In the FX TV series Louie, comic Louis C.K. plays a divorced father of two struggling to balance his comedy career with being a single dad. The show, which has just been picked up for a third season, is often based on events that have happened to C.K. in his own life.
C.K.'s boundary-crossing humor has always appealed to other comedians, but in the past year, the stand-up comic has also racked up a series of honors from more mainstream sources. GQ recently called him the "funniest comic alive" and named him their "Comic Genius of the Year." Rolling Stone said C.K. is currently the "darkest, funniest comedian in America." And Time called Louie the top show of the year, shortlisting C.K. on the magazine's list of the most influential people in 2011.
C.K. writes, directs, edits and produces Louie, which has been nominated for several Emmys. He took a similar hands-on approach for his latest comedy special, Live at the Beacon Theater. The hourlong broadcast, filmed in front of a live crowd over two nights in November, was produced with C.K's own money, edited entirely by him, and then released independently on his website, bypassing network cable and video.
An Unorthodox Way To Release A Comedy Special
C.K. asked his fans to contribute $5 directly to him via PayPal, in exchange for two streams and two downloads of the unencrypted, high-definition show. He explains that he chose the unorthodox method of sharing his special to see if releasing a video himself could potentially make money.
"I've never seen a check from a [TV] comedy special," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It never ends up being that. ... This time, I just thought this might be interesting to give this a try. Put it on my website, make it $5, make it really, really easy for people to enjoy. To make it as close to a viral video as possible, instead of having it on TV."
The file comes DRM-free, meaning people can download the file and transfer it over to other computers without entering a password to prove whether or not they purchased it. That also means the video is easier to pirate.
Before releasing the special, C.K. wrote on his website that he hoped his fans would buy his video — and not obtain it illegally through torrents online:
"I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can't stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way."
Within hours, though, C.K.'s video hit the most popular torrent sites. One torrenter uploader wrote:
"i kinda feel bad putting it here but people like louis ck gotta realize without torrents and the net he wouldnt be anywhere bc honestly louis i know ur here and i know u mite be mad at me but u gotta realize not everyone has paypal , not everyone has credit cards, some people use net lounges, some have barely money for food, art = comedy should be shared with the mass [sic]"
C.K. says that particular torrenter received thousands of notes from people who shouted him down and told him he shouldn't have posted the video.
"I've gotten so many tweets and emails from people who say, 'I torrent everything and I'm not torrenting this,' " he says. "Because the gap from stealing and buying with these things — for $5, you're almost stealing it. So it tips the scales more easily. And you don't have to join PayPal to buy this thing. The little things we did for this video ended up being very important."
C.K. decided to ask people for their email addresses, but only under an opt-in policy.
"The opt-out button says, 'Leave me alone forever, you fat idiot,' " he says. "And the opt-out button is chosen as a default. ... So little things like that have made a big difference to people who have bought the thing.
"And a friend of mine who does torrent stuff a lot says that when torrent users do buy something, they act like they're doing the greatest thing ever. ... They're saying, 'I bought something today. I paid for it. And I didn't steal it. I'm the greatest person alive.' "
The special, says C.K., was an experiment in figuring out how comics should release stand-up specials in the future.
"If I make a profit, that's terrific," he says. "If I don't and I'm outraced by the Internet thieving or whatever it is, it's not that big a loss to me. It's OK — a lot of people saw the video, and it was interesting. This has been such an education for me. ... And I've got the money back already. I broke even — and then some."
C.K's award-winning sitcom mines his own life for material. Take, for instance, the recent episode that dealt with the controversy of whether comedian Dane Cook stole jokes from C.K. Those were accusations that were made in real life on YouTube by C.K's fans.
"People would post his joke and my joke, and then they would comment who they thought stole what, and I always had very ambivalent feelings ... because he's a human being — and I felt a little weird about the whole thing," he says. "So I started to think about him while writing Season 2, and I thought it would be interesting to have us talk about it."
In the episode, Cook plays a fictional version of himself. C.K. calls Cook in for a meeting so that the two men can discuss the controversy and air their grievances — and so C.K. can ask Cook for a favor: to get Lady Gaga tickets for his teenage daughter. Cook explodes, calling C.K. a fraud for staying silent while letting his fans attack him.
"I thought, 'If I can make [Cook] the winner of the debate or at least an even match, then it's worth doing," he says. "Letting him call me a fraud was so much more interesting. I could have had him be a straw dog or had somebody else play him and gotten off on myself. But it was way more fun to go into something [with someone] who stole from me — supposedly — and have him call me a fraud. It's just so interesting."
For C.K., the episode worked exactly the way he had intended it to.
"You felt like you were in a really private and stressful and intense place with two people," he says. "It worked perfectly for me. ... Dane, I think, was seen as a human being. [Previously,] I was seen as a victim and he was seen as this monster. And neither were true. I wanted us both to become human. He's not a terrible guy. He's a human being. He might have made some mistakes — but he's a person. ... Dane's success was so massive. I think it's really hard to go through something like that. There's no way people lift you that high without tearing you down."
Other comedians featured on the show have included Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Doug Stanhope and Joan Rivers, who plays herself in an episode where C.K. is doing stand-up at an Atlantic City casino. After the owner tells him to clean up his act, C.K. quits — and Rivers tells him that his principled position — quitting because he couldn't tell jokes about the casino itself — is a really dumb move.
"She said, 'Know when you're lucky,' [to me in the episode],' " says C.K. "And the entire early part of my career was learning that lesson. I've said what she said here to young comics. I've had comics complain to me, 'This place didn't let me do this.' And I've said, 'Shut up. You're a comedian for a living.' "
C.K. says he has long admired Rivers.
"She's just so good, and she tries so hard," he says. "And on the phone with me, she just started saying, 'Why not try this, this, this?' And I'm furiously writing it down. And she made it funnier. And then she showed up and put in a harder day of work than almost anybody I worked with. She just worked so hard. She was great."
