May 19, 2014
Guest: Louis C.K.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Louis C.K., is now commonly acknowledged as one of the greatest comics of his generation. His FX series "Louie" started its fourth season a couple of weeks ago, after a 19-month hiatus. Episodes Five and Six air back to back tonight.
Louis C.K. created, writes, directs and stars in the series as a standup comic named Louie who, like Louis C.K., is the divorced father of two girls and shares custody with their mother. Louis C.K. had prominent roles in two films last year - Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" and David O. Russell's "American Hustle." This year he hosted "Saturday Night Live" for the second time.
Let's start with a scene from Episode Two of this season's "Louie." The show often features guest comics playing themselves. In this episode, Jerry Seinfeld has asked Louie to open for him at a benefit for the National Heart Alliance. It's a last-minute request; the comic who was supposed to open had just backed out. Louie agrees and shows up in his black T-shirt, defined it's a black tie event, and the guests are super-rich. Knowing he's all wrong for this crowd, he walks uncomfortably onstage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "LOUIE")
LOUIS C.K.: Uh, hi there, good - thank you very much, thank you. Give yourselves a great time for coming - give yourselves a round - for coming out, good job for you guys. Hey, it's cold outside. I mean, what is it, you know, it was pretty warm. I don't know, it's crazy.
Uh, do you ever - chickens are dumb, right? They don't even - how long have we been eating chickens, and they don't get - they're not a little wary at this point? They don't - haven't risen up. Because there's been no Martin Luther Chicken.
If there was one of those. You know when you go to the supermarket, not that any of you would ever do your own shopping, I know you guys don't shop yourselves, of course.
Because you all have slaves somehow still. No, I mean, you know, I just mean people that work for you who you don't pay.
GROSS: OK, Louis C.K. welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's great to have your show back on the air. That's such a great example, I guess, of what can happen when you're in front of an audience that isn't your audience, and you don't know what you're doing there, and neither do they.
C.K.: Yeah, yes.
GROSS: What's the worst example of that happening to you?
C.K.: Jeez, when I was a young comic, I often ran into situations like that. I think I remember doing shows in, like, country clubs once in a blue moon. I'd be miscast in one of those. And that's always what it felt like. It's beyond, like, not having stage presence. It was like being in the wrong place, being somewhere I just didn't belong.
GROSS: Did you insult the audience like you did in this?
C.K.: No, I never did that. I don't think I've ever done that. Well, you know what, though, actually this one - I'm remembering better. This show came a little bit from a benefit I did do. I did a benefit that was in a huge place, at the Jacob Javits Center. It was way too big.
GROSS: That's a big convention center in New York.
C.K.: Massive, and comedy is an intimate thing, and this was a benefit for one of these, you know, huge charities that almost becomes like a Wal-Mart, you know, one of these massive charities. And Elton John was on before me, and Elton John played, like, three of his best songs.
C.K.: Like "Tiny Dancer" and, you know, and they ignored him. They talked over him like he was, like a lounge piano player. And I couldn't - I was really startled. And I went onstage, and I scolded them for that. I was like, you know, Elton John was up here, and you guys just didn't care. And they laughed. And then I sort of made fun of them for being rich, and then it got cold really fast.
C.K.: Like I lost them completely, and I couldn't get them back. And this is about a year ago. This isn't that long ago, totally lost the audience, and it just felt like the power and the wealth in the room created a really strange vacuum that I couldn't fill.
GROSS: The Martin Luther Chicken joke...
GROSS: Did you write that for this occasion, or have you actually ever used that?
C.K.: Yeah, I did. I never would've - I mean, I never tell jokey jokes like that.
GROSS: I know.
C.K.: So when you're out of your element, when you're told you can't do what you usually do, like be clean, you just become a bad comedian, you know, if you're told you can't do what comes naturally. So that's sort of what happened there. But I thought that audience, which was all extras, they did a pretty good job. I mean, after the Martin Luther Chicken joke, you can hear the bottom fall out of the room. That's a very special sound.
C.K.: It's not just silence. You hear people turn to each other. There's sort of like this (makes noise). You can feel it, even hearing it now on your show. You - it's an amazing feeling that I think only comedians experience, which is the an audience really dropping from quietly listening to aghast silence. You can hear that.
GROSS: And when that happens, do you feel like why don't we end the agony for you and for the audience and just exit?
C.K.: Well, you can't. You've got a job to do. You have to stay up there. That's always - when you start doing standup, that's the big thing is filling the time, is that you've got time to do. You know, you can't just leave because there's probably somebody on after you, and they're not ready yet. And, you know, there's a quota, there's a show to fill.
