When you watch comedy on television these days, especially shows that don’t seem to care if you’re laughing or wincing, there’s a good chance you’re watching something indebted to Louis C.K. As the creator of FX’s Louie, the 48-year-old comedian pioneered the filthy and emotionally fearless, auteur-driven and defiantly non-pandering genre of prestige comedy. But just as his footprint became inescapable, C.K. put his namesake show on hold for Horace and Pete, a ten-part kitchen-sink tragedy he self-financed and surprise-released on his own website in January. Emotionally brutal, and economically self-sufficient, the latter series suggests a new way forward for the comedian. This summer, he’ll lend his voice to the animated movie The Secret Life of Pets, and he’s devoting the next year to touring his stand-up act. “Part of what keeps me going is that I keep learning and trying to figure things out,” he says during one of our long talks — the first at the Hudson Diner in the West Village on May 12, the second on the phone before a gig in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on May 20. “But comedy is something that I’ll never figure out.”
David Marchese: You were in the news for calling Donald Trump HitlerIn an email promoting the sixth episode of Horace and Pete, C.K. wrote of Trump, “We are being Germany in the ’30s. Do you think they saw the shit coming? Hitler was just some hilarious and refreshing dude with a weird comb-over who would say anything at all.”
Louis C.K.: Yeah, yeah. That was a messy thing to do.
Then you said publicly that you regretted sharing that opinion. I found it weird that you seemed uncomfortable with the idea that you’d divulged too much of your own political thinking. You’re a guy who tells jokes about why your 4-year-old daughter is an asshole.
As far as talking about what’s deep in my gut about certain subjects, I’ll put that out there because I know I do that really well, and I’m a unique originator of certain thoughts. Politically I’m not an expert. And also there’s very little rational intake of political thought. People get so upset that they don’t hear what you’re saying. There’s this feeling with people where they’ve got to decide whether an opinion or information is right or wrong. Nobody can eat a whole meal and then digest it and see how they feel the next day. You’ve got a meal in front of you, and you take a piece of lettuce and you go, “Why is there just a piece of lettuce? I’m hungry for more.” “What do you mean? There’s a bunch of other shit on the plate. Take a minute and eat that!” “No. It’s just lettuce, and fuck you, I hate lettuce.” That’s how it is with every conversation now.
So what I hear you saying is that you’re endorsing Donald Trump.
You’re 100 percent right. I’m very pleased with everything he’s done. I don’t know, celebrities saying things politically is obnoxious, because you’ve got a bullhorn that was given to you for one reason and you used that bullhorn for something else. But also I think when there’s somebody as terrible as Trump running, you’re a little bit of a coward by keeping it to yourself if you’re really concerned about it. I felt like I had to raise my hand and be counted because I believe he’s a bigot with a hole in his heart. A guy who shouldn’t be anywhere near the fucking thing is the Republican nominee.
How are you feeling about Hillary and Bernie?
I keep going back and forth. Sometimes I think the system is so deeply fucked up that somebody as disruptive as Bernie — maybe he doesn’t even do a good job as president but he jars something loose in our system and something exciting happens. I mean, Hillary is better at this than any of these people. The American government is a very volatile, dangerous mechanism, and Hillary has the most experience with it. It’s like if you were on a plane and you wanted to choose a pilot. You have one person, Hillary, who says, “Here’s my license. Here’s all the thousands of flights that I’ve flown. Here’s planes I’ve flown in really difficult situations. I’ve had some good flights and some bad flights, but I’ve been flying for a very long time, and I know exactly how this plane works.” Then you’ve got Bernie, who says, “Everyone should get a ride right to their house with this plane.” “Well, how are you going to do that?” “I just think we should. It’s only fair that everyone gets to use the plane equally.” And then Trump says, “I’m going to fly so well. You’re not going to believe how good I’m going to fly this plane, and by the way, Hillary never flew a plane in her life.” “She did, and we have pictures.” “No, she never did it.” It’s insane.
