Louis CK is playing all sorts of shows in the area this week. We figured it is as good of an opportunity as any to revisit this awesome interview we did with him back in the Sundance 2010 Day. Time flies you guys.
Interview by: Peter Heyneman
All Photos by: Shaun Harris
At the bottom of the mountain that Louis CK was perched on, there was a whole little city full of rich folks and punks and auteurs and models all scheming with and against each-other to get their movies looked at or funded or picked up or even just mentioned by the right person at the right time. To get to the lodge he was staying in, Jeff and I had to park at the bottom of a ski slope and ride up on this crazy contraption called a funicular–basically a posh leather bound trolley that slides up the side of a hill.
The night before, we were at Louis’s sold-out first showing of his concert movie Hilarious, where a crowd more used to pondering abstract video art and crying over documentaries about starving Freedonians fell out of their seats laughing as he sweated and gesticulated on a dark stage on the screen. Watching a comic tell jokes for almost an hour and a half shouldn’t be this fascinating, but besides being without the usual pretentious trappings of a comedy special (no cheesy music or weird art deco backdrop or racially profiled audience reaction shots) the content of Louis’s act makes it way more than just appropriately titled. His jokes are thoughtful, jaw-droppingly honest, and even when he’s railing against our whole spoiled and unconscious culture his statements always feel openhearted and forgiving in a way that most angry comedians are incapable of pulling off. All comedians get more accomplished with fame, because they can tell intimately what an audience will let them get away with, but the best comedians try to move beyond that, to what their audiences need to hear, and Louis is in the rare stratosphere of comics who get to be funny and wise, because we consider them to be above pandering. Chris Rock was too political to be tied down, Sam Kinison was too maniacal, Richard Pryor was too inebriated, but Louis CK is allowed to say whatever he wants to say because his most fruitful subject of dissection is always himself. Like Montaigne or Walt Whitman, his thorough excoriations of his faults and fears and deluded dreams let him make larger statements about humanity, positive and negative, that might shock or confuse everyone without that context.
Sitting down with Louis next to a open-sided fireplace in a massive lobby complete with two bars and a view of the fresh powder smattering down on the slopes right outside the windows, it felt not a little bit like visiting a cartoon guru on a peak–some guy with a long white beard and indecipherable advice and probably a walking stick that he whacks you with when you stray off the true path. But even though Louis manages to hold himself separate from the teeming mob of wannabes at the bottom of the hill, he’d be the first to insist he’s just a regular dude with some common insights into everyday life. Maybe that’s true–maybe he’s just lucky–but whether he’s part of a superior race of superfunny gingers or not, right now he’s at the top of his game. If it doesn’t come through here, that’s my fault (or Intern Steve’s fault for his transcription [jk thanks Steven!])…even his serious answers were cracking us up.
Reader, pray to whatever twisted gods you worship that this movie gets picked up, not just ‘cuz it’s mad entertaining, but because relating to Louis’s work requires a certain elevation of spirit, which just can’t be bad for you, even if it’s hard to breathe sometimes up there.
[questions by Jeff and Peter]
BYT: We were at the premier of Hilarious last night–it was awesome.
You mentioned during the Q&A that you made a conscious effort to make it look different from the usual stand-up film. Can you talk about that?
Louis CK: A lot of stand-up specials are meant to be really glamorous or to highlight this person as a big star, and they use a lot of T.V. type lighting, and they bring a lot of this stuff into these theaters. They light the audience up, and none of that is conducive to a really great show, and it’s not what a stand-up show actually feels like. It’s got to be a stage of just basic boards, and the audience has to be dark so they aren’t inhibited to laugh, and you need to be loud—that’s all. I’d been doing these shows over and over again in all these theaters, and I really wanted to do a movie about how those shows feel. Like I said last night, I watched that movie The Song Remains the Same and it really felt like you were in Madison Square Garden, in the 70’s. It was so simple. I didn’t even know Led Zeppelin was only four guys until I watched it! They were such a simple band, but it really powerful and made me feel like I was there, and I really wanted to do that, but for stand-up. Plus I really like making films so I was interested in combining these two things. I also thought about Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” and stuff like that. There is a cinematic version of these so I thought, pick up really good cameras, pick out the lenses carefully, and do it right.
