"It's not like my comedy's my own private business. I got into this shit to have people hear these ideas. And if people are poor and they wanna steal, I dunno. I know it's not right to think this way but I kind of give them a pass."
– Louis C.K.
Guy MacPherson: Louis, this is Guy MacPherson in Vancouver calling.
Louis C.K.: Hey, how are you doing?
GM: Good. You got a few minutes?
GM: Great. The last time we spoke was five days before my son was born and coincidentally his name is Louis.
LCK: (laughs) How's he doing?
GM: He's great. He's four now. I just bribed him. I said, "You have to be quiet while I'm doing an interview."
LCK: Ah, what did you give him?
GM: He's got some little gummies and is watching Caillou.
LCK: Oh, that's not bad. Caillou's okay. He's gentle.
GM: It's funny, now that he's four I totally appreciate your kid material.
GM: I think it's genius because parents relate, although they never give voice to those opinions, and then people without kids hate people talking about their kids anyway, so it's a win-win situation.
GM: Was that just dumb luck or calculated?
LCK: I just started doing it and people liked it. You know, that's kind of the way stuff like that works. If you're trying to find something that people are gonna like, you're never going to. You'll drive yourself nuts and it's no fun anyway. I think evolution worked that way. Species grew different parts and the ones that helped them stayed on and the ones that weren't helping dropped off. You know what I mean? So that's kind of what happens with an act because comedy's very Darwinist. You sort of just do all kinds of different things. Although I've done material that's been successful that I've cut. It's sort of different. It's turned upside-down for me now because there are things that get laughs right away and then I just feel, after doing them a little bit, that they're not genuine. They don't feel real to me so I drop 'em. And then there's other things that aren't getting any laughs and I just know there's something in there if I just stick with it until it does. I won't do it with the intention of not getting a laugh – which I just think is stupid. I'll try it until it works. And those [bits] usually wind up getting far more laughs and are more gratifying to the audience than the stuff that works easily.
GM: You're so popular now. Are you finding that people are laughing when they shouldn't be just because it's you on stage?
LCK: Um, you do have to keep yourself honest by just watching what you're doing. There are times, a place in the show where you're just doing so well you can just start saying almost anything. But you can't put too much veracity on the success of that material. But also there's the overall show versus the material. Like, if you scrutinize each piece of material, like this joke is good or bad. The overall show is important.
GM: And you do about an hour, right?
LCK: Yeah, usually a little more. Usually like an hour-ten.
GM: And it's new. Every year you're doing something new.
LCK: Yep. The hour-long special on Showtime that's on the air right now, which I shot in March, all that material is dead now. I do a different hour than that now.
GM: It's dead to you. Do you ever have something you like doing so much that you want to keep it; it's hard letting go?
LCK: I love throwing it away. What's kinda keeping me alive at this age as a standup is that I keep throwing material away. I reach a point where I just have no jokes.
GM: Why don't more comics do that?
LCK: Because jokes are addictive and laughs are addictive. And you get scared. You think, "I couldn't possibly do a show without that stuff. That stuff – that's my big stuff." But sure you can. Tell yourself you're going to do it.
GM: Then there's also the aspect of sitting down, or however you do it, and writing new material.
LCK: Well, to me the only way to write new stuff is to fill a void. It's like the way the diaphragm works in a person's body. It flexes and expands with nothing in them. That's how you breathe. I don't sit down and write. I don't do it. I can't. I can't write if I don't have to. I can't do things that I don't have to do. I'm a badly motivated person. So I have to make it a rule that I don't do material after a certain point. Because this is what I do for a living. The natural instinct of my brain will kick into high gear and give me stuff to talk about.
GM: So you come up with germs of ideas then go on stage somewhere and work them out?
LCK: I usually have a development period in the spring and early summer and then doing local clubs in New York and short sets and building material.
GM: And you put tons of clips up on the internet. I guess that's a way to spur yourself on. Hasn't the internet taken over the way TV used to be when everyone would basically watch the same shows because there were only three major networks? When somebody was on TV they'd have to burn that set because everyone would have seen it.
