"Some comedians are really dumb. And I've had some of them asking me advice about TV and they say, 'I don't really know if I want to go on Conan or The Tonight Show because then that material will get over-exposed.' Well, what's your fucking goal?"
– Louis C.K.
Guy MacPherson: You grew up in Boston, right?
Louis C.K.: Yeah.
GM: And where do you live now?
LCK: I live temporarily in Los Angeles. My real home is New York.
GM: We've seen you for years on all the talk shows, but before that, you were behind the scenes, first as a writer on Conan, then Letterman, then Chris Rock.
LCK: That's right.
GM: But you started out as a standup, right?
LCK: I started out as a standup, yes.
GM: Do you think of yourself primarily as a comic or writer?
LCK: I don't really ever choose one over the other. I've been doing standup longer, though. I've been doing it for almost 20 years now. And I've never stopped doing it. TV writing is something I've been more visible at because of the shows I've worked on and getting an Emmy and stuff. I guess the two things I really want to do more than anything are films and standup.
GM: Directing or acting...?
LCK: Writing and directing. And that's a harder gig to get. I've only done two of those. And standup I can do a lot of, but it doesn't pay the bills as well because I've got a family. So TV's always been right down the middle. But not I also want to combine standup with television and do my own show, so that's sort of where I'm headed.
GM: You want to have it all, don't you?
LCK: Well, sure. Those are the goals, and in the meantime I'm just kinda screwing around.
GM: On your website – which I love, by the way – you said it was always a dream of yours to be on the Letterman show before you were actually on.
LCK: Oh yeah, yeah.
GM: It must have been surreal for you not only to perform, but then to be asked to join the writing staff. What was that like?
LCK: Well, joining the writing staff was not as big a deal to me because I had written on Conan for two years and had the huge experience of putting a show on the air. I was there for six months before Conan went on the air. And the writers on Conan were given a huge amount of power over the show. So really, that was a great experience. But I was kind of burnt on TV writing by the time I got to Letterman. I really was dying to do the show as a standup, then after I did the show I met with Dave and he asked me to write on the show. I kinda said yes because Dave was sitting there asking me to my face and I kinda couldn't say no.
GM: How long did that last?
LCK: I was only there for about three months. It just wasn't as much fun because the show was already set in its ways and I was sort of hired to just kind of plug into their system. And I was too kinda young and antsy to do something like that. So I left after a few months.
GM: What was he like to work for?
LCK: Dave was kind of removed from the process a little bit, and the writing. I only dealt with him about once a week. But he was always cordial and nice.
GM: The big news a couple days ago was Conan's going to take over from Leno in five years. What do you think of that?
LCK: I think that's great. That'll be good for everybody. I think Jay's probably happy to move on. It's a very difficult thing to make that leap from 12:30 to 11:30, but I think Conan's the one guy who's definitely smart enough to make it work. He's a very, very, very bright guy.
GM: You talked about your movies. But you do a bunch of short films, too. Why is that?
LCK: I haven't done short films in a while because those are almost harder to do than features. Because there's no reason to do 'em. So when I was younger it was a lot easier to throw money together and make those. But lately it's been harder.
GM: You said some people think short films are just something you make becuse you can't make a feature film. You said, "I reject that. I think a short film is to a feature film as a short story is to a novel."
LCK: I think that's absolutely true. I mean, artistically speaking. But the thing about film is it has this inevitable practical side to it, which is film costs money and it takes a lot of people to do. You can't make a movie by yourself. So you have to justify a film financially on some level. But artistically shorts should be just as important. Just like short stories are, obviously, very respected part of literature. They're not just like, "Oh, you couldn't write a novel?"
GM: Some people might say that.
LCK: I guess some would, but not to, like, J.D. Salinger and his nine stories. I don't think anybody would look at that like a minimum effort because he couldn't get off his ass and write a book.
GM: Any new films in the works for you?
LCK: I've written a couple that I'm trying to get off the ground and financed. It's always in film that you got to try to make, like, 50 at once. It's usually a 50-to-zero ratio.
LCK: Yeah, more often than not. But also last year I did a TV pilot which I'm doing for HBO, so it's hard for me to concentrate on film because it's sort of gone by the wayside.
