Louis C.K. recently debuted his stripped-down sitcom Lucky Louie on HBO. The show while receiving effusive praise in some corners, including this one, it evoked other outlets to sneer at its swearing and sexually frank look at married life. Barbra Walters even decribed the show as “unbelievably vulgar and racist” right before Louis CK appeared on the show. I talked with Louis CK about some of the critical reaction to the show, the broken trust of the laugh track and how “meta” concepts have come to rule comedy.
Is HBO happy with the show?
Definitely. With the ratings trending up and with the show having received a mixed but interesting reaction, we’re definitely waiting for good news. This week, if the ratings go up—that would be really great. But if they go down, we’ve got twelve weeks for people to get acclimated to this show. But because we’ve got lead press reviews that are good and a whole bunch of other shitty ones… we’re still 47% on Metacritic. We’re not bad. (Note: Metacritic users give the show 7 out of 10.) But there’s still people inside the LA Beltway who want the story to be that we’re getting killed, which just ain’t true.
Why would they want to see something like this fail?
Well, ask yourself why these kinds of shows have sucked for so long. All these people have taken part in it. They’ve all participated in it.
For so long, people have been talking about the death of the sitcom…
And yeah, they’ve enjoyed it. They like that. And part of the reason the sitcom is dead is because they don’t like stuff that’s different. They just don’t. They want to be able to identify stuff and say what it is. Everything that is popular in sitcoms has been a mystery to me completely. I’m just not a fan. So I’m really not surprised that I’m running against the grain with these people.
I remember reading an article about Frasier when it was going off the air – a very sad obituary from a TV writer who said that Frasier was such a smart show, and it was for the Mensa set. And he gave an example, where he quoted some line about a woman that Frasier thinks is very mean and he says, “Her idea of tough love is the Spanish Inquisition.” And they thought that was very smart—just because he mentioned something from history.
And it’s not really any smarter than “Reality Bites” and “Hey, remember that episode of Good Times.”
Yeah, exactly. And that’s what I think. It’s on the level of that. It’s just a reference. There’s nothing interesting about that to me. But to watch that and say, “We’re smart because we get this.” That’s what a lot of TV critics are like. So when they see something where the laughs coming from a dude saying, “I’m going to fuck your tits off”, they go “Oh, I just know that’s dumb. I just know that is unintelligent and bad.” So they crack their knuckles and go “Boy, am I going to hurt this guy.”
And I’m not surprised. What it means is we have to show that people dig the show. We don’t get to say that we’re a critic’s darling and therefore, if eight people watch the show, we get picked up. We have to show that the New York Times loves us, plus a shitload of Americans. That’s good. This is a populist show. It’s not a fucking snob show. It never was supposed to be.
It’s funny because people either love the show or hate the show. There’s no, “Ah, it’s OK.”
I haven’t heard any “OK.”
I always think that’s a sign of something interesting, at the very least.
What I was going to say, right before we hung up before, was that I feel this stuff is necessary. It’s like someone transplants an organ into another person. And there’s the initial rejection and then they have a fever and stuff. To panic now would be like a doctor, who has seen that happen a thousand times and has medication ready to ease the transition, to react “Oh my god, he’s going to die!” (laughs) And the patients like, “I thought you said to expect this and then it’ll be OK.” “No, you’re going to die!” (laughs)
Of course, people are freaking out. It’s awesome people are freaking out. They’re showing their colors. As soon as I read in review or an article, “Now I’m not a prude by any stretch…”
You are a prude.
Yeah, of course you are.
The funny thing about it is that the cursing is done very casually. It’s not… “Here’s the word ‘fuck’ as many times as we can say it.” The same thing with Rick Shapiro’s penis—it’s not, “Here’s my dick, look at it.” He walks around naked. He’s that type of character. He’s the kind of character who is so innocent that he doesn’t think walking around naked is a bad thing.
That’s exactly right. That’s a very human moment. It’s not a shock moment. None of these things are meant to be shocking. They’re just meant to be there instead of being omitted on the basis of people’s fears and people’s squeamishness and the FCC and all this other crap. We have the freedom to just be normal. To me, we’re normal. We’re not shocking. We’re not weirdly prudish and robotic like every other show is.
