DATE June 15, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Comic and actor Louis C.K. discusses his new HBO comedy
series, "Lucky Louie"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After writing for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "The Late Show with David
Letterman" and "The Chris Rock Show," my guest, Louis C.K., is writing for his
own series. It's the new HBO sitcom, "Lucky Louie," that premiered last
Sunday after "Entourage." "Lucky Louie" stars Loius C.K. as a husband, father
of a young daughter and part-time auto mechanic. His wife, played by Pamela
Adlon, is a nurse. Louie loves his family but is having a hard time being a
family man. Louis C.K. has also done a lot of stand-up comedy. He wrote and
directed the movie, "Pootie Tang," and co-wrote the Chris Rock film, "Down to
Louis C.K., welcome to FRESH AIR. What did you want to try to do with "Lucky
Louis" that you thought hadn't been done before on a half-hour,
studio-audience kind of sitcom?
LOUIS C.K. (Actor): Well, I guess it wasn't so much that it hadn't been done
before, but I knew that it hadn't been done for an awfully long time, to do a
show that just felt very honest and was kind of brutally funny, I guess is
what I wanted to do. So you need a place that you can have really blunt
edges, and today's language is part of that, you know, I think, and people
really talk the way that they talk on my show, I think.
GROSS: Now some of what you wanted to talk about that you can't really do on
a broadcast sitcom is to talk about sex. And judging from the first few
episodes of your show, to talk about some of the frustrations and
disappointments and bad communications surrounding sex--I mean, part of it is
kind of like the joylessness of sex.
LOUIS C.K.: Yeah, exactly. Or just the normalcy of sex.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Yeah.
LOUIS C.K.: The nonfantasy of sex because when you're married, you still need
sex, it's an important part of your life, but it's no longer a fantasy. It's
an obligation to one another. And I mean that in a warm way, even though it
doesn't sound warm, but you owe it to each other to give each other this
comfort, you know. But it becomes less, sort of, like there's no music behind
it and no moans. It's just more like, `Hey, could you not do that to my back,
please?' You know? It's more sort of like familiar. So with couples trying
to stay excited and happy in their marriage, I find that to be a very sweet
endeavor, and it's very painful at times and very silly.
GROSS: Let me ask you to describe your character of Louie on the show.
LOUIS C.K.: I think that I play a guy that's like me without the career that
I've had, more or less. Just a guy who's, you know, graduated high school and
then never got much traction to work service industry and those kind of jobs
and wasn't sure what he's supposed to be trying to do. It's the way that I
felt when I was growing up and most of my friends. The difference is that I
kind of caught on to this comedy stuff and found something. But a lot of
people I know didn't. And I remember what it felt like to not know where you
were going to go. But what happens often is that you meet somebody, you
become directed by the fact that you've met someone you want to be with. And
so it's he's married to a woman who he now wants to please and next thing he
knows he's got a kid and a lot of responsibility he doesn't feel all that
prepared for. So he's trying to play catch-up a little bit. That's about it.
And otherwise he's just--he's a little frustrated, I think. I feel really
dumb talking about him in the third person. It's really me.
GROSS: Describe his wife. Describe his wife for us.
LOUIS C.K.: Oh, Kim is a nurse, and she's someone who works really hard and
is raising her daughter and is fiercely protective of her and lives in the
same limiting world. You know, when you live in these towns like, you know,
Lynn, Massachusetts or Youngstown, Ohio, and you want to be healthy and you
want to raise your kid without a barrage of, you know, Elmo and sugar and
high-fructose corn syrup, you have to really battle, you know. And I think
that she's sort of, to her, her husband will do just fine, you know. Clean
him up, he's doing just fine, basically.
GROSS: But the wife in your show is always trying to, in some way, control
her husband's behavior, like there's a whole episode that revolves around him
really eating junk food and continuing to eat it after the friend gets a heart
LOUIS C.K.: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: So she's in a position kind of playing mom to her husband, and saying
you shouldn't be eating that cake, you shouldn't be having, you know, the
hamburger and stuff. So is that coming out of like your marriage? Do you
feel like you've put your wife in the position of having to be your mother
sometimes? Notice how I'm blaming you.
LOUIS C.K.: No, of course, it is my fault. I think she resents having to be
in that position. But I think it's close to something in my marriage and
through what I've learned from a lot of this stuff. When you first get
married, as a guy, you just immediately are in the hole. You immediately
assume that you're incapable of having a real relationship and that this
woman's going to teach you. So the two of you start figuring out the guy and
his problem. That's the first problem of every marriage is `What's wrong with
this dumb boy of a man. Let's try to make him civilized.' But then after a
few years go by, you look at the woman, and you go, `This woman is crazy.
