In 2010, stand-up and comedy writer Louis CK told FX head John Landgraf that he didn’t want to be Charlie Sheen. This was in the pre-tiger blood days, when Sheen was the face of mainstream US TV comedy and drawing $1.8million per episode of CBS’ Two and a Half Men. At that time, CK was being wooed by the major networks and having $400 grand personal pay cheques waved under his nose to come up with a sitcom pilot.
The deal CK reached with FX was for half that amount, a sum that wasn’t just to cover his fee, but the costs of the entire production: cast, crew, sets, helicopter stunts… the whole shebang. CK’s proviso? He be given the money and left alone for three months to make exactly the show he wanted to make.
What would it be about? He hadn’t decided. Who would be in it? He wasn’t sure. What he did know was that he wanted to make a show that felt like a short film, using beautiful lenses and a real film crew. He didn’t want it to feel as if it had gone through the same homogenous ‘perfecting’ process as the comedy shows he’d written for in the past (CK has worked on Letterman, Conan, The Chris Rock Show, HBO sitcom Lucky Louie, and at twenty-five, was head writer on ABC’s The Dana Carvey Show). And he absolutely, definitely, didn’t want to be Charlie Sheen.
Born just six years after Bill Hicks, CK is by no means the first stand-up of his generation to privilege creative control over cash, but he’s probably the first to balance autonomy with enormous financial success. Whilst maintaining a level of control that would probably be medicated were he to confess to on a psychiatrist’s couch (he not only writes and stars in Louie, but directs it, edits it, and sends the finished product to FX via his own server), CK has done pretty well for himself.
In 2011, he cut out the middle man to produce and digitally distribute his own DRM-free stand-up special for just $5, and last year tackled ticket scalpers and TicketMaster admin fees by putting his tour dates directly on sale to fans for a flat fee of $45 for any city, any venue, and any seat. Two days and 100,000 seats later, CK had taken $4.5million in sales, with just himself, his crew, and the venues to divide up the spoils. By the end of the week, it was more like $6.1million, a sum that puts pay to the notion that comedians only earn the big bucks by the wrong kind of selling out.
Having achieved the golden combo of credibility and cash, you’d understand if CK was persona non grata in the notoriously competitive world of stand-up. While a few of his comedy peers must be feeling green around the gills in private, in public, the admiration from fellow stand-ups is enormous. Like UK contemporary Stewart Lee, and Daniel Kitson, CK wears the “comedians’ comedian” badge, a mark of professional respect that, his case excepted, rarely goes in tandem with fame and wealth.
The clearest proof of CK’s popularity with other comedians is the calibre of Louie’s guest stars. With an average total budget of $300,000 per episode (to put that in perspective, the cast of Friends famously signed a deal in 2000 for a $750,000 fee each per show), he certainly isn’t bribing them to appear. First up, there are the big names in film: Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Chloe Sevigny, Matthew Broderick and David Lynch… Then come the big names in comedy: Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Joan Rivers, Dane Cook, Amy Poehler, Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman… And finally, the less internationally well-known but acclaimed ‘cult’ stand-ups the likes of Doug Stanhope, Nick DiPaolo and Todd Barry.
So what is Louie, the show CK delivered to FX without them knowing a thing about it? Autobiographical fiction, says CK. It’s about a less successful version of its creator, a divorced stand-up who, like him, lives in New York and shares custody of his two young daughters. As Louie with an ‘e’ goes about his day-to-day life (dating, travelling to gigs, raising his kids), he encounters situations and people that highlight their, but mostly his, moral shortcomings. To use another of CK’s descriptions: it’s self-mutilating comedy.
The story segments are tied together with extracts of CK’s sets, usually performed at New York’s Comedy Cellar, but also on tour around the US. If you’re thinking Seinfeld, you’d be right up to a point. Both are observational comedians, but the difference comes in what each is observing. CK’s routines are more likely to be about his ageing genitals or humanity’s slow and disgusting march towards loneliness and death than quirky observations on milk expiration dates
There’s also a third element in the mix, which comes out of CK’s experience making short films for the festival circuit. After learning how to shoot and edit his high school’s hockey games, CK took the camera home at weekends and began experimenting with comedy shorts. A number of his five-minute films (like the one below) starring fellow comedians including Ron Lynch, J.B. Smoove and Amy Poehler, are available to see on his YouTube channel.
This visually eclectic, often absurdist approach to storytelling makes its way into Louie, which is peppered with non-linear sketches and fanciful conclusions to its story segments. A fleet of limos arrives to rescue school children from a trip gone awry, a failed date runs into a waiting helicopter and flies away, a homeless man washes himself on a subway platform while a violinist plays and Louie looks on. It’s unpredictable, meticulously shot, and while not a sketch show, plotting and continuity come much further down the list than funny, tangential scenarios and the ability to surprise the audience. “I kind of think of every episode as a stand-up set,” explains CK. “The subjects cling together about as much as they do on stage […] each piece inside of each episode has its own goal”.
Though Louie with an ‘e’ is hardly a vain alter-ego for CK – its lead more often than not displays seriously bad judgement and the show’s approach to sex and masturbation is astonishing in its candour (let’s be clear, Lena Dunham does not have the monopoly on unflattering sexual encounters in New York) – it’s hard not to side with him. Like Larry David’s avatar in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Louie’s often right. People around him – hecklers, muggers, neighbours, his mother, his dates – do shitty things, and he calls them on it, though never heroically, and never coming off unscathed.
In one stand-up segment, CK is brutally honest about the fact that he, and the rest of us, could choose to save lives with our first world wealth, but don’t. In another, a relative comes to New York and immediately attends to a homeless man, asking “Sir, what happened? Can we help you?”, until CK ushers her away saying “We don’t do that here”. “So he doesn’t need help?” “No, he really needs our help, we just don’t do that here”. It’s brutal, but honest. As Ricky Gervais says about CK, in one of the rare occasions it’s easy to agree with him, “He’s angry and right, a formidable comedy partnership”.
There are of course things about which many won’t agree CK is right. His treatment of religion, use of sexual expletives and recital of homophobic and racist epithets won’t win him some friends on both sides of the political divide, but the key thing is that CK always engages in the debate. He doesn’t sidestep issues of race, class, gender, or sexuality, but it doesn’t make him a reactionary Bernard Manning or a shock-seeking Frankie Boyle.
It’s not all bleak misanthropy either, in one episode, a depressing, meandering night on the streets of New York ends with impromptu pancakes at dawn with his bright, funny daughters, in another a stowaway duckling defuses a tense stand-off in the hills of Afghanistan. Louie’s boundary-pushing humour is paired with honesty and unexpected moments of warmth.
Although the world Louie presents is mostly awful, that awfulness is being called out and labelled as such. Underneath the rotten cynicism that views the arrival of a new puppy as a pathway to future tears, or the frankness of a father telling a date about his four year old’s angry vaginal infection, there’s a man you can side with, and who’s celebrating the freedom to talk about these things. He’s someone who’s willing to have the conversation, someone willing to shock you, surprise you, push you, and most of all, make you laugh.
Season one of Louie starts tonight in the UK on FX, newly rebranded as Fox, at 9pm.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.