BYT: There was one moment in the movie where the cameraman got too close to you and you said you could hear his headset?
LCK: Yeah, so I had to back him off. And, when I saw it when I was editing it, I thought “You know what? This may work.” Also, it provided a break where I stopped and took a sip of water, and it was in the middle of a lot of heated stuff. I didn’t want to cut it up, and I could have kept it out, but I said “What the hell?” It feels like a very live moment.
BYT: The way it adds kind of an intermission is great. It wasn’t planned?
LCK: No, it just totally happened, so I threw it in.
BYT: There was that one part of it that was part of a bit you did on—was it the Tonight Show?—about cellphones and the seat in the sky…you really expanded on it!
LCK: That was a bit I did on Conan, in fact it was Late Night, and it was this thing that caught fire virally. When I did it on Conan, I was just starting to work on and I was touring, and over the course of the next six months or so it just kind of grew and grew and grew. I guess it now represents about 30 minutes of the concert.
BYT: So those ideas were just kind of bubbling around and developing?
LCK: They were new. It was funny because the phone and the plane stuff was starting to get a little overripe by the time I did the concert. I was a little sick of it and I didn’t know how to introduce it anymore. I did it perfectly on Conan with the phrase “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” That became the phrase and was a way to set it up, but I just couldn’t say those words anymore. By the time I did the concert, I couldn’t say those things because I didn’t know what they meant anymore—I said them too many times. So, it kind of formed a separate thing, and then it kind of spilled over into the bit about the misuse of the word ‘hilarious’ and that became part of it. I was more interested in that part, but the technology stuff didn’t really mean much to me anymore. So, I held on to it and repeated it in the film because I knew people wanted it.
BYT: Was it a surprise to you that it became a viral phenomenon?
LCK: I forget what I was promoting on Conan at the time, but I actually remember thinking when I started do that material, which was during the time when the economy just failed, and I really wanted to go on Conan and do this as soon as possible because I thought it was something that was going to be part of the conversation that was happening.
BYT: It really resonates. Sometimes I’ll be driving and I find my self getting pissed off and I literally think back to that and think “Hey, I shouldn’t be yelling at people.”
LCK: It’s interesting because it holds this standard for me that is kind of unfortunate, sometimes. I was at this airport in Newark during one of those terrible airport days, and I was sitting in the gate area getting ready to board a plane that was late and there were these two pilots there—they were jump seat pilots, not pilots who were flying the plane—and they were like “we love that bit and what it means to us”. So then, they said that we were going to have to take a shuttle bus. I couldn’t complain. I couldn’t even look upset. I was just had to go, “Hey, great, a shuttle bus…” and inside I’m like, “Fuck this man. This is bullshit.” The funny thing is, the first time I did the show in October, and someone posted it on Youtube and it got half a million hits in just a few days, and then NBC—geniuses!—they took it down. Something that is showing their show, a successful piece of comedy on their show, they take it down. By all means don’t let anybody watch that. Half a million people, by the way, is a healthy portion of people who watch the show anyway. Then, it went away for a bit, but then in January somebody posted it again. Then, it exploded to about 4 or 5 million hits, I think.
BYT: And they let it stay up that time?
LCK: Yeah, they let it up that time. I think somebody told them to leave it up, but then they took it down again. And then, there were all these links by people who had embedded it all over the world, and they all went dead. Conan was off the air at the time, when he was between shows, and there were more people watching that clip than were watching his show. I mean, why the fuck wouldn’t you leave it up there? But, anyway, it’s still up there. There are still a few versions of it that have a 400 thousand or 22 thousand each, but once they get up to a certain point they clip them.
BYT: What are your feelings about the whole Conan and Leno thing?
LCK: Well, I’m always hesitant to say anything anymore. I said one thing about it at the TCA’s and it got reprinted a lot. The more you say something about someone, especially somebody you know, then it gets reprinted a bunch of times and rehashed around and then you start feeling a little sick to your stomach that you said it. So, I’d rather just talk about what I do, rather than other people’s lives because then they just feel bad and I feel like a jerk.
BYT: You mentioned in the Q&A that Bill Cosby influenced you a lot…
BYT: Do you ever think, “What would Bill Cosby think of me?”
