Published at: Jan. 31, 2010, 8:34 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with one of my favorite chats from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I have another good half-dozen interviews to post before I’m caught up, but I wanted to make this one a priority.
Being a big Louis C.K. fan to start with I was excited to talk to him about his concert film, Louis C.K.: Hilarious to begin with, but I was doubly excited after watching the comedy concert film with a huge crowd. That experience awakened a lust in me to see regular comedy concerts theatrically, with a large audience… of course, they all can’t and won’t be as good as Louis C.K.’s material, but as a communal experience I think it’s something that’s sorely missing in our regular pop culture experience.
The interview ran for well over 30 minutes (a rarity at Sundance) and isn’t full of jokes. Louis C.K. is deadly serious about his craft, so while you might not get a laugh a minute with this interview you will get a very frank, honest and detailed look at his process.
Quint: I saw the movie yesterday and really enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of your work.
Louis CK: Thank you. Thanks, man.
Quint: I had actually seen the material before because I saw you when you came through Austin. I was there for one of your Austin shows.
Louis CK: Right right.
Quint: But it’s a testament to your material that I found it just as funny the second time around and I think that also had a lot to do with just watching it with another audience and how infectious laughter is. I love concert movies and you don’t really get to see those on the big screen much.
Louis CK: They are pretty rare, yeah.
Quint: You said that Comedy Central put up a little bit of money so they could have the TV rights, but are you hoping that it goes theatrical?
Louis CK: I am really hoping that it goes theatrical first. I really made it to be theatrical, on a big screen with an audience, so I really hope people get to see it that way. I know they are having an industry screening of it today which worries me a little, because the screen will probably be smaller and there wont be an audience, rather just folks with pads.
Quint: It depends. A lot of the press here are geeks…
Louis CK: So maybe they will…
Quint: They might be your ringers, but I grew up loving comedy films. I didn’t get to see many in the theater, because I was too young, but BILL COSBY HIMSELF and EDDIE MURPHY RAW and DELIRIOUS, all of George Carlin’s stuff… Although I don’t know if he did theatrical concerts or if it was only TV specials...
Louis CK: Actually DELIRIOUS was a special.
Quint: Oh really?
Louis CK: And then RAW came after it.
Quint: Richard Pryor did a lot of concert movies.
Louis CK: Richard Pryor did LIVE IN CONCERT, which is his best one, and then he did LIVE AT THE SUNSET STRIP which he was already past… he had all of that cocaine and all of that stuff, so he wasn’t in great shape by the time he was there, but LIVE IN CONCERT is phenomenal. BILL COSBY HIMSELF is probably the best, I think of the comedy stand up films.
To me when I was a kid that was the goal, to do a concert movie, become a concert comedian and do albums and a movie like this, but yeah once Carlin started doing HBO specials, that sort of took that over.
Quint: George Carlin was my very first interview ever.
Louis CK: Really?
Quint: I was fifteen years old and it was for my high school newspaper.
Louis CK: Wow, that’s awesome.
Quint: As you can imagine very stressful for me, because I grew up memorizing his stuff.
Louis CK: Yeah, I loved Carlin when I was a kid.
Quint: I see a lot of what Carlin brought to the stage in your work. I know that’s a real ass-kissy thing to say, but I see that a lot of him in your work.
Louis CK: Thanks, man.
Quint: Going back at the comedy concert thing… I would love it if this kicked off a new string of actually being able to watch them in a theater. It’s the second best of actually being able to watch you in a live performance.
Louis CK: I think it is, because I’ve never seen myself on stage and I was taken on the ride, you know? I was kind of surprised by that, because I’ve seen my specials and stuff and I just sort of watch them critically, but this was like with an audience. It was very different.
There’s an interesting piece of science happening in the beginning. When it starts there’s already an audience, so they (the theatrical audience) don’t know what their role is, because there is already an audience there, so for a few seconds they are like “Do I laugh?” Then the first thing that makes them laugh a lot is just what… The first big laugh is what gets them into it.
Quint: There was something about watching on a screen and especially the way it was shot… you had the silhouettes of the back of the heads in almost the row in front of you, so it had this really weird feeling of being in the audience for that show, with the laughter starting on the screen and rolling past the screen and into the movie audience, like it would in a live show. Is that something that you found as well?