And this whole thing about innuendo comedy that TV does- “Let’s talk about sex without saying it.” I just don’t get off on that exercise. And there’s a lot of people who think it’s smarter to dance around it, and there’s some great fucking medal you should win for talking about sex without saying any dirty words. And I just don’t buy it. I think that’s boring. And I’d rather just get to it and say, “Let’s fuck” or “Why won’t you fuck me?”
Because then you get down to the real situation of fucking somebody until they’re bored.
Yes. And I think the personal politics of sex in a marriage is a very interesting thing. And if you spend all your time trying not to say it, you never just get down to it and talk about your feelings, which are funny feelings.
I just got married last year. And it’s very different, the level of intimacy. It changes. Sometimes it becomes more scheduled…
It has to be. It just has to be. Because you’re roommates and you’re sharing the worst part of life as well as the best parts. You’re not these two sexy people that dress up and meet and then wonder what you look like under each other’s clothes. You fucking fart in front of each other. So to give each other sex in a way that matters is a very hard thing to do. It’s very meaningful.
And that’s what our second episode was about was trying to get past the obvious shit of married sex and try and make it better. And I think that’s so sweet. What Henry Winkler said to me backstage at “The View” was, “That episode was so dear.” It was dear. This is this older man saying that it was dear. And I agree.
Again, I think it’s going to take some time for people to trust us enough that that’s what we’re doing and we’re not just trying to be assholes. And that’s OK. One thing I always go by- you ever see the “War Room”– remember that documentary?
I think I’ve seen that.
It’s all about Clinton’s Presidential run in 1992. So they’re at the beginning in New Hampshire and Gennifer Flowers has just disclosed her shit. The world is tumbling down on the Clinton campaign. And all the operatives are panicking and depressed. It’s clear to them that Clinton’s gone. And then James Carville shows up and laughs at them and says, “What are you crazy? This means nothing.” (laughs) He says to them, “Do you really think that Paul Tsongas is going to be the Democratic nominee for President? Paul Tsongas? Are you serious that you care if he wins this primary? This is not about Paul Tsongas. This is about George Bush. You have to look way ahead.” And that’s the way I’m thinking (with Lucky Louie).
And also that’s significant because people have to get used to with the package with Clinton. That here’s a flawed American male, just like you or just like your husband or just like your brother, but who understands you and is going to do his best to do what you want. He’s not going to disconnect you from your government. But what’s going to go along with it is, he’s a bubba and he’s a piece of shit just like you are. (laughs)
So first people have to go, “Ack, he’s a piece of shit.” And everyone has to say it out loud, just like that dude from Casablanca, “I’m shocked! Shocked that there’s gambling going on here.” “Sir, here are your winnings.” “Thank you very much.”
So everybody has to go, “Ack! How dare they? How could the parents with the kid… you don’t swear where there’s a child.” Hilarious to me that people think parents aren’t allowed to curse. No, you have kids, you have to act perfectly. Well every parent in America is a shocking pervert.
My parents loved me and my dad used to say, “No-good goddamn fucking kids” to us at least once a week.
He had kids. He had a lot of responsibility. He has more right to say that shit than another single asshole who isn’t contributing to society. But again, like Clinton, people have to spend a little time saying “No that isn’t us.” But then they’ll tune right in and say, “You’re goddamn right it is.”
One of the other things that’s seemed to confuse people is they expected some sort of “meta” approach to the sitcom. Why do you think they expected that from you?
Comedy has been for so long about fucking with people where you are either fucking with the audience or pretending you’re doing this, like we’re not really doing this kind of sitcom. Or you’re fucking with the people who are on your show, like doing a show that shits on white trash. Or just doing a show that should be one thing, that turns out to be another. It’s just that people are just so used to doing that, so that something that’s just-down-the-pipe, sincere-from-the-gut comedy where the laughs are based on “Holy shit, that’s so fucking true” or “Wow, what a weird idea” even… people’s palettes aren’t tuned to that kind of thing right now. They’re trying to figure out what the angle is I’m fucking with them or where I’m insulting their intelligence.