So being onstage when nobody wants you there and not being able to leave, those are the early - that's what comedy is like when you're first starting.
GROSS: Just one more thing about this, this scene. Like you show up in your kind of signature black T-shirt and sneakers.
C.K.: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: In a taxicab, and everybody else is getting out of, like, limos, they have bodyguards, they're gazillionaires. They're wearing black tie. Do you consider your black T-shirt a costume that you wear for your show "Louie," or do you wear that all the time in real life?
C.K.: You know what? I've gotten really tired of it onstage, and I've done so many, like, standup specials where I'm wearing that shirt and the same jeans and everything, and I'm a little sick of it now. So actually this season on the show, I'm wearing a bunch of colored T-shirts. I mean, it's not a big shift, you know, a green T-shirt instead of a black one.
But yeah, I've started to - but now in regular life, it's just - it's cotton. I love cotton. I have a very sweaty, misshapen body. So I don't - I can't wear like a really nice, structured shirt out of some kind of linen or something that needs to stay stiff. I just need cotton that just smooshes with me. So I feel good when I'm wearing that. I wish I was a guy in a suit. I wish I was a guy in a suit. That's what I thought I was going to be when I started doing standup.
GROSS: You did?
C.K.: Yeah, I figured I'm going to wear a suit and, you know, that's what I thought I would wear, a tie even. But it's never worked for me, yeah.
GROSS: It's so good to have your show "Louie" back on the air. And when you went on a hiatus, on an indefinite hiatus, I thought that might be code for you were thinking over whether you wanted to even come back. What did you do during that hiatus to kind of recharge the show and get the kinds of ideas that you wanted to have before starting up again?
C.K.: Well, I wanted the show to feel new again. I wanted - I felt like I did three seasons that were all one spurt, you know, and that felt good, and then I wanted to forget the show. So I took time to forget about it. I aggressively forgot the show existed for a few months. And I went on tour and did standup, and I did other work. I acted in some movies and stuff.
But I stayed busy, but I just forgot the show existed. And then after about only really a month off, like vacation, I started to think about the show again and think about, like, the first episode being like a pilot again. That's sort of the way I approached this season, was like do a show that, it's brand new. Even though I'm bringing back some characters and stuff, I tried to start from scratch.
So I spent way more time writing the show than I ever have before, like thinking of the stories and plotting them out, and I spent a year doing the season instead of - usually I spent about six months or less from the beginning of the writing until the end of the editing. It's usually six months. This time it was a year.
GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K. Two episodes of his series "Louie" air back to back tonight on FX. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K., and his show "Louie" is back on the air after a hiatus. I want to play a scene from another episode of "Louie," and this an episode in which you've been trying to go out with one of the waitresses in the comedy club where you work, but she keeps turning you down. But another waitress keeps asking you to hang out, and she seems smart and really funny, but she's also heavy. She's, you know, somewhere between chubby and fat, depending on the word you want to use.
And you keep coming up with excuses about why you're busy, and finally you agree to spend some time with her, you're walking with her along the river, and she starts talking about how difficult it is to be a fat girl and single, and then you try to reassure her that she's not fat. She's played - her name is Vanessa in the show, and she's played by Sara Baker. So here you are reassuring her that she's not fat.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "LOUIE")
C.K.: (As himself) You know, Vanessa, you're a very, really beautiful...
SARAH BAKER: (As Vanessa) Come on. If I was a very, really beautiful, then you would've said yes when I asked you out. I mean come on, Louie, be honest here. You know what's funny? I flirt with guys all the time, and I mean the great looking ones, like the really high-caliber studs, they flirt right back, no problem, because they know their status will never be questioned. But guys like you never flirt with me because you get scared that maybe you should be with a girl like me.
(As Vanessa) And why not? You know, if you were standing over there looking at us, you know what you'd see?
C.K.: (As himself) What?
BAKER: (As Vanessa) That we totally match. We're actually a great couple together.
GROSS: That's a scene from Louis C.K.'s show "Louie." I think that's a terrific scene. There's a lot more of it. We just played a short excerpt. And I think there's so much truth in what she's saying about how certain men will only be comfortable hanging out with attractive women and certainly will only date a really attractive woman, even if they're not attractive themselves. Do you know what I mean?
GROSS: And the way you've written your character in this, he's just, like, totally pigged out.
GROSS: You know, he's had like two meals, two full meals back to back with a really fat friend of his, a male friend. And so it's like, you know, it's so hypocritical that he'd be uncomfortable walking with a fat girl when, you know, one of his good friends is, like, super-overweight and...