GM: Did you say you did a pilot for HBO?
LCK: I'm developing one now.
GM: Last year you had one on CBS, right?
LCK: I did one on CBS and now we're in the early writing stages of the HBO pilot and I'm getting ready for a standup special on HBO this year.
GM: I was going to ask if you feel you're a sitcom-y guy, but HBO's a little different, isn't it?
LCK: Oh yeah. HBO's a whole other world.
LCK: Oh yeah. Last year's pilot was CBS and that's definitely an adjustment, you know, from what I do on stage. But it was fun; I really enjoyed it. It was a good process and experience to go and actually act in a pilot. And the stakes are enormously higher for network television, so the real experience that I'll always take with me is being the star of a pilot for a network and the huge amount of people who are expecting millions of dollars to pour into their accounts on these shows. So being able to be in that environment and just act and try to be funny, and pulling it off which I did, was a great, great experience. It didn't get me a show, but in a way I'm glad. I'll be glad if I get a show on HBO instead.
GM: So you were happy with the CBS project artistically.
LCK: Oh yeah, I was. But I can definitely do a much better show on HBO. I can be a lot more honest. I really think of HBO as like the Museum of Modern Art, or something. Like the Met. It would be like instead of working at a comedy club, working at, you know, the Lincoln Center or something. Or Carnegie Hall. The challenge isn't going to be can I make these people understand my point of view or to make them friendly to my non-network mentality. It's am I good enough to have a show on HBO? Am I that good? And if I am, and it works out, they'll have huge [mumbled] from having already done a pilot. Under much higher stakes from other people's point of view. Like financially and all that kind of stuff. If you have a show on CBS, you can make gajillions of dollars and be basically like one of ten of the most famous people in America. That's the stakes. But those aren't the stakes I'm really interested in.
GM: What stakes are you interested in?
LCK: Just trying to do a show as good as it can be and as good as the level at HBO. At HBO it's just a whole other scale. It's are you this good? Is your sitcom going to be as good as the Sopranos or as good as Angels in America, or just all this shit that is so inspiring. It's weird that that's alien, to me as a guy that's worked for television, instead of like, "Ah, we all know that we're good enough, but will the network let us do the right show?"
GM: On HBO, they don't usually have audiences or laughtracks on sitcoms. It's usually one camera.
LCK: No, they don't do anything in front of audiences. So if I can get this on the air, I'll be the first one to do it on HBO. I'm not the only one trying, obviously. That's sort of their goal this year. But to do a sitcom on HBO in front of a live audience, that's a big deal. Because that stakes out a new territory on HBO that doesn't even exist there. And therefore doesn't exist anywhere else. To do show with HBO's standards of freedom of speech and artistic freedom in front of a live audience is the big dream.
GM: When do you hear about it?
LCK: Well, I'm developing it now. I'm writing it. The development process is a kind of on-going series of yellow and green lights. Sort of like the national security colour code. If you write an outline and they like it, then you go to the next level. They say go write it. Then you write the pilot and you make adjustments according to their notes. And somewhere down the line, usually around December, they take all the pilots that have been written – this is the schedule that networks do; I don't know that HBO will. And never mind the times. But the big signposts are you write this pilot, they read it and say yes, you can shoot this pilot. The first hurdle is actually getting to shoot the pilot. A huge amount of pilots get written and never shot. I've written three myself that were never shot.
GM: And one that was.
LCK: And one that was. So so far I'm a pretty good... I'm about at somebody like Jorge Pasada's batting average, .250. So then if they let you shoot the pilot, you get to go put the pilot together. You gotta go cast it and keep rewriting and rewriting, and then you shoot the pilot. And then if they like the pilot, they order some shows. They give you a series and put you on the schedule. But even that's two steps. They might order the shows and you can shoot six of them, and they might never air. So you're not on television until you're on television.
GM: I don't know about HBO, but I guess in judging from what I see on the networks that quality isn't always an indication of whether a show stays or goes.
LCK: No, definitely not. It's about testing. It's about this process of polling data and market testing. If they feel the show has potential to keep a certain demographic, they'll keep the show on the air. And there's a lot of shows that are considered really great that just get pushed off because they're just not performing well. It's really about performance.
