Interview: 'Louie' creator/star Louis CK on season 1, drunken Sarah Palin tweets and more
Louis CK not only writes, directs, edits and produces his FX comedy "Louie" (which was one of my favorite shows of 2010), he also apparently handles all online responses to coverage of that show.
Late in the first season, CK popped up in the comments on an AV Club review of the episode "God" to explain why he cast Amy Landecker as young Louie's mom, after already using her a few episodes earlier to play adult Louie's blind date. His explanation, in short, is that he doesn't view "Louie" as a series in a traditional sense, and that he therefore doesn't have to worry about continuity, character consistency or even using the same actress in two very different prominent roles. In my review of the finale, I objected to that on a level (while enjoying the finale overall), and CK showed up in the comments to defend his approach.
So when I sat down with CK a couple of weeks ago on the last day of the TV critics' press tour, our first topic of conversation was that. We also talked about his ongoing hands-off relationship with FX (he makes the show for only a few hundred grand per episode, and in exchange he gets complete creative freedom), about his plans for the second season (which will air this summer, paired with the new "Willard"), about his prophetic comments from a year ago about the Jay Leno/Conan mess, and about why he won't be drunkenly tweeting from airplanes anymore about Sarah Palin(*).
(*) And while I recognize that I opened the door by asking about Palin, let me remind you once again that this isn't a blog about politics and we are not going to debate the actual merits of her as a politician or a human or whatever. Any comment that turns into a screed - or any comment that just winds up attacking other commenters - is getting deleted, okay?
Have we met before in person?
I don’t think we ever met in person, but we met on my blog one day, which was somewhat unusual for me.
‘cos I wrote on your blog.
Yeah, on my review of the finale.
Wait a minute. What did I…?
You made the comment on the AV Club blog about the Amy Landecker thing about how "The show’s not a series, therefore I can do what I want," and I wrote this post basically saying, "Yes, but you continue as a character and Pamela (Adlon) continues as a character, etc., and enough episodes trade off of what’s come before that I feel like perhaps there should be some sort of rules." And obviously you disagree with that. And it’s your show and it’s absolutely your right to do so.
Well I don’t disagree with it. It’s more that I just don’t feel like doing it right now. And I think that the payoff for not doing it is that I feel that I’m headed somewhere with not doing that. I’m not sure what it is. I don’t have a strong belief about it. I might change my mind. I’m a very ambivalent person. I’m a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan. I’m the only one. But yeah, I just like the way this is going.
Somebody on one of those blogs - it was either yours or the Onion - said something, they had a theory about my mothers on the show, which was that I was showing how my mother felt to me during a particular time in my life or I’m showing different dimensions of ways that I consider her. And I never had that in my head, but I thought maybe that’s where I was going, because the show’s so much from the gut that I don’t always know why I’m writing what I’m writing. So this year I thought - and I may not do this - maybe I’ll run with that and have like 8 mothers. Just keep having different mothers, where sometimes they feel like Mary Louise Wilson (from season one's "Double Date/Mom"), a fantasy of how awful a mother could be, and then here's one who is like a really visceral memory of what my mother was like. My mother has changed a lot since I was a kid. So I may do that, I don’t know. If that ends up being what I do, then the breaking of that rule ends up leading to a really cool direction.
Interesting. Beyond that, will anything be different about the way you make the show? Because it seemed to work so well this past year.
Yeah, that felt really good last season. And I have a few goals and challenges for a 2nd season. I can’t just re-tread the same territory. And the nature of the show is that it doesn’t seem to hit the same chord every time. I want to do some things that the show got good at. And then I want to completely surprise people.
So what’s something you feel you got good at? Do you mean there were things you got better at as you went along?
Some of that are little methods of doing production and stuff, and some of them are like content. I think we think we figured out how to do music last year. And we figured out as we were going along, but the way we did it was another retrofitting thing. Like using locations to come up with ideas for episodes. We don’t score the show. We don’t sit down and score each scene. We create a library of music. I have these musicians that I get together and it’s an eclectic, sort of a rock/jazz combo. And there’s strings one day. And there’s woodwinds another day. And I just create moods with the music and we just turn out as much as we can. We’ll go piano, flute together. And we’ll do like 8 moods of piano and flute. And sometimes I play that music when I’m writing. So I think this year we’re going to do that again. That was smart but we’re ready to do it now. We’ll do it before we start shooting.
And is the arrangement between you and (FX president) John (Landgraf) basically the same? Obviously, he trusts you even more now.