On limiting what you can say onstage
"When you're young as a comic, you don't have a lot of leverage. So if they don't like what you're doing, they tell you to shut up. It's not based on some morality. ... So you think you're high and mighty, and you think [you're taking a] principled position, but if your principle is that you want to say your art and say your speech to the world, then shutting yourself up because you don't get to say [inappropriate things] is dumb. It's not a principle. And also, you gotta work."
On doing jokes for wounded soldiers at Army hospitals
"When you do USO, the last thing they want you to do is turn around and say anything controversial — sexually or otherwise ... because they don't want any trouble. So here's what always happens: You find yourself in front of a room of wounded veterans, and they just want to have fun. They want to see you go crazy. So every time I did these shows, I would start polite, and then I would maybe test the waters with one something dirty, and they would go crazy. And I'm looking at a bunch of guys who want relief, who want to laugh. And listen, if you had an IED take away part of your sex life, I think laughing about sex is actually a relief for you. These guys just laughed so hard at the sex jokes that I just got dirtier and dirtier."
On his USO appearances
"I would be told by a battery of people to keep it clean, keep it clean. And then I'd go onstage and the soldiers would beg me to get dirty, and I would get really dirty. And then I'd come offstage and apologize. And I started to realize that's what they all wanted me to do, including the people who were telling me to keep it clean."
On emails from people who saw some of his clean stand-up
"I get a lot of email from people saying, 'I saw something you did on TV that was clean.' Like I did this clip on Conan that went viral that everything is amazing and no one is happy, and it just was about appreciating what the world is like and not grousing about it. And it got really popular with Christian groups. And I heard that a lot of pastors would play it before their services and stuff. So a lot of people that saw it would go to my website and be horrified by everything else that I say.
So I got a lot of emails from people saying, 'Why can't you just keep it clean? Because I am now shut off from your act by the horrible things you said, and that's such a shame.' And I would not usually respond to them because I don't return emails, but in my head and to a few of them I said, 'Well, you're the one putting the limit. Not me. I'm saying a bunch of stuff, and you're the one saying I should only say one facet of it.' That's a limit. But at the same time, when these people would write to me I'd kind of like them. Whenever I've encountered a Christian saying, 'Why don't you stop talking like that so I can hear you?' I think, 'Well you're the one putting the earmuffs on, but I wish you could hear me because I like you.'
On people who identify as 'right-wing'
"There's been a lot of simple vilification of right-wing people. It's really easy to say, 'Well, you're Christian, you're anti-this and that, and I hate you.' But to me, it's more interesting to say, 'What is this person like and how do they really think?' Do I have any common ground with people like that who find me really, really offensive? Do I have common ground with them? It's worth exploring."
On the recent death of comedian Patrice O'Neal
"I lost my friend Patrice. I'm sorry. [pauses] Patrice died of a diabetic coma. He didn't take good care of himself. And there's part of me that's upset with him for not taking good care of himself, because he took himself away from us."
On letting his young daughters see his work
"There are things in the show I'm able to show them. There's an episode about Halloween that I showed them parts of. There's a lot of things they're able to see. They're just fun stories. And my daughters, I think they really enjoy what I do. There are certainly some things they can't see in Louie because ... the language is grown-up and is for adults. They know that. They get it. I've played them some George Carlin clips that have cursing in them. I explain it to my kids that some people get uncomfortable or their feelings get hurt by certain words, so you want to respect that in regular life, but there is a reason for these words. They're not just 'bad.' So I'm bringing them along. They'll see this stuff when it's appropriate to see it."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic Louis C.K. GQ just named him the comic genius of the year. Time magazine just named his FX series "Louie" the best TV show of the year. The description said, quote, "It's a show about everything: death, war, divorce, masturbation, parenting, unrequited love, an R-rated, painfully funny meditation on life as something ridiculous, terrible and beautiful," unquote.
Louis C.K. created the series, writes and directs it, and stars as a comic named Louie who, like C.K., is a divorced father of two young girls. Now Louis C.K. has a new stand-up comedy special, "Live at the Beacon Theater" in New York, but instead of being on HBO or Comedy Central like his previous specials, he decided to try something different: He's making it available exclusively on his website.
Let's start with an excerpt of the special. He's talking about how his recent success has allowed him to fly first class. That means he boards first and gets to watch tired and frustrated passengers slowly board and take their less comfortable seats in coach.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SHOW, "LIVE AT THE BEACON THEATER")
LOUIS C.K.: I see soldiers fly all the time, because that's how they get to the war. You think they get to go in a cool green plane with a red light - go, go, go. No, they just go to Delta, and they just wait in line to go to a war.
And they always fly coach. I've never seen a soldier in first class in my life. It could be a full-bird colonel. He's between two fat guys in coach. And they're always nice. I've never seen a soldier get on the plane like yeah, I'm in the Army, (beep) you. I have a gun. They're always like oh, yes, sir. Thank - yes. Thank you very much, ma'am.
It's like having an extra flight attendant. They help everybody put their (beep) up. They're awesome.
And every time that I see a soldier on a plane, I always think: You know what? I should give him my seat. It would be the right thing to do. It would be easy to do, and it would mean a lot to him. I could go up to him: Hey son - I get to call him son. Hey son, go ahead and take my seat.
Because I'm in first class - why? For being a professional (beep). This guy is giving his life for the country, he thinks, and so he has to...
But that's good enough. That's good enough, the fact that he thinks it. I'm serious. He's told by everybody in his life system that that's a great thing to do, and he's doing it. And it's scary, but he's doing it, and he's sitting in the (beep) seat, and I should trade with him.
I never have, let me make that clear. I've never done it once. I've had so many opportunities. I never even really seriously came close.
And here's the worst part: I still just enjoy the fantasy for myself to enjoy. I was actually proud of myself for having thought of it. I was proud. Oh, I am such a sweet man. That is so nice of me to think of doing that and then totally never do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That's Louis C.K. from his new comedy special "Live at the Beacon Theater," which is on his website. Louis C.K., welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is so great to have you back.
C.K.: Thank you.