It’s almost like Andy Kaufman has taken over comedy in some way.
Exactly. But nobody as funny as him is doing his kind of comedy.
A sitcom, in my feeling, can only be good if it rolls up its sleeves and doesn’t fuck around and is honest. That’s what makes this kind of show great. And I think when you bury the characters in glitzy sets and put them on film and nice piano music and Harvard writers and cute actors in Abercrombie & Fitch, you just destroy all that’s great about a sitcom which is just fucking all-warts pimply, ugly people in a family slugging it out everyday just like you do everyday.
It’s funny because someone once asked me why King of the Hill was animated. And I told them it was because you can’t have people that ugly on TV.
That’s an excellent point. I think that’s the only way. And by the way, try and find any evidence in King of the Hill by the Fox network, which shits all over that show. They’ve never really considered it part of their prime time line-up even though it is. It’s their strongest, most consistently loved show and they’re ashamed of it because the people aren’t glamorous. And not cute. And they’re not clever. They’re real. I loved that show. I think that’s the closest thing to our show on television and I’m glad we stole Pamela (Adlon) from it. (She’s the voice of Bobby on KoTH.) Although she’s still recording now—the new ones. Fox has never been proud of that show, and they don’t promote it. They don’t care about it.
It’s fascinating when you mention that because when you look at the show that you are paired up with, Entourage, you couldn’t have two bigger opposites.
No, those guys are having a ball and we’re not. (laughs)
Absolutely not. So much of the comedy that Hollywood seems to favor right now is comedy about Hollywood. They don’t seem to be able to make fun of much else but themselves. They don’t have any understanding of real lives anymore.
The idea of movies and TV originally was for folks to talk about life and to reflect life in a funny way or a dramatic way. To tell stories. At some point these arrogant cocksuckers decided that they’re the story. They’ll say anybody who doesn’t get it is just stupid.
That’s what makes shows like the Office great—it’s reflecting this segment of real life that’s really interesting. Most shows don’t do that. Most shows just give you something about the asshole who wrote it or they’re about some strange thing that would never happen. That’s another thing that passes for creative, something that’s just so outside of reality, it must be amazing. It has to be amazing. (laughs)
There are three reactions I hear to this show. One of them is “Ohmygod, it’s a sitcom but they’re swearing. This is awesome.” And then there’s other people that go, “Ack! It’s a sitcom and they’re swearing! Disgusting!” And then there’s people that go, “It’s just a sitcom with swearing, that’s all they did. That’s it!” Those people want it to be with dream sequences and strange events and funny references to obscure characters from other shows. They want us to have Rerun on the show and everybody make fun of that. “Ah, that’s awesome. They had Rerun on!”
That seems like that’s just crawling up the ass of television too much. After a while, you run out of it.
Exactly. I think the reason I’m happy to be paired with Entourage, besides that it’s the young guy audience and they like the show the easiest. I think the show isn’t meant for young men. I think it’s geared toward all kinds of people. I think it’s more geared towards the mother than unmarried guys. But the young guys, they’re up for anything. They’re up for fun. They’re easy to hook in.
But also because Entourage, at least so far, has been about these guys – these kinds of guys more than it is about the trappings of their life.
You could do that show if they hadn’t made it. It could be about these four guys in Queens and their friendship.
They could have any lifestyle and, because they’re authentic characters, they could work in any setting. I think that’s why it works. I was a little shocked that they give (Vince) a movie that made him such a huge star at the beginning of the season.
That’s an interesting twist.
It’s walking away from making the show relatable thus far. But I’ll keep watching it and wait and see because, to me, they’ve just created a challenge for themselves.
Now when you’re adapting your stand-up for the show, there’s never a point where the action stops and you’re just delivering your jokes to Pamela instead of a drunk crowd. What were the challenges of taking your stand-up and turning it into Lucky Louie?