Yeah, I mean we had one story meeting last year where I told him 4 or 5 ideas. I think last year I did 2 of the 4 I told him. And this year I was telling him more. I felt kind of bad like, "I should tell him more," and he stopped me and said, "Stop. You’re ruining the season for me. I don’t want to know any more." So I think we have a great production team and so we’ll just be better at it this year. We’re kind of ahead of the game with a lot. I think the way we shoot the show is really smart. We have some new challenges like AFTRA’s going to come after us for bigger contracts, so we have to pay people more this year. I’m not opposed to that.
And can you get more money from FX? I thought originally the whole idea was in exchange for power, you’re basically making it for peanuts. Now they know that you know what you’re doing, are you putting in any more than you did before?
No. I mean, I’m not personally. The show got a typical kind of 5% bump. And they gave us a little bit more because we’re more exposed, and the union’s coming after us understandably. So they’re helping us a little with that, but they’re paying a little bit of union overages that’s it. But it’s not a big payday. We haven’t made them any money yet. Until you start making somebody a dollar, they’re not going to give you a dollar, which I don’t expect. But yeah, I think everything we did well that I want to repeat is just the way we did the show. As far as the writing goes and the stories that we tell, I think I definitely am keen on bringing Pamela back, because in the show she’s un-gettable. She’s a constant. She represents all the women that I can’t have, you know? And I think I’m more compelled by her because she’s like me, you know what I mean? She’s not some chick I’m trying to fuck. She’s a women in my world that feels gettable but is not at all. So we’re going to mess around with that.
Now one of the things that was great about the first season was you never knew what you were going to get. Not only episode-to-episode, but even scene-to-scene. But it did seem like there was maybe an attempt at balance - like "Dog Pound," which is one of your more overtly funny ones, comes right before "Bully," which is just so uncomfortable. Was that by design?
As far as the order of the shows airing?
Yeah, or even just the pieces that were put together within the episodes.
Yeah, definitely. I think about balance a lot. I think about the show as an experience for the viewer and myself as a viewer sort of. Right now I’m still writing. We start shooting actually next week, but I’m still fighting to write more before. It's like you’re making snowballs for a snowball fight, and they're just gone in seconds. So I have a board with cards of different colors according to where the scripts are. My yellow scripts are the ones that are finished and in production, so I look at them and I know what I have left, and then I make these cards that say what the show needs. Like what’s lacking. One of them says "balls funny." The "balls funny" card is really an intimidating card to me. It’s really important. So it’s "balls funny," "who cares," "really disturbing" is another card. And one of them is, like, "cinematic jerk-off," I think. That’s where I enjoy myself.
What card would "God" have gotten?
That would have been "really disturbing" and "cinematic jerk-off." Although I think that show was shot very fun for people to watch. I try not to do anything that’s boring for my benefit. I don’t like boring. But you know what? To me, that was "balls funny." To me that episode was hysterically funny. And I worry about John Landgraf - like I’m a heartbeat away from ruin because no one’s going to give me this but him. When he saw that episode he said that the moment when the guy climbs up the ladder and nails the Jesus back in, was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. And I agreed. And I know we’re like the only two people on the planet earth that found that funny. And it kills me.
But people love that one even if they didn’t necessarily find it funny.
I got a lot of negative e-mails and Twitters from people about the God episode where they were very angry.
Angry about the content or they were angry because they didn’t get to laugh?
No. It wasn’t funny.
They said, "That shit was awful. Lose whatever part of you makes a show like that. I hate it." But the way I look at things like that is that especially in a 1st season, I’m not losing viewers. I’m staking out territory. Because if I can do a thing like that and get a 2nd season, that means I get to do a thing like that. It’s like these are the guys I got past the cut. This is my team, so I get to run this dude out on the field sometimes. I love that. I have the mandate to do at least 1 episode like that. And then I feel like if I do something like "Bully," I earn it by having suspense. Comedy was suspense. You know, I just watched a movie - what the hell was it called? It was a movie from Bulgaria about a cop who was surveilling a kid who was supposed to be a pot dealer. And the movie’s about a hour of him just standing across the street from the kid's house watching the house. It’s brutal. But there’s something about it that really affected me, so I wanted to do this thing of watching this kid. But you have to earn it. The Staten Island Ferry is this really dynamic cool thing to show, and then there’s rules to that with me. It has to be that one ferry that’s open air—the John F. Kennedy it’s called—and we have to shoot it at night. We have to go by the Statue of Liberty. We didn’t use half the shit that I did.
But, yeah, I definitely get an itch for what I know we’re missing. Like halfway through last season I was like, "I need some funny, funny, funny." And I sort of threw together the Matthew Broderick episode. To me, that was easy to laugh at. Just, "Here’s this. I suck at this." I thought Broderick was great. And that’s just funny. The travel episode, just funny stuff. And then it kind of grinds to a weird speed. I like to keep people off-balance, so I like to give them shit they really like and then suddenly lead them happily down a road to somewhere disturbing. And all of a sudden they go, "How the fuck did I get to watching this?"