LCK: Right, he would probably hate me. I know he would. He would basically say that I don’t need to use a lot of the language I use, and you know what, there is something to it. This concert particularly, I said “Fuck” a lot less than I did in “Chewed Up” and “Shameless”, because it’s just kind of like this mark on your forehead that changes the way people hear you. It is unfortunate, but it is true. And also, I think I have this warped perception of what “Fuck” sounds like. When I say it on stage, I think it sounds really good, but when I see it or heard it when I record shows it seems really grating, or it’s a little much. You just get sick of hearing it over and over. So, I’ve started to prune it out when I can think of it, but sometimes I don’t. In this concert I don’t say it for a good healthy portion, but then I just kind of pour it on when I get upset and that’s where it belongs. I’d love to do what Cosby does. I would love someday to do a special that is totally clean. I mean, Jim Gaffigan is one of my favorite current comics, and he will always be 5,000 times bigger than me simply because he doesn’t segment his audience away by being offensive. Sometimes I’ll play at a place, like in Austin, and I’m like “Hey, I sold out maybe 1,200 seats.” Well, there is sold out and then there is sold out and all these different levels of sold out where there is always something better. I always thought, “Hey, sold out, there is nothing better than that.” Well, yeah you can beat it by selling out like 2 days after they go on sale, which means you didn’t have to spend any press money on it. So, you can literally make twice as much money if you sell out faster. So, I go to Austin and I sell out fast and I’m kind of excited about it, and then I see Jim Gaffigan is here for five shows next week. Five shows. I’m like, “How is he doing that?” He is a great comic, don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to take away from that, but anyone in the world can see Jim Gaffigan and I guarantee they won’t be upset. I don’t think I’ll ever get to that point, but it would be fun to make one special that is really sweet and has observations that don’t upset anybody.
BYT: You mentioned already that this was going to be part of Comedy Central’s programming?
LCK: Right, they are going to run it. They are giving us a window here and are letting us get it out in theaters first.
BYT: How much of the movie will make it on T.V.?
LCK: I think we will do alright with this one. Mostly because of the words I curbed down. I only say “cunt” three times…
BYT: Oh, really? It felt like more!
Ha, I usually say it all the time. I guess sometimes three can still feel like ten. And I don’t throw “fuck” around like I used to. I was just watching Bill Burr’s special and he uses “fuck” very offhandedly, and it’s kind of harmful to the special. Because, he goes “I don’t know why this fuckin’ guy comes over and he fuckin’ starts fuckin’ talkin’…” and it’s like, “Beepitty beepity beepity beep” and they tolerate it. But, it does hurt the viewer’s ability to watch it. That’s why my last special, “Chewed Up” that I did for Showtime, didn’t do well on Comedy Central because it was really hard to watch. This one has long passages that don’t say fuck. There are passages that they won’t air, regardless, but they actually said they may keep some of those too. One guy said that they wanted to do a 90-minute version of it, so with commercials it will really be like 66 minutes. What you guys saw was about 85 or 86 minutes I think, so taking about 20 minutes out will make this a nice fighting weight. It will do well on Comedy Central, but I hate the idea of people watching it on T.V. I think it belongs on the big screen because that’s how we shot it and I think that is the way to enjoy it. I’m really hoping we get distribution for that.
BYT: You said that this was your third time here at Sundance…
LCK: Well, this is my third time here with a film….
BYT: Can you talk a little bit about what the differences have been between having a short or a smaller film and having this great big hit that sells out?
LCK: Well, coming here with a short was great because you don’t really have to promote your short, it’s usually part of a program and the festival takes care of their shorts. The first time I came here was in ‘93 I think. But when I first came here it was it was just people going to movies and enjoying movies—that’s all it was. There weren’t really any parties. People would gather in their hotel rooms, those were really the only parties. Then when I came here with a feature, nobody came to see my movie and I only had like 10 posters made. I remember I had these little posters made and we’d go out and put a couple posters up. Then, Harvey Weinstein’s company would come with like 15 posters and just cover them. It was so mean because they would come by with 15 copies of the same thing and then cover up this little homemade poster that I made. There was no chance to get seen! It didn’t feel anymore like it was little filmmakers trying to get their stuff seen, it felt like it was big companies trying to sell shit to each other, but then they came here to party and go skiing. Everyone went to parties.
BYT: Is it still that way?
