Louis CK has a new stand-up comedy concert film (why aren't we calling it a special? foreshadowing!) debuting on Showtime on Saturday, Oct. 4. It's called Chewed Up and refers to a NSFW part of anatomy, and anyone familiar with CK knows that his brutally honest comedy is also quite brutally funny. More than a few people, including Ricky Gervais, have called him the best American stand-up comedian working today. I'm not going to disagree with that. Louis CK can walk onstage and just talk about whatever is on his mind and you'll find yourself laughing along with him, and as he told me earlier today, that's an integral part of his writing process. What do I mean by that? Read on, my friends. Read on.
First, a clip! Not Safe For Work, obviously:
OK. Louis CK has divulged a lot of great insight into his own life, work and comedy in the past couple of months to such folks as XM's Unmasked, The Sound of Young America (audio embedded after the jump), and A Special Thing. I wanted to get his thoughts on the fact that his longtime friend and comedy partner, Chris Rock, also tackled the nature of the words "fa&&ot" and "ni&&er" in his new special, but CK told me he hadn't seen Rock's HBO special yet. So that will have to wait. But talking about his writing process, directing and editing Chewed Up, his new stab at a family sitcom on CBS, and communicating with fans? Let's get to it!
Your act always has seemed brutally honest, even going back to your 1995 Young Comedians Special. When did you decide to get even more personal and honest onstage? "I've never decided generally to do anything. I think a lot of years went by. I've done this for 23 years now. At some point…you stop living from joke to joke. Why don't I actually try to move a few steps forward and try stuff I don't know is going to work? Once you do that a few times and succeed at it, you're not really afraid anymore."
"But when? I think once I had kids that was a big part of it...(there's a knock at the door, his door)...Hold on, I've got to put some pants on...2004. I had done a half-hour for Comedy Central, in like 2002 or something, and I felt that I had burned a lot of my material that I'd done for a long time, and I felt I needed to sit down and start from scratch."
You're listed as editor and co-director on Chewed Up. How much control did you want to have over the look and feel of this special this time around? "I think a lot of specials, people get carried away with the word "special." There's a temptation to make yourself look like a star. They say they make you want to look like a rock star when you come out. I'm not a rock star. So, why? They put chandeliers in the theater and the place gets bigger and bigger, and the comic gets smaller and smaller. They make everything brighter so you can see everyone in the audience, and then they'll cut to people in the audience for their reactions."
That's not what he wanted. Nor what he thought marked a great stand-up comedy special. "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, and Bill Cosby: Himself are the greatest. All of Carlin's specials are great in their own way. But those two are the hallmark. It's just a dude on stage doing his act. For a bulk of the material, there's no backdrop. I wanted it to feel like a live concert. Not a television event."
"As for editing it myself. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't have that experience already in television. It's something I know how to do."
There's a camera angle in particular that strikes me, when you cut to a spot behind you on the stage, looking up from the floor, and we see you in the spotlight, talking into the darkness. How does your act change when you're on a large theater stage like that, compared to an intimate comedy club when you can see the audience's faces?
"You still feel the audience reactions...Every year I still am on the road, I'm preparing to make the next hour better...In the theater it's more of a presentation. To me you need both, because in the clubs you have an idea of how strong the material is and how good it is, but in the theater, you can let it breathe more...It's like clubs are 80 percent grit-sandpaper, and theaters are like 220-grit."
I've heard you talk about a need to find audiences who don't know you or aren't quite loyal fans of yours so you can test material.
So far this year, in working on the next new hour, Hilarious, you've gone to comedy clubs in parts of America you hadn't been to, and you've also spent a month in the U.K. and London. Did you learn more from one of those experiences than the other? "It's hard to say. People are all the same. The U.K. was definitely good because people aren't even used to the way you talk...The people they hear everyday sound different. So I really had to, when I'm onstage here (in America), I have a bunch of short-hands, I get 60 percent to their hearts already, to their credibility level. I'm 60 percent there just by talking like them...In England, I really had to prove myself from scratch."
He said he found that meant explaining some bits more, eliminating others. "I really changed a few bits," he said. "But it's really the same thing. The Stardome in Birmingham (Alabama). They don't f@&k around, those people. They let you know...I always talk to the audience after the show. It's always something I'll do, say 'hi' to the people who came. It's something I'm used to doing now that people know who I am. When you work in a comedy club and you're just the act, I used to hide out afterward, because it was felt to be vain to stand around and look for compliments. But now that they're coming to see me specifically…I go out to talk to them all. What I do is I just pick a spot and stand there and wait until everyone has left. it doesn't take that much. And it means a bunch to people."
