exposed to work, increasing your fanbase. Have there been any negative consequences from that, or has it all been pretty enjoyable for the most part?

Louis: Well, it’s like anything else in life that it brings a pretty steady ratio of good and bad, and I don’t know, probably bad to good about 60-40, something like that. You know, that’s most of life. So becoming more well known presented some challenges like I get recognized on the street a lot, and it’s kind of awkward to eat alone in a restaurant because everybody’s looking at me, and they know who I am—sometimes. But there’s some times where nobody knows who I am. But it’s like anything else; I have to think about how to deal with it. So how do I cope with being recognized and being asked to take pictures and all of this kind of stuff that was new to me? I’m used to it now. It’s no big deal. It’s just part of the job.

Can you talk a little more about the inclusion of the ex-wife as a character.  Specifically, having her be an African American may have come as a big surprise to a lot of viewers.

Louis: It’s just with the actress being as good as she was, and the character feeling right. And I guess I didn’t care. I guess to me the racial thing is like—I think when people probably first see her, their brains do a little bit of DNA math and go, “I’m not sure I get how that would happen.” And then I think with my show, most people, they go, “Oh, alright. Just go ahead,” and then they watch the scene. The thing that’s important is what’s getting said. I think that her performances are really compelling and I just like that. I like what that character brings out in the stories and in me on the show, so to me that trumped whatever logistical notion. She’s really direct, and she’s very self-possessed, and she has got a great demeanor for somebody who has moved on in life. That’s what she feels like to me—like she has moved on in life, and she’s on a good new chapter. And I think she looks like she’s in a better new chapter than me as far as us having shared a chapter earlier, so I think that is a good contrast.

Jerry Seinfeld is in several episodes late in this season.  Will he be playing himself?  What will his role on the show be, exactly?

Louis: Jerry is in—not the last three, but the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth episodes of this season are going to be a whole story of their own. It’s going to be basically a three-part story, and it’s kind of the biggest—it’s what we put the most effort into, and Jerry is in that. I don’t want to say anything about any of it because it’s got a lot of guest stars, and a lot happens. It’s a big turn for the character and for the—it’s a cool, fun story. I just don’t want to talk about it. But Jerry did a part in that, and what he did was very different than what you’re used to seeing Jerry do. Jerry turned in a really, really great performance. I was really happy.

You touched upon it briefly, but there are scenes that seem like you might be uncomfortable with your daughters seeing.  For example, the scene in season two where you flip your daughter off behind her back.

Louis: Well yeah, they don’t know what that means yet, but I don’t think that they’re far from understanding it. I mean, we’re all friends, me and my kids. They’re my best friends, and therefore I talk to—I spend more time with them than anybody else in the world, and so we all know each other, and we laugh about the same stuff. My show is an adult version of the same humor that I share with my children. They know whenever they see me on the show or onstage acting really angry, they just think it’s hilarious because I’m not really like that. If I was an angry, detached, jerk of a father, then my show would probably be some kind of a nightmare for my kids, but they just think it’s funny because Daddy’s not like that. I mean, I get mad like anybody else does, but being able to laugh about getting mad is very healthy, and my kids know that. We share a lot. And really, I can only speak for them to a limit. They are my kids, but when they turn 18, you can ask them.

One of the most interesting and unique aspects of the show is the way that the story is told. Some episodes feature multiple stories, while others tell a single story that spreads across an entire episode. So when you begin writing an episode, are you aware of whether you’ll be writing either one or multiple stories, or does that decision formulate as you’re further along in the writing process?

Louis: Well, to me that’s the whole reason the show has worked for me as a format is that I don’t have—it’s kind of crazy to think that every story you ever tell should take exactly 22 minutes to tell. I mean, imagine telling somebody a story of a great, funny thing that happened in your life, and then you’re done with the details and you look at your watch and go, ”Shit, I gotta keep talking about this for 22 minutes, so I gotta come up with other reasons to talk about it, introduce other people.” And then you’re looking at a whole lot of—whenever you’re watching something on television that was created because it was necessary, because they needed it, it’s not fun to watch. So when I start writing a story, I have zero—to me, it’s like if this is over, it’s the end of the page. I’m shooting it if it’s good because it could be just the one scene. And if it sprawls and just keep going, then I’ll shoot all of that and just cram it into as much of the show as just thirteen 22-minute segments, and I just put the pieces in wherever they fit. This year is unique because there’s more than one story that took more than one episode to tell. That’s new for this show. There’s still a lot of short stories, a lot of two part—you know, like, two-story episodes. I also like that when people are watching the show, they don’t know how long they’re going to be told a story for. I think that makes it exciting. I think it makes it more compelling to know, because whenever you give people a show where their brain knows what the pattern is going to be and the brain sets itself—and I think, actually, one reason TV like that has always done well is because there is something comforting where you kind of know what you’re going to be taken through. But it’s just a different group of people who would rather—and probably a smaller group of people—who would rather watch a show where they don’t know how long this is going to go on for. They don’t know if they’re going to see this character’s face ever again. This character might be in the rest of the season, or who knows? I think it’s more organic that way. Life is built that way. You stick with things that are compelling, and you drift away from things that aren’t.

Is FX still really hands-off regarding the show's content?

Louis: Oh yeah. I mean, I get nice e-mails from these guys. They’re really nice people. I mean, they’re my friends now, the FX people, but just personally. Like, I get a nice e-mail from John Landgraf or Eric Schrier or John Solberg—you know, “Happy Father’s Day, hope your kids are good.” That’s my contact with FX. Occasionally they’re curious how the show is going, but, yeah, we stay away from each other mostly. I’m overhere [New York]; we live 3,000 miles apart. When they come to town, if the FX executives come to town, I always invite them to the set. I’m not afraid of them. They come sometimes, and they’ll eat up our cut-up cantaloupe and hang out for a while, and then they go. But I think they like—they enjoy that they get to be viewers of the shows. I think it can be very tedious as a network executive that you read a—you get a script pitched to you as an idea, and then you read it, then you read a second and third draft, and then you watch a run-through and you watch a rehearsal, you see dailies. By the time it’s cut together, there’s no enjoyment in it. But these guys, they get to be the first people to watch my show, and they have no idea what they’re going to see. So I think as long as I’m doing good shows, I’m going to keep this. If I turn in four stinkers next season, they’re going to come calling. I’m aware of that.

The third season of Louie is currently airing on FX, Thursday nights at 10:30 pm.  The first two seasons are available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Netflix Instant.

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