There are two shows happening at any given comedy club on any given night. There is the show people paid a cover and two-drink minimum to see on stage. And there is the comics-only back table, where acts are dissected, beefs are adjudicated and global issues are hashed. Louis C.K. is one of the few working comics who commands equal respect in both venues.
"Nightline" spent a day with the "comic's comic," as the notoriously creative control freak finished editing "Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater" on his MacBook Pro. He not only wrote, produced, performed and edited his fifth stand-up special, but he is also releasing the concert film himself, blowing off HBO and Comedy Central to sell downloads on his website for $5 a pop.
Soon, he'll begin writing, directing, producing, starring and editing the third season of "Louie." Since FX lets him make the show with no network interference, it is the single greatest deal in the history of televised comedy. C.K. knows this, and is savoring the pinnacle of his sometimes brutal career while refusing to let success corrode his soul.
"People get successful and they start saying, 'Well of course I am! I was chosen! I'm special!' No, you're not," he said. "You're a dirty monkey and you freak-lucked into a pile of money and it's going to be gone at some point. So you can't get excited that you're doing well."
Below is a portion of the interview:
"Nightline" anchor Bill Weir: Do you remember the first laugh you ever got?
Louis C.K.: I was in third grade and we did these vocabulary studies where you had to stand up and read a sentence using one of your vocabulary words. I asked, "can I use two words in this sentence?" And he said "sure." The words I had were "building" and "clothes" and I said, "I want to take off my clothes and climb a building."
Everybody went nuts and I got filled with this hot feeling. But then other kids in the class started doing it too... like Mary Beth and all these popular kids started standing up and doing funny ones that also referred to other kids that were popular.
Weir: See, people have been ripping you all since the third grade.
C.K.: Yeah, exactly. And I remember that feeling what they're doing is cheap.
Weir: About 10 or 15 years ago, you were doing a lot more absurdist, goofy stuff before you made the transition to raw honesty. Was that a deliberate decision?
C.K.: No, it just kind of happened because when you start doing comedy you're trying to think of funny things, you're trying to find funny things, and you're trying to be funny. And then at some point you just get older. You grow up and you get tired of doing it and something happens where you just don't care -- you just can't keep faking it, you can't keep being fake.
And some people harden into a glazed version of their fake selves. And I've seen them all the time. They're frozen into this one face on stage. And after the show you're like, "How you doing?" and they're like, "Yeah! I'm OK!" And they're living with some awful thing in their life. I said to myself at some point I'm either going to stop this or I'm going to do the wrong version of this. I was like, "these jokes suck." I had gone around many times with, "this guy's funny, maybe he could do a TV show!" "Ahh, maybe not." I'd gone that circle so many times, and I realized I don't want to do this. Let's really trash this career in a fabulous way.
Weir: How did fatherhood change you?
C.K.: Well being a dad made me not so concerned with myself anymore. When people have kids they get into a competition with their own children for their own energy and priorities. They think the kids are taking something away from them. But if you just let it go -- of COURSE your kids are more important than you. Just accept the premise that your kids are more important. And I say no to jobs all the time, because I have to go to ballet or whatever it is.
Since I've made that choice, my career has gone through the roof, because if you approach something like show business like, "I'll do whatever these people want me to do," or "Whatever it is, I'll take it!" you just end up chasing weird trajectories. I could have done a second-tier part in a sitcom in Los Angeles and I would have lived out there and people would have said, "Yeah that was pretty good," and I would have made some money. That would all be gone now, but because I said, "I don't leave New York, and I only work three and a half days a week," I held out until I got this show that's in New York. I don't work for other people. I make my own schedule. That's why the show is good.
Weir: Chris Rock said you're the only white comic who can get away with saying the "n" word. Why?
C.K.: I don't know, because, I'm exploring it. The fact that it's a terrible word to say and it hurt a lot of people makes it worth talking about. Everything that's awful -- really the best thing you could do is talk about it and discuss, "Why does it hurt so much? Why do people talk about it this way? Where did it come from?" That's usually when I've used that word on stage, I've usually approached it like that, "let's talk about that word, it's worth talking about" or I use it in an absurd way. It's cyclical. People become more puritanical periodically.
You know, Mark Twain's "Huck Finn" gets censored every 10, 20 years. You have to accept it. I'm not one of these comics that's like, "Hey, don't tell me what to say!" I understand people get upset. I understand. I just I have to keep doing what I do. It's a very Darwinist system. If I upset enough people I won't sell anymore products or tickets and I'll disappear.
Weir: You joke about your non-sex life, but with this new fame you must be getting more game.
C.K.: I get emails from women that say, "I want to have sex with you." I kind of know what the shape of an email like that looks like now so I don't really read it. There's always an attachment. It always starts with, "I've never written a celebrity before in my life."
I don't think I want to get laid as much because that's very intimate to be with somebody. When I first got divorced, I f---ed around. It was fun but then I quickly realized when you're 44 and you have a life and you have kids you're like, "There's a stranger in my bed. That is not cool, and we're naked. This is a nightmare, I don't know her, I want to know someone way better before I do this again." So I can wait to get laid. I got kids. I got a job. I'll be alright.