When FX and Louis CK announced that they'd be collaborating on a sitcom that consisted of stand-up routines followed by vignettes based on his stand-up routines, it'd be fair of you to think that Louis CK was doing his version of Seinfeld. But this is not a show about nothing. This is a show about something. Actually, Louie, which debuts June 29, is more than something. Louie is the most original, honest comedy on TV in a generation. Think of everything you've liked about All in the Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm, then remove the live studio audience and the cringe factor, and then you're prepared to have your thoughts provoked.
After debuting the first two episodes at a red-carpet premiere at Carolines on Monday night, Louis CK talked to me about the series Tuesday on his way to the airport to California for his Leno and Lopez appearances.
But first, here's a short scene from the pilot, in which Louis CK jokes about volunteering for his daughters at their NYC public school, followed by comedian William Stephenson as an aloof bus driver hired to take the field trip to the Bronx Botanical Gardens:
In the third episode, we see Louis CK get into a fight with Nick DiPaolo at the Comedy Cellar after both had performed downstairs — a fake fight that some people were duped into thinking was real.
"I was really pleased with the reaction. I wanted it to feel like a real fight. It's filmed like a real scene. The camera pushes in and then when we start, the camera has to look up to find us…I didn't want to fool people…but that's what i wanted it to be…and then when this guy put it on YouTube and Howard Stern talked about it. Nick is really that good of an actor. Nick is a fucking good actor. I was fucking pissed that this extra put this clip up on YouTube. It's one thing if a fan walking by…that's obnoxious, but it's a fan, it's hard for you to stop…but an extra, a professional actor who works for you, that's absurd. We had to get a lawyer."
Louis CK also gets naked in two of the first three episodes, showing his ass. Is that symbolic of the naked honesty you were aiming for in the series? Or do you just like getting naked on camera? "That was necessary for a proper level of humiliation. I don't do it for nothing. I do think that nudity should have a reason story-wise. I remember when I was on Lucky Louie and I was naked once, and so was Rick Shapiro. I was on a radio show in Cleveland. It was one of my worst experiences ever…One of them goes, 'Why are you naked on your show? I don't want to see that! Why isn't the chick naked? Why can't I see her titties?'…The premium people put on that shit…"
The tone of Louie — short films done without an audience, as opposed to a multi-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience — is the polar opposite of Lucky Louie. Was that intentional? "It wasn't a reaction at all in any way to Lucky Louie. This was its own idea. I've been making short films for years. Features. I love directing. And shooting on location in New York. I've kind of been able to do everything I want with this show."
For fans who have seen your earlier shorts, is that the same helicopter in the pilot that you used for your short stealing the ice cream from the kid? "It sure is. It's the same guy. We have this friend who has this cheap helicopter. He's been really good to us. I don't want to say his name because he's been so good to us….When we shot this HBO stuff a couple of years ago, when I did that helicopter thing, we did other helicopter shots..He said, 'I can't go anywhere near a building or a bridge.' I said OK, we'll get a long lens. And then he was hovering two feet above me. It was so good. I was very proud of Chelsea (Peretti), she got in there and he took off. She was fine with it."
At the premiere, FX's John Landgraf said: "When you say original programming, and you attribute it to Louis, you get really original programming." How important was it to you to do something completely original? I know some people early on wanted to compare Louie to Seinfeld.
"Seinfeld, I think there's vast differences…I think the way we shoot the stand-up is even different. Most comedians. when I've shown it to my comedian friends, they've said, you have to reshoot the stand-up scenes. They say you're bombing. You can't see the audience. They have that bullshit performance vanity. They want to see the audience laughing. Me in a suit, crisp suit. Fuck that, I'm playing a comedian on the show. The camera is literally onstage with me three feet away. It's not about me killing. Although I do want to kill. My favorite thing is The Comedy Cellar, I have my Twitter audience of about 80 people. When I did the Cellar sets, I tried to reach for stuff…So you see me reach and cling and pulling an idea together. Which is interesting to see, not from a concert performance, and Carolines, it's caught, 300-400 people and it's all honed, polished material, and I'm annihilating. So to me that's very different. Seinfeld had a spotlight. It doesn't even look like being in a comedy club."
