Comedian Louis C.K. finds himself an overnight sensation after 25 years in the biz. Now he’s earned four Emmy nominations for writing and acting on his critically praised FX comedy Louie as well as for writing and editing his stand-up special Louis C.K.: Hilarious for EPIX premium cable channel. But best of all, C.K. (a play on his last name Szekely) is widely hailed by his peers as the gold standard in stand-up. He spoke with Deadline TV Contributor Ray Richmond:
DEADLINE: How does it feel for Ricky Gervais to call you ‘The Funniest Stand-up Working In America’ or Chris Rock refer to you as ‘The Greatest Comic Mind Of The Last Quarter Century’?
LOUIS C.K.: It’s nice to hear, but also a little weird, you know? You can’t buy into any of it. Hearing it doesn’t make me better at anything and probably does the opposite. Plus, you know it’s all going to go away. No one is permanently chiseled onto anything. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and have been up and down a lot. You get hot for a while, then it turns right around. I remember doing the Young Comedians Special in Aspen in 1995 and that was the first time where I felt like I was on some kind of a roll. The lesson I took away was not to take any of it too seriously. Keep it in perspective.
DEADLINE: But you just took in more Emmy nominations than any other performer this year.
C.K.: Well yeah, the Emmy thing, that’s just crazy. I was honestly expecting nothing. Actually that’s not entirely true. I thought maybe I’d get something for writing the special. But the nominations for the FX series, I had no idea these voters were even aware of it. Yet now that it’s out there, I see it as an opportunity. And I’m doing all I can to try to win. It’s hugely important to me.
C.K.: Because winning hopefully helps to give the show a deeper foothold, and I start making some money for FX. I want to put cash in Rupert Murdoch’s coffers that are otherwise laying dormant. Emmys would give FX a payoff for having given me this gift of a show. I want the establishment to tell John Landgraf that he did the right thing, and that he should let me keep doing it. That’s what the Emmy is for me. I personally don’t need it. I’ve already won. It would also reward all of the amazing crew people who work so hard making Louie what it is and maybe give the crew job security and Landgraf even more credibility. I just want to bring any benefit to that guy that I can. So basically, I see the Emmys as a slot machine that pays off in reverse.
DEADLINE: So you have a decent relationship with your FX boss?
C.K.: It’s way beyond that. He lets me do what I want. John Landgraf has taught me everything I’ve needed to make this show work like it does, and he lets me do the show the way I’ve wanted to. I don’t think anyone has ever done a show this way.
DEADLINE: You write Louie, produce it, direct it, star in it, edit it. How did you manage to become a total control freak?
C.K.: I’ve been writing pilots and developing television shows going back to 1996, and learned a lot the past 15 years. I found out that the more money you ask the network for upfront, the more permission you need for every creative step along the way and the less freedom you ultimately have. When I was making my deal, my manager and agent were pushing me to get more money for the Louie pilot. But I listened to Landgraf and took far less. In the long view of it, there are only two outcomes: Either I’ll never get rich from the show but remain intensely proud of the work and stand behind every second of it, or it catches on and I’ll make my money down the road. If you ask for a shitload of money up front, your options go way down. One of the fears I had was succeeding wildly with a show I hated. I just feel so lucky to have the deal for this show that I have.
DEADLINE: Do you just make the show and FX sees it for the first time when it airs?
C.K.: Not quite. My contract with FX says that I have to show them every script, and they have the right to approve every actor we put on the show. They can also replace me in any of my jobs whenever they want at their discretion. The fact they haven’t enforced any of those rights says they’ve been happy with the way I’ve been doing things so far. If you want to keep the freedom, you’d better succeed. There are no free rides. So I wouldn’t call what I have ‘complete creative control’. Instead, it’s really a lack of being creatively controlled.
DEADLINE: I’ve never heard of anyone having that kind of deal.
C.K.: Neither have I. But I don’t do it on my own. I have an enormous and great crew. My fellow voices on the show are incredibly unique. The show looks beautiful, too. The reason I’ve been able to pull this off is I’ve learned big lessons from the independent filmmakers like Woody Allen and Spike Lee by just watching them from afar. Woody and Spike got known for making really exceptional films without anyone telling them how to do it. That’s what I wanted for TV.
DEADLINE: Why are you still so dedicated to stand-up?
C.K.: I love it. Stand-up is probably the most solo performance in art. There’s nothing else like it. You’re totally alone. Even a singer has a band. I love stand-up more than anything, and I’m so happy to have found a way to use it in the show.
DEADLINE: Which comics do you admire?
C.K.: Zach Galifianakis. Patrice O’Neal is getting incredibly strong right now. Doug Stanhope is a fucking phenomenal comedian, honest and really funny and working really hard right now. I haven’t seen Patton Oswalt in a while, but I really love him onstage. Maria Bamford is terrific. And I still love Bill Cosby and Steven Wright.
DEADLINE: What do you think of Modern Family?
C.K.: Never seen it. I don’t watch a lot of television. I tend to rent movies. And I watch a lot of sports. But when I’m not working, I’m with my daughters every chance I get.