C.K.: Yeah, yeah, and he's also - him and his friend, that's my brother actually on the show, Bobby, we're looking over it, around it, at women on the street and wishing, you know, like we're looking at candy through a window, like though they are very untouchable to us, you know. So it's a weird pecking order.
GROSS: So how did you start thinking about writing that part for the role of Vanessa? Had you had a similar conversation with somebody? Was somebody you know telling you her point of view? Did you just kind of figure this out yourself?
C.K.: I actually, I actually had a conversation many, many years ago with a guy who was heavy and kind of, you know, big eyebrows and, you know, kind of a guy somebody might, you know, describe as a troll. And he's - he just said, and you're not used to hearing people talk like this, he said it's not fair that people aren't attracted to me and that I'm just excluded from certain basic human joys that everybody else partakes in.
And it's true. I mean, there's always - everybody's in that position somewhere relatively, not everybody, some people just seem to be universally attractive, but, I mean, I know that that feels like too. I've been several weights in my life, and I know what it feels like to just feel like you're in the outside looking in of the real party in life, you know?
And it's - there's a lot to be said about it. That's why I was attracted to the idea to write about, because for one thing it's sad. It's sad that people can't connect because they're not, quote-unquote, attracted to each other.
GROSS: So at what point in your life did you arrive at the point of thinking the kinds of things that you just said? Is that a recent realization, or have you been thinking that for a long time?
C.K.: I've always thought about it because, I mean, when I was in - when I was a kid in school, which is the cruelest time of those years, you know, I didn't - I mean, I don't know, in school you're confronted with kids saying stuff to you. I was heavy for parts of my school life, or awkward at least. And then, and then when you grow up, then - you know, at least in high school kids make fun of you. After high school, you're just alone.
C.K.: Like there's just no people. You just get left alone. So I know what it feels to feel that way. I'm certainly not as heavy as some people, but I've been heavy, and I went bald at, like, 24. So I've always thought about it.
GROSS: So, but now that you're so well-known for being really funny, now that your show is so good, now that a lot of people talk about you, rightfully so, as perhaps the best comic of your generation, are you much sexier?
GROSS: Do you know what I mean?
C.K.: Jeez, I don't know. I mean, I don't - I'm not out being single, trying to get laid like I used to be. So I never had a heyday sexually. I mean, I've, you know - I'm, I've always been somewhat confident, even though I've been awkward and lumpy. I mean, when I was in junior high school, I used to ask every - I asked every girl out, every girl in the school.
And in high school too, the cheerleaders, everybody. It never bothered me to get rejected. So I would go up to the cutest girl in school...
GROSS: Good preparation for being a comic.
C.K.: Yeah, exactly. What's so bad? You go up to a very attractive girl who's got, like, you know, who's like a queen bee, just ask her out. And I was nobody, but I'd be like, hey, you want to go out with me? And you'd always get at least one second of sympathy and kind of, oh, that's - no, no, definitely not, but wow, you came up and asked me.
So I don't know, it never bothered me. And so, you know, I was married, and I've had girlfriends and, you know, casual sex, all kinds of stuff. And I'm in a relationship now. So I'm not out, you know, I don't know how sexy I am in the marketplace. I'm not testing it right now.
C.K.: Your character is always either getting picked up by a woman or, you know, trying to hit on a woman, and he's always winding up with women who are such trouble. Even if they're beautiful, there's something kind of mentally unstable about them. Why is that?
You know, I don't know. It sort of became a trend after a couple of seasons. I think the thing to me, what's fun to do with this guy on the show is just put stuff in front of him that he can't resist. You know what I mean? Here's a beautiful woman, and she doesn't seem like a good choice for you, but there you go. There you go doing that.
And I think I'm trying to beat something into his head that this season sort of is about making that turn, you know, like the episode about the model, he gets confronted with the idea that if you're intimate with a total stranger, it's a reckless thing to do. You know, getting into bed with somebody who you don't know, simply because you like their body or because they came on to you, these always lead to bad choices.
So I like showing a guy deal with bad choices. To me the show wouldn't be very interesting if I was sort of confronted with all very well-balanced women, and then we go and have coffee and everything works out well, and maybe we kiss, and that's the end of the episode. That's not that funny to me.
So I've been playing that game over and over again for a while because it's still fun for me. That's why I'm still telling that story. It certainly doesn't represent to me that that's what women are like. To me it's funny when people want a show to say this - to be an ideal of this is what we all feel is the best version of a woman and a man. I'm looking for weaknesses on both sides. It's fun.
But this season I sort of try to fall in love for real and try to have a more real relationship. So...