LCK: Um, this time I don’t really know. I’m not fighting for attention, I’ve sold out my screenings, and I’ve got a little more of a name now, and I just don’t care about the parties. I’m not going to any parties. I’m not sure why people do. Also, I didn’t come during the hot part of the festival, I know that. I think part of the reason they programmed this film was that they wanted something fun and unusual to give to their audiences. That’s why I think they programmed it for the second half because they wanted it to be a little treat for people who come later and see the movies. I think if we sell this film it’s going to be after the festival. That’s fine though.
BYT: So, you guys chose not to have a party at all?
LCK: A party? For the movie? Oh no. It’s just me. The budget is very small. They’ve given it a little shot here to sell it here, but no one is really invested in it financially. So yeah, I guess I would have had to throw the party and I’m not really gonna do that. I don’t think these movies sell just because you throw a party at Sundance. I just don’t believe it. I don’t even have Facebook or Myspace anymore. I just don’t believe you need that stuff. There is a lot you are told. The first time I went on tour, my then-new-manager asked me, “What are your parameters for radio?” I said, “What does that mean?” He said “Well, here is what they want. They want a table in the lobby outside of your show, with bumper-stickers. They want a banner and they want the local Dj to interview after the show, and they want free tickets. What of that will you tolerate?” I said, “Let’s start with none of it.” They can have 2 free tickets to the show, for the Dj and his friend, but I don’t want to meet him before the show. If he wants to meet me after the show, he can wait in line with the rest of the people who wait after shows. No banner, no identification, and certainly nobody on stage. He said, “That’s a pretty harsh view” and I said “Let’s find out how many people don’t go to my show because I did that. Find out, then I’ll think about it.”
BYT: Are you opposed to it because you don’t like dealing with that?
LCK: People pay a lot of money to come to my concerts. I don’t want them to be sold to, or promoted to after they already bought the shit. They bought a ticket and their experience of coming to see me has to be cared for. All of it.
BYT: So no skiing, no dealing, no marketing…
LCK: No, I don’t do any of that. They pick a bunch of really great movies. If you want, you can see a bunch of really weird stuff here, and they also really champion short films which is really cool. They have always taken care of me and have really been good to me. I just like the spirit of the place. It’s a nice feeling.
BYT: You mention an FX show coming out in April. Can you tell us about that?
LCK: It’s me just doing a little stand up and there are some short films, which are two things I really like to do. Most of them are autobiographical, not that a lot of stuff has happened to me, but more like me as a character and stuff I made up. It’s a New York show. It feels kind of like a cheap version of Annie Hall or something, but with comedy.
BYT: So there is a running plot with your central character?
LCK: Yes, sometimes there are just short things. FX is letting me do this without reading the scripts, and without looking at any of the stuff. I’ve shot four episodes and they haven’t seen them yet. So, we’ll see. They might be awful. I have no idea.
BYT: I’m sure it won’t be awful. It’s funny that you mention the difference between the character you play and then the FX show, and in stand up. Do you get any weird situations where people you know, or kind of know, or not know very well, that get them mixed up?
LCK: I apologize. I have to take this call really quick.
BYT: No problem. I’ll try to rephrase that question anyway.
LCK: Yeah, maybe you should rephrase that, it didn’t make a lot of sense…
LCK: [After a bit] OK.
BYT: Here goes: Do you ever get strangers that come up to you and think that they know you really well because they have seen your stand up and T.V. shows?
LCK: Yeah, sometimes, I don’t really mind it though. I mean, I get people coming up to me saying that they are familiar with my stuff. But, I think that if you’re a celebrity like someone like Tom Cruise, then I guess there is sort of like a weird thing around you. People just sort of think they are ghosts or something? But with what I do, people are like, “Hey! What’s up?” That’s fine with me. I’ve never had an issue with people coming up and saying “Hi” to me.
BYT: You talk about a lot of personal stuff, you know, some very dark feelings that you have. Does that cause weird interactions?
LCK: No, not really. I mean, sometimes people say inappropriate things like, “Hey, my baby’s asshole has shit on it, too!” I’m like, “Oh, great. Nice to meet you, too.” People that come up to me and stuff, sometimes it’s like a garbage truck in New York and they honk their horn and they’re like, “I love you Louie!”
BYT: Well they do. And so do we. Especially Jeff. Thanks a lot man!
LCK: No problem.