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Louis CK Interview, Part 1: Fatherhood and Fear

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FX’s Louie, the dark-comic vision of Louis CK, returns for a second season tomorrow. My feature on the comedian and the new season is in this week’s TIME magazine. For that article, last month I sat down with Louis CK in an apartment in Upper Manhattan that was doubling as the show’s set and production headquarters. Before he and his crew started shooting that morning, he had breakfast (an egg sandwich and fruit) and I asked him about the show’s themes, its comedy and its unusual, low-budget, high-freedom production arrangement.

The first part of the interview appears below; I’ll post part two tomorrow:

You’ve talked in the past about how there are certain things about the show are consistent from episode to episode and other things you feel kind of free to change, like the actress who played your mom. Are there going to be more connected stories or is it kind of the same approach?

Well, there is a—some of it is the same. I still think I’m finding stuff to reveal for the first time. And sometimes I just want to tell a story regardless of whether it fits what the show is saying. I’ve been in a lot of writing rooms where somebody says an idea and everyone’s dying, like laughing so they’re delirious. It’s like a black hole in a good way, everything starts to fall into it, you know what I mean.

And then after a few minutes everybody calms down and somebody says yeah, we can’t do it that way, it doesn’t make any sense, because it hurts this thing and this. And then everyone gets a little—has a moment of silence for the idea and moves on, and something amazing was kept away from the public.

And then the other side of it is people that are slogging through a painful, unappealing piece of scenery or whatever it is, because they’ve got to show it in order to make something work–one of these bitter pills you have to swallow in order to make your [series] work, you know what I mean? So I just don’t want to do that. If I have an idea that breaks the rules I’ve set out for or doesn’t really help make people understand more about the characters and stuff–I’m going to do it anyway; it’s worth doing.

But this season the kids are around more. I think there’s a sense of development with the kids and I’m more engaged with them this time.

Fatherhood is such a big part of the show. But I would hear more about your kids, directly, in your act than you saw in the first season of the show. While there was a lot of stuff about like being a father and the work of it and stuff, not a lot of stuff about the kids directly.

Yeah. It definitely informed some of the stories but it didn’t, it wasn’t what the stories were about… One very big reason for that was that it’s a pain in the ass to shoot with kids and it burns a lot of time. So I just didn’t want to do it. I like these kids too; they’re really nice kids. But I always also have thought that moments with kids have a certain saccharine to them that you can’t avoid. And also my overarching instinct the first year was showing that I was a new divorced father and that I was still kind of reeling from the adjustment. And I took on a big chunk by deciding to have shared custody of the kids but I wasn’t handling it well.

And this [season] maybe represents a couple of years down the road, where the kids become more the center of my life, where I become more engaged. Instead of just being a guy staring at a kid going “Why would I want to talk to this person?”–that’s just sort of what I represent in my act even though it’s not true. This is more crouching toward a kid and engaging. And also the exchanges I started to have–one of the reasons I don’t write ahead or think ahead is because you find stuff as you [shoot the show]. And when we came back this season I started shooting things with these girls, I found these scenes are really working and they feel good, they feel real, and they’re funny. So I just started writing to that.

So when you say you don’t write ahead you mean you literally start a season with just a small number of stories?

No, I write it. What I mean is I don’t think ahead, like where are we headed with this? What do I want to do? I had a sense that I want to look like a more successful dad because I am better at it than I used to be. But that’s not a sound reason to do something: “I want to show everybody I’m a good father.” Who the fuck wants to see that? And so I discarded that idea. But then I started writing stories about the kids. And then—I usually go into the season with like, I don’t know, about half the season written and then I start shooting. And then I learn shit when I shoot and then I start writing little pieces ahead. And then we usually take a couple of weeks’ break and then I try to write another war chest of stuff. But yeah, so this year I’ve learned from the first couple of episodes with the kids that they also got better, they got older, so. The kid stuff is going to be interesting this year I think. There’s more of it.

You’ve said that part of the reason that you did this show rather than do a show for NBC was the responsibility of being a father in real life. Can you just talk a little bit about how has being a single dad with shared custody has affected your career?