GM: What happened with the Dana Carvey show, which I never actually saw? But the writers on the show were incredible.
LCK: Yeah, but the ratings were dismal. People hated the show.
GM: Really. And what did you think of it?
LCK: Um, I thought it was kind of a mish-mashy show. It didn't have any guiding force behind it. It was just kind of all this crazy shit. It was fun to work on, but it was a hard show to do. But HBO's different, though. HBO doesn't have any pressure from advertisers and stuff like that. So they're just about whether they want to keep it on or not. I think critical acclaim wins you a lot of [mumbled] at HBO and they like you. If you're getting good write-ups, they keep you on, because they're sort of about overall prestige rather than clear numbers. When a sitcom is on a network, there's a blood... The numbers the next night or while it's airing it's being scrutinized. As an episode is airing, somebody's watching the minute-to-minute ratings. And by the end of an episode you could be in trouble. You could be doing great 15 minutes into an episode and then be cancelled by the end of it. Just because that's how quickly the next day's advertisers could go, "We're pulling off of that show." Or whatever it is. But HBO doesn't have that kind of pressure. It doesn't mean that they're fine artists. But their pressure is more what's cool and what's making them look good.
GM: As a writer who's worked on so many shows, when you're working for these other people, as you have, how do you decide which jokes are for the show and which jokes are for you and your standup?
LCK: Mostly that doesn't come up because I've never really written jokes for these guys that I've written for. I wrote some of Conan's monologue stuff early on but then we hired a real monologue staff. I've always been more of a sketch writer. So sketches are just a different deal. They're all different mediums for humour. So it never really competes. There was one time that I came up with an idea for a movie I was writing with Chris Rock, and I put it in the script. And then I tried it on stage and it really killed. So I called him and said I need that back. (laughs) We can't put that in the movie.
GM: The movie probably could have used it.
LCK: Well, it wasn't a movie you've seen. It doesn't exist. So that I took and kept for my own.
GM: I love your website because you have so much material on there. Lots of video and audio. Are you afraid of too many people seeing your act, though, on the net and then expecting something new when they come and see you?
LCK: I'm trying to be a little more careful about it. It's tricky because I did actually start thinking about that. I get excited about shooting all these live shows and sticking them right up there the next day and giving people that kind of access. And it's certainly cranked right up the visitorness... the amount of visits I get. The video clips are a huge boon to the site. But I did start to think, well, geez. And then I started looking through old tapes of the Conan appearances I've done and started to post those on the front page.
GM: Because they've already been shown.
LCK: Yeah, and I've already made my money on those jokes. But there's still a lot of people that come to my site that don't have evidence... What I realized was that people come to the site and read about stuff about me, but how do they know... A lot of them don't know who I am, so here's immediate evidence I can be funny. And I might as well use old TV stuff rather than brand new, actually still developing material that's going to change. And also, right now I'm working towards this big goal, the HBO special. It has to be the best thing I ever did. All this material I'm doing now is going to be compressed into a perfect special, so to show it to people would be a little bit stupid. So I started putting the Conan clips up front, but now everybody seems to go directly to my... because I can see where all my visitors go. They all seem to go directly to the video clips page, which has everything. And all the ones that have sort of undeveloped weird material, those seem to get the heaviest hits. Because I think those are the ones that people post on news groups and stuff. I find more links to those than to like the Conan ones. Although the Conan set, the most recent one I did, that gets the heaviest traffic by far.
GM: Is that the one where you're talking about your kid?
GM: That's very funny.
LCK: So I don't know. I'm sort of torn. Some people take it to a ridiculous degree. Some comedians are really dumb. And I've had some of them asking me advice about TV and they say, "I don't really know if I want to go on Conan or The Tonight Show because then that material will get over-exposed." Well, what's your fucking goal? What are you doing? (laughs) Is this a private...?
GM: "Just for my friends."
LCK: Yeah, exactly. You're crazy. So I dunno. It's a challenge to keep new material... It makes you write more, so I kind of... I dunno, I'll probably take some down after a little while and put 'em back up and shuffle the deck a little bit.