Louis CK: That’s very much what I wanted and I was very happy I think I got it. I think we shot it right and I think it was the right material to do this for. This is my third one in three years… specials and concerts… I think this is the one that lent itself to this the most, because I was doing two hour shows this year and the stuff felt like a trip content-wise. It felt like there was a bit of a ride to go on.
Quint: It had a good flow to it.
Louis CK: Yeah and what really paid off was the cameras and kinds of lenses we used and where we put the cameras. All of that. I thought it would look like that and it ended up working, so I’m really pleased.
Quint: Was last night actually the first time you watched it with an audience?
Louis CK: Yeah, I had never seen it with an audience.
Quint: Did you watch the whole thing?
Louis CK: The only time I ever watched the entire thing was when I finished editing it. I watched it at home just to make sure I hadn’t made any mistakes and everything was flowing and I hadn’t seen it, because I had just finished editing which means I had exhausted my ability to really see it clearly anymore. I was just looking to make sure the cuts looked ok. I trusted myself that I made the right choices and then I saw it on the big screen when I color corrected it, but I only saw like a frame per shot, so that’s the first time I experienced that whole thing, yeah.
Quint: You touched on it just a little bit, and I even had a question written down about it, just being able to watch yourself from the audience…
Louis CK: Very weird! In 25 years of this I had never done that. That’s very weird. Also I’m in better shape in that movie and I’m not really onstage much right now, because I’m doing my series, so I’m taking a break from the road. Three years of being on the road every weekend and training and being in shape… I’ll be ok, but right now I’m way out of shape for all of that stuff. So watching me in prime shape doing bits like (snaps his fingers rapidly) and also I don’t know the material anymore…
Quint: Is that how it works? You do your stuff and then when you move on you just dump it out of your head?
Louis CK: I throw it away and it takes the place that my brain had for that stuff goes away. I could do it a few times and get good at it again, but I don’t use those things anymore. So it is weird to watch it and remember how it flowed, but I’m pleased, because I didn’t hit anywhere… There were only one or two points where I was like “I didn’t have to do that. I could have not done that…” Mostly I was pleased with the way it turned out, but that is weird.
Quint: Did you notice your act playing at all differently from actually being in the crowd rather than hearing the response of the audience on stage?
Louis CK: I can feel how an audience is reacting when I’m on a stage, but when you are on stage, your perception is distorted. That’s something you just have to know. It’s like pilots that fly at high Gs and they lose, sometimes, consciousness and hand/eye coordination and they just have to know that that’s going to happen. They have to be trained to not try to do too much while they are doing that. So when you are on stage, you have to be aware that you are wrong about how it feels a lot of times.
When I do stuff that throws people back a little and I’m onstage, I’m like “It’s okay. We are okay…” But sitting in the back and watching me say “fucking dead children” and feeling the audience go “Oh Jesus! Man, really?”
Quint: Don’t let it change you, dude! That’s the kind of stuff I love, you going so far over the line...
Louis CK: It never would! It never would. Then there are one or two places where I think I threw around… like I’m talking about my daughter and her play date and “the guy brings his faggot son to my house” and I thought “You didn’t need ‘faggot’ there. You didn’t need it and it’s a waste. It’s a waste because there will be people who will be turned off by it and I won’t gain anything,” so I can see mistakes like that.
Kraken: I’ve got to say, I love the way that you made all of us beg last night for that one.
[Louis brought up a joke at the Q&A of the premiere when asked if there was any material that he felt was too much… He essentially said he’d do it, but that we wouldn’t like it… he likes to bring people to a place they don’t want to be in his comedy, but he always makes sure that they are happy when they finally get there… this particular joke he’s not sure about, says it doesn’t have the happiness part, just the dragging people to a place they don’t want to go part.]
Louis CK: I know. I know.
Kraken: That’s the way you tell a joke, make people beg for it.
Quint: “I have this and I can’t tell it to you guys” and then make them want it.
Louis CK: That is a hard one. I still haven’t decided… I have a series now and that’s where I do my standup. This year I’m not going to really do a special. My series is where the standup goes this time and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to use that one.
Quint: You think it might be too much for FX?