LCK: Even though less people, I think, watch clips on the internet than they do with television still, but it's always on. When you have a clip on YouTube, it's always there. It's not something that's on at a certain time; it's just there. And pretty much everybody that knows me has probably seen everything (laughs) because people binge watch and it's not that hard to just click around and watch everything that I have. I used to put stuff on more. I used to put stuff on as I developed it. I used to just do sets and tape them and then throw it on. The year I did the special Shameless and the year before that I did a half-hour for HBO, those two I threw clips on as I developed that material. And then I stopped doing that (laughs) because once my focus became doing these hours, I don't put undeveloped bad versions of that material out until I've put it out as a special in its best form. And then I don't care who chops it up and puts it out. The new special I have, there's like ten different people who have posted it on YouTube in different pieces. That's fine, that's great, I don't care. And sometimes people, when I was developing that set, they'd come to one of my shows with a camera phone, videotape it, and put it on YouTube. When that's happened, I've written the person and said... I don't tell them they have to take it down; I believe in sharing on the internet. But I just tell them, "I personally rather you wait until after it's come out in the special." And a hundred percent of the time they've taken it down.
GM: I know a lot of artists are more controlling about what goes up.
LCK: I dunno. I mean, I make my money on ticket sales. I'm not a person that makes money on royalties. If I did, I might feel differently. I don't know. The last album that Radiohead put out, they put the whole album on the internet for free. A free download for a finite amount of time. And then they took it down and put it on sale and it fucking killed, made a shitload of money. It's like radio. The internet is the radio. People don't know their history. It's ridiculous. This goes all the way back to rag music. You know why they call it a rag?
GM: No, I don't.
LCK: It refers to the sheet of music it's written on. It used to be, the only way you could ever hear music was to go see somebody play it. Around the late 1800s, if you wanted to hear a Scott Joplin song, or whoever the fuck, you had to go watch him play. And before there were records or anything, there were rags, which were the sheet music and lyrics of a song. And some musicians got the idea to publish their songs as a thing you could go buy at a dime store and take it home and play it on your home piano. A lot of musicians said, "What are you, crazy? Because who's going to come watch you play it if they know how to play it themselves?" But obviously it made songs a huge hit and the person who wrote the rag would play it live and packed every theatre. And when they came out with the phonograph, everybody was like, "Shit! Of course, if they hear it at home on their radio, they'll never come out." Of course record sales promote live... And vice versa. Hey, guess what? You're getting paid for the record and the people made a shitload of money on those rags, too. I mean, it's just stupid. And the radio is free. Nobody gets paid at all for radio.
GM: Somebody does, don't they?
LCK: I don't think... I don't know. Do radio stations pay like a small fee to [the artists]? I don't think they make a shitload of money. But everybody goes and buys their records. It's proved over and over again that the more exposure the artist gets, the more people are going to seek it out.
GM: What about with your CD's? Are you okay, then, with people copying it or lending it?
LCK: I guess I am. I guess I don't care. Also, personally, I'm a pretty savvy person, computer-wise. I know how to use computers really well and I don't know how to get a bit torrent. I don't get any of that. I don't have time to teach myself how to download a torrent, you know what I mean? My new special is available that way, copiously. And after all these years of that stuff being available, I don't know how to do it. I don't have a real P-to-P thing, since Napster went down all those years ago. And I don't want to pay some subscription version of Napster when I can just buy it on iTunes for 99 cents. I have to believe that most people are like me or even more not going to go through this shit. But the people that do are fanatics. They love the material and they don't have the money to pay for it or they don't want to pay for it for whatever reason. But the people like that are good advertisers, good word of mouth. (laughs) I mean, you gotta understand. It's not like my comedy's my own private business. Like, I got into this shit to have people hear these ideas. And if people are poor and they wanna steal, I dunno. Like, I know it's not right to think this way but I kind of give them a pass. (laughs)
GM: And they'll probably be the first to line up to come see you.