What's wrong with her? Why does she have this need to do that?' And then you
end up settling, hopefully, somewhere in-between. But so I think both parties
have problems. The guy just can't get a grip on himself. And the woman has a
deep need to have the guy be just what she wants, which, you know, it's her
own issue, too, I think. And I think Kim definitely has that. She wants to
grab this guy by the throat a lot and, you know, I don't know. I still
haven't figured it all out.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K., and he has a new series called "Lucky
Louie," a new sitcom on HBO. It's just premiered and it's on right after
One of the things that your character is dealing with in your show "Lucky
Louie" is, you know, he's trying to make friends with his neighbors next door.
They're an African-American couple. He wants to be their friends. He's also
very self-conscious of the fact they're black and he's white. So in wanting
to do the right thing, he often does the wrong thing. Can you talk a little
bit about trying to write that relationship and what issues are you trying to
LOUIS C.K.: Well, that comes out of a lot of reality in my life because it's
just my generation was segregated from black people, and I grew up near
Boston, which is a very segregated city. And we actually had black kids that
were bused in--it sounds like we were having--we had them bused in for our
amusement and fun. `Let's get some black kids bused in here. That's what
this place needs.' No, you know, Boston had all this busing, and there were
these kids that were from other neighborhoods that were black. There was zero
black people living where I lived, and they were in our schools. And I used
to just awkwardly sit at their table because I wanted to know them. I
actually--most people don't believe me, but I'm half-Mexican, and I came to
this country from Mexico. I was born here and left before I was one. And so
I came here not speaking English, and I had the experience of coming here like
as an immigrant, which is weird because I'm very white and Irish-looking.
But, anyway, when I...
GROSS: But you're also part-Jewish.
LOUIS C.K.: Yeah. My dad's dad was Jewish, and it's a mess, Terry. I'm a
dog. I'm a mutt. But it's great, you know, it's great. But so when I
started going to the elementary school and junior high school and seeing these
black kids that were--I just wanted to know them, and I thought it was awkward
to me that they were this other people, you know. So I used to just sit at
their table at the cafeteria during lunch and just sit there smiling and
hoping they'd be my friend. They would just look at me like, `What's your
problem?' And eventually I did make friends with a lot of them, but it had to
be done awkwardly. The races are still segregated, amazingly, and the only
way to actually come across and make a contact is do to it self-consciously,
kind of racistly, you know, because you're really saying, `I want to know you
because you're black.' There's just no other way to do it. And it is
important to me that my daughter know black people. I want her to know
everybody. I don't want her to have this. So I have to make this dumb
effort. So that story became really important, and actually the parts that I
tell in the pilot is a true story that a black fellow...
GROSS: You describe the story. Yeah.
LOUIS C.K.: We were living actually in upstate New York at the time, and a
black guy, there's nobody black where we were up there. It's not--black guy
came to fix our refrigerator and my daughter really bonded with him over the
course of the day. You know, she was like two and when kids are that age,
knowing somebody for a day is like she's known him forever. You know, she
just really liked the guy, and she would say, `refrigerator,' and he'd say,
`Yeah, refrigerator. Refrigerator.' And then we came to New York City, and we
were on the subway, and she pointed at the first black guy she saw and said,
`Refrigerator.' And I was so shocked and horrified, and I thought, `Oh, my
God. I have to get this little girl around some black people. This is not
And one of my best friends is Chris Rock, and it's funny because he has a
daughter almost exactly the same age. And he's having the same problem.
Because I told him of the story. He's having the same problem with his little
girl who's black, that she doesn't know enough black kids. And he has to
struggle because he lives in a nice part of New Jersey. He has to make a
maximum effort to make sure his daughter sees enough black people to feel
comfortable and identify. So it's weird. Because the segregation, you have
to make these awkward, unnatural efforts.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He writes and stars in the new HBO
sitcom, "Lucky Louie."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Louis C.K, and he has a
new sitcom on HBO that he writes and stars in. It's called "Lucky Louie," and
it just recently premiered, and it's on right after "Entourage" Sunday night.
Let's talk a little bit about your character as a father on the show.
LOUIS C.K.: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You're a father of two kids?
LOUIS C.K.: I have two kids. Yeah.
GROSS: How old are they?
LOUIS C.K.: I have a four-year-old and a one-year-old. Both girls.
GROSS: The character in the sitcom seems to, you know, be a pretty caring
father, but he also seems very overwhelmed by the responsibility and kind of
unprepared for it. Did you feel that way when you became a father, like you
really weren't ready?
LOUIS C.K.: Oh, totally. I mean, I still feel that way because it's not like
I'm done. They're four and one. It's not like I can pack them off to camp
now and forget about them. There's a huge amount of work to do. And it
changes. It's like, this is probably the worst thing I'll ever say in my
life, but it's like an AIDS virus. It just keeps morphing, and you can't
fight it because every day you think you've figured out fatherhood, and you've
mixed an antidote to it. And then, you know, the next day, it's like `What?