It’s definitely something we had to figure out. The stand-up I do about this subject matter was the starting point because that’s been successful. That’s where the laughs were. But then you take that and say, now I’m not saying this to an audience, I’m saying this to my wife. That’s a huge shift. Because the audience knows I’m protecting my real life from these ideas and I’m just saying it to them to make them laugh. To actually turn and say it to this woman is different.
The reason it works is because Kim isn’t this character of a perfect wife that every sitcom has. She’s a fucked-up flawed chick. She’s emotional and she’s irrational. She’s a pain in the ass.
There’s still a strong female perspective in the show. That second episode (Kim’s O) is as much about how she sees things as how you do.
Well to me, this show isn’t done yet. I don’t think we are where I want to be yet. These first twelve episodes are excellent, but I think we still aren’t operating on optimum force yet. But there are a few episodes where we do, and that was one of them. To me the show is perfect when the whole thing of a husband telling it like it is, with no holds barred, is countered by the wife doing the exact same thing.
That’s exactly it. I’m laughing at the things I recognize, and my wife sitting next to me is laughing at the things she recognizes.
That’s the way I wanted the show to be. And the reason why I hired Pamela Adlon as the lead is because she had the potential to give us that. We wrote an episode together, actually. It’s called Discipline (which airs this Sunday at 10:30 PM). It’s one that I wanted them to air earlier than they did because it’s the only episode that centers on the kid. It’s about a couple trying to agree on how to discipline their child. And a father trying to fucking wrestle the horns of his kids and his wife at the same time.
It’s funny, because it was a story of something that happened to Pamela in her life with her kid. She’s got three daughters. And one of them she just had a battle with. And I had my own discipline issues with my own wife because I felt she was always undercutting me when I was trying to… Every time I had a confrontation with my kid, my wife would come and dissolve it. It was driving me fucking crazy.
So we had those two issues, and we were going to put them together, mostly the shit that happened to Pamela with her kids. And it was going to be Kim dealing with the kid, but what we ended up doing was– she just gave me the gift of letting me be the one who has her story. And it’s an episode where Kim really reacts irrationally. And we even had a debate among the writers, where they were asking, “Why is she defending the kid? She shouldn’t be doing that?”
Through watching us write this show and then seeing the reaction to them, I realize what makes sitcoms so flatline and so boring. When people are putting them together they want to do it and when people write articles about them they want it to be that way. It’s just what they want. Plus, all the choices we made like pushing the actors right up against the audiences and shooting them on videotape and not giving them any make-ups. And we’re living in true gross American conditions. It makes it so realistic. They really are upset when shit happens they don’t like. It really upsets them like I’ve never seen before.
I’m willing to learn from anything I read about this show. But there’s certain reviews that are written very personal and familiar. They write things like “Huh?” or “Eww” or “Give me a break.” They’re written as kind of “Trust me. This show sucks.” Those things aren’t really constructive and I don’t learn from them.
There was an early review in a New Jersey paper where the guy said the show had some potential but it’s not quite meeting it. And I was really interested in what that guy had to say. I’m fascinated by the reaction to my show. It’s impossible for me not to read the shit just a little bit.
A lot of people think there’s a laugh track on the show. But there isn’t at all.
No that’s a live audience. And they’re provided by a company called Audiences Unlimited, the same people who provide audiences for Two and a Half Men. Same people. And they show up not knowing what kind of show they’re going to see. And I very specifically told our warm-up guys never, never make them get excited artificially. Don’t tell them, “You guys have got to give it up.” Don’t make them clap. Don’t make them do anything. Entertain them. He’s forbidden from telling them to get excited. He juggles for them and plays music for them.
Then I come out and I tell them explicitly that if the shit ain’t funny, don’t laugh. Never laugh at something that’s not funny. You don’t have a job. Everybody tells audiences that you are part of this show.
That your job is to laugh and to have a good time. I’ve heard that a thousand times.
Exactly. I don’t say that to people. We’re putting this show on for you. Forget the TV. We’re putting this show on to make you laugh. If it does, laugh. If it doesn’t, don’t. Just relax. There’ll be pizza. And give it your honest reaction. I don’t want to hear any guffawing.