GROSS: And I have to tell you, I really relate to that, not in giving-up-your-seat kind of way, but I have so many fantasies of all these things that I'm going to do that are going to make me a good person that I never follow through on. (Laughter) So I'm really with you.
C.K.: I know, I know. So it's like - but at least you get to enjoy it. You know, at least you get that part. It's really, like, the height of selfishness to enjoy philanthropy without doing it.
GROSS: Exactly. So I hope you don't mind, we're kind of bleeping and editing clips that we'll be hearing as necessary.
GROSS: So with this new comedy special, what you've decided to do is put it on your website and charge $5, as opposed to getting it on a TV network, like your HBO comedy specials in the past. So why have you decided to do it this way?
C.K.: Well, I've done - I mean, this is my fourth full-hour special, and the first two I did for cable, one for HBO and then one for Showtime. And those were the traditional, that the cable network pays for the production, and they give you a little bit of money, and then it goes on the air.
And then they put it on video, you know, on iTunes, Netflix and DVD, and then they go try to make a profit with it. You're supposed to participate in that profit, but I've never seen a check from a comedy special. They're just - it's never - it never ends up being that.
And then the third one I did was called "Hilarious," and I shot it as a movie, like I self-produced it, although Comedy Central paid for that one. They paid to produce it as a movie and have it go into theaters and then on to Comedy Central.
And that was sort of an experiment, and I did that last - I guess 2009. And then this time, I don't know. I just thought this might be interesting, to give this a try. Put it on my website, make it $5, make it really, really easy for people to watch and to buy and to enjoy, to make it as close to a viral video as possible, and it's way cheaper, and you own it.
When you buy it on my website, you download it, and you own a hi-def video that is unencrypted, and it has no restrictions on it. So you can burn it on a DVD. You can enjoy it any way you want.
GROSS: There is this attitude that you and everybody owe it to your fans to just give it away.
C.K.: When you buy from - when you buy this kind of stuff, videos and music, you're buying - you're paying for a lot of different things. You're paying a corporation to keep the maximum profit alive. I am able to do this because I'm an individual, and I don't - you know, first of all, the money for the production, I put it down myself, but it came from the tickets that were bought for the performances.
I shot two shows at the Beacon Theater. I performed three. I shot two of them, and all the money I made for those shows, for those tickets, paid for the production. So all I had to do was sing for my supper, you know, to start with. That was the plan.
And I figured if I make a profit, that's terrific. If I don't, and I'm out-raced by the Internet thieving or whatever it is, it's not that big a loss to me. It's okay. A lot of people saw the video, and it was interesting. This has been so interesting. This has been such an education for me to do it this way and to learn how it works. And I've got the money back already for the - I got it. I broke even, and then some.
GROSS: Wow. So my guest is Louis C.K., and his new comedy special "Live from the Beacon Theater," is available on his website. And it's the first time he's doing something like this.
So your second season of your FX series "Louie" was fantastic, and...
C.K.: Thank you.
GROSS: I assume it'll be on DVD sometime soon, so viewers will get a second chance to see it if they missed it.
GROSS: And this season, it was so much about the lives of comics. I just found that theme so fascinating. So I want to play a couple of examples. One of them deals with Dane Cook, who's, as most people know, a very famous comic, super successful. And in this episode, you're still playing clubs. He's super successful.
Your daughter really wants tickets to a Lady Gaga concert, and you know that Dane Cook knows her. He's toured with her. So you want to approach him for tickets, but it's kind of awkward because there's been this whole controversy where he's been accused of stealing a couple of your jokes. So you're in a really awkward spot.
So you're meeting with him, and this excerpt starts with Dane Cook talking.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
DANE COOK: (As himself) 2006, that should have been, like, my triumph, and I enjoyed it, Louie, for maybe two months, two months before it started to suck because everything I read about me was about how I stole jokes from you, which I didn't.
C.K.: (As Louie) I kind of think you did.
COOK: Dude, why would I steal three jokes from you when I have hours of material? Why? Why would I do that, risk my reputation?
C.K.: Because they were funny jokes.
COOK: You know what, Louie? You know what the biggest lie in the world is? That I'm a rock star. I'm a millionaire. I'm a comedy behemoth, and you're like a comic's comic and you're an inside-joke guy. And I'm a sellout, and I sold my soul. And you have artistic integrity, and you're a good guy.
We're in this room right now, you and me. You're looking at me. You let your name be used to hurt me. And now you're sitting here asking me to use my fame to get you tickets to Lady Gaga. I mean, how (beep) do you feel right now?
COOK: So you admit that this is all bull(beep).
C.K.: You want to know what I think? You know, I don't think that you saw me do those jokes and said I'm going to tell those jokes, too. I don't think there's a world where you're that stupid, or that bad a guy. I do think, though, that you're, like, a machine of success. You're like a rocket, and you're rocketing to the stars, and your engines are sucking stuff up.
Stuff is getting sucked up in your engines, like birds and bugs and some of my jokes. I think you saw me do them, I know you saw me do them, and I think they just went in your brain. And I don't think you meant to do it, but I don't think you stopped yourself, either. And that's why I never felt the need to help you not be hated by a lot of people.
GROSS: Okay, that's Louis C.K. and Dane Cook in an episode of season two of Louis C.K.'s series "Louie." So this is based on a real incident. What made you think of actually writing it into your series?
C.K.: Well, what's interesting is that it's not a real - it's an incident that never happened. He and I never had that meeting. I mean, he and I had...
GROSS: But he was accused of stealing your jokes.
C.K.: That's right, yeah. He was. And we were on these two sides of this crazy thing. It was like one of the first YouTube grudges, matches, you know, where people would post his joke and my joke, and then everyone would comment who they thought stole what, and you know.
But I always had very ambivalent feelings about it because he's a human being, and I always felt a little weird about the whole thing. You know, I felt like - I felt what you just heard me say, but I didn't - a lot of people just said he's a horrible thief. And he was so vilified, that it was really hard to watch happen.
