He may not be the first standup comic to play a semi-fictionalized version of himself on TV (see: Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano), but Louis C.K. has been doing it hilariously since 2010, mixing his on-stage routines with scenarios based on his real life as a divorced dad trying to navigate life and relationships in New York City. Wearing multiple hats as creator, star, writer and director of FX’s Louie, which begins its fifth season this Thursday at 10:30/9:30c, he’s racked up multiple Emmy nominations, winning one to add to other Emmys for his standup specials and The Chris Rock Show.
And as if that didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s producing and co-writing Baskets, a 2016 FX pilot for Zach Galifianakis and producing Louie co-star Pamela Adlon’s FX series Better Things, about a single mom. Oh, and he’ll also star opposite Bryan Cranston early next year in Trumbo, about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and his standup special Live from the Comedy Store will air later this spring.
We pinned the very busy funnyman down just long enough to get some serious answers about comedy.
“When I was in fifth grade, the teacher asked us to name the bones in your skull and I said the noggin. And the whole class laughed. That’s the first time I ever got a laugh and it felt really good.”
You’re in Season 5 now. Do you feel any pressure not to repeat yourself?
Of course, absolutely. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. Some things you do want to repeat because you feel like you’re getting better and better at them and some things you feel like, ‘People like this so I want to give them another version of this.’ I don’t want to just do something once and throw it away. But I’ve never had any job in my life for five years. So it’s all uncharted for me as far as trying to stay fresh.
Where do you get new inspiration?
I love New York City. I love walking around the streets of New York. I still get a lot from that. My kids, I have kids and they’re more important than any of this to me. So it’s more I go and be with my family and do that and then when it’s time to go to work, I have a lot of perspective on it from that.
Your standup is based largely on your personal experience. Does that get uncomfortable sometimes?
It used to be easier earlier on. Now I sort of try to reflect more of the stuff I see and whatever. For the show, I just make shit up. It’s all pretty fictitious, but it’s a nice release to talk about yourself.
What challenges arise in making Louie?
We don’t have a whole lot of money. We’re still pretty much the cheapest show I think maybe on TV. But I like it. I like the game of making a show look really good for very little money. We have three sets of lenses that we own that I bought for our company and we keep all of our equipment for ourselves. My DP and I work really hard on the show together and it’s fun. To me it’s all fun. I love it. I love filming. It’s my favorite thing.
The last season sometimes got a bit dramatic. Is that the direction you’re going in?
It’s not like I’m playing basketball and I want to play baseball. Maybe I want to play defense instead of offense sometimes. I just love telling these stories. Last season there were moments I felt funny, and there were moments that were very dramatic. My favorite work that I see in TV and movies has both. To me, most comedy movies don’t make me laugh as much, but movies like Raging Bull and Goodfellas are hilarious movies, but they’re very dark. They’re considered dramas, but they make me laugh. I do think that this season is probably more laugh‑centric funny than Season 4. If I’m feeling like going in a direction, just go ahead and try it. The worst that could have happened is everybody hated it, and I got cancelled, and I’m not afraid of that.
Who were your comic influences growing up? And who do you like now?
Guys like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld. I can go on and on. Steven Wright, a big hero of mine. I loved Joan Rivers coming up. I love Lily Tomlin. Carol Burnett when I was a kid was a big hero of mine. Then there were guys that I started with in Boston, like Frank Santorelli and Steve Sweeney and Kevin Meaney. Young guys, there’s a guy named James Adomian who I think is brilliant. Maria Bamford, Laura Kightlinger. Greer Barnes is the guy who opened for me in Madison Square Garden and he is great.
“Starting this summer, I’ll start going back to the clubs with no material and bombing and trying to work up to something again.”
When did you realize that you were funny?
When I was in fifth grade I had made a joke in a class and I got the whole class to laugh really, really hard. The teacher asked us to name the bones in your skull and I said the noggin. And they laughed. That’s the first time I ever got a laugh and it felt really good.
You’re producing Pamela Adlon’s show. How does it compare to Louie?
They’re very different. Pamela really took the lead on writing her show, and she has a different style, a different voice and a different point of view. And the things we’ve talked about, including how to shoot it, are quite different than my show. I’ve been writing with Pamela since my first show that I had on HBO, and she’s just a very funny person, gets right to the meat and the bone of things. I can throw anything to her, and she can start playing with it. Those are the kind of people you really trust in comedy.
How has your standup changed over the years?
When I started doing standup I was known as a very noisy, odd dude. I was known as a noisy guy. I made a lot of noises and voices so it’s a little bit back to that. The standup that I did this year was much sillier than it was in the last few years, much more sort of anecdotes and characters and stuff like that. Starting this summer, I’ll start going back to the clubs with no material and bombing and trying to work up to something again.
Do you still enjoy being on the road?
I’ve been traveling since I was doing standup when I was like 18, so I’ve always liked going around the country and taking it in. I did Trumbo in New Orleans and that was really fun to discover it, it’s an amazing city. It just feels like a haunted crazy place, with ghosts in the streets, so I did love going there.