You mentioned in a radio interview how interested you were in this election cycle. What specifically are you finding so interesting?
It’s very emotional. There is a fear of Hillary, you know? I think some of it has to do with Hillary being such a strong candidate and being a woman. The response to her is very male. The other side is very male-oriented. Trump is a man. Well, he’s a boy, and Bernie is an old man. Neither is a feminine person. Obama’s a very feminine person. I don’t mean effeminate.
You mean he’s not macho?
Everybody has both masculine and feminine sides, but Obama is feminine inside. There ain’t no femininity in Trump. There’s none in Bernie. These are both really emphatic guys saying, “We got to do this!” Hillary’s trying to say, “Guys, this is reality. These are complex issues.” And those two are going, “I don’t want to fucking hear it!” It’s weird to watch. It’s like if you had an election in your family. Imagine that when you were a kid there was an election to decide whether Mom or Dad would be in charge for the next four years. Or if some group of siblings got together and said, “We’re going to get this woman to replace Mom.” After the election, imagine how you would feel about each other. It’s terribly, terribly interesting.
You’ve been saying lately that you’ve quit the internet.
I don’t look at any of it now.
I don’t believe you.
Obviously I sell my shit on it: my stand-up tickets, Horace and Pete. I just don’t look at any web pages.
So if you’re not looking on the internet, what do you jack off to? Are you one of those weirdos who buy porn on DVD?
Here’s a weirder option: Take a little longer and try to get your imagination frothed up to where it gets you off. What a strange exercise! I hadn’t done that since 1998.
And how’s that going for you, masturbation-wise?
It’s gone pretty well. I kinda like it. It also means: Maybe store it up for a while and wait until you actually have a sexual urge. I don’t know what it’s like for women, but for a lot of guys I know — and myself — masturbation is an anxiety release. If I’m trying to get some work done and getting irritated, just go rub one out and it calms you down. It’s a shame to do that as a swap-out for real sexual connection to your virility and your sexual drive. I don’t have a perfect record, but I am trying to see if I can just let a sexual urge be. Having an internet prohibition really helps. I sometimes have gone to jerk off when I’m not even hard. I’m in a bad mood, so let’s put on Google and find something to get me off. That’s happening every second around the world.
There’s a lot of bored masturbation going on.
Boredom is a big word. Boredom is depression in some cases; maybe it’s ennui, whatever that means. When you take a thing like the internet out of your life, so many things come up as you go through your day. You go, Wow, I spent an awful lot of time doing useless shit on the internet. I’d rather not know what happened all day in the news is the other thing. I read the physical New York Times in the morning and then I pick up the Post at some point. And I watch TV and listen to the radio.
It seems like the internet has been good to you, though. When you talked about how everything is amazing and we’re all miserable, or about why cell phones are the worstOn Conan, C.K. recalled choosing not to reach for his phone for distraction: “We don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or jacking off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kinda satisfied with your product and then you die.” — those things got shared 10 million times.
That’s true. There’s a positive and negative version of the viral thing. That version you just described feels like a positive. But then there’s this other version where people want to feel upset, so when the story is about “racist comments by a comedian,” that kind of thing, people are like, “Oooh, I don’t like racism,” so they leave a comment and pass it along. That’s very powerful — that impulse to read something that upsets you. It becomes click-bait. The click-bait is such a lucrative piece of business that no one is leaving it alone. That’s one of the reasons I did Horace and Pete the way I did.C.K. and Steve Buscemi star as the titular cousins, Brooklyn bar-owners struggling, and mostly failing, to deal with their tragic family history and the patronage of some real buzzkill clientele. Imagine C.K.’s antisocial humor crossed with bizarro Cheers — a place where everyone knows your name, but no one really wants to see you. The idea was that if I don’t let it get sucked up in the click-bait, will people spread it on their own. I was more excited to have it spread from the Twitter accounts of people with 400 followers instead of the people with 400,000.
You think the internet is devolving?