Louis CK: I think they would probably let me, but I’m not sure.
Quint: You need something strong for the season finale, that’s all I’m going to say. Make them want to come back for season two!
Louis CK: Exactly.
Quint: Speaking of that, what did you think of the reaction from the audience?
Louis CK: It was interesting, because I forget the mechanics of how that set worked. That set was the third out of three, so I really had gotten this science down and I had been in these theater stages all around the country for all of that time, so that’s the best I had ever been. So I was, and I hate to sound like an asshole, but I was like “Wow!” I was impressed with my own (stuff).
Here’s the thing, it’s the ride that it took you on… Just these pedestrian bits about dating… They are me, but still it’s comfortable to listen to somebody talk about dating and single people are silly and young people are silly and then when it gets to that whole run that’s basically that story of me seeing a couple with a kid, but inside of that is all of this stuff… like “fucking a dead kid”, the Chinese lady “Ching Chung Chang” and “black people steal” and all of this stuff comes in these droves and for that section you are just challenged over and over and over again.
Quint: It’s like a flurry in a boxing match.
Louis CK: It is. I think of boxing a lot with standup. I even train with boxing trainers, so that is like the first couple of rounds of finding them, measuring out with my jab and then that’s just bam-bam-bam. And they’re not breathing and there are people going “Oh!” and they are maybe upset about something for a second about something and then something else rolls on top of it…
Quint: They don’t have time to dwell on it.
Louis CK: They don’t and it’s interesting, because there’s an audience there representing the material also, so they are like “Well, those people are laughing, but I’m not sure how I feel and people around me are laughing. This is weird!” Then that stuff just kind of bang-bang-bang and then there is kind of a settling I think.
And then the stuff about technology and boring people, that’s another kind of flurry from a whole other angle. The first one is just absurdist, just digging up people’s upsetting places and tickling them and fucking with them. The actually subject matter, which is that I make dumb observations when I’m not thinking straight isn’t that important, but then there’s this whole thing where I’m really hammering something that I really feel for my generation that I share with a lot of people, so then there’s this big feeling of that. There’s a lot there.
Quint: I think that’s a big hook for me, the authenticity of it. You can see a standup on stage and if it just feels like they are telling a joke, that’s the worst thing they could do. It actually feels like you are having a conversation with the crowd, especially the stuff with your kids, which is unbelievably funny. At the Austin show, when I first heard the bit about your daughter walking out naked and the appearance of the brown spot, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder.
Louis CK: That’s another one. That’s a choke holder, that bit. I remember feeling really good when I knew that bit was coming. I remember always thinking “Oh, good. Here this comes, here this comes; the heavy artillery.”
Quint: But you also start off the shows with a really good jab too, a really good laugh right at the beginning and that’s something that Carlin did too, just had a complete non sequitur. The famous one is “Why does nobody ever talk about pussy farts?”
Louis CK: I used to call those his brush back pitches, like he would throw little chimneys to get the audience off bounce. You don’t want them to think they know where I was going to go, but yeah he was great at that.
Quint: So you had the premiere last night. You have the press and industry screening today.
Louis CK: Yeah, I won’t be there. I guess that’s happening somewhere.
Quint: Are you guys courting distributors now or are they courting you?
Louis CK: Yeah, we are trying with this lawyer John Sloss, who is a big film guy and so I’m hoping. I’m hoping he does something. We will see. We have another screening on… Well, tomorrow is Salt Lake City, so that’s going to be that, and then Friday is midnight at the Egyptian.
Quint: That will be big.
Louis CK: That’s the true venue for this film. Unfortunately I think most of the industry people will be gone by then. I don’t think there will be hardly anybody left. There might be a few, but to me I’m trying to let this thing be it’s own thing too.
I very much want this thing to be distributed, especially after last night, because I feel like… I sell tickets and there are a lot of cities in the country where I just sell out in a day, so I feel I would sell tickets. It’s not that big of a risk for these folks to take.
Quint: It’s not a big risk. It’s something that could be the start of a new release trend. It’s not going to cost a lot of money...
Louis CK: The thing only cost $200,000 to shoot and everybody would make a profit, because it wont take long to pay that back.