"You couldn't be more different in subject matter than Seinfeld and me. They did a show about nothing. Gloriously so. Also, we dont have a sitcom format. We dont have two-act stories, we dont have overlapping stories, payoffs. It's pieces. Some short, some long. The Nick DiPaolo story isn't even a story. But we have three different conversations. Those are all one-shot scenes. That episode, it's a three-shot episode. Which is very different from like the divorce episode."
The second episode opens cold with a long poker table scene with Louis CK and fellow comedians Rick Crom, DiPaolo, Jim Norton, Eddie Brill, Hannibal Buress. The talk is fast and loose, and culminates in Crom delivering a lengthy monologue about the use of the term "faggot."
Was it important for you to get all of these other New York comedians into the show? "It's funny. When I did the pilot, we shot much more than what was in the pilot. I shot five stories for the pilot. Because it was an experiment. I had Nick wear a suit. I had this idea that Nick is an old-timey comedian, wears these sharp suits. Has a thick accent. I stripped away who Nick was as a human being, and it's weird to look at. It doesn't fit and it doesn't work. Those are all real conversations. Todd (Barry) is still there. Todd is there to do one thing, which he does in real life, which is shit on me. You know how they have chalk at the Comedy Cellar for people to draw on the tables? Todd is writing 'NOT FUNNY' in big letters and pointing at it, and Nick isn't even paying attention."
"I only use people if they're of use to me. There are so many great actors in New York City. Every time there'd be someone who says one line, I'd say it's a shame we can't use them more. The comedians are great, though, because they react under pressure."
"When we shot that poker scene, Rick had a massive amount of dialogue to remember, and he had to drive that scene. He doesn't act a lot and he's in a room with guys who work a lot more than him, and I was so fucking proud of him. When you direct, you take the actor aside and talk to them so other people cannot hear you. I was sitting right across from him, and I said you really need to step it up, you're not doing it and you need to drive this scene. And then he nailed it."
Will there be more poker scenes with comedians? "That's the only time you see that group of guys."
What about other stand-ups doing stand-up on the series? "Just Nick. I shot Hannibal (Buress) doing stand-up. There was originally an epilogue to the poker scene, where I go onstage at Carolines, and I do my material about the N word, and then Hannibal comes up after me, he says 'You get this big speech from Rick about faggot and you banish it forever, what am i going to have to come up with this big speech about how nigger hurts me?' We had an opportunity to reshoot it, but I decided not to. It occurred to me that it's be cool to have other comedians i like. I may do it if I get another season."
Did you worry at all about burning your stand-up material on the show? "When i was developing this, the way that we did it, was they just gave me the money and said go do a show. The fact that having the money in my company account means I could think of one scene and shoot it. Maybe I'll go out and shoot one scene. So I started piecing the show together and I thought, how do i do only these? I thought about Annie Hall. I thought about how (Woody Allen) played fast and loose with the timeline, had cartoon animation, and he talked to the camera, when he wanted to link scenes together. He talked to the camera. So i started writing things for myself to say to the studio audience, and I started to vomit. I'm not that guy. Well, do i use stand-up? At the time, I had my material ready. I had a whole new hour that wasn't in Hilarious. I don't want them to see the special. Then what, what am I saving this for? Do I want a special more than I want a series? To take primo, weapons-grade material, and spread it over the course of a series, so I decided, then I started taking things in that hour…"
So when do you return to stand-up? "I'm going to be on the road this fall and winter, developing the new hour. If they want another season, I'll do it there. If not, I'll do a special."
What's the latest with seeing Hilarious on-screen or DVD, and CDs? "It's kind of hard to talk about right now. We're weighing where it's going to be seen. I want it out. I was doing a special a year for three years. That special should have been out last year."
Well, that delay was in part because you decided to go big-screen and do Sundance, right? "Yeah, I have no regrets about that."
And I take it you gave no thought to going the Judd Apatow route and casting your actual daughters in the series? "I don't want to put my kids through a day of production. And the kids, I have a low mandate from them. If I get it in a couple of takes…I don't believe in making kids work."