But they hook into the show. They believe in it. And they laugh really hard. And they’re shocked by some of the things they see, but they’re shocked into laughing. So some of the reaction, sure, is raucous. And actually when we get it into the mix, we turn them down. We start at 0 decibels and we take them down to –9 or something.
And (the audience) is in our mikes, too, because we don’t seal ourselves off from the audience. A lot of shows have this Plexiglas that keeps everything separate, so you can dial the laughs out. The thing is that most shows take their organic laughs out so they can compress it more in the editing. And then they put in these little fake-y laughs. That’s what you’re used to hearing. So our show is jarring to people.
I love the organic laughs. You can hear distinct laughs from individual people. You don’t normally get that on television.
Here’s the thing that I love about it. It’s music to me. Honestly. I think that doing comedy is like musical performance. It’s talk and laugh and talk and laugh. It’s this amazing rhythm. And it’s what I’ve been doing for 22 years and that’s what the show is. It has the exact same rhythm as stand-up comedy. And if you took the laughs out of a comedian’s performance, you wouldn’t do stand-up without an audience. You just wouldn’t do it.
So the style of comedy we’re doing needs that audience. It’s absolutely necessary. But because the way the American ear is trained and the trust that was broken with the audience through single camera shows that use laugher.
Like Gilligan’s Island or the Brady Bunch.
Or the Flintstones. They’re animated, so who’s fucking watching that and laughing. So when people watch those shows they just automatically assume that no TV show that has laughter is real. And actually when Garry Marshall did Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days and those shows, they had someone say “Happy Days was filmed in front of a live audience.”
It was so polluted at that point that he wanted a show that was done live and he wanted to remind people that that’s going on, to make it authentic again. So we’ve done the same thing. At the beginning of every show it says, “Lucky Louie is taped in front of a live audience.” It’s very important to us to let people know that it’s real. And there’s still a lot of people who say, “Please turn that shit off.” (laughs) But they’re just not used to it. They’ll figure it out.
I asked you if HBO was happy with the show, but are you happy with it so far?
Definitely. I think the reaction is what I wanted. The temperature is where it should be as far as the show’s life. There’s nothing I can do right now. That drives me a little crazy to be watching it all happen. Except, I’m promoting the show as much as I can. I’m in Indiana right now. I was in Columbus all weekend. Met tons of fans there. Everywhere I go, in any airport in America, people say, “Hey Lucky Louie.” That’s my name now.
I think we’re definitely connecting. And the kind of people too. I’m a vulgar, fucked-up degenerate comedian who did drugs. And I’m connecting with Christian mothers and fathers. I love that. That means so much to me. I’ve had an email from a girl on mySpace where the she says, “My mom and I watch your show together, and it’s bringing us closer.”
Pamela and I both are taking the misery and the challenges of our marriages and pulling them together at the middle and sharing it with everybody else who’s going through it. It’s a wonderful exercise.
And I’m really wrapped up in the next season. Like I said with James Carville, all I’m thinking about is, “How am I going to sustain this for ten years or more?” and “Who’s the next writing staff going to consist of?” and “What are our next eight scripts going to be?”
So I’m working on those scripts. I’m running and taking care of myself everyday so that I’m in shape for the next run (of shows). And I’m on stage as much as possible to foster new ideas because that’s where the writing process begins for me. Making sure there isn’t anybody out there who doesn’t know about the show. All of these things simultaneously.
I’m not sitting back biting my nails going, “I hope we go.” I’m going, “We’re going and I’ve got to get ready for that.” Lot of work to do.
One note: Louis C.K. was especially gracious with this interivew, as my computer, which records all of these interviews, was suffering from issues from the power supply. The machine shut down right in the middle of the interview causing me to lose the twenty minutes we had talked so far. (The computer’s fine now, thank you.) Louis, quite gamely, started over from the beginning once I had my laptop set up. Also, special thanks to Carol Martucci for going over this interview with a fine tooth comb and cleaning up any spelling mistakes.