But anyway, I don't know. I started to think about him as I was writing season two, and I thought it would be interesting to have us talk about it. So I sat down and I thought about the things I've read him say in the press and heard him say, and I thought I channeled him.
Like, I thought if I can make him sort of the winner of the debate, or at least an even match, then it's worth doing. Letting him call me a fraud was really fun. It's so much more interesting than - like, I could have had him be a straw dog or had somebody play him and gotten off on myself by saying you stole from me. But it was way more fun to be - to have to go into someone who stole from me, supposedly, and have him call me a fraud. It's just so interesting.
So I wrote it up, and I called - I wrote Dane an email and said I wrote something. Do you want to read it with me? And he came to my office, and we read it out loud together. And he said I'll do this. And he all - went all in. He wrote - I wrote that verbatim. He read everything the way I wrote it. And he asked for a couple changes, and I said no, and he said I'll do it, anyway.
GROSS: What did he ask for?
C.K.: He wanted to be lighter. He wanted to be less angry. He said: I'm not angry about this anymore, and I don't want to represent myself that way. And I said, well, the way you want to represent yourself isn't my lookout. I want to tell a story that's dramatic and interesting. And he saw that as valuable and said, sure, okay.
So he kind of - I think he kind of went back in time a little to get that anger up, and probably he's got some little residual anger. And I had some residual anger. So we both got to sort of say our thing. And then it was unresolved. That was the important thing to me, is that we said both of our things, and then it sort of laid there between us and didn't really go anywhere.
GROSS: So how did the episode change your relationship with Dane Cook?
C.K.: Well, we've - we had a great day doing it, and I was profoundly impressed with his commitment to it. And I liked spending the time with him. And so we email, and we keep making plans to meet and just have lunch or something, which we haven't done just because we're both busy people.
But we've emailed back and forth. He recently lost - we lost a friend in common. Patrice O'Neal, the comedian, died, and I dedicated my special to him. And Dane and he came up together in Boston. So we've - we shared feelings about that and stuff. These are all things that wouldn't have happened before we did this episode.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K., and he has a new comedy special, "Live at the Beacon," that's on his website only. It's not on TV this time around. And we're talking now about his series "Louie." The second season aired on FX. I assume there's a third season on its way?
C.K.: That's right. I am supposed to be writing it right now, and I'm not. But...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Not right at this minute, anyway.
C.K.: We start shooting in February, and it'll be on the air in late June.
GROSS: Great. And I'm sure the DVD of season two will be out around then, too.
C.K.: Exactly the same time, yeah.
GROSS: Good, okay. So I want to talk about another episode from season two, and this one was with Joan Rivers. And in this episode, you're playing the lounge at an Atlantic City casino, and you're doing jokes about the lounge and about Donald Trump, who owns the lounge, and the manager says to you: You can't do those jokes. You can't insult Trump. You can't insult the casino.
And you decide to take a principled stand and not compromise as a comic, and so you quit. And then you see Joan Rivers, who's playing the main room, and you sit down, and you're having a talk with her. And she is just really shocked that you quit, and she thinks it's a really stupid move. So anyways, here you are meeting with her, and she speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "LOUIE")
JOAN RIVERS: (As herself) You're in the lounge.
C.K.: I was.
RIVERS: You were fired?
C.K.: I quit.
RIVERS: What do you mean you quit? Nobody quits.
C.K.: I quit.
RIVERS: Are you crazy? Are you a trust-fund baby, that you quit?
C.K.: No, it's just that they got upset because I was saying stuff about the casino and I was making fun of Trump, and...
RIVERS: You're in a Trump hotel. You don't make fun of the owner of the hotel. Are you crazy? He's not going to hire a comedian who's going to say (beep) Donald Trump.
C.K.: I know, but I just...
RIVERS: Now, this is not an easy business. I mean, you want to try my life sometime? I work in Arizona, how about that, in Indian casinos. Do you think that's easy? You tell a joke, they don't like it, instead of a tomato, they throw a tomahawk. What are you expect? I mean, you got a job. How lucky are you, for goodness sake?
C.K.: Yeah, but come on, you're in the nice theater here. They got me in the (beep) lounge.
RIVERS: I was in the (beep) lounge, sweety-puss, two years ago. For all I know, I'll be back in the (beep) lounge two years from now, and you'll be in the main room. Things change. That's the business. Look at the perks you're getting. You've got a job. You got a card for the free food in the employee cafeteria. I mean, stop bitching and go buy yourself a pocketbook that's lined in plastic and throw food in when they're not looking.
C.K.: Yeah, great.
RIVERS: You know what's wrong with you guys? You don't know when you're lucky. Appreciate where you are, for God's sake.
GROSS: And that's Joan Rivers and Louis C.K. from Louis C.K.'s season two of his FX series "Louie." And I want to explain to our listeners again, we have to do a lot of bleeping and editing to play these clips.
I love how she makes what you thought of as your principled position look actually foolish and kind of self-serving. That was so interesting. Have you - first of all, before we get - talk about getting Joan Rivers involved, have you been in that position of trying to think about, you know, should you quit and take a principled position because they're trying to limit what you can say, or just do what you can while you can do it?
C.K.: Yeah, I - you know, when you're young as a comic, you don't have a lot of leverage. So if they hear something they don't like, they just say shut up, you know. It's not based on some morality. It's just, you know, like she's saying. It's the Trump hotel. What are you doing? Nobody needs to take that from you. You know what I mean?
So you kind of think you're high and mighty, and you think it's a principled position, but if your principle is that you want to say your art and say your speech to the world, then shutting yourself up because you didn't get to say F-Trump is just dumb. It doesn't make any sense. F-Trump is not a principle, you know. And also, you got to work, and not a lot is being asked of you.
Like she said: Know when you're lucky. That was a big thing. So I mean - I guess my whole career has made me - the early years of my career is that lesson, and I've said what she says here to young comics. For this episode, I kind of reeled myself back to when I used to work lounges in Atlantic City, which I don't anymore.