GROSS: At the risk of getting too personal, have you had your share of experiences where you wake up in the morning in a stranger's bed and think what have I done, why am I here?
C.K.: Yeah, oh sure. I usually don't make it to the morning in situations like that.
C.K.: I usually find a way to get the hell out of there, yeah. It's usually right after the act. I'm like wait, this is such a bad idea for both of us. I'm upset for myself and her. Yeah, I think every - almost every single time I've had sex with somebody for the first time, I should've waited, pretty much 100 percent of the time I should've waited a little. It never hurts.
You get two benefits. One is you realize you didn't want to after all, and there's something about her that, you know, you didn't want to get that intimate. Or you get more fond of each other, and there's more to connect about if you wait.
GROSS: Part of what you just said sounds like a rehearsal for when your daughters get just a little bit older.
GROSS: Like take it from me, you should wait.
C.K.: Yeah, exactly. Well, I do think we should tell our kids when they start making these choices, tell them the real thing. Like don't tell them hocus pocus, you know, spooky stories, you know, you're going to get - someone's going to kill you, Jesus is going to hate you if you do this. Tell them the truth, which is you're going to feel crappy if you do this.
C.K.: You're going to feel - it's not worth it. Just wait. It's a very big deal to be naked in a room with a human being - to be naked in a bed with another person. That is so intimate. That's such a big deal. And when you don't treat it like a big deal, you get confronted with how big a deal it is as a surprise when you're - you know, when that urge is over that got you there. So yeah, it took me, you know, about 1,000 repetitions of the mistake to sort of start to think of it as one, which I think is probably pretty common.
GROSS: Louis C.K. will be back in the second half of the show. Two new episodes of his series "Louie" air back to back tonight on FX. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic Louis C.K. His FX series "Louie" is about a comic who, like Louis C.K., is a divorced father of two young girls. Episodes Five and Six of Season Four air back to back tonight. Here's a clip from one of last week's episodes. Louie is with his two daughters in the New York City subway.
Just before getting on the train, Louie reminds the girls of the family subway rules. The rule if one of the girls gets separated is to stay put until daddy comes and gets you. Then the three of them get on a train, but just as the subway doors are closing, the younger daughter, Jane, steps out on to the platform. Louie yells for the train to stop, but it pulls out of the station without Jane.
Panicked, Louie then follows the subway rules. He and his older daughter get out at the next station and run to get the next train back to where Jane is. When they finally get there - out of breath and terrified - they're relieved to find Jane has obeyed the rules and stayed in place. Louis grabs her. And she repeats what she's been saying all morning, that she's asleep and still dreaming.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
C.K.: (as Louie) Jane. Jane.
URSULA PARKER: (as Jane) Daddy, it worked and this is all part of my dream.
C.K.: (as Louie) No. This is not a dream, Jane. It's not a dream. This is real. People get hurt. It's a dangerous world. Kids get stolen and they disappear forever, Jane. This is real. Bad things happen. You can't do stuff like that ever again. Just...
PARKER: (as Jane) Dad. Dad. It's enough.
C.K.: (as Louie) No.
PARKER: (as Jane) It's enough.
C.K.: (as Louie) Go ahead and cry. That's right. That's what you should be doing.
PARKER: (as Jane) No.
C.K.: (as Louie) You should be scared and crying. You know what could've happened? No. It's not OK. Never do something like that again. Never. Why did you to that? Why did you do that, Jane?
PARKER: (as Jane) I don't like this dream. This is a bad dream.
C.K.: (as Louie) No, it's not a good dream. You never do this again.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Oh, it's just so upsetting just to hear that.
C.K.: Yeah. Brutal.
C.K.: It's a comedy show, by the way.
C.K.: A comedy. This is a comedy.
GROSS: That's hysterical.
GROSS: No, but there's, you know, I mean parents are supposed to reassure, but I guess there's a time when you really got to like scare them and let them know there really is a dangerous world.
GROSS: But you're also trying to reassure them, it's OK. It's not - the bogeyman isn't in the room.
C.K.: Well, the bogeyman is not in the room, but you're too little to be alone. I mean you got to connect your kid to the fear they should be feeling, you know what I mean?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
C.K.: If your kid does something that's dangerous and they are not afraid, you've got to connect them to some fear. I mean you got - sometimes you got to make those connections for kids. You got to sort of go, here you are, here's what, this is the choice you just made, here's how you ought to feel about it. You know, sometimes that's empathy, like geez, you just slapped that baby and you're not - you don't seem upset or whatever.
C.K.: So that's - yeah.
GROSS: Do you remember like the first time you had to give that kind of speech to one of your daughters?