Who are these people? I don't even know who these people are. They weren't
living in my house yesterday.' And even `Who am I? And who is my wife?'
Every day you wake up, and there's a whole new--I mean, that's like some crazy
kind of movie, like that every day you wake up with a different group of
people in a different home and a different set of problems. And so you don't
ever get to use--any experience is just thrown in the toilet. It's--you
never--you just--the only experience you start to glean from any wisdom is
just that, you know, be prepared for anything, and just having resiliency is
all you can have.
GROSS: Has it been hard for you to be the authority figure and set limits for
your children, because it seems to me that when you were young, you were
probably the kind of kid who was always violating those limits and defying the
authority figures in your life.
LOUIS C.K.: Yeah. Yes. I don't know how you picked up on that, but that's
true. No, it is weird to be saying, `Now, don't you do this,' because I
identify with anybody who does something they shouldn't be doing,
so--including my daughters. And, you know, part of me wants them to build
that strength, too. Like part of you, when your daughter's screaming at you
because she doesn't want to put on her shoes or whatever crazy thing, you want
to, you know, throw her in the garbage bin but, at the same time, you're proud
of her and you're happy that she's building the strength and the skill to
stand up for herself, you know.
But, no, I think that that's to me the crux of what the show is, is that that
is the way you feel. You feel constantly bent over and punched in the face by
parenthood and marriage at the same time, and if you're honest, that's how you
feel. And a lot of sitcoms that I've seen distill it to its perfect moments,
where the parent is making just the right decision because America's watching
this parent, and they want them to do just the right thing with perfect
evenness. And I guess people get kind of a satisfaction from watching a
beautifully written, balanced parental moment. But I find that really boring,
and I certainly don't find it funny. So the people in our show, yeah, they
make awful decisions. And they don't connect together as a stream of
parenthood or philosophy. At least it doesn't feel that way. Maybe if we
look back over what we've done with our kids, we go, `Yeah, I guess we're
doing OK. I guess we basically have a hand on the pillar. We're still
pointing in the right direction.'
GROSS: I've seen three episodes of your show. I have an advance DVD. But it
seems to me in the first episode, the daughter figures into it more than any
other two I've seen. And I'm wondering if she's going to be like Richie on
"The Dick Van Dyke Show" where, like, there's some episodes where they have a
daughter and some--I mean like where there's some episodes where they have a
son and some episodes where they don't really seem to have a son.
LOUIS C.K.: Right.
GROSS: Is it going to be that way with your daughter on the show?
LOUIS C.K.: No, we don't want it to be. And it's hard to shoot with a child
because, well, you know, the funny thing is that's what we thought. It's
really not the kid herself, it's the laws governing usage of her. In other
words, she can only stay till a certain hour. Once you open her clock, you've
got it--it's running fast.
LOUIS C.K.: And so we actually did one episode that is all hers. It's called
"Discipline," and I'm not sure exactly when it airs, but it's one that I
actually wrote with Pamela Adlon. We wrote it together. And it's about
trying--a couple trying to clamp down and discipline their child. So...
GROSS: So did that episode of disciplining the daughter draw on any real
experiences in your life that you could tell us about.
LOUIS C.K.: Sure. Well, actually the story came from Pamela because she's
got three girls. Pamela Adlon who plays my wife. And she's got this wild
brood of three kids, and one of them was really--she's just been nuts, you
know. She's sort of like a changeling. She turned into this crazy person.
And so Pamela and her husband started trying timeouts. And, at one point,
Pamela told me this amazing story of putting her daughter in the laundry room
and holding the door closed. And her daughter's pounding on the door and
screaming, `I'm sorry!' You know, like angrily, screaming herself hoarse while
Pamela's on the other side of the door, you know, bawling, trying to keep her
in there. I mean, there's just so much trauma in just trying to do the
simplest thing with your kid. And she told me this beautiful story. And
we--and also that undercutting--it was sort of half her story, half mine. My
side of the story was that every time I try to discipline my kids, my wife
would undercut. Like I would be locked in a battle of wills with my daughter,
and to the point--here's the point it got to. I was giving my daughter a
bath, and I said, `It's time to brush your teeth.' And she said, `No.' She
just refused to brush her teeth. And I said, `OK. If you don't brush your
teeth, then no books tonight. You're not going to get any book.' And she
said, `Yes books, and no brush my teeth.' She's like a monkey, you know, since
she's learned to talk. And I'm like, `No, no. No brushing teeth, no book.
It's that simple.' `Yes books. No brushing teeth.' And so--and then she said,
`You brush my teeth.' This is how it goes, see? It's like really tricky.
