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June 30, 2016

The Next Best Things

For Louis C.K. — master of television, film and stand-up — one focus isn't nearly enough.

Tatiana Siegel
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield

For someone who makes people laugh for a living, Louis C.K. is surprisingly prone to tears.

In March, while shooting the season-one finale of his online series Horace and Pete, he broke down on set. He was acting, but it was also real-life release. "I cried my eyes out," he recalls. "After nine weeks of working with these people, it was very emotionally wrenching. It was very intense."

At the time, he had no idea that it would be the final episode of the series, an audacious experiment in small-screen viewing.

Using his own money, the six-time Emmy winner secretly shot the period drama with costar Steve Buscemi (they play cousins struggling to keep their Irish bar afloat in Brooklyn). The series, which premiered January 30 on C.K.'s website — without a hint of promotion — bypassed networks and streaming services. It was available for direct download for $2 to $5 per episode or $31 for the entire season

But in mid-April, after taking on several million dollars of debt financing the project, C.K. sent an email to fans that said: "That was it. I didn't want to say, in the last email, that it was the last episode. Because I didn't want you to know, as you watched the episode, that it would be the last one."

He later clarified that he meant the first season was over, not necessarily the show. He may resume it at some point. Though its future is unclear, Horace and Pete proved that a self-distributed series could earn attention from The New York Times and Salon.

It wasn't the first time the comedian — born in D.C. and raised in Mexico until age seven, when he moved with his family to a Boston suburb — has torn up the rulebook, For years, fans could buy tickets to his sold-out stand-up shows directly on his website.

But TV distribution is a different matter, heavily dependent on promotion and buzz. Now C.K. will look to Emmy voters for vindication, "I'm gonna promote season one and see how much traditional success this model of a TV show can get," he says.

Emmy contributor Tatiana Siegel caught up with C.K. as he was preparing for a pop-up show at the D.C. Improv this spring. He talked about why he took the financial risk, the fate of Louie's season six and why Samantha Bee is the best comedic mind he's seen in a long time.

With Horace and Pete, why did you forgo FX, where you have your overall deal, in favor of online?

I kept finding it drift into directions that I thought would be very hard to do on FX. Like language I wanted to use and the time constraints. I didn't want to do a show with four act breaks. I didn't want to do a show that's always an hour or always a half hour. I didn't want to do something that was necessarily funny or necessarily dramatic.

So I started to conceive it without talking to anybody about it, with the idea that maybe I won't even do it. And that cut it loose in all these different directions.

I think I was able to get the cast that I did because it was on my website — because I wasn't latching them onto a network. It's a much harder thing to askmsomebody of the caliber of Steve Buscemi or Edie [Falco] or Alan [Alda] to be on FX and what that takes in terms of promotion and going to the TCAs [the biannual Television Critics Association gathering]. I wanted to see if a show could succeed without that push.

I wanted to try a bunch of things, and I didn't want to risk anybody else's money or time slot or political capital. I wanted to be able to try so many different things that I thought, if I do it myself, I don't have to convince anybody, If it doesn't work, okay.

I had carved out on my deal at FX that I could make things for my website. The idea was, it would just suddenly appear, and no one would know if we were going to do more than one [episode], how many we would do, where it was going to head.

That was very exciting to me as a storyteller — to be able to take people through an experience like that.

Why did you finance it entirely by yourself?

It was to try to see how a TV show grows if you just put up a single [episode] and send out an email, instead of canvassing a large area and seeing where your promotion falls into the cracks — or what cracks it falls into. That's been done forever.

This was an opportunity to do something that had never been done before. The only way to do that was to just put the money up myself. I had people who care about me who said, 'You should get someone else's money, because you've got the credibility to get money for projects.' But I didn't want to explain to any financier.

Has it found its audience yet?

Yeah, it's where I thought it would be. And I did everything I could to bury this project. We just put it out there, and I write my little email on Saturday morning, and I go back to bed. It's doing well. It's selling well. I think it'll sell better when I start to promote.

When I did Kimmel, it was pretty explosive, the way the sales boosted, especially the first few episodes. But I haven't been really trying to sell it. It's like we were doing it in previews.

What's the mindset behind submitting it for Emmy consideration in the drama category?

Part of it is because several episodes are between 40 and 60 minutes, and two were 60-plus, and then a couple were 30, 35. If you're drawing a line between drama and comedy, this was far more on the drama side.