The internet’s been around long enough that it’s in its high-school phase. You know, elementary school is just reflex and fun. It’s, “Oh, look at that! Oh, look at me for a minute!” It’s little fights that don’t add up to much. Then middle school becomes this “cool” thing, who’s in and who’s out. But high school is like, I hang out with this group of kids by the red lockers at the end of the hall and we all like Dungeons & Dragons. You can find somebody you like online. There are people who watch Horace and Pete. Somebody who catches something on BuzzyWuzzy for a second, they’re not going to be compelled either way.
The idea of click-bait and what you see as online misinformation — is part of what you’re thinking of the Gawker items from last year?In May of 2015, Gawker posted rumors suggesting C.K. had masturbated “in front of women at inappropriate times.”
No. I don’t care about that. That’s nothing to me. That’s not real. For me, Horace and Pete was derailed in terms of its trajectory by this idea that spread online that it was canceled and that I lost money.C.K. told Howard Stern funding Horace and Pete left him “millions of dollars in debt.” He later clarified that he was joking: “I was, technically — I took a line of credit to finish the show. But there’s no other way to make a TV show! Every TV show that you ever see is running a deficit.” A good friend of mine who’s a movie producer emailed me and said, “Hey, I’m really sorry about Horace and Pete.” Having to disabuse people of this thing could really hurt me with something like the Emmys if people perceive the show as a dead project. I took that pretty fucking personally.
You didn’t feel any compulsion to address the Gawker stuff? I’ve never seen you talk about it.
Well, you can’t touch stuff like that. There’s one more thing I want to say about this, and it’s important: If you need your public profile to be all positive, you’re sick in the head. I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after. So my thing is that I try to speak to the work whenever I can. Just to the work and not to my life.
As far as the work, you’ve referred to Horace and Pete as the best thing you’ve ever done. Why are you so proud of it?
Louie probably is the best thing I’ve ever done, but this is the newest, and when things get in your rearview mirror creatively you don’t care about them anymore. So Horace and Pete feels vital. It has a big energy for me because it’s so different. But when I think about it now, those two shows are probably tied for first.
What feels so vital about the show?
Tragedy is an amazing playing field to be on. It’s brand-new for me. One thing about tragedy is there’s always hope and light and expectation, and then reality takes it away. So dashing characters’ hopes — it felt complete. I think about the characters still. I think about them like they’re real people.
Horace and Pete was tragedy, but it seems that sort of philosophical, serious subject matter is something that comedy is increasingly addressing on television. What’s caused that shift?
There are these trends where people start going to a certain place to hear a certain sound. I remember there was this online forum called A Special Thing, back in 2005 or something. It was a forum for Tenacious D,Jack Black and Kyle Gass’s musical-comedy project spoofs occult themes and the over-the-top masculinity of metal and hard rock with songs like “Master Exploder” and “Dude (I Totally Miss You).” and you could talk about other comedy on it, too, and it became this culture. The users were very well-expressed prolific writers about comedy. Folks loved the thing, and it was just beside the point that it was a Tenacious D forum. I think that people in television and comedy got interested in weird ideas and got talking about some more intense life things, and TV is where the conversation is happening. It’s the forum.
So this is just a spontaneous thematic blip?
Whenever something succeeds in comedy, people get into it. There was a trend not long ago in comedy starting with Ricky Gervais’s The Office about people behaving a certain way around each other. That comedy wasn’t about, Oh, shit, I’m going to die some day. It’s about, What the fuck is this guy looking at me like that for? And then there’s straight-up misanthropic comedy like Larry David’s. Big issues are not his beat. It’s about letting your ugly self be out there. Drama goes in cycles too. Sometimes drama is about everybody who had AIDS in New York in the ’90s, and sometimes it’s all about people wearing Elizabethan collars and getting cholera. It’s trends. Everybody’s kind of getting off on this trend now. I think they’re getting a little sick of it now, too. It’ll probably disappear soon.