C.K.: Well, my kids are pretty bright and they were raised largely in New York City, so a lot of these things are already impulses for them. I mean and the subway rules are a real thing. When you're getting the rules, that's the tricky part because you want to say like, here's what'll happen if this terrifying thing happens, here's how you should act. Now it's never going to happen.
C.K.: You know, you want your kids to feel safe. You want them to feel confident that you're there for them. But, you know, I don't think that's an absolute, at a premium, kids must feel safe. They shouldn't feel safe if they're not. They should be aware of what maintains their safety. Why not? Why shelter them from that? You know, a very kid, like a three-year-old, you don't want to tell them, you know, things could happen to you. But this kid is supposed to be, you know, nine. And there is a story line in the season where this particular kid is kind of starting to become a real concern. In this scene I'm reacting emotionally. This was the easiest acting I ever did because the idea of it was so easy to channel, of how terrifying and horrible it would be if my kid did something like this.
GROSS: Part of the series "Louie" is about your character playing an active part in the lives of his daughters, co-parenting. You know, he's divorced.
GROSS: And you've maintained a really active role in your children's lives. You're divorced. When your parents divorced when you were young, you grew up in Mexico for the first seven years of your life. And your father - my understanding is your father stayed there and you haven't had a lot of contact with him. So he did not remain an active presence in your life in the way that you've remained an active presence in your children's lives. Did that...
C.K.: That's not entirely true.
GROSS: It's not entirely true? Oh, sorry.
C.K.: No we - I lived in Mexico 'til I was about seven and we moved to the states and when I was about 10 or 11, my parents got divorced. But we were all living in Massachusetts. And so when my parents got divorced, my father stayed in town, he was still around but he wasn't actively involved in raising me. He would just - he would come around sometimes but he wasn't - he wasn't in the day-to-day - he didn't have any custody of me. I never spent nights at his house or any extended period of time with him. I just lived with my mom and once in a while my dad would come around. But he was in America, so.
GROSS: Did that have an effect on what you wanted to do as a divorced parent?
C.K.: Oh definitely. I mean when I was married, I was very - and when we had two kids - I was very connected to the kids. As soon as I had one kid that sort of became the most important thing in my life was my kid's life. And so once I was with two kids, that was a big part of life to me was being with my kids and spending time with them and them expecting me there and taking part in their daily life. And actually, when my marriage to their mom started to, you know, come towards a place where it had to end, I was scared to because I assumed it would be like my dad, that I wouldn't really see them, that I wouldn't really be an active part of their lives anymore and that to me was not OK. To me, that wasn't something I was willing to do. And then I met a guy named Andrew Dice Clay, of all people.
C.K.: I'd never met Andrew...
GROSS: Mr. Sensitivity. Yes.
C.K.: Yes. Exactly. And I met Andrew at a show and we talked about marriage and he said - I said I didn't think my marriage was going well, but that I didn't want to get out because I wanted to be with the kids. And he told me, you know, hey, I'm divorced, I got kids. And he told me that he had found that in divorce life you stay in your kid's life. This is something I had to go out and learn, that there's a version of divorce life where you're partners and you're both taking care of the kids, the kids are spending equal time with each parent and there's balance there and there's harmony between the parents because they're not married in a bad marriage anymore. If you do it right it's a much better life for the kids.
So I was determined to make sure that my kids still felt to me in their lives after divorce. And that's what - and then I was astonished to find out that they wanted to be with me all the time, so - and that this was positive for them.
C.K.: You know, I kind of pictured that they'd be like, do we have to go to dad's smelly apartment? And also, that motivated me to make a good life for myself so that the kids would have a good own what they came to my place. So, yeah, and their mom is a good co-parent, we're good partners together, we're friends and we've both, I think, done a pretty good job of letting the kids feel like they have everything. They have a mom and they have a dad who get along and who are both there for them. And they have...
GROSS: So you have a better relationship than the divorced couple does on the series "Louie."
C.K.: Yeah. Yeah. I definitely - the mom and my kids' mom in real life, you know, the kids on "Louie" are nothing like my kids. All the stuff on the show has really departed into its own world based on the cast. The two girls that play my girls, I write towards them not towards my own kids.
C.K.: And Susan Kelechi Watson, that plays my ex-wife, she's got this amazing slow burn and this great way of staring me down.
C.K.: So that's what I've been writing towards.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Louis C.K. and his series "Louie" is back on FX. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Louis C.K. And his comedy series on FX "Louie" is back on the air. Episodes five and six will be shown tonight.
You've hosted "Saturday Night Live" twice?