Quint: If you put something as big as even like a $10 or $15 million advertising budget… that would pay itself off in the first weekend if they push the film. It’s something that people haven’t seen in a while.
Louis CK: With the ticket fees, people pay 45 bucks to see me in concert, sometimes 50, sometimes more and after they go park the car and everything else, it’s fucking expensive and this feels with the concert like it’s better than just watching me on TV. I know it is. I would think that… What are we looking at 10 bucks?
It’s easier and it’s down the street from your house at the multiplex and these theaters are smaller. If I go on sale in Chicago at like a 1,300 seat theater or Seattle, it’s sold out in a couple of days. I can’t believe that that doesn’t translate into a better business model than a lot of those terrific sleepy challenging films that get shots in the art houses.
Quint: I wrote a review of it last night. I don’t know if my voice means anything, but I put that out there just how amazing it would be for comedy concerts to circulate in theaters again.
Louis CK: It’d be great.
Quint: I got a startup comedian in the talkback on the article saying, “This is bullshit that you are supporting this. People should be seeing this stuff in clubs and comedy clubs are failing.” I’m like, “Dude, I think it can only help comedy clubs.”
Louis CK: Of course it would. Yeah, that’s one of the dumbest arguments in the world. Every comedian that becomes successful in any venue helps all comedians. What, do you have to go to the Penguins in Iowa to enjoy comedy? I also think the Comedy Central specials have become like a drone, like a white noise that I don’t think is really effective anymore. At least not right now. These things happen in cycles.
One of the reasons I did this one is because I had done two quickly, SHAMELESS and then CHEWED UP. I did SHAMELESS for HBO and CHEWED UP for Showtime, because HBO was like “We’re done for now.” Then I was ready with this one less than a year after CHEWED UP and Showtime said “We are still airing that one” and Comedy Central had bought both of those.
I just had no place to go and then I looked at the material and I was like “You know what? This is a movie anyway.” I really think it’s the proper way to watch this thing, so I’m really hoping… Now I feel different. Before I came here, I was like “This is gravy. It will be a cool way to launch the special,” but now that I’ve seen it I know I did it right and I want people to see it this way.
Quint: Yeah and I would love to see a resurgence of that just because when you watch something at home, no matter how funny it is, part of the enjoyment of a comedy is sharing it with others and hearing the infectious laughter. There was a guy last night who had a crazy raucous laugh in the theater. If somebody with a goofy laugh is sitting behind you all that is going to do is make you laugh harder.
Louis CK: It’s been a very old thing for people to gather together and laugh at stuff. The first comedian in America really was Abraham Lincoln.
Quint: Oh yeah?
Louis CK: He used to go to a pub near where he lived and stand in front of the fire and he packed the place every night and he would just talk and bust everybody in their guts. He was just a hilarious speaker and that’s what he did.
Kraken: Did anybody ever write any of that stuff down?
Louis CK: I don’t think anybody has any of that material anywhere and he would just go off. Hitler did the same thing, by the way. Different sort of reaction, maybe, but I think he used to get laughs too though.
Quint: So, what you are saying is you are going to run for president now?
Louis CK: Yeah, that’s right. And then get shot in the head.
Louis CK: Yeah, I think that being part of an audience is great. I don’t get to see a lot of comedians that way, but I love being in the audience.
I remember I was in Detroit once for a family thing and I saw that Kevin Meaney was playing at a club, Joey’s. I went and bought a ticket and just sat in the audience and watched him do his thing for like forty people. I watched him deal with a couple of drunk hecklers and I just loved being part of the audience and taking it in. I think this is a unique thing, but it shouldn’t be. There should be a lot of these.
Quint: I saw Chappelle before CHAPPELLE’S SHOW, but after HALF-BAKED and the most unique thing about that, of course there were people that were getting trashed, but there ended up being a fight because somebody was talking during his bit. He was doing his best to ignore it, but then there was a fight between the heckler and a patron that ended up going outside.
Chappelle continued doing his bit and then the doors open and the police enter and he just instantly drops the mic and he goes “Oh fuck, the police!” and he jumps over the audience like he was running away. What was really funny was when he asked someone what was going on and it turns out the drunk guy who got into the fight, the one who was a heckler, ended up punching a policeman. I have no idea where I’m going with this story, but you mentioned the hecklers and I just think that’s so interesting how…
Louis CK: Live comedy has a dangerous dynamic to it.