Was it freeing to get away from the Louie character with Horace and Pete?
In a way, yes. The thing that’s tricky about Louie is that it’s autobiography. I made that decision early on, never knowing what impact it would have on my life. I never thought that the show would be widely known. I don’t even have a different last name on Louie. That was stupid of me. I didn’t think it would make me famous. I just figured, I’m going to tell these weird little stories about my life over here in the corner. One of the reasons I picked FX is because it was obscure. Then a few years later I’m like, Boy, my shit’s really out there.
What effect has that had on your personal life?
It’s hard to date when people know who you are. I don’t really want to date somebody who has seen me before. But that’s out of the question, so it’s a little isolating. It’s weird.
You’re obviously someone who pays close attention to the business part of what you do. What about the TV business most needs reforming?
I remember when I was doing Lucky Louie, there was a show called Emily’s Reasons Why Not.In a 2006 review for the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley wrote that the sitcom is “a tepid knockoff of Sex and the City” and that star Heather Graham is “about as engaging as rock salt.” It was built on a very popular actress, and they made a bunch of episodes before airing any of them. This is what happens a lot in television when someone has so much popularity that their agents leverage it. They say, “This person is so popular that you have to promise all these episodes — produced — and sick amounts of money no matter what happens.” That forces the studio into covering their liabilities. And the way they do that is they send executives to the set, they pore over every script and make sure there’s nothing that could possibly upset anybody, and they make sure that it’s treacly and has lovable moments. There’s no way that process can make a good show. Then they throw an enormous advertising-and-promotion budget at it because you forced them to spend so much fucking money. The first episode of Emily’s Reasons Why Not aired, and the next day it was gone. That’s work that nobody ever saw because the stakes became too high.
What would be a better way of doing it?
If everybody goes in and says, “Look, this probably isn’t going to work because most art isn’t good.” Even great writers usually write shit. Being a great writer means writing shitty stuff and not giving up. It doesn’t mean you just sit down and it comes out beautiful. So you should go to the studio and say, like I did with FX and Louie, “This might not be any good. Let’s make this for as little as possible. Let’s make one and see how it goes, but if we need to, we can all walk away without any huge penalty.” The idea that we get the studios and the networks to give us money as a guarantee against failure? That’s how they negotiate now: Even if this tanks, you give me a million dollars. So it’s a system that kind of chugs along and sometimes great shows get made. Everybody makes fun of network television, but there are all kinds of interesting shows on TV right now. ABC has gone and decided they’re going to make shows for black people. It’s fucking great.
It feels like the larger culture is saying, “We’re tired of hearing about the feelings of average white guys.” Which is pretty much your core constituency.
When I first moved to New York and started auditioning at all the clubs, there was a guy who ran the Comic Strip. His name was Lucien Hold. He became a friend and I ended up working there a ton. But when I auditioned for him, he said, “You’re funny, but you’re a young white guy and I got enough of you.” And I said, “All right, you won’t hear from me again.” So I actually had an uphill battle because I was a white guy. I had to stand out. It’s a weird experience, because if you’re a minority you’re trying to seize a small part of the market because it’s flooded with guys like me. If you’re a guy like me, you’re trying to distinguish yourself from the horde that you belong to. But what ends up happening as you get older is you don’t think about that kind of thing anymore. You are who you are. If you try to figure out who you are in terms of the spectrum of American culture, you’re just lost.
This idea that you speak for a certain type of “average” white dude — presumably that includes a lot of Trump voters and Bernie bros. Do you understand these guys who think that they’re under cultural attack?