GROSS: And it's great because your opening monologue, it doesn't seem like the kind of opening monologue that the script writers write for most of the guests. It seems like you bring your stories and you tell them as if you were the comic whose show it was. You don't do the typical guest host thing. And your monologues have been great. And I want to play an excerpt of the most recent one. And so this is Louis C.K. on "Saturday Night Live" and you manage to talk about religion in this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ")
C.K.: Personally, I don't think there's a heaven. I think maybe there's a God but there's no heaven. I think that's the best news you're going to get. You die, and you're like, hey, God. And he's like, yeah? And you're like, where's heaven? And he's like, I don't know who's telling people that.
C.K.: I'm supposed to make a universe, and then another whole amazing place for afterwards? You guys are greedy (beep) down there. Well, where do I go? Just stand in this room with me now.
C.K.: I don't like it. Tell me about it, I've been here since 1983, or whenever, I don't know when God started, but I'm not religious. I don't know if there's a God, but that's all I can say, honestly, is I don't know. Some people think that they know that there isn't. That's a weird thing to think you can know. Yeah, there's no God. Are you sure? Yeah, no, there's no God. How do you know? Because I didn't see him.
C.K.: There's a vast universe. You can see for about a hundred yards when there's not a building in the way. How could you possibly? Did you look everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom, where he goes sometimes? I haven't seen him. Yeah, I haven't seen "12 Years a Slave" yet, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I'm just going to wait until it comes on cable.
GROSS: That's hysterical and very profound.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing that and deciding you were going to do a bit about is there a God?
C.K.: When they asked me to host the show again, to me the one thing I wanted to really have was a great monologue. They give you total free rein on the monologue, I mean if you're a standup. And I wanted to take advantage of - that's the biggest audience I ever see is the top of the show "Saturday Night Live." I don't know how many people it is but it's something like, I don't know, four million people watch that show? I don't know four million people watch my show. Like no - I never tap four million people except for in "SNL's" monologue. So I thought if I can really make some - not just have it go well. The first time I've hosted "SNL" I realized I learned something that I didn't know, which is that the audience there is a pretty young audience. They're families that go together. It's kind of a Disney audience. It's very - and I'm not putting these people down - they're tourists from outside of New York usually. And they're not a dark people, you know what I mean, like in their intent or their feelings. They're not nightclub standup, you know, let it hang out people. They're cheerful, ready for good show, sweet, sweet middle of America people. And...
GROSS: Not your audience.
C.K.: Not my audience. Well, I mean I played to those audiences all over the country. I play every city in America but usually when I go to like Minneapolis, yeah, I'm tapping Minneapolis's more nefarious types. I'm not...
C.K.: I'm not getting the chamber of commerce and, you know, the Catholic League coming. So yeah, I thought I wanted to do something that's compelling and really a good monologue, but the crowd might not be there for it. It may not be there thing. So I trained for that monologue. I did a lot of sets in town and I did a lot of clubs where there was no audience really, or places where I knew I would do poorly because I wanted to be sure that the monologue would go well whether the audience likes me or not. I wanted to be ready for that.
That's great. So how do you find a place that you know you're going to do poorly?
GROSS: Well, there's places that just you're up against it. There's like, you know, open mic type places where there's not much of an audience or the audience is just other comedians with notebooks waiting for you to get off stage. You know, I went into any places I'm not usually - don't feel totally comfortable in. I feel comfortable in most of New York in some places that it's just it's a little off in there or there's only, you know, I did a lot of awake night sets, like a Tuesday night, 8:30 p.m. show somewhere where there's really only eight people in the audience, that kind of thing. I found a lot of...
They must've been surprised to see you.
C.K.: Yes. Yeah. People were usually surprised that I would walk in, depending on the place. Some places nobody cared. But I kept working on the set, working on the ideas in the set and connecting to the material and not worrying about what the audience was doing. And then I got lucky. The crowd at "SNL" was awesome. They loved it and they were ready for it and they were excited. And something I've learned over the years is that when you talk about religion, you want to talk to religious people. Even if you're talking about something that's contrary religiously or provocative, a religious audience is a better audience for that. If you talk to a bunch of cool atheists in leather and suede, you know, sucking on their vape sticks or whatever they're doing, they're not going to get it because they don't even think about God. It's not even on their radar, you know? So they're - but if you tell religious people, I don't know if there's a God, I don't think there's a heaven, where's God's ex-wife, these things, they have a connection to it that means something.
GROSS: Did that monologue sum up where you stand on the question? That, like, you don't believe in God but how can you really know?