But - so I've had comics complain to me: This place didn't let me do this. And I'm like: Dude, shut up. You're a comedian for a living. What are you complaining about? It's stupid.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Did you ever have a comic say that to you?
C.K.: Tell me to know when I'm lucky?
C.K.: Yes, yes. I remember there was a guy named Paul Kozlowski, who was a comic in Boston at the time who I really looked up to. And I told him how frustrated I was, and that I just felt like I wasn't getting enough work and it wasn't fair, and I was depressed about my career. I was about 20 years old.
And so I - and I was already a beaten veteran, apparently, in my head. And Paul, who was a veteran, said okay, well, get out. We have enough comics. Like, give up then. I don't need to hear this. And it was really a chilling thing. It stuck with me for a long time. Obviously, I still remember it, you know, 30 years later, or something.
GROSS: So what did you think of getting Joan Rivers involved in this episode?
C.K.: I saw Joan Rivers' movie, "A Piece of Work," her documentary. I have always loved Joan Rivers, since I was a kid. I've always looked up to her like a big sister or something as a comedian. She's just so good, and she tries so hard.
GROSS: Looked up to her as a big sister because you knew her, or from afar?
C.K.: No, just from afar. I remember seeing her, like, on "60 Minutes" when I was a kid, and they showed how hard she worked and how she had this joke database. And she's just obsessed with writing jokes and jokes, and they're all good, and some of them are great.
And I just think - and I was raised by a single mom and three sisters, in a world of women. So when women succeed, I root for them. It's just the way it is for me, and so I've always loved her.
And then I saw this documentary, and it just ripped me to pieces. I just - I was very affected, and I thought if Joan Rivers was sitting next to me telling me these things about survival and appreciation of life, I would want to kiss her right on the lips. That's what I remember thinking when I was watching it. So I thought that's - I want to make that happen.
I want to try to get Joan. I want to write something for her to say that represents the beauty of her. And then I'd try to make out with her. That's interesting, and it's funny. So that's what we did.
GROSS: So was she immediate onboard when you invited her to do this?
C.K.: Well, we sent it to her, and - you know, another thing I learned from the documentary is she fields every offer. She says no to almost nothing. She just works so hard. So I knew I could get it to her, and, you know, and I - the show was doing pretty well the first season.
So her people put it in front of her and said you should do this, and she called me. And she said - the script was very different at the time. And she said, you know, what is this? This is preachy. I hate this. She said, I want to do it, but we've got to make it funnier. And I was like oh, brother. I don't want a writing partner, Joan Rivers here, you know.
But she started - she said the thing about the pocket with the plastic lining and a trust-fund baby and tomahawks. She started throwing stuff like that, just on the phone with me, just saying, you know, why not say this, this, this. And I'm furiously writing it down. And she made it funnier. And then she showed up and put in a harder day of work than almost anybody I worked with. She just worked so hard. She was great.
GROSS: Louis C.K. will be back in the second half of the show. His new comedy special, "Live at the Beacon Theater," is available on his website. You'll find a link to it and a video outtake from it on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Louis C.K. GQ just named him the Comic Genius of the Year. He has a new comedy special, "Live at the Beacon Theater," which he's making available exclusively on his website. Time magazine just named his FX series "Louie" the best TV show of the year. The series was created by C.K., who also writes, directs, and stars in it. He plays a comic named Louie, who like C.K., is a divorced father of two young girls. The series often draws on his own experiences.
Now you performed in Afghanistan.
GROSS: And actually, it was a tour of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. Do I have that right?
C.K.: Kuwait. That's right.
C.K.: That's right.
GROSS: In season two of "Louie" you actually go to Afghanistan to perform.
GROSS: So let's talk about real life first. Why did you want to do a USO tour?
C.K.: Well, it started for me because I went to Washington, D.C. on a USO sort of little tour with Pamela Adlon, who played my wife on "Lucky Louie," and she works on my series "Louie" as a consultant, a consulting producer and a sometimes writer. She does voice...
GROSS: And performs in it as well.
C.K.: Yeah. She also plays my unrequited love on first two seasons. She is a voice actress and there was a group of voice actors like, you know, people that do cartoons and stuff, who went to D.C. to do hospital visits at Walter Reed, which isn't there anymore, and Bethesda, and a few other USO-type things around Christmastime. This was a few years ago. And so they invited me to come and do a standup comedy portion. So I came and I did standup in a few - in some Army and Navy base cafeterias, you know, basically. And visited a bunch of wounded warriors in their hospital rooms. And this was, you know, something I will never forget, because these were guys who had been terribly injured, like maybe two days before and here they are in a hospital room back home and I'm in their room. And, you know, I didn't know what the hell they would - I would have to offer them.
But basically the doctor goes in first and says do you want USO? Do you want a visit? And they always say yes. And you'd come in and this soldier, whose face is totally disfigured like freshly, like cotton in the eye socket where the eye should be, like just a cotton ball, and their arm is just destroyed and no leg or whatever. And they're sort of sitting up in the bed with this smile and they're hosting you in their room. They're like, welcome. It's unlike...
GROSS: So did you do comedy there?
C.K.: Yeah, I did comedy like in the cafeteria of the hospital. I did comedy in the naval base chow lounge and stuff like that.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you this. You know, a lot of your comedy is about sex.
GROSS: And, you know, whether it's one-on-one or with another person.
C.K.: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: And, you know, a lot of the wounded veterans have injuries that will temporarily or permanently affect their sexual lives or...
GROSS: ...ruin their sexual lives.
GROSS: So did that make your sex jokes off-limits? And sex jokes, that's something that you know ordinarily that you could really have in common with soldiers.
GROSS: You know, jokes about sex.
