Comedy god Louis C.K. stopped by Charlie Rose recently for a half-hour conversation, but we wish it were twice that (hell, we’d watch if it were four times as long). It can be hard to suffer through Charlie Rose interviews without yelling “SHUT UP!” at the screen, hoping he’ll stop interrupting his subject and just let them talk. With other guests, this is frustrating, but when Rose is cutting off Louis C.K.‘s stories, it’s downright infuriating. Still, when he actually stopped talking and let C.K. get a word in, we learned some fascinating stuff.
He gave insights into his comedic process, the ways he challenges himself by using his best bits at the very beginning of the show, and how he’s learned to control the audience (yeah, that means you). As usual, he spoke lovingly about being a dad, and what his daughters think about his work — especially the bits about them. Louis also proved his astute understanding of the intricacies of our piracy-happy culture, and how he works extra hard to keep his prices low so everyone can enjoy his comedy, legally.
So as a little Monday present, we’ve cut through the noise of Rose’s self-aggrandizing interruptions and isolated the good stuff so you don’t have to lose your voice (and your sanity) screaming at him. Read on for the interview’s highlights.
On “trying” writing and directing: “I’m a dad and I’m a comic, that’s really mostly what I am. So anything beyond that I always get a little uncomfortable. I’m good at writing and directing. I always feel like I’m trying those things, though. I always feel like, ‘I’m just trying that.'”
On improving the bottom line: “You know, your best show keeps getting higher and higher. How good you can do keeps increasing, but the really important thing is that your worst show keeps coming up. I think that’s for any performer. Your worst show needs to come up close to the best show. So even on your worst night, you’re still up there.”
On sharing his stand-up with his daughters: “I’ve changed the way I talk about my kids just because I like sharing my stand-up with my kids, I like showing them what I do. The first time I ever showed [them something], I showed my oldest daughter a bit I used to do about playing hide and seek with her. And it was about getting really frustrated with her, that she would hide in plain sight, literally, and I would have to pretend that she was hiding better. And on stage I would say what B.S. this was because I have to pretend she’s good. And I would rail about it and get angry. And I showed this to her when she was, I don’t know, six, and she laughed a lot. Because her younger sister was like that now, like she was having to patronize her younger sister. So she’s like, ‘I know exactly how you feel!’ She was able to make that connection. And she also thought it was funny that I got so upset. She knew it was funny because in real life at home I’m not like that. I mean I get upset like any parent does but not unreasonably so.”
He wants his daughters to think of him as a dad, not a comic: “What I hope is that her thoughts about me are as a father. You know I’m there for her when she gets off the bus from school. I’m there for her, I take her home, I cook her dinner, we do her homework together, and her sister, same thing. So I take care of them. To me, that’s what I want them to remember. The work is like something that hopefully, when they’re 18, 19, they’ll Google me and go ‘Wow, this guy did a bunch of stuff while he was doing that,’ you know?”
You have Louie to thank for trying to keep his ticket prices low (you should watch the part where he explains what a “guarantee” means if you don’t already know): “I started to say [to venues], let’s not have a guarantee, let’s just both do our best. Then we can keep the advertising budget lower, and then also I wanted the fans to – I didn’t want it to be difficult to come see me. I get really sick, physically, when I see that a ticket of mine costs like $75. That’s just too much money.”
How he makes paying more appealing than piracy: “I made the website really easy to use. So I kind of closed the gap between how easy it was to steal it and how easy it was to just buy it, you know, because you could go to my site and the five-dollar purchase was such a little bump in the road. It was almost like a viral video, like ‘Just click on this and watch it, but take one second and give us five bucks and then its over with’ — it was just easier I think for most people than to go to some pirate site and find a way to torrent it…. And once something exists, if people can’t buy it, they’ll take it, on the internet. They feel entitled to everything that’s on the Internet.”
What makes regular people turn into pirates: “When I went to Australia the first time, they all were watching my show. And it wasn’t on TV there, and it wasn’t on iTunes or Netflix, they were all stealing it. Regular people! Not like crazy nerds — like regular family folks. They all stole it! They all downloaded it because we’re not letting them watch it. We’re not even giving them the opportunity! And they all told me, ‘If your show was available, we would buy it.’ But it’s not! And the whole world knows about it but not us, so we’ll just take it.”
In his early days, he “devoured” comedy: “When I started I just devoured comedy. I went to clubs every night, even if I wasn’t [on]. I would be on stage maybe two nights a week, but I was at clubs seven nights a week. I watched every comedian I could — good or bad, friend or foe. Didn’t matter, I just watched and loaded it into my system.”