It’s funny you mention the Matthew Broderick one because I’m watching this, and you're playing "Louie is a terrible actor," and I’m like, "He was really good on 'Parks and Recreation.' What are you talking about?"
Well that was a combination between 2 things from real life. I did a movie with Martin Lawrence called “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins.” I had a huge part in that movie. I didn’t want to do it. So I refused to audition. And then they said, "No, they really want you." Like they were first saying, "You kind of have to audition. It’s kind of rude not to." So I said, "Okay." And then somebody called me a few days later and said, "You’re supposed to be there right now." "I’m sorry, I forgot." "So we made a new one, now you really have to go." So then I didn’t go to that one. And then I went back to New York and they sent the script to my home saying, "Put yourself on tape doing this and send it to this address." And I never did it. And about 3 weeks went by and then my manager called me and said, "You got the part." And so I went and I did the movie. And I was disgustingly bad. I couldn’t remember anything and the director was so frustrated with me - Spike Lee’s cousin Malcolm. And Martin was really nice and I was so ashamed of the work I did on that movie. And they hurt the movie by cutting me out. I was so bad that they had to hurt the story by cutting me out. But anyway, on 'Parks and Rec,' it happened to me that I was dressed as a cop and just went for a walk. And I went into a pharmacy and I realized that people were nodding to me with respect because I looked like a police officer, and I realized that this is very fucked up that I’m armed and representing authority.
The last time you were here (at press tour) before the 1st season, that’s when the Conan/Leno thing was going on, and you proved kind of prophetic on that. How do you feel it all turned out?
Conan is fine. And Jay’s got his job that he’s had for years. And really, the longer you get past it, Conan being on "The Tonight Show" was a blip. Jay has been the host of "The Tonight Show" for what now? I don’t even know how long… Conan’s my friend, I love him, but it all started with them asking Conan, "Would you please stay and not go to Fox?" And him saying that, "Only if you give me Jay Leno’s job." I mean, that’s how it started! So it’s all competitive and it’s brutal but it’s fun. It’s just TV anyway. No one’s getting killed. But I love Conan. I haven’t done his TBS show yet. Jay puts me on now first for 2 segments as a lead guest. I’ve never enjoyed doing that before. That’s a huge thing for me. And every time I go there the dude is so nice to me. And the staff is so nice to me and I get this massive ability to do anything I want. They don’t do a pre-interview much with me. So I really love doing his show.
I follow you on Twitter and there are these times on occasion where if you’re on an airplane and Sarah Palin comes up and...
I don’t do that anymore.
Well, I’m not what I used to be. It’s been a big year and... I don’t know. I don’t know man. I’m very ambivalent about it. That’s why I did it a couple of times.
The first time I did it I thought, "I should not have done that. I’m not going to do it again." And then I did it again because I thought, "Fuck these people." Who says you can’t say something, you know? How fucking sacred is this person who’s never contributed one thing to anyone’s life but her own? And not even thinking about her politically or whatever she represents, it’s just that she’s just a coarse, selfish person who has ferocious protection and it makes no sense to me. I just open my open my stupid Twitter mouth and said these fucked up things and to me, it was coming out poetry. The first time I did it I was giggling so much because it felt poetic to me. I could have been anybody. It could have been Danny Glover or somebody. It didn’t matter, and then I got a little scared. Somebody e-mailed me saying that a White House correspondent—some huge journalist—wrote to a friend of mine. Like this is within a few minutes. It’s so weird, I’m on an airplane and I’m writing these things and then an e-mail comes up during the flight saying, "I just got this from this White House correspondent: 'Tell your friend he better stop or he’s going to put himself in a lot of trouble.'" Like somebody goes in the fucking White House and took the time to go, "This guy’s got to stop; he’s going to hurt himself." And I was like, "I don’t feel like that’s true, but enough people are saying it." And then I got an e-mail from somebody very high up at FX that said, "We need you to stop." I was like, "Holy shit! What is this?" But I’ve never been this before. I’ve never been this 2nd season guy. I’ve never had this level. Also this Twitter thing is fucked up that I have over a quarter of a million followers and it’s something that doesn’t feel like it. You're writing something that a quarter of a million people are getting it instantly. More personally and directly than they do a TV show that’s on in a corner of the bedroom. It's like I called them on the phone and said that Sarah Palin has Chinese people living in her cunt, you know? So that context has caught up with me a little bit. Like, this is not what I thought it was when I was doing it, and so it’s not that I’m afraid of her. By the way, I said something that I think is true, I wrote one Twitter that I said, please find me a picture of Sarah Palin with more than one black person because I couldn’t find one. And then she went to Haiti a week later. She threw together a trip to Haiti. So I believe I made that happen. So that’s positive.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org