GM: Is it a standup special you're doing?
LCK: Yeah, it's going to be a standup special.
GM: And when's that coming out?
LCK: Don't know. What I've gotten at HBO is a guarantee that I'm doing a standup special. And this development deal. They're paying me to come up with this half-hour and to do the half-hour special. Or hour, I don't know which one it is yet. And then we'll see what comes of it.
GM: The video clips on the site also give this great progression of you as a comic, when you see the first Letterman appearance in '95. And the jokes weren't nearly as dark as they are now. Or was just because you wanted to play it safe on your first show?
LCK: Definitely in the early TV appearances I already had a lot of nasty shit in my act. But the difference is that I've been doing dark stuff about family, and people accept that more. I used to have a schizophrenic act, where I'd do kind of clever stuff. Silly, kind of esoteric jokes. And then I'd do this really, really, really nasty humour about sex or whatever the hell.
GM: Masturbating between the falling of the towers.
LCK: Yeah, that kind of shit. So I've always had those two things and I used to try to be careful and set them up like a pitcher sometimes on stage. Try to set up the fastball with the slider and stuff like that. So I sort of found a way to combine both kinds of humour into one act. A big difference has come to mind the last couple of years has been having a family. And so now I'm putting that dark humour into stuff about having a family. And I've found out remarkably that people who really have kids, like soccer moms and really domestic people, have a really dark sense of humour. Because they're facing the real horror of raising kids and being married. That's a very difficult thing for everybody. I've done jokes like, "Hey, now I understand the baby in the garbage thing. It's not something I would do, but now I get it." And I have, like, soccer moms going, "I love that joke!" Because they empathize. They feel the same way. And I can do that kind of humour, actually, without cursing as much because it's already nasty enough without the cursing. "My baby's crying like a little bitch for half an hour." Parents find that kind of joke as a relief. It makes them really happy. So I guess what I'm saying is I've found a way to do my dark side of humour but I'm not having to go find some weird audience. It's got mainstream appeal.
GM: Has anyone ever come up and said, "You're an awful parent!"
LCK: Never. Never.It's a dark little national secret. Because usually shows about families have to be really sweet, and they have to be utopian and cute, saccharine and completely fake. Or you're being some young dude with a skateboard acting cool. The only people that get to curse or say irreverent things or be nasty are like young folks that drive VWs and hang out with their roommates. Whereas, I don't really care when people like that are irreverent or nasty because why wouldn't they be? They're in college, who gives a shit what you think? Of course you think everything sucks because you don't have any stakes in your life. You're standing on your head. But when a father of four who's been married for 18 years, "Fucking motherfucker!", I really feel something, you know what I mean? Like, I really go, "Goddamn, I know! It must be so hard!"
GM: How many kids do you have?
LCK: Just one. I've got one on the way, too.
GM: I have one on the way this week.
LCK: That's right.
GM: Do you have any advice for a dad-to-be like me?
LCK: This is your first kid?
LCK: Nothing I can say. No way to simulate... Here's the thing about it: It sucks on paper. If you write down things you're going to have to do and the way your life is going to change, there's just no way to justify it. It's the dumbest thing in the world to do.
GM: You're not helping.
LCK: But it doesn't matter because you'll be happy to do all of it. There's nothing going to be imposed on you. You're going to completely, voluntarily change your life in a way that if you could look in the future and see it from now, you would say, "Why the fuck would somebody do that to themselves?" But that's how powerful a force it is to have a kid. And it isn't like, "Oh, but they're so wonderful" and you're paid off for every hard moment with them giving you a daisy and saying "I love you, papa" – although that happens, and it's pretty great. It's just that it's so important to you. It's such a big deal to have a kid that it just changes your motivations. It changes everything.
GM: That's encouraging.
LCK: Yeah, it is. It's great.
GM: You talk about the parents who love this material of yours. Do you think audiences are becoming more accepting of dark material than in the past?