C.K.: Yes. I do. That's how I feel. I feel like the math in my head tells me that we're just - that everything is just science and randomness and patterns but the main thing I feel is that it's a great mystery. I feel like I need to be humbled before the mysteries of life. I have no idea what's caused all of this.
GROSS: Your father...
C.K.: So you have to consider every possibility.
GROSS: Your father is Jewish and I think your mother Irish Catholic. Were you raised with any religion?
C.K.: My mom was sort of from an Irish Catholic world but it didn't matter to her, you know. My dad converted later in life. He was raised Catholic. My mom made the decision to give us Catholic upbringing so that we would have some religious context. She didn't want to force religion on us and she didn't want to force atheism on us.
So she thought if she gave us - exposed us to a level of training - and for her it was Catholic because it's what she knew - up to a certain age we were made to go to Catholic, like, after-school training until we got our First Communion. So she thought if you give a kid that far, after that you let them choose. And obviously, you know, whatever I was at 10 years old, if I was told I didn't have to go anymore, I certainly didn't want to go.
But I'm glad she did that because I understand what religion is and I have a touchstone to it.
GROSS: Did you say that your father converted from Catholicism to Judaism?
C.K.: Yeah. Yeah, he did. His father was Jewish and migrated from Hungary to Mexico. And in Mexico he married a Catholic woman, who is my grandmother, and agreed to let the kids all be raised Catholic. But he was quietly Jewish on my own, my grandfather.
GROSS: I see.
C.K.: Hungarian Jewish doctor came to Mexico because he couldn't come to America so easily. But he was a very brilliant guy and he managed to make a great life in Mexico. But then my father, when he was later in life and after he divorced, he connected with his father's religion and he also married a Jewish woman and he converted to Judaism. He's like an Orthodox Jew, my dad.
GROSS: You've said that your specialty is going to - as a comic, your specialty is going to a place where people get uncomfortable and then you stay there.
GROSS: How did you realize that was your comedy, that that's what you do?
C.K.: I kind of couldn't help it, you know? It's like stuff like the stuff in that monologue. It's very touchy stuff. The areas I'm going into, you know, are touchy. Maybe there's a God, maybe there isn't. Is God divorced? Did God kill his wife? You know, some things that are like, oh, boy, you feel a little sweat on the back of your neck when you get there.
But if you stay there for a second, you can find something joyful and funny in it. And it's such a great thing to go to a scary place and laugh. I mean, what's better than that? I guess I found out, though, because I couldn't help it. I just couldn't help straying into these areas. I'm also not afraid of it. I'm not afraid of if I go somewhere and I upset everybody. I've been there.
I don't know. I guess I was in trouble a lot when I was a kid so I got used to it. Like, when you're never in trouble you can never go to places like that. But if you're in trouble all the time it's like why not? I mean, I know what this feels like. I know I can survive everybody being pissed off at me. So when I started going onstage I realized, yeah, if I talk about this stuff I might upset people in the room but it's worth it.
Because maybe there's something there.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K.. Two episodes of his series "Louie" air back to back tonight on FX. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic Louis C.K.. Two episodes of his series "Louie" air tonight on FX. So help me out here. You know, when I introduce somebody on the show in the minute-long introduction that I read before the interview starts, which I always do live even though the interview is prerecorded, I give their full name.
And then for the rest of the intro I do their last name. So if I was introducing myself I would say my guest is Terry Gross. Gross has been hosting the show for this many years, blah, blah, blah.
GROSS: When I introduce you it's like my guest is Louis C.K.. And then what do I do, call you CK after that? Or call you Louis after...
C.K.: I guess so.
GROSS: Or just keep going, like, Louis C.K. every time?
C.K.: I think you go to the first name with me because my last name is just an absence of a last name. I think you're better off saying Louie has done this, Louie has done that.
C.K.: Or Louis. It's up to - the Louis or Louie to me is about how it flows.
GROSS: I looked at one New York Times article and...
GROSS: ...my impression was they just kept writing Louis C.K. and then tried to not say your name again.
C.K.: Yeah. No, it's a pain. My name stinks. I hate it. I hate it. I mean, it's always...
GROSS: You made it up. Come on, CK.
C.K.: I know. It was to fix my last - real last name is a mess too. I've never - my name has always been an albatross to me.
GROSS: Pronounce it for me the way - your birth name.
C.K.: It's really See-kay, or Say-kay.
C.K.: That's how you pronounce it.
GROSS: It's spelled complicatedly.
C.K.: But it's spelled S-Z-E-K-E-L-Y. Yeah, it's Hungarian. Hungarian is a language that doesn't have any attachment to any other language in the world. It's actually true. A little Finnish, but Hungarian has no romance language connection, so Slavic, nothing. It's its own pain in the ass language. So all the names have Zs in them and you can't hear any of the Zs. So it's really a mess.