LCK: That's a fact. People come up to me after shows a lot and they say, "Hey, man, I downloaded your stuff for free. I stole it. I'm sorry." And I'm like, "Hey, you're here. You paid 30 dollars to see me so I don't care."
"If you're telling anybody a story in any situation and you're not throwing a little bullshit in, you're just fucking wasting everybody's time."
– Louis C.K.
GM: Going back to that Darwinian thing, I think your personal material is genius as well because a lot of comics try to be as shocking as possible by going religious or political or with the vocabulary, and yet you just turn it on yourself and it's as shocking as anything out there without that being its sole purpose.
LCK: Right. Yeah, it's not why I do it, but I do like taking people to places that they're not used to going in a comedy show and giving them big laughs there. That, to me, is really rewarding. And it's not because I like being edgy or something; it's because I think it's a really good idea to go to areas in your mind that you're really afraid of and actually laugh in those places. What's not good about that?
GM: What's your truth quotient? Is that important to you, other than the joke being sort of generally true? Does it have to also be specifically true for you?
LCK: Oh, no. I mean, I have a lot of stories that I tell that I elaborate. Absolutely. I mean, if you're telling anybody a story in any situation and you're not throwing a little bullshit in, you're just fucking wasting everybody's time.
GM: (laughs) Do people get the wrong idea, then?
LCK: Uh... I suppose not. I don't lie about the way I feel about something. I'll exaggerate the way I feel or purify it or distill it, but I won't lie about how I feel about something. I'll describe a situation that I've been in and it's a real true story and I'll draw it with bigger, thicker lines. That's pretty common in fiction and even non-fiction writing. And then sometimes I'll throw in shit... Like, if I have a loose joke that doesn't fit anywhere, I'll throw it into a story where it didn't happen just to be economical and dense. I want my act to be very dense and for people to be laughing through most of it. So I think I owe it to my audience. If I was a newspaper and I had to vet my act for truthfulness, I'd be a pretty shitty comedian. But there are pieces of truth in all of it. I did a bit about how much I hate deer. That was in the last special. And I get passionately angry about the deer that I hated in that special. When I started doing it, I was living in the country and encountering them a lot. By the time I finally did it in the special, I just didn't hate deer at all. And it was really hard to get myself that whipped up into deer hatred. It just was excruciating. I hated that bit by the time the special was done and I was so glad to get rid of it. So that's somewhere where I was a little bit dishonest, but there was a day when I hated deer that much.
GM: And the part about your daughter being an asshole...
LCK: Look, that's the way some parents feel in certain moments. And I changed, too. I think I was a very young father and I think when you're a young father, you don't know what you're doing and everything feels like it's the worst thing ever. And you just go, "Fuck this!" And I think it's a very common feeling. And it's a hard feeling for people to admit to because it exists simultaneously with intense love for your kid. So that's what makes it very confusing and guilty to feel that way. So for me to just come out and say it on stage I think was cathartic for me and for other parents. But it's a few years down the line now. I said my daughter's an asshole when I had one kid and she was, like, 2 or 3. I have two kids now: a 3- and a 6-year-old. And I'm 41 and I feel differently about my kids. It's still just as hard as it was, but I can identify with the guy who said that, which was me. But I'm calmer. I take stress better because of them. Because of being trained by them. And my older daughter's a better person than I am, so I'm trying to catch up that way.
GM: When she's old enough and hears your old act, you'll explain just as you explained it to me, that it was frustrating but of course I love you.
LCK: Yeah. Look, I'll say, "Yeah, it was hard raising you, but also remember, it's comedy." She knows what comedy is. She's seen my act earlier. Like when I used to do Letterman a lot, I had these nice 5-minute sets, my kind of more quirky stuff that I used to do, and that's perfect entry-level stuff. Both of my kids have watched those sets and they love them. So they know what I do and they know that I exaggerate my anger if I'm angry and that it's fun to act these big emotions out as a comedian. They get that. And they even know that I've talked about them. But I can't show it to them, most of that stuff, because it's not for kids. But when they do see it I think they'll understand. They are a comedian's children so if anyone's going to be savvy it's going to be them.