C.K.: Well, it's interesting because I, you know when you do USO - this is the first time I had done it - the last thing they want is for you to mess around and say anything controversial - sexually or otherwise. And so they just ask you, please just make it simple and please just keep it polite because, that's just, they just don't want any trouble. But here's what always happens. You find yourself in front of a bunch of wounded veterans, and they just want to have fun and they don't want to hear polite comedy. They want to hear you go crazy. And so, every time I did these shows, I would start polite, and then I would maybe test the waters with one something dirty, and they'd go crazy. And I'm looking at a bunch of guys who want relief, and they want to laugh. And listen, if you just had something, if you just had an IED take away part of your sex life, I think laughing about sex is actually a relief for you. These guys laughed so hard at the sex jokes that I just got dirtier and dirtier.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
C.K.: And then I got offered to go on the sergeant major of the Army's tour in Iraq and Kuwait and Afghanistan, so that's, I jumped at it because of the experience that I'd had in D.C. And over there it was the same. There was sort of like this, I would be told by a battery of people to keep it clean, keep it clean. And then I'd go on stage and the soldiers would beg me to get dirty and I would get really dirty. And then I'd come offstage and apologize. And then I was, I started to realize that that's what they all wanted me to do, including the people telling me to keep it clean.
They tell me to keep it clean, I get dirty, I apologize. That just became the process.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
C.K.: That way I can, the soldiers can have a good time without the Army endorsing it. You know what I mean? They'd make a scene...
GROSS: Right. They have deniability.
C.K.: Yes. Then our sergeant major would stomp around, I can't believe you said these things.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
C.K.: And I'd go, I'm so sorry, sergeant major. I mean what do I care? I'm not in the Army. What's he going to do, demote me to when I was 15? You can't hurt me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
C.K.: Send me home from Iraq? What a bummer, you know. So, and there was one night actually, because the sergeant major of the Army, he's like the guy, he's the main - I don't know to explain what he is, but he's a very important guy in the Pentagon and he took us on the tour and he was a little pissed off at me for being dirty over there. But there was one night in Baghdad where we were doing a show for 2,000 soldiers all just standing in gravel and it was cold - I didn't know it gets cold in Baghdad. And there was country-western bands that was most of the show and I was just this comedian break in the middle of it. So the first country-western band was on stage and the lights went out and the sound went out. Somebody didn't fill the generator so there was just suddenly no show and it would take an hour to fill it with gas and start it again. So I said I'll go out there because I can yell. I don't need a guitar. So I stood on the lip of the stage and in the dark in front of 2,000 people in Baghdad and I just yelled my act. And it was one of the most profound experiences I've ever had as a comedian because the audience, they weren't an audience like at home. They would have, a regular audience would have thrown bottles at me.
But these people rallied for me and they were dead quiet when I was speaking and then they cheered like crazy for every joke, whether they found it funny or not I think. And I did a full hour to this audience of soldiers. And because I was yelling I had to be really coarse and rude. There's no subtlety to that kind of comedy and it was one of the most amazing hours of comedy I've done in 26 years or whatever it's been. And when I came off the sergeant major was standing right there and he shook my hand and said, you done good. You know...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
C.K.: ...this real kind of Army moment. Yeah.
GROSS: So in season two of "Louie" there's an episode where you go to Afghanistan to perform there for the troops.
GROSS: And on the tour is a cheerleader who does, you know her cheerleading act on stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And she's also a Christian. And, so she's offended by some of the jokes that you're telling. And you're in a cafeteria together and you're kind of trying to hit on her.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: She's like 19 and you're 43.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
C.K.: Yeah. Terrible.
GROSS: She finds the whole thing like really disgusting. But anyway...
C.K.: Rightfully so.
GROSS: So she thinks that you should be doing more Christian humor.
GROSS: And here's an excerpt of that scene. And it starts with you talking about, you know, her work as a cheerleader.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And I should mention that in the middle of this clip you pull out a duckling that you have in your bag and it's a duckling that your daughter gave you for good luck for your travels in Afghanistan.
(SOUNDBITE OF FX TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
C.K.: (as Louie) It's cool though. It's like you're a...
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)
C.K.: ...like an artist, you know, right, because you dance. And did you go, did you study dance or...
ASHTON LANDRAF: (as Cheerleader) Y'all are kind of disgusting, the things you say on stage.
C.K.: Yeah, I guess so.
LANDRAF: Why can't you say Christian things and be funny?
C.K.: Christian things? What kind of, what kind of Christian things are funny? How old are you?
C.K.: You want to see something?
LANDRAF: Ew. What?
(SOUNDBITE OF DUCKLING QUACKING)
LANDRAF: Oh, my gosh, that is so cute. Can I hold him?
C.K.: I don't know. Maybe later.
LANDRAF: Why do you have that?
C.K.: Well, my daughter put it in my bag. She said it's to keep me safe.
LANDRAF: That is adorable.
C.K.: Well, it's not going to help against an RPG, but it's a pretty bad-ass duckling.
LANDRAF: (Laughter) See, you're being Christian and funny.
C.K.: Would you ever date a guy my age?
LANDRAF: Why, would you ever date a 19-year-old?
LANDRAF: Would you really?
LANDRAF: That's disgusting.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That's Louis C.K. in an episode from season two of his FX series "Louie." Now there's another episode of "Louie" from that season that's all about you and a Christian abstinence activist who is really upset with all the sex jokes that you tell. So there seems to be something of a theme. So I have to assume that you've encountered that kind of response.
C.K.: Yeah. I mean some of it from afar. But I get a lot of emails from people saying, I saw something you did on TV that was clean and then I saw - like I did this thing, this clip that went viral on "Conan" about everything is amazing and nobody's happy, and it just was about appreciating what the world is like and not, you know, grousing about it. And it got really popular with Christian groups. And I heard that a lot of pastors would play it before their services and stuff. Anyway, so a lot of people that saw it would go to my website and be horrified by everything else that I say.
So I got a lot of emails from people saying, why can't you just keep it clean? Because I am now shut off from your act by the horrible things you said, and that's such a shame. And I would not really respond to them because I don't usually return emails, but in my head and to a few of them I said, well, you're the one putting the limit. Not me. I mean I'm saying a bunch of stuff, and you're saying that I should only say one facet of it. That's a limit. It's, you know what I mean? That's the way I look at it. But at the same time, when these people would write to me, I kind of liked them. So whenever I've encountered like a Christian saying, why don't you stop talking like that so that I can hear you, you know? I again, I think, well you're the one putting the earmuffs on, but at the same time, I wish you could hear me because I like you. You know what I'm saying?