I think that the categories are kind of dumb, but there's a reason why people do it. It helps them to think about what they're watching

It's certainly not a comedy. I think it's a drama. I didn't think about where we would fare better, because I don't think that makes much sense. You just put it in a category that it belongs in.

It launched around the same time as another series you're involved with, FX's Baskets. How do you have time to do all this TV, film and stand-up?

That's one [where] they don't need a whole lot from me. They have a great group of people. I was there for the pilot and helped them cast and shape it and sort of conceive the show and oversee.

But I'm used to having a lot of things [happening] at the same time. You just learn to swap out the different brains and do whatever you need to do when you need to do it. The other show I work on, Pamela [Adlon]'s Better Things, is just going into production [for FX] now.

So everything just overlaps pretty well. Horace and Pete fit into a little hole I had in the schedule.

What's your typical schedule?

I'm not one of those types that's at work all night and never goes home. In my experience, that doesn't make your work better.

On Louie, we never shot past 8 p.m. We never did more than 12-hour days, and we only shot three or four days a week, because I have my kids half of every week, and that's very important to me — that they have that stability.

Horace and Pete is up the street from my house, like three subway stops. It was easy in terms of time, because it was like a play. We would run the whole thing in one or two pieces, and that's really exhausting. You can't shoot it all night.

We would rehearse all day Tuesday and then shoot Wednesday and Thursday. But we were done by five o'clock on most days. Or even three o'clock, and I'd get my kids at school, take 'em home.

I get more exhausted by my kids than I do by work. They get me up at 6:30 in the morning to get everybody off to school. I'm in bed by 11, or 10:30 if I can do it. So I get a good seven, eight hours a night.

But when I'm on the road, like now, it's tough because you can't really fall asleep before 2 a.m. When you get on stage, you get wired from it. Two nights a week I get like three hours of sleep. And then the rest, I do okay.

Louie is on an "extended hiatus." What's the status of a sixth season?

I just don't know. The best thing to do for now was to let it go and not have it as the next thing I have to do. It's not an obligation to me right now. I don't have plans for it. And I think that's its highest hope — that I'll circle back around to it.

To me, the toughest thing about that show is that it's autobiographical, loosely. I'm playing me, and that's a tricky thing to do now that I'm more well known.

Also the mode of production — shooting in the streets of New York City, often in the cold — that was super hard. That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I treasure the memory of it. The one reason that I wanted to do Horace and Pete was because it was indoors every day in the winter.

I've learned that if you exhaust a part of yourself, you can rest it while you work other parts of yourself, and often, it'll come back. I'm on the ropes with Louie right now, resting my ankles, and I might jump off to go another couple rounds.

You're also working on an animated pilot with Albert Brooks for FX. Why animation?

I never did this before. That's the number-one reason. It's something new and fun. But the real reason that show exists is Albert. I really wanted to work with him. I got his number, and I talked him into doing something with me. He wasn't really into doing television. He wasn't going to do it. But then we started talking about different forms of television.

A friend of mine, Vernon Chatman, suggested that I ask him about animation, because Albert had these great albums back in the 70s that we all grew up on — me and my comedian friends — and he's really into sound and voice stuff, and he's very funny that way. He also does great animation on television in The Simpsons.

I just said, "What about animation?" And Albert said, "I've always wanted to do a great animated series." So we decided to try it.

How did your early years in Mexico shape your comic sensibility?

Mexico is a very funny culture. Comedians were on TV all the time, and they have a self-deprecating sense of humor. They make fun of each other and themselves a lot, giving each other shit or being sarcastic. So that's what I knew as humor back then.

When I came to America, I think that shock of culture and coming here as basically an immigrant gave me an appreciation for the country, an outsider view. When you look at things from the outside, you see them sometimes a little better.

You've referred to Woody Allen as your hero. What was it like working with him on Blue Jasmine?

He was great. I loved working with him, and he was super nice to me. We had lunch one day, and that was my takeaway, getting to have lunch with him. It was certainly fun to be directed by him. I just did three really short, little scenes, so I was a tourist on the movie.

Do you still get starstruck by anyone?

I met Paul McCartney. That was pretty freaky. I couldn't believe I was meeting a Beatle.

But then Paul Simon, I met him, and his music means so much to me. And now we're pals. He did the music for Horace and Pete, and we worked together on it, so I got to spend a day with Paul in his studio, working on his music.

And that became normal because we wanted the music to be really good. Then we had dinner a bunch of times, and we hang out now and again, So it's just normal now, which is weird.

You also played supporting roles in American Hustle and Trumbo. Right now, how much of a priority is your film-acting career?