GM: And I think everyone watching you gets that it's just parental frustration that we all feel and that there's a real love there even though you don't do a Rickles at the end and get all sentimental.
LCK: If you're really putting the time in as a parent, if you're really actually raising your kids, and spending real time with them and engaging them, you're going to get pissed off (laughs). But if you're an indifferent parent and a bullshit parent who has nannies, and fathers that go play golf on a weekend, that just boggles my mind. The idea that with the time you're not working... At least figure out something you can do to relax with your kids. I don't get it. And I don't judge people, but I don't understand that. And those people are generally in better moods than other parents.
GM: Well, I'm home all day with mine.
LCK: Yeah, me, too. I mean, when I'm not on the road, that's all I do. I go on the road three days a week and four days a week I'm home with my kids and I'm just with my kids. I don't put any time into anything else. I have a job I can put aside when I'm at home.
GM: Are you getting a divorce?
LCK: We're separated and we're divorcing right now, yeah. So my time with my kids is just me and them. That's changed the nature of my time with them.
GM: I've read that you're talking about it on stage.
LCK: I talk about what it's like to be divorced but I don't talk about her anymore. That's her private life. She doesn't share her private life with me anymore.
GM: You're just back from London.
LCK: Yeah, I was there for quite a while.
GM: You've spent a lot of time over there, even when you were a younger comedian, right?
LCK: I did used to go there a lot.
GM: They have ruthless hecklers there, I hear.
LCK: Yeah, I never got one. I never got one. One guy yelled at me, "You're a cunt" once when I was on stage and I let the moment pass and then I kept talking and nothing else happened. You know, actually I kind of got commented on from the audience this last trip. About two minutes into my act I realized I had said the word "shit" a number of times. And I said something like, "Wow, I've only been on stage for five minutes and I've already said 'shit' five times." And this guy said, [assuming a pompous British accent] "Actually, it's eight." And I just fucking eviscerated him. I don't think I've ever been that mean to anybody. The audience loved it. Because he was so pompous. It had nothing to do with him being British; he was just an ass. I don't even remember what I said, but I spent about ten minutes pissing right in his face to the huge delight of the audience. It was really fun.
GM: It helps, though, that he's British and sounds even more pompous, though, I'm sure.
LCK: Oh, totally! Look, you gotta be honest, there's no way you can say that all British people are pompous assholes but when one is, you're like, "Look at that fuckin' guy." You know, there's a trillion different kind of Jews - well, there's not even that many Jews (laughs), but there has to be at least as many kinds of Jews as there are Jews – but when a Jew is cheap, it's hilarious (laughs).
GM: I liked your quote about how great comics like Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin have made three good movies between them in 25 years. And yet it seems like so many great comics feel that's the route they have to go. Is it just the money, do you think?
LCK: No, it's exciting. Some people are more into being sort of stars and they're climbing a star ladder. I'm more into the work that I'm doing. I know I can do a great standup show so that's what I'm sort of concentrating on. I can get myself through writing a movie so I'll sometimes go try to get that job.
GM: You're in a couple now.
LCK: Yeah, I'm in a few movies. If somebody came to me and said, "Paramount wants to do a movie where you play this asshole and you walk around smirking at everybody and say wise-ass things," I'd be like, "Sure, man. Sounds like fun." (laughs) I don't know. I would definitely give it a shot. It's fun to act. It's funny. It's silly. I was in a movie where I played Martin Lawrence's partner. I was supposed to be, like, an agent with a blue-tooth earpiece and sunglasses and this whole get-up. I'm so not that guy. I mean, they shouldn't have hired me. I was terrible. But for me, I was like, "Sure! I'll be in a movie with Martin Lawrence. Fuck it." (laughs) It's just fun to do. But what I won't do is pursue a movie career. It's just a lot of work to audition for stuff. I've done like three movies and I didn't audition for any of them. I just got 'em on rep. So I don't have to be in movies. If they keep coming that way, I'll take 'em.