Quint: That’s what I love about the Richard Pryor stuff, too, because he will interact with the audience.
Louis CK: Richard Pryor’s audiences were usually really wasted. If you listen to his albums, they are not very respectful, the audience. They are talking, yelling, and he gets heckled on almost every album. People were fucking with him and he was ready for them. He was a veteran.
Quint: Have you ever felt physically in danger?
Louis CK: No, I’m a big guy so people don’t usually mess with me. I’m just larger than most people… I’m a bigger than average person.
Quint: So, a heckler hasn’t really crossed the line where it became more than annoying?
Louis CK: Whenever anybody gets angry and stands up or something like that, it’s really uneasy and you have to hide it. That’s hard, when there’s hostility in the audience from somebody and you’ve got to go “Okay, well sorry.”
One time there was this group of guys and I told them to be quiet. I was in New York at Carolines and there was this table full of guys just talking and I said, “You’ve got to stop. Please be quiet.” I’m very polite to hecklers. I usually just tell them to please stop, “I need to work.” Then they would do it again, I’d say “Really. I mean it. Please stop.” Then if they keep going, I stop the show and I say, “Listen, I need to concentrate and you are bothering the tables around you. You are disruptive and it’s not fair.”
People are usually very ashamed and they usually stop. These guys got talked to and I said, “Look, see the bouncers are coming over and I don’t want you to be kicked out. I want you to say, so please stop.” This guy just stared at me. He was so angry to be called on, this is human nature sometimes, to be called on having done something wrong. He couldn’t just go “Sorry.” He was angry at me for pointing out what he did wrong and he stared at me hostilely for the whole rest of the show and I was told he refused to pay his check. He wanted to complain to the management that he was treated disrespectfully by me, because for a lot of guys… That’s the hardest thing about clubs. At a club it’s like you are a waiter or a part of the staff. So that feels ugly. I don’t like somebody looking at me like that.
Quint: Yeah, that’s much worse than some drunk slurring words at you.
Louis CK: I’d rather they went ahead and heckled me stupidly, just because they were drunk, not dealing with someone who is really angry, because I don’t know what they are capable of. It’s a little unnerving.
Quint: You mentioned that you have this FX show and I know some people who have seen some bits of the first episode, TV writers.
Louis CK: Oh yeah it’s gone out a little bit to critics now.
Quint: They say it’s unbelievably funny.
Louis CK: Oh great. Good.
Quint: Everyone I’ve talked to have just said, “This is so fucking hilarious!” I just used the word…
Louis CK: Sure yeah, well it’s appropriate with a comedian.
Quint: As a quick tangent, I saw there are a good dozen online press people that I know who were at the premiere and I’ve seen people either updating their twitter or writing reviews and every single one of them goes out of their way to avoid using the word “Hilarious.”
Louis CK: Yeah, you don’t want to say it.
Quint: It’s not like they are trying to make it a joke…
Louis CK: I don’t think it’s an abhorrent word, just to use it in that pedestrian way about something that was sort of surprising pisses me off. But I think I’ve earned it. (laughs)
It became the name of the show, because I did that bit from the beginning and people always come up to me after the show and go “Hilarious” to be funny. My agent Mike Burkowitz, who really helped me do this… He’s my roadie… He books the theaters, but he helped me find where to shoot it. That was really hard to pick the venue and get all of that right, but he came up with the name. He was like “You ought to be calling it HILARIOUS.” I don’t mind… for people who don’t know about the bit and think I’m just being arrogant, okay watch the movie and if you don’t laugh and you think I’m wrong, then scratch it out of the poster, put something else there.
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about the FX show because I’m really happy to see you back on TV…
Louis CK: Yeah, me too! I love TV shows and it’s great to have a series.
Quint: Especially on FX where you can get away with a lot.
Louis CK: It’s the best place ever.
Quint: They had SHIELD right?
Louis CK: Yeah.
Quint: If they did what they did on THE SHIELD, you can get away with anything.
Louis CK: By the way, those days are over. It’s not like THE SHIELD. That’s the first thing I asked. They didn’t have a standards and practices department or office or person when they made THE SHIELD and after THE SHIELD they hired one.