`You brush my teeth.' And I'm thinking, is that compromise? Am I giving in by
brushing her teeth? And I just made a quick judgment and said, `No, you brush
your teeth or no books.' And then my wife said from the other room, my wife
was listening, and my wife said, `Can you please come in here for a minute?'
And I go, `No. I can't.' And then my daughter said, `Yes. Go talk to mama.
Go talk to mama right now.' Because she knew what's going to happen. So I go
in the other room, and my wife says, `It's not a good idea to use books as a
weapons. They're important to her. And also I brush her teeth sometimes for
her. And you should do that.' And I go, `No. That's not the point. The
point is I'm right no matter what. You have to go with me. You can't do this
to me.' And so I go in the other room, and she says, `What did mama say?' I'm
like, `Nothing. She didn't say anything.' `No, yes. She said that I don't
have to. She said I don't have to.' She knew it.
So that's what--this episode is a combination of that experience of mine and
Pamela's with the timeouts. And it was a really interesting one to shoot
because I give this kid a timeout in a closet of our apartment. And we were
really afraid that--we expected that the audience would boo me and that I
would be a tyrant throughout the episode, because it's me trying to have this
iron fist of this house. But when we shot it, people were cheering me and
applauding me and they were booing Pamela and they were booing the kid. They
booed the kid. So we're constantly shocked by people's reaction. That's
really one of the funnest parts is being surprised.
GROSS: What were some of the sitcoms that you grew up with? The ones that
you particularly liked and the ones that you particularly did not?
LOUIS C.K.: I always liked "All in the Family," I loved. And I would always
love "The Honeymooners" when I would see it in reruns and stuff. Even more so
later in life, "The Honeymooners." But I just thought "All in the Family" was
such an awesome show. And I also liked "Good Times." And also "Barney
Miller," which doesn't have much relation to this show, expect for that the
people on "Barney Miller" are very ordinary. You would never see a guy like
Jack Soo being the star of a sitcom today or the dude that played
Wojciehowicz, you know. Those were just average Americans. And so there was
a lot I loved about that show, too.
I didn't like shows like, and this is just personal, subjective, I don't judge
these shows. They just didn't hit with me. Shows like "Cheers," when I
started getting older, and "Frasier" and those shows and "Friends." I just
don't connect with those shows. They're very slick, and they're very perfect.
And the people are pretty, and they're shot very nicely, and they stop feeling
like these raw, theatrical productions that I grew up watching, these Norman
Leer shows where people are just dropping wild, wild statements in front of an
audience and that you just feel the kinetic energy of this kind of honesty.
That's what I thought that sitcoms were supposed to be. So when they became
this kind of trading of Harvard-written writerly lines and, you know,
cuteness, I stopped being interested. That's just personal.
GROSS: Louis C.K. writes and stars in the new HBO sitcom, "Lucky Louie."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Louis C.K. talks about writing for Conan O'Brien and Chris
Rock. And Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biography of a homeless man written
by his social worker. It was a best seller in Great Britain and was just
published in the States.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with comic Louis C.K. He's written for Conan O'Brien,
David Letterman and Chris Rock. Now he's writing and starring in a new HBO
sitcom, "Lucky Louie," which premiered last Sunday night. He plays a husband,
father and part-time auto mechanic who's having trouble making ends meet.
When we left off, he was telling us that he liked working-class sitcoms like
"All in the Family," "The Honeymooners" and "Barney Miller," but he didn't
relate to shows like "Cheers," "Frasier" and "Friends" because the characters
are very attractive and their dialogue sounded like it was written by Harvard
The thing is, you know, you're talking about these working-class type of
sitcoms that you really related to and not relating to the more, you know,
middle class or upper middle class ones. Though "Cheers" was officially
LOUIS C.K.: Officially.
GROSS: Officially, yeah. But, you know, your character, Louie, on the sitcom
is a part-time mechanic.
LOUIS C.K.: Hm-mmm.
GROSS: Your parents met at Harvard from what I read. So if they met at
Harvard and were going to school there...
LOUIS C.K.: Hm-mmm. Well, my mother was from Michigan, and she went to
school in Michigan, but she went to Harvard for her summer school one year.
And that's where she met my dad who was a Mexican migrant student, I guess
you'd call it. He was going to take some grad school classes there. They're
not like two well-raised rich people who went to Harvard. My mother sort of
saved and bought herself some classes at Harvard. My dad came up to try to
finish his schooling there. But my dad is--I mean, when I was growing up, he
was still trying to pursue a degree, I think, and my mom raised us. She
taught school part time and she worked as a computer programmer, which she
still does today. And so she really supported us.
And actually my parents were divorced when I was about 10 years old, so I was
really raised by my mom, single mom with four kids. And we rented the lower
half of a two-family house, cramped little place. And so we didn't have
anything. When I was growing up, we had, no money. And a memory that my
sisters and I always laugh about is saying to my mother, `Mom, I'm hungry.'