So to me it was more, and also there's been a lot of really simple vilification of right-wing people. And it's really easy to just say, ah, you're Christian, and you're, you know, you're anti-this and that, and I hate you, and you should just go away. But it's to me, it's more interesting to find out, what is this kind of person like and how do they really think, you know? Do I have any common ground with people like that who find me really, really offensive? So the episode about the Christian girl was like that.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He has a new comedy special that's available on his website. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Louis C.K., and he has a new comedy special "Live at the Beacon Theater," in New York. That's on his website and website only. Season two of his FX series "Louie" begins in the late spring.
We recently had on Danny Burstein, who was in episode, in an episode of season one of your show and...
C.K.: I heard that interview. It was a great interview. I love Danny.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, he's so great. He's, as we record this he's in "Follies" on Broadway...
GROSS: ...doing an incredible job there. But he was talking about when he was on your show he played the father of a bully and his teenage son bullied you in a coffee shop and tried to get you to fight him back and you kind of refused. But you follow him back home to - was it Staten Island?
GROSS: And knock on the door and talk with the father, who is played by Danny Burstein and say, you know, did you know that your son was a bully? Did you know that he's doing these things? And one of the wonderful things about this episode is that, you know, his father's obviously like, probably like hit his kids. But it ends with you and him just sitting on the steps and having this heart-to-heart talk about how hard it is to be a parent.
GROSS: It ends up being like surprisingly moving. It's not what you expected. It's not what I expected to see. But anyways, you're great. Danny Burstein's great in it. And he was saying when I interviewed him that what really surprised him is that when you came and knocked on the door and he was supposed to open it as the father and be surprised to see you, he was really surprised to see you because he didn't expect you to have the camera with you. That when you knocked on the door you were rolling.
C.K.: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And he just, you know, wasn't prepared but he thought this is like guerrilla filmmaking. This is really interesting.
GROSS: Is that the way you operate usually?
C.K.: I think I remember being aware that he wouldn't really know if we were rolling. And it was good for the moment because I'm just a stranger knocking on his door and saying hi, your son bullied me. And so he, the surprise he registered at the whole moment was very appropriate.
But, yeah, we shoot different things in different ways in the show. Some stuff we shoot very carefully and prepared and we, you know, compose the shots carefully and light beautifully. I'm really into the sort of cinematography of the show. It's a big part of it for me. And other things are meant to feel differently, and that was meant to feel like an incident.
But, yeah, I wanted when I knocked on that door, the feeling of knocking on a stranger's door in today's America, that's really like a threat to knock on a door at night.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, it is.
C.K.: So I wanted it to feel like that. The camera's right over my shoulder and it's walking with me behind me and it follows me up to the door. And I wanted it to really, really feel like this dude. And he was cast because he was so believable as that dad and the way he went: Yeah, what is this? You know, and the way he said, you know: Sean, come down here.
Like, he just reminded me of those kind of explosive dads, working dads that I knew when I was growing up. And so it felt like that. It felt, I'm coming in out of the cold. The lighting is dull. It feels a little like a "Cops" episode or something.
GROSS: So I want to play one more clip from the second season of "Louie" and, you know, there were several episodes that dealt with comedians, and this one is about a comic who you hadn't seen in many years. And he shows up and he's broke, he's living in his car, he doesn't have work, and he's really crude onstage but he's really crude and rude offstage to people too.
GROSS: And he's actually really embarrassing you because he has no social skills at all. And so you're driving with him, like, late at night after your show and he basically tells you - then you stop and get out and talk and walk and he tells you basically that he wants to kill himself and that his doctor gave him some pills and told him not to take too many of them because it could kill him.
And he interpreted that as the doctor saying, you know, I know you want to kill yourself. You should kill yourself. Here are some pills that will help you do it.
GROSS: So he's just kind of laid this on you, that he wants to kill himself and that he plans on doing it at his next stop. And you have to decide how to react. So here's an excerpt of that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
C.K.: (as Louie) Why are you here telling me this right now?
DOUG STANHOPE: (as Eddie Mack) I don't know. I guess I just wanted to say good-bye to someone. You know, if I leave a note it's just going to get burned with my clothes. So I figured you for the one guy that I could say adios to.
C.K.: Eddie, this is (bleep). You can't kill yourself.
STANHOPE: Oh, yes I can. I have a note from a doctor.
C.K.: I don't give a (bleep) what that guy said. You can't do that.
STANHOPE: And why can't I do that?
STANHOPE: Louie, look me in the eye and tell me I have one good reason to live.
STANHOPE: See, you got nothing.
C.K.: No. No, I'm not - I'm not playing that. I'm not doing it.
STANHOPE: What do you mean?
C.K.: I mean - I mean (bleep), man. I got my reasons to live. I worked hard to figure out what they are. I'm not just handing them to you. Okay? You want a reason to live, have a drink of water and get some sleep, wake up in the morning and try again like everybody else does.
STANHOPE: Yeah, I get it. Tough love.
C.K.: No. No love. Okay? More like tough not giving a (bleep) anymore, Eddie. If you want to - if you want to tap out 'cause your life is (bleep), you know what? It's not your life. It's life. It's life as in bigger than you. If you can imagine that. Life isn't something that you possess; it's something that you take part in. And you witness.
STANHOPE: You are - you are so excited right now that you get to give the big speech. You would love to be the guy that talks this loser who you never think about out of suicide so you can feel better about yourself.
GROSS: That's my guest, Louis C.K. and Doug Stanhope in an episode of Louis C.K.'s FX series "Louie". Have you been in that position where somebody's told you that they want to kill themselves and you have to decide what are you supposed to do with that?