Oh, Jesus, no. White guys are fine. Nobody’s turning us down for a job. There’s nothing that’s being taken away from us. That’s a load of shit, people who think that. Most people are good people, and most people who are tasked with hiring or promoting take people at their value. That’s my experience anyway. But of course that’s my experience — because I’m a privileged white guy. As a white guy, things are pretty much always as I remember them being. I remember Venus and Serena Williams, they once said there’s a lot of racism on the tennis tour. And somebody asked Martina Hingis about it. She stuck her stupid face in it and said, “I haven’t seen any racism.” Well, you’re fucking Swiss! That’s not nice of me to say. Was it Hingis? I’m not sure. Whoever it was is probably very nice. Yeah, men, we’re fine. The level of privilege is so high that if we lose a little bit, there’s a panic: What’s happening to us?
Your daughters are 10 and 14 now. Have you ever talked with them about your stand-up? Are you worried about how they’ll feel when they hear your jokes about their mother giving you the saddest hand job in the world?
My kids and I share the same sense of humor. It’s not like they’re some preacher’s kids — they’re my children. They know what it means to exaggerate a feeling to an insane amount. They think it’s funny when I yell about how frustrating they are, because they know that in reality we have a great time at home, so it’s ridiculous to them, all that stuff. As far as sex, that’s grown-up stuff, and they haven’t seen that, to my knowledge. They probably won’t want to. But anyway, they find a lot of people a lot funnier than me.
My kids and I were listening to satellite radio in the car and Norm Macdonald came on. And he’s doing a bit about the choice of a serial killer to make the grave shallow. He takes you through it. He says, “If I was a murdering psychopath, here’s how I would handle it.” And he tells a long story about standing outside of a woman’s yoga place with a cheese sandwich. To try and lure a woman away he says, “You like cheese sandwiches? I got a whole fucking van full of them.” And when he says “a whole fucking van full of them,” my 14-year-old daughter just died laughing. She’s an intersectional radical feminist, and she finds Norm Macdonald to be the funniest fucking dude.
Are you a feminist?
I don’t feel strongly enough about anything to give myself a label. My daughter is a feminist and I identify with her, with her rights and her feelings, and I’m listening to her. I’m learning from her. But I think the second you say “I am this,” you’ve stopped listening and learning.
This is an interesting area for you, because people have held up certain jokes of yours as being feminist. I’m thinking about “the No. 1 threat to women being men and the No. 1 threat to men is heart disease.” And then people have pointed to certain episodes of Louie, like the episode with the “fat girl” speechIn an episode in season four, Louie acquiesces to a date with a waitress at the club (Sarah Baker). When he reflexively tells her she isn’t fat, she responds with a poignant monologue on the way fat women are treated by average-looking guys, like Louie: “Do you know what the meanest thing you can say to a fat girl is? ‘You’re not fat.’ ” or the episode where your character stops his not-really-girlfriend from leaving his apartment and forces a kiss on her, as proof that you’re a misogynist creep. Do those discussions make you think more about how different types of people might hear your material?
No. Why would I do that?
I don’t know, because you might learn something.
Everybody’s point of view is legitimate. The goal of the things I say onstage or in my shows isn’t to please everyone. My goal is not to have everyone say, “This was an excellent indictment of this bad thing.” I’m confounded by people who want that from art. “Boy, that sure showed that woman to be strong! That means that was good!” It’s so much more interesting to shed light on these things that we all argue about. We don’t have to agree on everything, and that’s okay. After I made the episode about the fat girl, I read a blog post by a young woman who was furious. She said, “I’ve been talking about this all these years and nobody gives a shit. The fact that this guy’s being carried around on people’s shoulders by some feminists makes me sick to my stomach.” And I read it and I was like, You’re totally right. I completely see that. Would that make me go, I better not touch that note again? It’s the opposite. It’s exciting to be a flash point. It’s a valid thing to have your feelings violated and hurt. Sorry, but it is.
So you’re saying you have zero internal censors? You did stop saying “faggot” in your act.
Yeah, I don’t use that word anymore. But I mean, come the fuck on. How much do you want to protect each other? You discredit groups by saying they can’t be portrayed as weak. That’s a huge discredit to women to say you can’t have a woman be in a position of weakness. For a stronger person to physically assault a weaker person, there’s just no greater crime, but everyone can insult everybody. We don’t get along — that’s the human race. The idea of America is that we can be mean to each other.