And she'd say, `Well, make your self a bologna sandwich.' And I'd go, `Well, I
don't like bologna.' `Well, then you're not that hungry.' So that's how we
were raised. And notice that I'm making myself the bologna sandwich. My
mother never made us any. We had a microwave which meant we made our own
meals. And it was just that we fended for ourselves. She worked all day, she
had a huge amount of work to do raising us. So everyone had to sort of pitch
in. And so I watched her go through a lot of times where there wasn't a lot,
and she educated herself. She went and got herself computer experience and
started to do that.
GROSS: Well, when you were getting raised by your mother, and she had four
kids and worked all the time, were you sympathetic to that? Were you like
angry with her because she wasn't like cooking you dinner or were you
sympathetic and therefore helpful to the fact...
LOUIS C.K.: I tried to be.
GROSS: ...you know, because you saw how difficult it was for her.
LOUIS C.K.: I did. Absolutely. And I always thought of that. She never
made us feel guilty or anything, but I always felt like--we all felt like we
were in the effort together. We'd all go shopping together, you know, and my
mother, you know, she was very kind. So like, if you got to go shopping with
her, it was great because she'd always just--she'd always get a bag of cookies
and open them while we shopped. We'd eat them while we shopped. So I liked
her. I like my mom. She's nice. So, yes, I did sympathize with her, and
actually I didn't go to college because she had three girls in college when I
graduated high school, and she was really struggling mightily because Ronald
Reagan was president and he didn't care what you were coping with. You just
had to pay on your own.
So when I graduated high school, I was such a lousy student that I thought I
can't just go like some of my friends that had more money were just going to
college just to go drink because that's what you do next. But I really
couldn't see doing that because I knew she couldn't really afford it. So I
just passed, didn't continue school because I didn't want to cost her the
money. I guess that was the one thing I did that was the most sympathetic for
GROSS: How did you end up in comedy? Your first career, I think, was working
as a mechanic.
LOUIS C.K.: I do--well, yeah, and it wasn't really a career. I did it while
I was doing comedy at night. I would go work in garages, fixing mufflers and
brakes and stuff. And I love fixing cars. I actually did think at one point
that that's what I wanted to do because I was able to do it. But I just loved
stand-up my whole life, and I grew up in Boston and I heard something on the
radio about open mike night at a comedy club that anyone that wanted to could
go in and try it. And as soon as I knew that existed, I went and tried it.
And I was very bad and unfunny, and I bombed. And I tried it again, and I was
bad. But I just kept at it, and, yeah, it was an obsession with me. And when
I was in junior high school, I did a lot of drugs and I got in a lot of
trouble. So I think that when I started doing that stuff, my mother was
unbelievably supportive. I lived at home at some ages that I shouldn't have.
I would leave and then come back. And she was always very helpful because I
just wasn't any longer a criminal drug addict. She was so happy that I was
doing anything legal. Very pleased.
GROSS: Eventually David Letterman hired you to be a writer on his show, and
this is after you were a guest on his show. Did you so impress him as a guest
that he hired you as a writer?
LOUIS C.K.: Nah, it was kind of the other way around because I had written on
"Conan." I was there from the beginning of the show. Me and a bunch of guys
got hired as writers before it was on the air, so I got to launch that show
with the first writing staff.
LOUIS C.K.: Which was a singularly great experience. And after I was gone
from there, I'd been there for two years and I left, and then the Letterman
show kind of heard that I was sort of one of the good writers on "Conan," so
they wanted to snap me up. And they offered me a writing job. And I said,
`You got to let me be a stand-up on the show first.' Because that was my dream
to do stand-up on Letterman. So they let me do stand-up on the show first,
and the following week, I was hired as a writer.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He writes and stars in the new HBO
sitcom, "Lucky Louie."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He writes and stars in the new HBO sit
com "Lucky Louie." He's also written for Conan O'Brien, David Letterman and
Let's talk about being one of the first writers on Conan O'Brien's show and
launching the show. You know, just to refresh everybody's memory, when Conan
O'Brien's show started, everybody thought he would fail, like who is this guy
and why was he chosen to get this prestigious, late-night spot that everybody
wanted? So what were some of the things that you tried to think of as a
writer to help establish like who he was and what the show's identity was?
LOUIS C.K.: That's funny. We really didn't think that way. We just were--we
were very young. I mean, everybody was young. When I met Conan, he was 30,
which amazes me now. And Robert Smigel, who was the head of that show, was
29. And I was 25, I guess. And the writers ran the range between those ages.
But anyway, we just were trying to be really funny, and Conan, what I really
admire about him more than anything was how much courage he had then because
he really was an unpracticed, uncertain performer. But he tried bits that
I've seen really veteran comedian and broadcasters walk away from because
they're just too risque and too strange. But he goes, `Sure, I'll try that.'