C.K.: Well, it's a scary thing to ponder, you know, but it's emotional to hear that clip now because, I mean, I wrote that about a lot of comedians I knew coming up and comedy and show business are very cruel and they don't have a nice way of saying no or good-bye, you know? And a lot of guys live really tough lives in this racket.
And I've known a lot of them and come up with some of them and some have made it, some haven't. And, you know, the idea of somebody saying to you look me in the eye and tell me I have a reason to live, it's terrifying to think, well, what if I fail them in that moment? And Doug Stanhope is somebody I've known for a lot of years, not well, but I've always known him.
We've traveled the same paths and I love Doug. I have real affection for him. And, you know, he doesn't take very good care of himself and he, you know, medicates himself in many different ways. And I've always been scared for him. I've always been afraid that he's going to let himself go and die. And...
GROSS: So you sent him this script in which he wants to kill himself. How did he react to that?
C.K.: Well, you know, he's - when I've felt that fear about Doug, for a lot of years and then I look at what he writes on his website and I've listened to him, and I realized that there's something narcissistic in my fear. You know what I mean? Like, he's taking care of himself and he's making his choices as a grown-up. And so that was sort of an evolution of thinking for me.
But then the reason I guess it's emotional now is because I lost my friend Patrice. Sorry.
GROSS: No, that's okay. This is the comic who - you want to take a break for a second?
C.K.: No, it's okay.
GROSS: Okay. This is the comic...
GROSS: ...you dedicated your special to him and...
C.K.: Yeah. Patrice died of, you know, in a diabetic coma, and he didn't take good care of himself. And there's part of me that is, you know, upset with him for not taking care of himself, you know, because he took himself away from us. So I guess to me it's like it's funny to hear that now and - you know.
GROSS: Well, you wrote that before this happened, so...
C.K.: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: You certainly weren't thinking about his death.
C.K.: No. No. No, not at all. And, you know, it's just funny because I had such a different perspective on that issue of, like, someone's not taking care of themselves. Someone's not keeping themselves safe, and what is your role in that? And the anger I feel towards Doug in that scene is the kind of anger I feel about Patrice now that he's gone. So it's interesting to look back on it because the thing - the place I took myself in that scene, as I was writing it, I didn't know where it was going. I knew I wanted to stand on that street and have him give me that news and I didn't know where I wanted it to go. So I started writing to him my argument why not to kill yourself, and as I was writing it I realized for this argument to succeed would be really gross. For me to, like, be the guy who gives him the reason to live is so self-serving.
And the fact that I was even attempting it on paper, I was embarrassed alone in a room. And so the way that I - the path I found to the truth of the scene for me was having Doug be the one to tell me how full of crap I was for trying it. So in other words, as I was sitting there typing here's why you shouldn't kill yourself, I stopped and said to myself, oh my god.
Congratulations, you pig. You know, who do you think you are? And so then I had Doug basically say that. And, you know, Doug is a lot more together than any of the people that I'm asking him to play there. Doug has a real career and he's a great comedian. He's one of the best. And I didn't know he could act. He's never acted in his life. That's the first thing he ever acted in, really.
And I had called him and I said I wrote this thing, it's kind of an amalgam of a lot of guys and your voice would sound great doing it. Do you want to do it? And he said - he said, I can't act. He told me right away, I can't do it. And I said, I didn't ask you if you can; what I'm asking is do you want to. And he said, well, yes, I do want to.
And then I thought, well, that desire will make it work, you know. The crazy thing is that I was so exhausted when we shot that episode - it was one of the last things we shot - I was so strung out I didn't know any of my lines. I was so - I was depressed, I was just really not in good shape. And Doug came so prepared and he's so - he was the best - I'm going to say he's the best actor I had on the season.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He has a new comedy special that's available on his website. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He has a new comedy special that's on his website. Time magazine just named his FX series "Louie" the best TV show of the year. He writes, directs, and stars in the series. He plays a character based on himself. So you have two daughters. I think they're six and nine years old now.
C.K.: Exactly. Yeah.
GROSS: And you have two daughters in the series as well and a lot of the series and a lot of your standup routine has to do with being a father.
GROSS: How old will your daughters have to be before you feel comfortable with them watching "Louie"?
C.K.: Well, there are things in the show I'm able to show them. There's an episode about Halloween that I showed them parts of. There's a lot of stuff they're able to see. They're just fun stories. And, you know, my daughters, I think they really enjoy what I do. And so, yeah, there are certainly some things they can't see in "Louie" because they're grown up. The language is grown up. It's for adults.
GROSS: And you explain that to them and they understand?
C.K.: They know that. Yeah. They totally get that. You know, I've played them some George Carlin clips that had cursing in them and I don't think these are bad words. And I explain it to my kids that some people get uncomfortable or their feelings get hurt by certain words so you want to respect that in regular life. But there is a reason for these words and they're not just bad, you know. So I'm bringing them along.
I mean, they'll see this stuff when it's appropriate for them to see it.
GROSS: In the meantime you're telling them not to use those words.
C.K.: They don't want to. My kids are way nicer people than me. They're just so much nicer than me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
C.K.: They're not like, Dad when can we start saying the F word? They're like they would never say it. My kids are just - they're an example - they're raising me at this point. It's really bad. Because, you know, I get up at 6:30 to take them to school and I am in bad shape because I'm up all night. And they are - they got bows in their hair, they're clean, they're ready to go.
They got their little shoe buckles on. I've got these two terrific girls. They are nothing like what I represent on stage, which is, you know - they're just sweet as hell, and bright and smart. They are the next generation of Americans. I have confidence and optimism for America because of my daughters. I really mean that.
GROSS: Well, Louis C.K., it's really been great to talk with you again. I really appreciate you visiting FRESH AIR. Thank you so much.
C.K.: Thank you, Terry. I love doing this show and I love listening to it. I never miss it.
GROSS: Louis C.K. has a new comedy special, "Live at the Beacon Theater" that's available on his website. You'll find a link to it and a video outtake from it on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a link to our previous interview with Louis C.K. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.