Well, it’s guided all of it. I mean I made a decision soon after getting divorced that I suddenly was faced with a really simple new problem, which was if I wanted to be with my kids I had to be alone, you know. I’m alone with my kids now so nobody [else] was home taking care of them. It changes everything. All of a sudden it’s if I work I can’t be with the kids. And so how do I—now I had to really make very deliberate choices about who wins when there’s a conflict. And I—by the way, this process itself of like thinking seriously about your life, thinking I had to make a rule for my life like the way my parents used to. We’re all going to live by this rule now. I’m a grownup now and I have to do it and I don’t even have a wife to say, “Well, this is what she says we should do.”

I had to be the head of the household really for the first time and say okay, I have to actually make a rule that we’re going to live by here. And I decided what it was is that the family comes over the work always. I mean, with the kids it’s a priority. Because I wanted them to have a feeling like they could count on me like I was really there, I wasn’t just visiting. I didn’t want one of these moments like, “Jeez, honey, I’m sorry I’m not going to see you this week or this month or whatever because I’m going to LA.” I got some offers early that go out to LA and do parts on sitcoms and I said no, because it meant going and being away for a month.

And I just—I wasn’t offered the part but I was asked to come in and “audition with strong interest” to be a second lead in a movie that shoots in Hawaii for a month. And I thought even if they offered it at two million dollars and it’s the lead and it’s Woody Allen or whatever it is, I’d say no, because how do you explain that to those kids, especially when they’re trying to get their feet on the ground? So I just made that rule and it made life so much better like immediately, because it simplified things. And I like being able to say to people I ain’t going. I don’t do stand-up on the road if it’s on a kid day. I don’t shoot on a kid day. I stay with them. I don’t have babysitters. I just take care of them all day and put them to bed at night.

So you literally shoot like half the week?

Yeah. Yesterday I dropped the kids at school in the morning and I came to the set. And then I’ll shoot today [Thursday], you know, full on, and tomorrow we’ll pack it all in to even Friday. And then I get my kids Saturday morning and I’ll have them through the weekend. And then Monday I have the kids I won’t shoot and Tuesday I have the kids I won’t shoot. Sometimes it’s Monday and Tuesday, sometimes it’s its Monday, Tuesday, Wednesdays. I just shut down. I edit and I work when they’re at school but I don’t actually shoot because I have to be there to pick them up at school. So that’s made a big, huge difference is that life style.

But it’s kept me out of doing stuff that would—sometimes you’re kind of drawn to projects just because they really want you and there’s stars in it. And you get vain and you go oh, well I’ll do that. But it has to be a really fucking good reason for me to work. And also, the main thing it did was it made me concentrate on stand-up because that was the perfect thing to do with my schedule. Because I’d stay with the kids during my days and then I’d hit the road. And I’d come back and as soon as I’m done with the last show of the week I can forget about it, do you know what I mean. There’s no real preparing at home for stand-up. You just go and you just do it. So it was perfect. And then having them as a focus and having stand-up as almost the only thing made me a much better comedian.

One thing I loved about the first season, and that friends of mine with kids, men and women, would comment about, is that it gets across this sense of  just the physical work it is to be a parent. I feel like you don’t see that much on TV.

Yeah, very much so. I love, I really admire parents that really throw down and really do it, you know. You feel like—I remember I was watching “Platoon” once and these guys are, they’ve just got all this shit they’re slinging and they all have special—like three different guys are carrying one bazooka, you know, and then they have to sort of assemble it. And when a guy’s got to run into the woods by himself, you know how they always have this scene of a guy saying okay, I’m going to go and run through the woods. And he’s taking off all the fucking gear so he would just be in the tank top. And when they get up they sort of hold on to their M16 and push themselves up, every time they stand up they’ve got all this shit on, they clank and stuff.

That’s what being a parent is like. It’s like Platoon. You’ve got all this fucking stuff; you have an impossible amount of shit to carry, and usually, a kid sometimes too. And I see parents all over the place with skinny little ankles and, you know, with no particular features and they just—life’s worn them down to a basic like human shape, you know. Their personality and whatever they—the lines in their face and the chiseling is gone. They’re just this thing and it’s like ant strength, and you just have to, you just have to do it to get through whatever fucking, you know, we’ve got to get from here to there. And she didn’t want to be here any more, and she has to go to the bathroom, and I’ve got a stroller.