For all of his greenness, he was like, `Yeah, I'll try that completely
ridiculous bit that will probably bomb.' And he would stand there and sell it.
And that was...
GROSS: Can you give us an example?
LOUIS C.K.: Yeah, there was a `Last night on "Conan O'Brien,"' and then we'd
show these really lush action sequences that would make it look like Conan's
show was like "Dallas" with cliffhangers at the end of every show. And we had
like cars going off cliffs that we--you know, that we borrowed footage from
like, you know, stock footage companies. But, yeah, him and--they'd be having
fist fights and, you know, women dressed in, you know, gowns yelling at each
other and stuff. That stuff was actually pretty easy to laugh at, pretty fun.
But then I'd hang Conan out to dry on other stuff like, oh, what's a good
example? I remember--it's kind of an important thing for a writer to go
through to watch somebody bomb with your material and feel the empathy for
them and realize the positions you put them in. We did a show, I think, on
"Conan" that I created called actual items where we'd do the thing where you
show small-town news, and you're amazed at how silly the items are and you'd
say how they're real. But we would make ours up, so they'd be ridiculous, you
know. We had one that I wrote that was for coins. Sometimes in like TV
Guide, you'd see old coins for sale that you can mail away for. And the thing
said, `These coins are so old that you could buy slaves with them.' And, you
know, awfully offensive joke. And he didn't really want to do it. But I
said, `Come on. Don't be a baby.' And he did it, and it got roundly booed.
And he sat there with a big smile on his face and he just took that boo. And
I was sitting safely by the doors. Nobody was bothering me. I learned at
that moment, like, it's just not fair to make other people bomb with your
stuff as cute as you think it is.
GROSS: You used to write for "The Chris Rock Show," his HBO variety kind of
show. And I think people are probably very surprised to hear that because so
much of Chris Rock's humor is about being black. And you're not black. So
did you end up writing sketches that are--or writing monologues that are about
being black? And if so, what's that like?
LOUIS C.K.: Well, it's funny. When I started writing at Chris Rock, I think
a lot of us, the white writers, were conscious of it. And at one point, Chris
said, `Stop thinking of this as a black show. This is not a black show. Just
write the weird stuff you did at "Conan" and write it here.' And once I
started thinking that way, I did. And there are some things that I would
write that were, like we did this thing with this guy--Mario Joyner would come
on and play a lot of characters--that we did an interview with this guy that I
wrote where he's complaining to Chris that black people are segregated still,
that there's places that black people can't go because they're black. And he
shows hidden camera footage of himself trying to get into a restaurant and
they kick him out just because he's black. And we showed the footage, though,
and he's naked, completely naked. And so he walks in the restaurant and
people are angry and throw knives. He says, `You see that? They threw me out
because I'm black.' And he's trying to get a cab and nobody'll stop, and he's
completely naked. And so--but to me that was the silly Conan humor, but, you
know, done on a show that had, you know, that was more about being black, you
know. So that, it was the same kind of silly stuff, but...
GROSS: But did you get grief for that? From people saying, `Oh, you're
making light of real discrimination?'
LOUIS C.K.: I never heard it. I just heard loud laughter from Chris' mostly
black audience. Thought it was hilarious. And we'd do bits on the show that
had nothing to do with being black. A lot of them. Like we had a fake PSA,
like those Latter-Day Saints PSAs, a black guy and a white guy see each other
on a dark street. And they're both scared. And you hear their interior
monologue. You know, `What is he doing in my neighborhood?' You know, `Is he
going to rob me?' Those were really funny to me, too, because, like, the black
guy's worried the white guy's going to rob him. You know, come on. Really.
So the black guy and the white guy meet on the street and they're both kind of
scared. And they say, `What do you do want? You want something?' `Maybe I do
want something.' And then, all of a sudden, they start making out, like just
kissing really. And we got this interracial gay couple to shoot this with us.
And then the voice over says `Gay sex brings men together of all races.' And
that it's like, you know, `Gay sex, the' whatever. And it was brought to you
by the Church of Latter-Day Gay Sex. That was HBO. You could do that.
Anyway, that got about four minutes of sustained laughter and screaming from
his audience. That was one of my favorite moments of my life, probably, when
we first showed that to Chris' audience, and they just went berserk. It was
GROSS: Let's get back to your new sitcom on HBO, "Lucky Louie." You play a
character called Louie, you are a real person named Louie. So, you know,
there's a history of this now on TV, and I know that you're friends with
Seinfeld. You used to open for him, I think. Right?
LOUIS C.K.: Years ago.