GM: You've written and produced and directed movies. Would you continue that?
LCK: Yeah, that's different. Because also the pursuit of that is not as tedious. You don't have to audition 50 to 1. I've gone out and pitched something like ten movies, at the most, and I would say 80 percent of those I've gotten at least paid to write them. So that's a pretty decent pursuit but it's having an idea and actually sitting down and writing, which is very hard to do. To write a movie is very fucking hard. And I don't honestly think I'm very good at it. (laughs)
GM: Well, they have people to rewrite it for you.
LCK: It's stay-at-home pay and it's hard to beat that, you know? So when I come up with something that's a marketable idea I will go pitch it and try to get paid to write it.
"Being on a TV show, that's like performing, that's like standup. Especially because the TV shows that I do are generally autobiographical and are built around me. So that's just sort of an extension of the standup. And I really love the idea of having a sitcom and having it actually stay on the air and work. That's definitely a dream."
– Louis C.K.
GM: You're developing a CBS sitcom now?
LCK: Yeah, to me TV is different because being on a TV show, that's like performing, that's like standup. Especially because the TV shows that I do are generally autobiographical and are built around me. So that's just sort of an extension of the standup. And I really love the idea of having a sitcom and having it actually stay on the air and work. That's definitely a dream. That's something I would love to do. I would rather that than the movie roles because I know TV. I know that business better. So yeah, I'm trying that now. Pamela [Adlon], from Lucky Louie, and I have written a pilot together for Paramount television and it's in the middle of the whole development process, which takes forever.
GM: Is it...
LCK: It's a sitcom. Man and wife.
GM: ... Lucky Louie without the swearing?
LCK: No, because it's definitely different. You know, every couple of years I've done one of these. Before Lucky Louie I did a pilot for CBS called St. Louie. And that didn't go to series and then Lucky Louie did go to series. They were very different from each other, too. This couple has more kids. I can't talk about it a lot because it's in the middle of this shit but it's very different totally but it's still, at its core, a very honest show about family life.
GM: Modelled after any particular favourites of yours?
LCK: This is what I said when I pitched it: If Lucky Louie was The Honeymooners, which it was (laughs), then this show would be All In The Family. The Honeymooners and Lucky Louie were very similar, although there was a kid. But really, The Honeymooners was a young couple. People don't look at it that way. But they were like a young couple trying to figure each other out and really fighting it out and trying to find each other. They had no money and it was shot on an extremely bare, theatrical set and based solely on performance and comedic skills, really. That was Lucky Louie also. So this would be modelled more after All In The Family. There's probably a little more of the house but still simple. And more about the long scenes. Like, Lucky Louie ended up being more story oriented than I expected. We ended up doing a lot of writing on that show to where we went to a bunch of different scenes. This show would be more... I don't know. It's different. There's a different relationship. Once you get past trying to figure each other out, you reach a new level with marriage. So that's what this is about.
GM: I read where you said that you lost the ability to offend.
LCK: I stopped thinking it was an issue. Once I sort of realized that it was better, it was actually more generous to an audience to take them to places and subjects that they just find exciting or cringe-worthy, to take people to those places, it's just more worth it to go there for laughs. Nobody's been there before – or usually. And it's a bigger payoff because they're laughing at shit they're afraid of. So why the fuck not? Why would you ever not want to do a joke about any subject unless there's nothing funny there. Or nothing real there. There are some comedians I've seen... I was watching a guy on YouTube who's like a tough-guy comic, like a real dark dude. And he's like, "So then I fuckin' gave her an abortion." (laughs) You know. Or like, "Yeah, I like going to abortion clinics for the buffet." I'm making that joke up. Nobody pulled that joke. But that kind of thing where he's like, "I'm gonna do five minutes on abortion just to fuck with these people." To me that's just boring. It's also cheap. It's a cheap trick. It's like sleight of hand, pretending that you're doing something courageous where you're actually doing something very predictable and you know there's always going to be a group of people who applaud you just for being in that area, material-wise.