And it was so much harder with all that shit that’s supposed to make life easier. I’ve got a stroller, I’ve got a backpack diaper bag, I’ve got two kids, and you’re just fucking walking in a wheeze with all this stuff. Yeah. So that’s kind of like the physical—and then for me now it’s like just two kids by the hands going up the stairs of the school. You know, clomp, clomp, clomp, just getting up there to each class—you, your class; you, your class. And trying not to let them see too much of the distress that I’m going through and absorbing, you know, they’re having a bad day too.

Conversely, are there things about parenting that you look at and you think well, this is interesting to me but it’s not really interesting for a show?

Oh yeah. I mean I get massive amounts of joy from my kids. They keep me company. I would rather be with my kids than anybody else. It’s so easy to go shopping with my kids. We just go, now especially, they really take care of themselves. And we just talk for hours, spend time together. We joke and stuff. None of that would be the slightest bit interesting to—conflict with kids is much more interesting. But there are other things in between and I found some of them this season. We have an episode where we drive out into the country, me and the kids, and that was interesting to find different levels of stuff that can happen.

I guess the joy and the good stuff you get that across more telegraphically—I’m just thinking like the last scene of the last episode [of season one]. Three minutes of that would have ruined it, but…

Yes, it would have. And if you actually had like shots of us talking and, “Gee daddy, I love pancakes.” Ugh. But, you know, moments with your family whether you’re the kid or the parent or whoever, where you get to connect with the family–it’s such a constant conflict that when there are moments of levity and just enjoying each other’s company it’s pretty rare. And so people remember them and they connect with them. So you don’t have to say a lot. If you just show that, people go oh fuck, I remember that with my dad or jeez, those were the days, you know; or I never had that, whatever it is. So either way, seeing it through a window and getting further and more further away from it, it’s an appropriate way to show it.

Because people who have experienced it don’t need to see more, and if they see more complete representation it’ll become false to them. And people who haven’t really experienced it, and there are people–a lot of my life I didn’t have a lot of family joy like that–seeing it through a window is how it feels anyway. So those people are probably, it’s probably very sad for them.

I know a lot of people write to me and say that they cried when they saw that scene. It had to be because of their own experience. They did not care about us and our pancakes enough to cry. It was about them. Some of the people cried because it reminded them of the great things. Some people cried because they never got to have that, so it was a bitter, sad cry, which I’m thrilled to have invoked. That’s great.

To me the goal of comedy is to just laugh, which is a really high hearted thing, visceral connection and reaction. And any time I take laughs away on the show I have to replace it with something at least that high; it has to be that height. It can’t just be interesting. It has to be holy shit one way or the other; holy shit, that’s funny or holy shit that kind of scared me. I’ve been interested in scaring people too because it’s sort of, it runs by some of the same rules as laughing. Or oh my God, that’s so, I really feel that. Or what the fuck is this? I don’t understand this. These are all heightened responses and I have to be getting one of those. If it’s not funny it has to be super compelling in another way.

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but in the “Bully” episode last season, I probably more thoroughly believed that you were about to get the shit kicked out of you than if I were watching a TV drama. Like, “This is a scene that could actually happen. That kid could actually kick his teeth in.”

Yeah. And that was really important to me. If I’m going to go down the road like “Bully,” I just can’t make it dramatic. It has to be, “What the fuck is this? I don’t want this. I want to turn the channel. I don’t want to see this guy get his ass kicked. And oh my God, he’s such a loser.” You know, big, big feelings.

And then mystery is another important one to me. Mystery, a heightened what the fuck is he doing? Why is he following him? I have to be juiced up like that. So hopefully, I’ve kept that rule up this year. Hopefully—we have, you know, more shit that’s not particularly funny and some that is.

And one thing I got away from a little bit with a few of the [new] episodes was my reaction being the center of everything. There were a few episodes are a little more observation or where I really get off on creating characters and casting them and shooting them. So there’s a few episodes I think where people will say there wasn’t a center of the show, it was just sort of a jack-off of this character that he was portraying and it got away from him. It’s okay. They probably will say that and they’ll be kind of right.

But I think we have enough of the staple [comedy] in the show throughout the season. If [an experiment] succeeds and people like it, then I get to say now I get to do that too. I get to get away from me in the show. If it’s resoundingly rejected and people say we fucking hate when it’s not about this guy, I won’t do it any more. Maybe, you know, we’ll see.

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