GROSS: Years ago. OK. Did you ask him for advice on, like, things to be
careful of when you're doing a show--when you're doing a sitcom with your name
in the title, where the line between you and the character is a little blurry?
LOUIS C.K.: I guess I don't care if there's a line or not. Like, I don't
feel any--I don't think it's important that there be a line. I did call
Jerry. I used to open for him back when I was very young. And he gave me a
lot of really great advice back then. He was very giving that way. And I
lost touch with him. I didn't know him really during his having his show.
But I'm good for one call. Like if I called Jerry, he'll call me back, as
long as I keep it down to like once every two years. Like I can't just keep
calling Jerry. The best advice I ever got from Jerry was when I was like 19,
and I opened for him in a theater and there was like an amazing audience. And
I would do a joke, and instead of laughing, they would applaud. And I'd never
had that happen before. Like, long applause breaks. And I didn't know what
to do during the applause. I'd just sit there going, `What do I do now?' So I
asked Jerry, `What do you do during applause?' And he says, `You have to stay
in the bit. They're applauding and reacting to what you just said, so just
stay in that moment. Just inhabit that moment until they're done applauding.'
It was the best comedy advice I ever got. And I still use it on the show. I
mean, I tell all the actors on my show that because the nature of our show is
that it's shot in front of an audience and that the audience mitigates the
performance, so when people say something explosive, which we often do on this
show, often the audience goes crazy and they have to wait it out. And a lot
of people weren't used to that. And they said, `What do I do?' And I just
said, `Just stay in it. Stay in the moment. That thing you said that got
that response, your face should still be saying it. And just hold it.'
GROSS: Your show, in a way, has the look of an earlier sitcom from the
earlier days of television, maybe like "The Honeymooners" era or something
where it's kind of shot almost in real time. Though it's not shot on film. I
think it's shot on video.
LOUIS C.K.: That's right.
GROSS: But is there a certain look that you were going for?
LOUIS C.K.: No, definitely because when I started--I did research when I
started making this show. And I wanted to do a show that felt really real and
that was just based on the comedy. And I went back and I looked at "All in
the Family." And I realized that at a time where they were shooting a lot of
television on film, that was shot on videotape. "Mary Tyler Moore" was shot
on film. And it's very nice-looking. Very lush. But there's something
disconnecting about film. Like you're watching an image that was projected
onto celluloid and it's not real. But videotape just feels immediate and
naked and very raw. So when I watched the "All in the Family" episodes, I
realized this show had a very raw, beautifully naked feel to it. And I
actually called Norman Leer. I got him on the phone. Because somebody told
me that Norman Leer shot on video because they forced him to for budget
reasons. And I called him and I asked him. He said, `Absolutely not. They
wanted me to shoot "All in the Family" on film and I demanded a videotape
because it felt like you were there, like a theatrical experience. And
because it made the interaction with the audience seem real. And then I
contacted the people that made "Roseanne" because "Roseanne" was the last show
shot on videotape that's a sitcom. And they said the same thing. Roseanne
demanded that it be video. And she said she liked it because it's like the
news. It's like you're watching the news. You're not watching some fancy
show. You're just watching people that happen to be on the news. So we got
the same videotape that, like, the football games are shot on or the news is
shot on. And we made the set's--we got "The Honeymooners"' blueprint,
actually, of their set.
GROSS: You did?
LOUIS C.K.: Yeah. I went and found that and looked at their dimensions and
studied them. And our set is actually half the size of Ralph's set because he
was enormous and also he shot with cameras that had much different lenses. So
things looked a lot smaller back then. But anyway we wanted to make a set
where there's no tchotchkes. I just think there's so much put into like the
realism of sitcom sets that it takes away from the funny. When you watch
sitcoms that are shot on sets that there's tons of design choices on the walls
and Williams-Sonoma and throw pillows and a big couch and that stuff, I find
it very distracting. So what I asked for was just a set where it's just blank
walls, like "The Honeymooners," just nothing. And I wanted to be in a little
box and have nowhere to go and have the energy just stay trapped. And we
don't have a couch. We're the only sitcom you'll ever see these days that
doesn't have a sofa.
GROSS: You have a kitchen table.
LOUIS C.K.: We have a kitchen table and chairs. And so people have to sit up
right or stand and really hurl at each other. It makes it very
confrontational. And everything's hard wood and linoleum. And if you look at
the bedroom on our set, the bed isn't in the center, you know, these master
bedrooms that these rich sitcom people live in with a nice table and lamp on
each side. Ours, the bed's shoved over to the wall which makes it very hard
to shoot bedroom scenes. And there's a scabbed-in door like the landlord just
put in some drywall and faked the door into our apartment. It's a really
miserable place that we live in. But it echoes where I lived when I lived in
Greenpoint with my wife and kid. We lived in this disgusting place where
you're smoking your neighbor's cigarette constantly through the wall, and, you
know, when you have no choices. And there's a big transformer outside of our
window that's going eeeeeh, which I wanted to actually put that sound in
throughout the soundtrack of the show.