I really hate that line of thinking, the idea that we just need to accept meanness.
But here’s the thing: Part of what’s happened with American culture is the shit we choose to get angry about. The outrage economy. Everybody’s just such a sucker for this shit. Remember the dentist who killed Cecil the lion?In July 2015, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer paid $50,000 to shoot a lion in Zimbabwe. After posting a photo of himself with the carcass online, he faced death threats and widespread criticism. People said, “We’re going to get that motherfucker!” There’s no humility. Nobody goes, “Jeez, I dunno anything about this. I’m going to keep my voice out of it.” I saw somebody who has 20 million Twitter followers write that the dentist should lose his business and his home and his whole life. Twenty million Twitter followers — that’s an enormous amount of influence to just go, “I am encouraging people to destroy this man’s life, and two minutes later I’m going to tweet about something completely different.” When I read that tweet I thought, I want to run into that person and say, “How’s it going?” “I’m sorry, what do you mean?” “Your campaign against that guy — how’s it going?” I mean, for you to say something that fierce about another human being, you must be like the Stephen BikoAn anti-apartheid activist in South Africa during the 1960s and 1970s who was killed in police custody. of activists against this one guy. But this person doesn’t give a fuck. There’s such careless outrage. I’m not an insult comedian. I’m not a person who tries to hurt people’s feelings. I don’t like downgrading people. But you’ve gotta strike out in all directions.
You’re not an insult comic, but I think it’s fair to say that your work generally skews dark. What are you optimistic about? What makes you happy?
Trillions of things. I feel safe talking about dark subjects because they exist in a world full of life and beauty. Everybody who’s alive is choosing to be. You can take yourself out anytime. The whole population is a bunch of people who are choosing to keep trying. Obviously my kids and other people in my life that I love are a big part of what keeps me going, and I try to be useful to my family members. I try once in a while to call a friend and say, “Hey, what’s going on in your life? Is there anything that I can help you with right now?” Or I’ll throw influence or work at somebody who needs it. A lot of times it’s just, like, listening to a person. Life is busy. Listening is like the No. 1 thing that actually cures almost everything. A lot of times in life there’s not a solution to your situation. Sometimes something just sucks. When you’re in one of those moments where you think this is just bad, after you get it off your chest you go, “All right. I’ll be okay.” People need to be listened to.
How are you feeling about your stand-up set these days?
The best I ever was as a stand-up was 2006 to 2011. That was when I just toured all year round and made a special every year. I was dedicated and obsessed with stand-up. I was so good then. Ever since then I’ve been damned good but not as good, because I’ve been making my TV show and doing stand-up in the off-season. So after Horace and Pete I decided I’m not going to shoot Louie anymore, and I’m on tour now. I was developing the material in clubs constantly, going to L.A. and doing the Comedy Store twice a night. I’ve got a murderous 80 minutes of material right now.
Can you explain the difference, practically, between the stand-up you were doing at your peak and what you’re doing now?
I think I’m a better comedian overall than I was back then, but back then I was better at performing. When you’re that greased up onstage, you just have a higher comedy IQ. It’s the ability to go on any stage in the country and be perfectly present and able to maneuver the set and have great timing. Some of it is being in physical shape. When you’re under pressure or strain, you get dumb, you know? It’s why I started working out in boxing gyms, because you watch a guy who’s fighting, he’s in a terribly arduous moment and he’s making intelligent choices. So to me that’s when you’re 55 minutes deep into your sixth show of the week, in your fifth city of the week. You have to be able to be great right in that moment. You have to be, “You’re not going to believe what I’m going to do next.” The audience is tired, and you have to have more energy than anyone in the room. You have to be able to control the pace. At my show last night, I was talking to myself a little bit while my mouth was moving delivering material. I was thinking, You’re going too fast. Cool it. You have plenty of time and loads of shit to say.