GM: And there will be others who will automatically get offended.
LCK: And then other people are going to go, "Fuck you, PC faggots! This guy is the best! He's a fuckin' genius!" That kind of thing. But to me it's not worth going there. If you can get a bunch of people that really have never heard the words you're using or subjects you're talking about, even, brought up in public, I take them to that place and I see them getting upset if I go in that direction. And they kind of sink in their chairs, like, "I don't wanna go here. Please don't take us to this area." Then I go there and they're laughing uncontrollably at what I find there. That's a great victory to me. So why wouldn't you do it?
GM: Can you pinpoint the time? Was there an "aha!" moment when you realized you could go down those paths?
LCK: I don't know. There wasn't a moment but one thing I can point at as a control group, as a control of the experiment, the bit I did on Chewed Up about about how soon after September 11th you masturbated as a measure of how bad a person you are. When I first started doing that bit I was afraid to do it in certain places. I would think, is this a night for that bit or not? How's this audience going to take that bit? Then I found later in the year, "Oh yeah, I don't think about that anymore! I stopped checking on that."
GM: No one had probably ever thought of that take on the situation before yet we can all relate. And it's a philosophical question, too.
LCK: It is a philosophical question. It's not saying "Ha, ha, dead people! You guys suck!" It's saying that at the extreme of our recent memory is very valuable information about who we are. It's really talking about just me jacking off too much.
GM: On the surface.
LCK: Yeah. But I mean, you have to take responsibility for what you say. There are people that just won't see it that way. There are people that just go, "That's horrible that you would use that." That's the way that they would think of it. Well, anybody that thinks that, maybe they have a closer connection to the thing. But they heard another hour of material that night that was closer to somebody else that's not them and they weren't offended by it. So I think in some ways people singling themselves out as offended is very narcissistic. I mean, it's a comedy show. You don't go there to listen to a lecture about good ideas and what's nice to think. That's not what a comedy show is.
GM: But do you ever think, though, that when you're performing in New York you may have relatives of 9/11 victims in the audience?
LCK: I'll tell you what. Right after 9/11 people were in comedy clubs and it's all they wanted the comedians to talk about. Comedians on stage in New York City right after 9/11 just talked about "How fucking scary was that shit, huh?" and told stories of what was happening around them and how the city was processing it. Free speech and humour and unfettered speech and unfiltered impolite ideas are a very healthy way to cope with everything negative. And I think 9/11 proved that. I was on the road a lot then. I'd be like in Ohio or someplace and if I mentioned 9/11 people would either get tense or applaud patriotically (laughs), which is just weird. But right in New York City, where everybody knows somebody who was hurt, killed or [had a] changed life forever, those people were starving for therapy to talk about it.
GM: Do you ever do political material. I know you've got the big election next week.
LCK: No. This has been the most fascinating election. This has been the one to talk about if ever there was one, and I haven't touched it. Nobody needs me to do that. There are so many sources for political humour. And mainly because I'm building these sets. I have a very specific goal. There are comedians who are, "Oh, I've got to talk about this! This is going to help me get through tonight." And they do some version of a political joke. But I'm looking ahead to the beginning of next year when I'm going to shoot this next special. So I'm not going to do Sarah Palin jokes on my next HBO special.
GM: So the next special will be the tour we're going to see here in Vancouver?
LCK: Yeah. The tour I'm doing in Vancouver is ripe for shooting. It's probably going to be shot in January or somewhere in the first quarter of next year. Shameless is out. It's been out for a while. And Lucky Louie's episodes. And also this last special, Chewed Up, that's on Showtime this month, that'll be out on DVD in early December. December 16th it'll hit the streets. In Canada you can probably get it on Amazon up there.