GROSS: There's a great episode of Jerry Seinfeld's what's it called? "Comedians...
C.K.: "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."
GROSS: ...Getting Coffee." Yeah.
GROSS: Where he picks you up in a weird little doorless orange car. And then you take him on your boat. You actually have a yacht on the river in New York.
C.K.: I do, yeah.
GROSS: And there's this incredible story that you tell. It's a long and wonderful story that people should just go watch.
GROSS: I was wondering did you see the Redford film "All Is Lost"?
C.K.: I did see it. Yes, I did.
GROSS: Because he's on this yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean and, like, one disaster after another happens.
GROSS: And, you know...
GROSS: ...the boat is, like, sinking and sinking and he's alone.
GROSS: How did that make you feel about your God?
C.K.: I got anxious. I didn't like that movie because I - you know, you shouldn't see movies about something you know about because I'm very into the boating and I know how to navigate. I'm not - there's a lot of people better than me but I can get my boat all the way up the Hudson and I can get it out, you know, I can get it to Cape Cod from New York.
I can go a lot of places and I know what I'm doing. I haven't - I'm not nearly as experienced as a lot of captains. But this guy in that movie, he made so many stupid choices. So every 10 seconds I was just yelling at the screen.
C.K.: You know, get that stuff out of the water. You know, there was a million things he could've done to ensure his safety that he didn't. Like, he's trying to figure out how to use a flare gun. I'm like who doesn't know how to use a flare gun who's in the ocean? You're in the open ocean and you're sleeping? He didn't have his water anchor out. A million things that he did that were stupid and it just made me mad.
I love boating because it's a - I love to learn. That's my favorite thing in life, is learning stuff, and the idea that if you're a person standing next to - I have this 42-foot boat that can sleep six people and it can go anywhere almost in the world. I love that I used to stand next to a boat and go I have no idea how to do that. And now I do, from trying it.
And I know the waters all around New York Harbor. And all the way up to Massachusetts. Like I know the depths of a lot of these places. I know where the boating channels are. I'm very careful because I have my kids on the boat a lot. So I don't go out in bad weather. I just - I'm very thorough with checking reports before I go anywhere.
But, yeah, it's one of my favorite things. That's my thing I love to do when I'm not working.
GROSS: Do you have that confidence on stage? Like I know how to do this. If there's a hurricane...
C.K.: Sure. Yes, I do.
GROSS: ...the audience hates me, I know what to do.
C.K.: That's exactly right. There really isn't a situation on stage that I feel like I won't know how to handle it. There are some that I know I can't overcome. There are things where I'm like, well, this crowd is just not going to like me. But I also have a plan for that. I know how to stay - you have to stay cool. You can't let them change your plan.
So, yes, I have that confidence on stage. I know even if it doesn't - if I don't open well, it'll be OK. Even if I lose them, I'll get them back. And that's come from never shying away - when I was first starting in New York they had prom shows where they'd fill the audience with kids that were just at their prom. And they're all drunk on limousine booze. And there is no - as soon as you got on stage they'd start yelling at you.
They'd start booing as soon as you get - before deciding if they like you or not. They think it's fun to just go boo, start booing when you hit the stage. And I used to eat prom shows for dinner. I used to book as many prom shows as I could. First of all, they pay twice as much money because it's so hard. It's the only time comedy clubs are ever compassionate to comedians, is that they'll pay you twice the money for a prom show.
But I've been on stage with people yelling and booing and throwing stuff at me and I've hung in there. I know how to handle that. So nothing scares me now on stage.
GROSS: That's great.
C.K.: But if it starts raining, I park my boat. You know, I'm out of my depth there.
GROSS: Louis C.K., it has been so great to have you back on the show. Thank you so much for being here and thank you for starting up your show "Louie" again. It's great to have it back.
C.K.: Oh, I love doing - this is one my favorite things ever, is doing your show. I also - my friend Pamela Adlon wants me to say hello to you. She loves you.
GROSS: Oh, well, say hello for me.
C.K.: And your show.
GROSS: Oh, she's so great. Yeah.
C.K.: She's the best.
GROSS: She was terrific on our show. Yeah.
C.K.: I know. It was great.
GROSS: Oh. Well, thank you...
C.K.: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: ...so much. Louis C.K. writes, directs, and stars in the FX comedy series "Louie." Two new episodes air back to back tonight. There's a story we didn't have time for about his performance in the movie "American Hustle." You can listen to that story on our blog on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.