If there're 12 things on my priority list, it's number 11. I really don't care about it. I really love doing it. It's so fun to be on a movie, but you have to go to another city, and I don't get to see my kids, and it's disruptive to my life And it's sitting in a trailer waiting, 'cause the kind of parts that I get, I'm schedule spackle.

In other words, if you're first AD, and you have Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane and me in a movie, you're more concerned about Bryan and Diane. Over a month, I'll come back like 12 times because they know they can throw me around.

You spent two years as a writer for Conan and Letterman. Did you ever experience burnout?

Yeah, talk shows are very hard. It doesn't take much before you get kind of tired of it. But I was in my 20s — that's a young people's game. You've got to pore through everything that's happening in the world and have really quick takes on it. It's hard to do well.

I was watching Samantha Bee, and she hit Ted Cruz and his supporters, these religious zealots, with just rapid machine-gun fire. Great jokes. So good — the best I've seen of that kind of humor in a very long time.

That's the comedy I can't do that I really admire. I think she's holding the standard right now, taking a subject and slamming it from 50 angles in 10 seconds.

Did you ever long to sit in that late-night talk show host chair?

No, not really. It's the five nights a week. And it's kind of a Supreme Court position: you don't do things after it. That's your last job. It's hard to be a late- night host and then make movies or something.

I've always been interested in too many separate things. I like to move around: do one thing for a while, then [another], and also I love stand-up. It's something I can't see ever giving up. A late-night show means saying goodbye to everything else. Also, I'm not a polite comic. Letterman doesn't curse. You can't talk like me and get that kind of work.

You have three sisters and two daughters and were largely raised by a single mother. Do you think you have a better sense than most men of the female psyche?

I think it helped me that I watched three girls go through their whole lives, from childhood to womanhood. That's a very interesting perspective.

Our household was a female household that I was a single male minority in. Being raised by a woman who was the breadwinner and the caretaker and the best friend and the philosopher and the guardian and the ruler of the household — that's what was normal. It definitely did have an impact on my life. Even the two dogs I've had are both girls.

Your daughters are often skewered in your stand-up and on your show. What do they think?

They know that what I do is take a ridiculous position, like, "My daughter's an asshole 'cause she doesn't know how to hide in hide-and-seek." I remember I showed my hide-and-seek bit to my oldest daughter, and she laughed because she went through it with her younger sister, the same sort of frustration,

Obviously, I love my kids. They know that's a joke. If I was a bad father, this would be pretty horrible.

They've never really seen much of Louie, 'cause a lot of it is adult and they don't really want to see it. It's boring to them. It's got kind of a slow pace, and I think it's weird to watch your dad acting. Sometimes, I'll say, "You want to watch an episode of Louie?" And they're like, "Not really." They'd rather watch Bob's Burgers or Portlandia.

What shows are you binge-watching in your downtime?

I really love that O.J. Simpson [FX's American Crime Story]. That's pretty brilliantly done, and I think every actor in it is phenomenal. I'm enjoying the hell out of that. I also like weird things like Shark Tank. I like Project Runway, Family Guy, Portlandia.

What book is currently on your nightstand?

A History of U.S. Feminisms by Rory Dicker. I bought it so that I could enrich my conversations with my 14-year-old daughter.

How do you feel when you see yourself on screen?

I don't like looking at my face. I don't think anybody with a healthy brain likes looking at themselves on television. That's a weird thing to be doing. I think it's a good sign that I cringe when I see myself on TV.

So many comedians hail from the Boston area — Steve Carell, John Krasinski, B.J. Novak, Mindy Kaling. What's so funny about Boston?

Boston's a good comedy town because it's got this tough Irish-Italian thing, and there're also very bright people because it's a hub of education and high thinking. So it's a good combination of all that.

It's a very modern city, but it's also extremely old. I mean, there're ideas alive in Boston that are dead everywhere but there. I'm amazed that there isn't slavery in Boston — and not because it's a racist place but because shit stays alive there that's hundreds of years old

You struggled for years. What's the most ridiculous luxury item you now own?

I have a nice little speedboat. It's like a sportscar on the water. It wasn't even that much money. I just love it. That's my little thing that makes me feel like a rich guy.

What was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?

My mother told me, life is like football. When you score a touchdown, it's the peak, and the next thing that happens is, you go sit down on the bench. I think about that all the time. When you do a great thing, it's time to shut up for a bit and get back on the bench. The next time it's your turn, you just trot out on the field and the ball's back on the 20.

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