LCK: I don't know if that's true because I think we can sort of tell by how we vote in this country. We keep regenerating as both kinds of person. It really seems that we'll always be 43 percent crazy liberals and 43 percent bizarrely conservative Republicans. And then this sort of weird mish-mash in the middle. It seems like that will always be the case. A lot of times young people, they cringe at stuff. Also, people reject dark humour for different reasons. Conservative people reject it because they just have sort of a Christian "don't talk like that" idea. But then the left rejects because "oh, you're being offensive to women or you're being offensive to homosexuals or using off-colour humour. You're talking about race which means you must be racist." You actually get in more trouble from the left for free speech kind of like wild ideas than you do from people on the right. Which is weird.
GM: Just a knee-jerk reaction to it rather thinking what it's about.
LCK: Years ago I did a show at UNH in New Hampshire. I don't do college shows anymore, and this is why. I'm doing a show and I did an old joke of mine where I said, "I read that 80 percent of the people in New York are minorities. Which is funny, because shouldn't you not call them minorities when they get to 80 percent? Like you could take a white guy to Africa and he'd be going, 'Look at all the minorities. I'm the only majority.'" Whatever. So that was the joke. And I was at UNH, the University of New Hampshire, and when I got to the part where I said 80 percent of the people in New York are minorities, people booed me. Hissed. And I said, "What's the problem?" And someone just said, "You're a racist." And I said, "Why am I racist?" "Because you said minorities." And I asked the whole audience, "Do you all agree that that makes me a racist because I just mentioned minorities?" And they all said yes.
GM: And you hadn't even got to the point yet.
LCK: No! So that's really what we're dealing with. You know, I don't run into this trouble a lot because generally I'm a pretty charming person and people like me on stage so I get away with a lot. I can say 'cunt', 'nigger' and people don't really get bummed out. (laughs)
GM: It's that likability.
LCK: They trust me with the words and they trust that I'm not fucking with them and that I'm not trying to get them to laugh at something that they shouldn't be laughing at. You know what I mean? They trust that I'm not trying to use humour as a weapon. They just sort of know that we're all friends and I'm just fucking with them. And that I'm being sincere when I say certain stuff that sounds like maybe I'm trying to fuck with them. You don't just sort of stand there and say, "Fuck you, I'll say what I want. You're just a faggot." You have to try to include people in your ideas and reach out to them. That's, to me, the goal.
GM: And you do that bit about how great it is to be white.
LCK: Right, which is really a sincere honest idea. It doesn't mean that I'm saying better than other people because I'm white. I'm saying that being white is a better circumstance.
GM: In fact, it's kind of a knock on society.
LCK: Right, it is. And people sometimes get really squirrely when I do that bit. Although lately somehow, some way I'm doing now and it's better. This is again another reason why I shouldn't post too much on the website because it gets nervous laughter. But in the last couple of weeks that I've been doing it, like in Minneapolis, which is a pretty decent snippet of American audiences, and it really kills now. It's a way better bit than whatever's on the website.
GM: You're doing it differently.
LCK: Yeah, it's just shaving different areas and finding a way... I think it's also what I talk about leading into it. It just works way better. So by the time I get to the special, it will be a great bit. So people are seeing it in early stages now. In a way, I don't mind. I get, what? Like, 5000 visitors a week on the website. And a lot of them are repeats. A lot of people come back to see the stuff. So I kinda don't mind giving a few people an insight into how it's all developing.
GM: At this stage now, do you still get those gigs from hell like you did in New Hampshire?
LCK: I don't have to, although now that I'm sort of in training for this special, I'm really hitting the road hard and heavy. But the trick is I can't really leave my family that much. It's too painful for all of us for me to be on the road as much. If I was single, right now I'd be on my way to another city to work. I'd be on the road every week. But I can't do that. So where the bad gigs come in, is when I'm a week that I have to be home, I have to find gigs within driving distance. A lot fo the clubs in LA are really great, but I can't play them every night. So I have to keep reaching out. Last night I did some Irish pub where the game's on and people were talking at the bar. (laughs) But I needed the stage time. And if I need to do an hour somewhere, I need to go to Ventura, California, and do Hornblowers, which is actually not a bad gig, but I'd certainly stay in bed if you gave me the choice. But I need the time on stage.
GM: Is Last Comic Standing something that you'd ever do?