You say that you’re a better comedian overall now. In what way?
I know how to carry a subtle idea and make it mean something. I’m doing a bit right now about the kind of person who makes the choice to teach public school. It’s just a real quiet back-and-forth. For me, that’s an evolution, because I started in the clubs in Boston, and you had to get huge laughs or you might actually get beaten up. There was always that feeling that you had to be on the balls of your feet, killing the whole time — that makes for a good 45-minute act, but you’ve got to evolve past that to be worth watching for over an hour. Being great in first gear is something I’m constantly trying to get better at.
What was it about comedy that made you think, That’s what I have to do?
Anytime I heard stand-up comedy or saw someone doing it, I was electrified. It made me go crazy. It was fun. It felt friendly. It made everybody open up. Whenever I saw somebody talking, just being themselves and saying stuff that’s a little inappropriate but saying it fearlessly, then everyone laughing and taking part in it, I just loved it. This is a weird source of inspiration, but there was an album that I had, it was Father Guido Sarducci from Saturday Night Live.A smoking, wannabe-hip priest in sunglasses, Father Guido Sarducci rambled his way through Vatican gossip briefs and reviews of the Pope’s musical efforts. Paul something?
Don Novello was the comedian’s real name.
Yeah. So he did a comedy album, and it’s him doing his stand-up act for a bunch of nuns in a convent. Maybe they were studying to be nuns. And for a Catholic he’s being very provocative; it’s a freeing, funny record. It’s silly and deliberate. I used to listen to it constantly. And Emo Philips,An Emo Philips joke: “I like libraries. I was in one in New York, the guy was very rude. I said, ‘I’d like a card.’ He says, ‘You have to prove you’re a citizen of New York.’ So I stabbed him.” he did a record at Harvard that’s also great. Jokes always have the potential to fail, so it’s a dangerous place for everyone in the room to be in, and when it goes well it’s warming. It’s cathartic. So when I was on the outside looking in, I just would go, Wow, what a lovely thing. Music is wonderful, and I always loved movies, and I always loved television, but stand-up was this direct, frank, humane thing. It always felt good. So the first time I ever heard that there was a way that I could do it, or try it, I knew instantly I was going to.
What comedians are you seeing now who you think are great?
Samantha Bee. Samantha is inevitable. She’s the next thing. We’re all talking about the same shit, but there’s always somebody out there that’s hitting a chord like nobody else, and that person is her. I remember when I worked on Chris Rock’s show on HBO,The late-night talk show The Chris Rock Show aired from 1997 to 2000, winning one Emmy. Chris was that person at that time. Chris was just devastating. He was a black man and he was saying things from that point of view, but he was saying it with personal intelligence and hilariousness. I’ll take some credit, because he brought together a great writing staff and we created great pieces for him, with his leadership.
What is it about Samantha?
The other guys doing that kind of format are all good, but we’ve heard it. They’re beating a drum. That’s fine, but she’s really surprising. The thing that she does is she leans forward and she fucking pounds her hands like she’s hitting a pulpit. She’s angry. This is the new thing with her: She’s not smug. All of these guys, even Jon Stewart, who’s a fucking genius, he would get upset but he always stayed cool. Guys like to be a little above it. They like to be in control. Even after ranting, they suddenly calm down and smile. But Samantha doesn’t do that. She’s really fucking mad! She’s like, Yes, I am a fucking feminist! She’s right about everything that I see her talk about. She’s by far the most interesting as far as, here’s my take on this shit that everybody else is chewing on.
As far as stand-ups, Michelle WolfA Michelle Wolf joke: “Nothing electrifies a room more than the words ‘Hillary Clinton.’ I think it’d make a really good safe word. Then you’d know to stop but you also couldn’t keep going.” is great right now. She’s relentless, funny, consistent. Then there’s guys like Barry Crimmins,A Barry Crimmins joke: “We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big problem, of course, is that someone will win.” who is a political satirist from the ’80s. I’m actually shooting a stand-up special for him that I’m producing and putting on my website. Barry’s a great voice from the past who’s still kicking.