GROSS: That really is annoying, though. That's an annoying sound.
LOUIS C.K.: It's horrible. Yeah, we couldn't have had that. But so we
really worked hard to make this that way, to make it realist but also very
theatrical and flat-looking. We want people to be focused on the performers
and the writing.
GROSS: Well, good luck with it and thank you so much for talking with us.
LOUIS C.K.: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Louis C.K. writes and stars in the new HBO sitcom "Lucky Louie." It
premiered last Sunday night.
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biography of a homeless
man written by his social worker.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Stuart: A Life
Backwards," a book about the life of a homeless man as told by
his social worker
TERRY GROSS, host:
The new biography, "Stuart: A Life Backwards," describes the life of a
homeless man through the eyes of the social worker who became his sometimes
friend. "Stuart" was published in Great Britain last year. It became a best
seller, won the Guardian first book prize and was short-listed for both the
Samuel Johnson prize and the Whitbred Biography prize. Book critic Maureen
Corrigan investigates the unlikely success of a book.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Stuart Shorter may have been a disaster of a human being, but he turned out to
be a natural genius when it came to book editing. Shorter spent roughly half
of his life of 32 years either in prison or on the streets. Indeed he met his
biographer Alexander Masters when Alexander came upon him drunk and crumpled
up in a doorway on a shopping street in Cambridge, England. Alexander was
then working in a homeless outreach center. And he became intrigued by
Stuart's erratic combination of filth and charisma, good manners and
knife-wielding violence. Over the next few years, Alexander began to
interview Stuart about his life as a glue sniffing alcoholic who detoured
occasionally into heroin, psychosis, armed robbery and hostage taking.
Alexander wrote up a first draft of a biography. Stuart read it and issued
this quintessential working-class British verdict: It's bullocks boring. He
told Alexander that he droned on too much with academic quotes and
sociological research. And then Stuart gave an inspired piece of direction to
Alexander. "Write it the other way around. Make it more like a murder
mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards." With this
editorial advice, quoted on page six of the biography, Stuart particularly
nails the attention of every parent reader out there, anxious to find the
vaccination that will inoculate their own children from devolving into a
Stuart. "What murdered the boy I was?" Those words also turn out to be
Stuart's boffo exit line. For as Alexander quickly tells us, Stuart stepped
in front of a speeding passenger train before he could ever read the final
The great thing about the Brits is that they may be sentimental about dogs and
gardening, but they're much less pious about their fellow human beings than we
Americans are. As I've just noted, there's no redemptive ending to this
biography. You know if Hollywood gets its hands on this book and the film
rights have been sold, Robin Williams will play Stuart as the misty-eyed
lovable tramp. But Alexander's biography of Stuart is exasperated with him to
the point of nastiness. Alexander states many times that he find his subject
a repulsive nuisance whom he wishes would off himself. Despite Alexander's
disgust, however, he can't help but keep picking at the scabrous mystery of
Stuart. The result is a strange and absorbing helter-skelter biography filled
with moments of horror, everyday tedium and black humor, visually augmented by
sketches of bleak locales, such as the underground parking garage Stuart
called home for a while.
Drawing on his larger experiences as a social worker, Alexander also serves up
the defeatist anecdotes about the legal and social services systems, including
a hilarious narrative describing his efforts to garner publicity about the
case of two charity workers who've been wrongly imprisoned. After weeks of
planning and fund raising, Alexander organizes a tent city of the homeless to
camp out in London in support of the workers. But his demonstrators keep
wandering off in search of vodka, drugs and sex. When Jack Straw, the home
secretary, deigns to show up at the encampment, Alexander tells us that Straw
is met by a reception committee consisting solely of a middle-aged drunk and
two deaf homeless people engrossed in stealing each other's hearing aids.
There are indeed some real answers in "Stuart" as to what murdered a chipper
young boy into a wreck of a man. But the world here isn't set reassuringly
right again, Agatha Christie fashion, once Alexander unmasks the demons that
plagued Stuart's childhood. Too much is cosmically out of kilter. In a fit
of despair a few years into writing about Stuart, Alexander gets drunk, wakes
up with a hangover and thinks, "I can't hope to justify or explain Stuart, I
realize. Just staple him to the page." Alexander does succeed in stapling
Stuart to the page, but the triumph of this odd biography is that it always
gives the reader the sense of Stuart perversely wiggling out of those staples.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Stuart: A Life Backwards" by Alexander Masters.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a 1961 recording by Errol Garner. He was born 85 years ago
(Soundbite of music)
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