LCK: Not in a million years. I mean, you've gotta live in a house with some guys. (laughs) It's not actually the best comedians in the country. My hat's off to all the guys that do it. There are a few things about it that I love. Like that Jay London, who was in the finals, now has a... Jay London has been trying really hard to get work and respect as a comic for years. And I love that guy. I think he's really funny. And now I see he's playing Improvs and stuff. He's on the road. And he was actually really scraping by in life. So that alone redeems all of it. I read Jay Mohr saying in the press that yes, these are actually the best comics in the country. And that's offensive to me. He knows that's not true. That's just a stupid thing to say. It really is sort of a second-tier, kind of amateur... Although there are a lot of guys that have been doing it a long time, but they're not guys who were in the hopper to do the next... You know what I mean? They're not guys that are considered the best comics. Did Todd Glass beat Chris Rock out? Come on. But there's another one: Todd Glass makes me laugh harder than almost anybody. Hilarious. But he didn't rate. He didn't get very far. And also the people that run it, Jay and Barry Katz, are not the most savoury characters. They're silly people. I'm glad that they're doing some good business, and I'm really happy for all of the comics that are getting that exposure. I think it's great. But it is distorted. People come up to me in clubs and say, "You must have not gotten on the show. What happened?" And I go, "Yup, too bad for me." But I think it's offensive to say that they're the best comics in the country. Because it's just not true. Dave Attell and Mitch Hedberg and Marc Maron and Chris Rock and Steven Wright? And Jesus, there's millions of guys that would just sort of go, "No, I'm not going to go live in a house with those fellows." But a lot of the comics are funny. Rich Vos makes me laugh a lot. Todd Glass, Jay London... That's about it, really. A lot of them I just don't even know. And some of them are funny but they're all sort of undeveloped new acts with a long way to go.
GM: But they're all on network TV so they must be good!
LCK: Terrific. I hope they make what they can out of it and the show takes them somewhere. But the only problem I have with the show is Jay Mohr saying that when I read that in the papers. I just go, come on, man. He knows it's not true. And you know it's a fudged, kind of fake contest. It's not even a legitimate contest. The producers reserved the right to change the votes according to what they think should be on the show. That's not the way it's presented. It's in the fine print. It's a false show. It's a fake show.
GM: I saw Andy Kindler last year in Montreal at the State of the Industry address saying that everytime an audience is involved, the worst comic's going to win.
LCK: I disagree with Andy about that. In this last round, they didn't even go with the audience. Dan Naturman, who's very funny – and everyone knows this story – notoriously got a standing ovation and was dropped out of the line-up because the producers... It's funny to read about it early in the scandal. They said the producers have a right to change the votes according to what they want the show to look like. That's an honest, actually a legal and honest answer to what happened. It's just gross. And it's not honest to the audience because they put it in fine print. But it is legal and it is the real truth. Now they say, in later stuff they've written and stuff I've heard Jay Mohr say, there's actually a second voting round by unknown judges. It's a different way to say the same thing. In other words, you go, "You guys like who won? No, I don't. Okay, let's put somebody else in."
GM: If they had said that up front, and everybody knew it and all the judges and the contestants, then fine.
LCK: To have a contest populated with people who aren't really... I mean, some are good and some are not good, but it's not the Olympics of comedy. And then to rig the fucking thing and then to say in the press you're showing everyone who the best comedians in the country are, that's just all kind of Jay Mohr and Barry Katz nonsense. But terrific for the guys. It's kinda like "Hey, being white is great", for Jay London and these guys, great, I am happy for the comedians who get the exposure. But I hope the show continues, I really do. I hope it keeps going so those guys can keep getting on TV and getting work from it.
GM: You think it's good for standup?
LCK: I do think it is, actually, because people are coming out to see comics a little more than they were. But I don't necessarily think that that's due to Last Comic Standing. I think Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock and Dave Attell have been bringing people back to the clubs. Those are great comics with their own TV shows that have been cramming rooms full of fans who then look in the Arts section and go, "Who else is coming? Comedy's good." It didn't used to be considered good at all. But these guys have shown an example of funny stuff. So I more think those guys.