The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
There are shows that come around every once in a while, like Deadwood or 30 Rock where you know you’re getting the creator’s voice, beamed through your TV, loud and clear. And then there’s Louie. With that show, the creator is so in control of everything you’re seeing that you kind of forget it’s a TV show until the commercials kick back in. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that Louie is one of the most unique and important comedies to come on television in a very long time.
Watching the star, writer, director and editor of the show, Louis CK, in a recording of his panel discussion at the Paley Center, as I did recently, is a truly enlightening look into the process of getting a show like Louie off the ground. And if nothing else, I can now say with some certainty that this is the only item in the Paley library that mentions a dead woman’s semen-covered stomach, unless there’s some really crazy Honeymooners kinescope I’ve yet to uncover.
On November 3, 2010, shortly after the conclusion of the first season of his show, Louis sat down with moderator James Poniewozik, media and TV critic for Time. Louis is very quick to point out that watching a compilation of clips from the first season is a strange experience for him, particularly in front of a large crowd. “There’s something wrong with me,” he says. Clips such as one in which a high school aged bully tears Louie down in front of a woman he’s dating are short on laugh out loud moments (Louie says that such moments make him “feel irresponsible when [he’s] not funny.”), instead forcing the tension to build within the audience, and laugh at things that they may not have when they were at home.
The moderator begins by addressing a concern he had when approaching the panel: does he say, “when you did” such a thing in an episode? Does he refer to the character as Louie as he talks to the man playing him? CK refers to the show as “autobiographical fiction.” “It’s the way I would act in those situations. I let myself make huge, terrible mistakes that I wouldn’t make in real life. I let myself have terrible judgment because it’s more entertaining.” When trying to make a larger social point, he says he’s more apt to take it on and project the bad behavior on to himself, rather than call someone else out. Ultimately, Louie admits, the show becomes a form of self-mutilation. Whether he’s having his penis mocked by Ricky Gervais, or he’s given a frightening childhood tour through Catholicism, the character Louie is always the one getting the beating, whether he deserves it or not.
In the midst of a baseball tangent, Louie accidentally reveals his philosophy for the show. He mentions Orlando Hernandez, “El Duque,” a former pitcher for the New York Yankees. According to Louis, the thing that made him so difficult to hit against was that he had a number of different arm angles as he pitched. He tries to take this same approach with his comedy, looking at the audience as almost an adversary, crowding the plate. “You have your fastball which are jokes, and then you have weird sliders. They don’t know when they’re going to see what.” Louie, the show, subscribes to that same philosophy. There are serial elements to the show, with some continuity, but more often than not, plots points are dropped, stories exist within their segment, and the same mom can be played by different actresses. Ultimately, each story that Louis sets out to tell is it’s own short film and is conceived that way. He thinks of each episode like a stand up set: there might be some segments that tangentially connect to another thematically, but usually, one joke follows another, independent of the other.
The most interesting portion, for me, actually comes when Louie is asked a question he gets frequently since his show started: the unique deal FX made with him regarding the show. Basically, Louis gets very few notes, with very little supervision, for very little money. He has complete control over every aspect of the show and is able to create the show he wants. He explains that all one has to do to get this deal is to go in and not care if you get the show or not. Once Louis’ stand-up career started to take off, his plan was to get a lucrative holding deal at one of the big networks and, as he puts it, get paid to fail. “You come up with an idea, you tell it to them, they say ‘nah. You can keep the money, though.’” So when his agent set up the meeting with FX, Louis cancelled it, because he “didn’t feel like it,” until his agent forced him to go anyway. They offered him $200,000 for the pilot, and Louie agreed as long as they were fine giving him the money, leaving him alone, and then just watching the DVD he sends them three months later. To his surprise, they agreed. (When his agents tried to negotiate for more money, FX exec John Landgraf explained, “I can write you a check right now for 200 but anything more than that I’m going to have to go ask Rupert Murdoch, and you’ll have to tell him what it’s about.” Louis agreed to keep it at $200,000.)
After seeing the pilot, FX picked up the series and upped it to $300,000 an episode, out of which Louis pays himself the Writers’ Guild minimum, the Directors’ Guild minimum, and very little as an editor (“but I think I’m worth it”). But with this comes the freedom that Louis wants. He can work with the people that he wants to work with and if he wants to spend $150,000 on one episode and half a million on another he can. But with that freedom comes a huge amount of pressure. “If I give them an episode that stinks, I have to do it over again. They have the right to say, ‘yeah, we didn’t like that one.’ …If the show gets weak, they’ll send their people.” But ultimately, it’s worth it to CK. “[These episodes] are all first drafts. I want these to feel like these come right out of my gut, or brain, or balls, or all three.”
Ultimately, he’s left alone by the network, for the most part, though he does keep standards and practices in mind as he’s writing. He talks about watching the lineup on FX to get a feel for the network before his show started, and watching an episode of The Shield with producer Vernon Chatman. In it, the body of a woman is found, and a character observes that the murderer “ejaculated on her stomach” and Louis was shocked to learn that you could actually show that on TV. Vernon then joked that there should be a scene in Louie where they show a naked woman, but instead of covering her breasts with a black bar, cover them with the dead woman’s stomach from The Shield.
But in spite of some of the weird quirks of censoring a TV show, Louis admits that working under such restrictions can actually be a benefit. He talks about doing a stand-up set on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in which he wanted to tell a joke about a story in the news at the time in which Mayor Giuliani cut the funding for an art program that created controversy by displaying a portrait of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant feces. Giuliani at the time stated that “everybody picks on the Catholics” which Louis agrees with and says is because they’re wrong about god. The censor for NBC told Louie there was no way he could tell the joke on TV, but Louis, having worked on the show in the past, tried to get around it. He said he had a right to say this, and that it would be giving equal time to an opposing viewpoint. Louis admits that the censor actually improved his joke when he said he could do the joke if he sounded really sympathetic when he said “it’s true that people pick on Catholics a lot,” before saying it was because they were wrong about god.
When asked by someone in the audience for his best advice about working in entertainment, he says it’s actually the same advice he’d give to anyone in any job: do your job as hard as you can do it. People take notice of you when you’re trying your best to make their thing good, and ultimately it’s the reason why he works with the same crew on all of his projects. “Treat others like a real human being. Life’s too short to be an asshole.” Adding, “there’s nobody on the set where we see them and we feel like, ‘Oh, Jesus,’” before realizing, “it may be me.”