Full of Cinnabon and self-loathing, Louis C.K. might be the funniest man alive. As a stand-up, he can play it dirty, with jokes about getting blown by his (now ex-) wife, or dirtier, with jokes about blowing Satan. His comic infallibility took a hit in 2006 when his HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, was canceled after one season, but now he’s back to prove that his fellatio jokes (and many others) can work in any format: Tonight at 11, FX premieres his new half-hour comedy, Louie, a one-man show (he writes, stars, directs, and edits) that mixes his stand-up with filmed vignettes about his allegedly depressing divorcé life. We talked to him about why complaining about your kids is a social imperative, and why comedies are the least funny movies out there.
Why didn’t Lucky Louie work out for you?
Well, it worked out for me. [HBO’s] choice was not to keep doing it, but for me, I got a full season of television that I really enjoyed. I just didn’t catch the right wave with what was going on at HBO.
What do you mean by that?
The feeling I got with it was it was hard for them to re-up the show. Warner Bros. had financial concerns. Everybody who was working there is not working there anymore. We had higher ratings every week than we did the week previous; that’s usually a show that’s gonna get renewed. There was other stuff going on.
Critics love your stand-up, but the show wasn’t as well received. How did you take that?
I think TV shows are held under tighter scrutiny than stand-up, because stand-up’s elusive to a lot of people. A TV show is something people really want to dig into and rethink. That’s just the way it is; it’s just a hotter kitchen. But in actual fact, ‘cause I read all of my reviews, because I’m a narcissist, [there were] tons of good ones, some bad ones. The New York Times loved it; the L.A. Times loved it; and Tom Shales loved it. And those are three papers that are usually considered important.
Stand-up is featured way more prominently in Louie.
I felt like stand-up was a really good weapon, a really good way to communicate. I wanted the show to flow the way a stand-up set flows for me. Like, if they pretend that the short films are stand-up bits — they sort of relate tangentially to each other, one flows to the other — they’re sort of the same rhythm as a comedy set.
You directed Pootie Tang, an odd movie that has attained cult status. What kind of weird indie movies do you watch?
I like really good movies, which is a dumb answer. But when I first moved to New York there was a place next door to my apartment called Kim’s Video which was a sort of artsy video store. Instead of arranging the videos by title, they had them arranged by director or even photographer, so I educated myself. I went through the Godard section in one week and then Pasolini. I like surprising and compelling movies. To me, comedies are usually the least funny movies. Movies that are actually a comedy are usually not all that funny. To me Goodfellas and Raging Bull are two of the funniest movies I ever saw.
I just talked to Mark Wahlberg about how funny he was in The Departed.
Exactly. I’d much rather watch that than whatever SNL alum — all very nice people — but I laugh harder at real people having real moments.
You’re divorced now, and you went immediately into writing about it in your comedy and on your TV show. Isn’t that how you got divorced in the first place?
Well, when I was married I talked about everything in my life. My kids, and I talked about [my wife] too. And I probably should’ve asked for permission more explicitly. So that’s something that I think about, yeah. But now my life is not that anymore. So it’s different.
You made being married and raising kids sound like such a bummer. Was it really that depressing or was it just something that worked?
Do you have kids?
No. I’m not married, either.
Well, okay. The thing is when you’re in a family, it’s a struggle and there’s a lot of difficulty to it. It’s like saying that somebody in a cop show makes being a cop look like a bummer. It’s hard. It’s hard. And I think most parents that I talk to that watch the stuff that I do are really grateful for the collusion and for the relief and being able to laugh about it. I mean, everything that’s difficult you should be able to laugh about. And the reason it’s difficult to have a family is because it’s important. I mean, if I didn’t love my kids it would be easy to raise them. But I love ‘em, so you gotta do it the hard way, and it’s important to you so you do it the hard way. It’s important.
Other than from Bill Cosby, I haven’t seen that much funny “parenting sucks” material.
Yeah, Cosby was great. The special Himself is phenomenal. I mean, parents should be allowed to laugh at what they do. And I think there’s just this sort of sanitizing that people do where it’s like, “Oh, no no no. Only say polite and terrific things that everybody can applaud on Oprah about your family.” Parents are tired; parents are frustrated; and parents love to laugh — so.
In your show, you don’t have any qualms about making yourself look insensitive or like an asshole, basically.
Absolutely. I think it’s really important that I’m the one doing it. I’m not saying everybody else does this, I’m saying I do it. And everybody who does it knows it, and they get to laugh at themselves. I started doing that the last year of doing stand-up. I wanted to do material about how selfish Americans can be and how self-centered and unfair they can be. And the only way I could really make that work is to say it about myself first.
But don’t you run the risk of being unlikable? Isn’t likability important to the stage and screen?
Who says? I’m seriously asking.
Well, a lot of people: stand-ups, execs, critics.
Well, I think “likability” is an overused word. I don’t watch people ‘cause I like them; I watch them because they’re compelling. Sympathetic is a little different. It’s like I understand this person, and I never know quite what they’re going to do and I’m really interested in what they might do next and they feel real to me. That’s, I think, way more valuable than likable. Likable just thins you out. Working to make a character likable is what kills most TV shows. It’s so fun to watch somebody make terrible mistakes. And also, by the way, likable people, people who are good people, make really dumb mistakes. It’s fun to watch them do it.