On studying the “mysterious animal” that is the stand-up audience: “The audience is such a mysterious animal to us [comics], so you’re always kept guessing. There are some nights where you get to the club, you feel good, you’re ready to do a show, but the audience has this unanimous grumpy feeling to them. How did all these people — they’re all strangers to each other, but they’re all sitting there like “I hate this show”? How is this happening? So I’ll never see enough shows to be like, ‘Okay, I get this.’ It’s an unquenchable thirst.”
On pal Chris Rock cutting him loose: “I remember I was writing for his show, and we’re all winning Emmys, everybody’s happy, and one day I’m next to him at his monologue mark and he’s like, ‘When are you gonna direct? When are you gonna do your own thing?’ He said, ‘You know, I’m happy to have you here — it’s like I have a minor league team and Barry Bonds is hitting home runs every day — but at some point you have to look to Barry Bonds and say, ‘You have to get out of here!”‘ He was benefitting from me, but he wanted me out on my own. He’s always been like a big brother and a little brother to me at the same time.”
On the difficulty of breaking into comedy today: “I remember I did a set on Letterman once and it was going really well. And at the time I was writing for Dana Carvey, and I showed him the set, he said, ‘You know, when I was coming up, that set would have changed your life.’ And of course it didn’t.”
How he breaks down starstruck audiences so they’ll judge his material honestly: “The [Comedy] Cellar’s close to my house, so I go there all the time and try a bunch of stuff out… When you first go on, the crowd’s excited to see you. But the thing with standup is that you can’t abuse that. The first joke you do that’s not funny, you’re just like everybody else. So Chris [Rock] and I have talked about this — you try to ground their expectations, do something that isn’t gonna please them, so you get to work. You know they’re all like [mimes excitement] because they’ve seen you on TV, so you say something — not to insult the crowd — but you say something to take them down, or bore them for a minute, and then you can get an honest read on the material.”
How creating an episode of Louie is like making a sculpture: “[There are] two kinds of sculpture, there’s addition sculpture and subtraction. Addition is where you keep adding clay ’til you get the right shape, and subtraction is where there’s a block, and you cut away at what isn’t the thing until you get to the thing. So with the show it’s both. You start with addition, it’s shooting, you’re glomming on pieces, you’re compiling pieces. And then editing is really the creation of the show, you’re carving away what doesn’t belong and making the thing. It’s the negative space around it that defines it, you know?”
What to expect from Louie Season 3: “There are bigger stories. I have one story that’s six episodes long. And then there’s another one that’s two episodes. It’s all connected this year.”
When you’re a veteran comic, the audience’s emotions are your plaything: “It’s pretty huge when you start because if you don’t have the right footing with the crowd, then you’re lost. But when you get to be a veteran, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, you can throw ‘em back and get them back again… That’s where you can get really good because you can just go ‘You guys go away,” you can piss ‘em off, because when you’re onstage you know the future… They don’t know what you’re gonna say, but you do… So once you get to that place, where you can just kinda go backwards and forwards, anger them, make them happy, get them in a frenzy, and you know how to control that, that gives you the ability to try a lot of things.”
On being in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: “I like being a spectator, so I like going to a Woody Allen movie. But that’s about a front row seat as you can get. You’re in it! You’re actually on a set. It’s like a floor seat at a Celtics or Knicks game, but I get to be in the game.”
Making a comedy special is like making a samurai sword: “I used to describe it like the way they make samurai swords, or used to: they bang it, and fold it, then bang it again, and then they fold it and keep banging it. They pound on it and fold it, so they’re squeezing all the oxygen [out], they just keep making it perfect. So every time you think ‘I’ve got an hour [for this show],’ no, you don’t. Write another hour, and then fold it into that one. Get rid of all the impurities and all the bad stuff, and then keep doing that.”
On challenging himself by using his best bit first: “Your closing bit can make you kind of sluggish, kind of lazy… It’s a 60 minute set usually, or maybe 90. 20 minutes in, you’re like 20 minutes away from your 20 minute closer — which you know is not gonna fail — so 20 minutes in you’re like, ‘I can coast for 20 minutes ‘cause I got this thing.’ So I started making life hard for myself by opening with the closer. Like, ‘Let’s open with the hardest material.’ Now I’m in a much worse state. Then I have to follow it, I have to follow my toughest material with stuff that’s pretty weak, and I have no closer. I have nothing to depend on. There’s just an open wound at the end. But if I did that, then this bit would just, through need, become the closer.”