"I'm always surprised. I did some shows in Birmingham, specifically, where I felt I didn't connect with this crowd. But they told me later how much they enjoyed it. Not only were they hearing me differently, bt I was hearing them differently. In a club you can get a much closer gauge of 'They're quiet, but they're having a good time.' I think the one mistake some of these alternative kids make is to look for the place that has their audience in them, instead of trying to perform in as many different places as possible. More, different. It can only make you better. Change you in a positive way."
It seems as though you've been more active in blogging, videos and direct communication with your fans online since you revamped your home page at LouisCK.net. Did any of that rub off from hanging out with Ricky Gervais? "No. I started doing that before. But he's really smart about promoting."
"Once I learned you could turn a camera on and just shoot s@&t...It's a great way to communicate. It's like having your own little TV station. I think the first time I learned that was when I was shooting this special, up in Boston…we didn't have much time, I think we had six weeks out form when we went on sale. I like having more time out to work on the special. But we put stuff up there, and well, we had sold out in like 10 minutes. Added a fifth show…didn't need it…it turns out I've got a real draw in Boston. But it seemed to work. And it was fun."
You certainly seemed like you had fun videotaping yourself for 11 minutes in your bathroom last week to promote last weekend's shows. That's something that could've taken only a minute or two, but you looked like you were having fun goofing off. "Sometimes it's painful. Sometimes it's fun. Too bad the picture was so s&*tty."
How is your writing process different now that you're attempting to create a complete hour thematically rather than piecing together two minutes here and there? I know you mentioned changing that process as a result of George Carlin.
"As far as learning from Carlin goes, I really got more from his work ethic. I don't work the way he did. I don't sit down and write. I've never worked that way. I think a lot more. I used to live my life, and oh, it's showtime in 20 minutes, what am I going to say? I tape every show, or iPod very show. They don't say tape anymore, do they. I record every show on my iPod. And I have them all on my Mac. So I'm constantly listening to s@&t and revising it. I can really only generate material onstage. So …hold on a second…That's always been the case for me. That's when stuff comes out alright for me. Sometimes when I'm offstage I'll come up with the kernel of an idea that could be something funny. But I'll avoid thinking about it until I'm onstage. That's when my brain functions the best for how to say those things. I can learn that I can simulate that kind of thing when I listen to a set, so I can think of additional things while I listen to the show later."
That's amazing to hear you say that, because when I have seen you around New York City in the past couple of years, whether it's at a place like the Comedy Cellar or a non-club such as Rififi, it really did seem as though you were just getting onstage and talking, being in the moment and not on script at all. Most comedians strive to make it look easy like that, but you're actually doing it.
"I always have talking points and areas. But when I get up there, that's when it comes together. And I used to mostly use places like that to write. Because I had more courage to take risks at those places and say things that might not work. But now I do that everywhere. The good thing for places like that for me creatively, is I'm sure that people have seen me before. A place like Union Hall in Brooklyn. If I go there…I might, if I do two sets close to each other, they'll likely have seen my last set. Its like an impetus, and comedians are often in the room."
"There's something jazz musician-y about that, comedians inspiring each other by being around each other. If a friend of yours is in the room, it makes you want to do something new, push our collective bar forward a bit."
"That's the good thing about those rooms. That's why they're extra stimulating. But as far as the scene. They're sometimes so happy to be there, and be in the scene, and look where we are, that they'll laugh at almost everything. That doesn't necessarily make them an honest audience. And then I'll have to take it to the Comedy Cellar to find out if it's really funny."
With the new tour and Showtime special, have you had any chance to think about or work on the new sitcom that you have a deal with CBS for? I know fans are calling it Lucky Louie redux.
"We're writing the pilot right now. We'll probably hand in our first draft this week. I'm very excited about it…It's only the script. But it's the only thing you can be excited about because so far that's all you have to go on is the script. But we'll see. As far as whether they pick it up or not. That's who the hell knows?
He didn't want to describe it quite yet. Still too fresh. But he would say this: "It's not Lucky Louie redux. The elements are the same that it's about a family and its very honest and its very funny, but otherwise it's different."
Related: Hear Louis CK talk about his comedy, along with some NSFW audio clips, via The Sound of Young America...