When you talk about Samantha Bee speaking to what people are thinking about in the best and most provocative way — did you ever feel like you were that person?
I don’t look at myself from the outside in that much. I think there’s been a few times where I’ve hit a chord that’s felt like, Hey, that’s a great way to say that, that feels important right now. I’ve kind of stumbled into those moments. But for every bit I’ve done, like, this is the way to say that technology has robbed us of feelings, I also have one that’s about diarrhea or my father’s balls. I’m so equally happy to be gross and talk about having Hitler blow me if I had a time machine.
Do you care if people lean more toward one side of your material than the other?
I know that if I just talked about bright, crispy things that have wider meaning, then I’d be at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I’d be a Kennedy Center kind of guy, but that’s not fun. It’s the same on the other side. There’s a lot of people who love my disgusting stuff that probably think I’m a fucking jack-off asshole social-justice-warrior type. It makes them want to vomit when I talk about something that has meaning. I agree with both. I hate both sides of my act equally. But I’m compelled to do both.
The confessional, auteur thing that you did with Louie is all over comedy television now. How does it feel to have this style you helped create become its own sort of cliché?
George Carlin once said that Americans have this unique ability to take any idea, good or bad, and run it into the ground. Anything that works gets repeated and then diluted. That’s normal. I don’t own whatever DNA is in Louie that was passed on through some strange television asexual reproduction. Certainly there’s people that came before me that did something similar to what I was doing. Some of my heroes did it. Garry Shandling’s showShandling’s influential HBO hit The Larry Sanders Show. was so much about this one kind of corrupt, messed-up guy. Even Jerry Seinfeld’s show was a version of it. So I don’t know if I accept your argument. It goes way back. I kind of took my version of it and passed it on. There’s plenty of DNA in my show. What John WatersWaters’s film Pink Flamingos (1972) follows drag queen Divine as she battles for the title of “the filthiest person alive.” The movie ends with Divine eating an actual dog turd. did is not far from what I do — making my own things the way I want to and ignoring the idea that I need permission. It’s like, I was talking with my mom about the environment and how it’s going to shit. She feels the same way, but she’s 70-plus so she’s got a different take. She goes, “You won’t be here.” And I said, “But my kids will.” She said, “Even in your kids’ time, it’s not going to matter.” “What about my great-grandkids?” She says, “Well, they’re only an eighth yours.”
So you only have to feel an eighth responsible for them?
Yeah. Your part of their pedigree is fractional. That’s how I feel about Louie. When somebody does something independent, they go, “Hey, that’s a new idea,” but I mean, John Sayles,Writer and director of dozens of movies, John Sayles spent $60,000 to fund his critically acclaimed 1979 drama Return of the Secaucus 7. that guy used to make his own movies and patched together the financing. It’d be easy to just run a career and go be in three big studio comedies every year and go be in a big network series. There’s this road I could just take, but I’m more excited by people like Lina Wertmüller,The first woman nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, Wertmüller made 24 films, including the 1975 black comedy Seven Beauties, about an Italian WWII deserter who survives a concentration camp by trying to seduce a female officer. that fucking Italian lady and those crazy movies that she made: Swept Away, Seven Beauties.
Because your stuff is so confessional and so autobiographical, do you ever get sick of being in your own head all the time?
Oh, definitely. Actually, in the last few years, a lot of my act has gravitated away from me. It’s more generalized. It hits harder, it’s better. There’s a lot of things that have changed in the last few years about my act. I used to say “fuck” constantly. When I saw my special Shameless, I say “fuck” every other word. It’s hard to watch, and then by the time I got to, I think, Oh My God, that special, I don’t say “fuck” until like 14 minutes in. So yeah, I think I’ve changed. I’m more interested in other people’s lives than my own, generally. I get tired of my own shit.
*This interview was condensed and edited from two conversations. A version of it appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.