On basic cable there is no law, but if you want advertisers you’ve got to have some standards. FX was very new when they did THE SHIELD. There’s a scene… I was talking to my friend Vernon Chatman and he was saying there’s a scene in THE SHIELD where there’s a big, fat dead woman lying naked on her kitchen floor and the guy says “Apparently he murdered her, raped her dead body, and then ejaculated on her stomach.”
Just hearing that I couldn’t believe, but then they show it. They snap zoom to a pool of cum on her dead belly and my friend Vernon told me that… Because they told me you can’t show tits on the network, he said “You should have a scene where there’s a girl with no shirt on and covering her tits is a dead woman’s stomach with cum on it, so you can say this is okay and it’s being used to cover something that is not, which is a woman’s beautiful, life-giving tits.”
Anyway, they told me the line. The words I can’t say are “fuck,” “cocksucker,” “twat…”
Quint: So that’s a new one to Carlin’s list of seven.
Louis CK: Yes, and “retarded” or “retard.”
Louis CK: By the way, you can say, “Suck a cock.” You can say “Suck my cock.” You can say “I sucked his cock.”
Quint: But you can’t say “retard.”
Louis CK: You can’t say “cocksucker.” You can’t say “retarded” or “retard” and I don’t know where twat came from. I don’t know what that’s about.
Quint: “Cunt” is ok?
Louis CK: No. Fuck no, but “asshole,” “shit,” “dick,” “suck my dick,” just not “Cocksucker.” “Stick it up my ass.” “Shove my dick in your ass.”
Those are their standards words-wise and then when there’s heavy description, they want to review it. Their basic rule is “Shoot it the way you want it” and “shoot an alternate if you think you are in trouble…”
Quint: “You trust us, we will trust you” type thing?
Louis CK: The thing is they don’t read my scripts, so they don’t have any idea what I’m doing.
Quint: Oh really?
Louis CK: Yeah. Since November I’ve been shooting and I’ve shot a good four episodes worth of material, they haven’t read it or seen it. They don’t know who is in it. They don’t know a single thing about what I’m doing.
Quint: Neither do I. What’s the format of the show?
Louis CK: It’s hard to describe. The pilot starts with me… The opening credits are just me walking through The Village in New York City just eating pizza and going to work and then you see me go down stairs into the Comedy Cellar. Generally every episode starts with me on stage just working out material. The Comedy Cellar is a 100 seat comedy club. It’s tiny and the audience doesn’t sound like there’s more than forty people in there and I’m just trying shit out, so I do a little material and then there’s like a short film or a piece that’s about something. It might be about what I’m talking about on stage or it might not be and then it will either be one piece and then another little bit of stand up and then a commercial and then the same thing for the second act or a whole bunch of scenes that stream together a new story. It’s different every week.
Kraken: So it’s not like a situational comedy?
Louis CK: No it’s not. It’s my life. I’m a father, I’ve got two kids, I’m divorced, I’m dating, and I’m a standup comic. There’s not a lot of showbiz stuff. I don’t like doing that, but there’s a scene where Nick DiPaolo goes on stage after me and he does a lot of really right wing material and then he and I get in a fist fight about politics and that’s a whole story. That’s what I’m editing today and yeah they don’t know anything about it.
Actually, when Nick and I filmed that, there was an extra on set taping us and he put it on Youtube and said that we got in a real fight and Howard Stern played it and said “These guys got into a fight.” For two days it was a big deal. We got to take it down from Youtube, so it didn’t stay viral.
Quint: That’s the best publicity you could ask for.
Louis CK: I wish we had left it up a little bit, but the president of FX, John Landgraff, heard it on Howard Stern and he hadn’t even seen it or know what the deal was.
They’ve been amazing. They are just letting me do this and they are going to see what I have when I’m done. The show is cheap and if it stinks it won’t lose them much money. The freedom I have is hugely enabling and terrifying. I’m just scared they are not going to like it, so I’m working much harder than I would if they were watching it.
Quint: Well, I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but I appreciate your time.
Louis CK: Sure man.
Hope you guys enjoyed the chat! I’ll let you know if Hilarious gets picked up! It’d be a smart move, I think.
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