Q & A: Louis C.K.

The Emmy Nominated Actor/Comedian talks about comedy, writing the show and why he only signs actors to a per-show contract

Earlier this week, Louis C.K. was nominated for 2 Emmy Awards – Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing In A Comedy Series – for his hilarious work on the FX show, Louie. If there is any justice, he’ll go home that night with two awards.

Not only does he star in the fictionalized take on his life and career, but he also created, writes, edits and directs every episode. If he doesn’t win, the Emmy’s should give him some sort of award for the sheer amount of work he does.

C.K. is one of the best comedians alive right now and his show is always on my ‘must- watch’ list.

I got a chance to talk to Louis on a recent conference call where he talked about comedy, writing the show and why he only signs actors to a per-show contract.

Check it out!

What do you think is the formula for good comedic TV?

Louis C.K.: Oh geez, I think it really depends on the comedian and the television show. I think it’s gotta be funny and compelling, both.

You’re doing the editing, writing, the directing, starring, producing… you’re doing everything with the show. Which aspect is most difficult for you during the season?

Louis C.K.: I’d say the writing is the most difficult, because that’s where it all starts and if I don’t get it done there’s no way I can do the other ones. There are bad versions of the other ones that can actually yield a TV show but if I don’t write, if I don’t get the writing done, there’s nothing to shoot so… the writing is the most pressure, it’s the hardest but it is also the most rewarding when it works out.

Do you listen to your critics whether they’re talking about your TV show or talking about your act, is that something you pay attention to, and does it ever kind of get into your head when you’re doing your work?

Louis C.K.: Well, I definitely indulge in self-Googling once in a while. It’s really fascinating to think that people that you don’t know are writing something about you. It depends on what the thing is, when it’s about the work like the TV work, it’s definitely interesting the feedback from critics who are people who watch a lot of stuff and are thoughtful about what they write, so that’s a really great exchange. I think that criticism is an art form you know, like literary criticism all kinds of stuff, so it’s really fun to read what people wrote about you, what you did.

Some of your early stand-up material was much more absurd and now your stand-up in the show appears to come from a deep and personal place. Where and when did that point of view come from?

Louis C.K.: Yeah, I mean I think at first when you first start doing stand-up, you’re just trying to learn how to be on stage. Just be existing and having a presence on stage is the first huge leap. It takes years and years. I mean that takes like a good fifteen years to really… until then you’re just trying to think of funny stuff to say, you try to come up with material. But then you kinda cross the line, I don’t know when it happened to me, where you just start are on stage and it’s second nature you know, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal anymore and you feel like you can say anything.

You’re on your second season of the show, is this the type of thing that you hope to have when you’re starting out as a comic on the East Coast?

Louis C.K.: Sure, I wanted a TV show that was as good as could be and people liked it yeah, this is nice. I didn’t know that I saw this, exactly. I don’t know that I had this as a vision of what I wanted to be doing it’s just turned, turned into this. I got good at a different array of skills, they kinda came together in the show.

To me comedy is about an audience. I mean it’s like the audience is the instrument almost. It’s  like you’re playing them like a horn in a way. So, if they’re not there to laugh there’s no point

How has your writing process changed with season 2 from season 1? And then in general, how do you craft the jokes in a comedy sequence? How do you really get the best jokes and role with it once the actors are on set?

Louis C.K.: I try to write as much as I can before we go into production. I write the show myself, I don’t have a staff so I don’t have the same process as other shows.

I don’t table, I don’t break stories, which is what a lot of sitcoms do. It’s called breaking story, where you put the story up, sort of on a timeline, and you discuss it and you make sure that it’s functioning as an engine before your write it. And then you piece it out, and then somebody writes this part or somebody writes all of it.  And then you table it, and the whole table goes out and works to improve it. And then usually all those notes of improvement changes the structure so you, kind of re-break the story with the dialogue are in place, and then you put in the jokes, sort of in the end.

But I don’t do that. I have stories rolling around my head, and usually I’ll have a surge of realizing what the story is supposed to be and where it’s supposed to go, and then I’ll sit down and I’ll just shoot it out and I just write it. And the jokes just kinda come, you know. There’s not jokes in my show like, trading of quips, you know. That kind Will and Grace, punch-up jokes. I don’t sort of do that, so the jokes end up just being how the folks are talking, the dialogue, it just doesn’t coming out that way. The characters that I’m writing are… I’m trying to get them really in my head and then I just trade dialogue and get from one end of the scene to the other.

And then I don’t generally go back and re-write much. When I’m on the set, because I’m the writer, I can make audible calls and cut lines and add maybe one or two. But I’m also trying to keep it organic. When you over write stuff it becomes writer-ly, it starts to feel written. The people on the screen start having less life. They start looking a little more like paper.

The show operates on a budget that’s relatively small. What are some of the decisions that you make to help keep expenses down on the show. Does that affect the type of stories that you want to tell?

Louis C.K.: I haven’t found anything yet where it’s been like, “Boy, if we had more money, I wish we could do that.” The only thing I would use more money for would be to take more time and have a little more luxury. Like if we had, if we could spend one day shooting one scene that would be great because, then I think the show would just get better in terms of paying more attention to each moment of the show.

One way that we save a lot of money is that we shoot a lot in a day. We pack our shoot days.  So we’ll shoot like three scenes from three different episodes in one day, and my brain can rattle around a little bit, and that’s the only time I think that work is suffering. Is that we’re working too fast, but we’ve learned how to do that, so we’re good at that now. So I don’t worry about that as much, it’s just exhausting.  We also do it that way because I work only three days a week on the show and the rest of the time I spent with my kids. Days I have my kids I don’t work so, that also makes it hard.

We have a very efficient crew. We have smaller crew than a lot of crews, we pay everybody well and we have less people. So that way we take care of everybody and we don’t have extraneous folks. There’s not a lot of, there’s no honeywagons and trailers, I just sort of sit in my car between takes.

And we don’t have series deals with any actors, ‘cause I’m not sure if they’re  gonna be in more than one episode. That drops an enormous number. If you have, like an ensemble of seven people, and you’re paying them for every episode, not only does it drain your budget, it also forces you to use them.

So is that why you ended up having two different daughters on the show?

Louis C.K.: She got a pilot on ABC, and it didn’t end up going but she was getting nice lucrative offer and we said, you know, “Good luck.”

Everybody on the show signs for the episode that they do and I think they’re happy to be on the show. If they’re not then they don’t come back. Sometimes I wanna write people back and sometimes they don’t so… it stays loose that way, everybody’s happy, it’s less stress and tension and its way less expensive.

Other ways we spend more money than other shows. Like, AFTRA wanted to cut ability to give under-five lines to people. If someone has under-five lines, they want us to pay them as a principle. Which we usually do anyway but the reason we wanted the under-five so we can upgrade extras. So we can have more people say little things, you know what I mean? We’re able to have a good actor come and do one line instead of just having the throughbread principles talk and nobody else say’s anything. So, we wanted more ways to pay people so we could hire more people.

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