When HBO canceled Lucky Louie almost four years ago, Louis C.K. thought he’d never have a better job again. He’d had near complete artistic freedom to create the show, and a good relationship with the network. He didn’t have to make the kind of sitcom he dreads, with one of the three or four basic formulas networks are still clinging to.
Lucky Louie was profane and realistic to C.K.’s own experiences, and he got to hire a bunch of friends that would never quite fit into a traditional sitcom, like Danvers native Nick Di Paolo. With staples like Friends, Everybody Love Raymond, and Frasier recently retired, there was talk that Lucky Louie might be the shot in the arm the format needed.
Ask C.K., and he’ll tell you he just wanted to do a good show, inspired by classics like All in the Family and The Honeymooners. “To me it’s like, sitcoms had been perfected to this point where they weren’t shot in front of an audience any more, they were putting this little kind of perfectly timed laughs between these kind of Harvard graduate written jokes, and it just didn’t feel like fun anymore,” he said in a conference call with media last week.
“So I wanted to go back to kind of a messy, ruckus, a more like—I’m not a good speaker,” he adds. “You know, you talk, they laugh and the next person talks. Like they’re feeling more like a performed stage show, which is what sitcoms originally were.”
It didn’t work out. Not every critic hated it, but those who did were particularly insistent. Robert Bianco of USA Today called it “smarmy” and accused C.K. of just trying to shock his audience. Matthew Gilbert at the Boston Globe saw that HBO and C.K. were trying to “usher an antique sitcom format into today’s risqué standards,” but also called it “lousy series.” TV Guide, Variety, Entertainment Weekly – many were unimpressed.
There were accolades – from the Chicago Tribune which called it “subversively hilarious” and the New York Times, which called it “nifty, light, and kind.” The ratings weren’t bad, but it wasn’t enough. HBO pulled the plug and C.K. went on a stand-up binge – lucky for comedy fans – recording three specials in three years, the last of which, Hilarious, made its Sundance debut in January.
Four years later, C.K. is in a position he never thought he’d be in again.
Tonight, C.K.’s new show Louie debuts with back to back episodes at 11PM (EST). He has even more creative control than he did before, even though there may be a few more restrictions on specific words. And the show itself is infinitely better, finally capturing what makes C.K. one of the funniest stand-up comedians in the world right now.
“I remember after Lucky Louie was over that the main thought I had was, ‘I’ll never see that kind of creative freedom again.’ But this is nuts, because they literally don’t know what I’m doing. They have no idea what I’m shooting, what I’m writing.”
He’s not kidding. Where Lucky Louie was shot on a soundstage in LA, C.K. films Louie himself with his own team in New York. There are no script meetings with the network, no writer’s room, and not even an official cast. C.K. writes the show himself and shoots it around New York with his own crew, and then shows the finished product to FX.
“It feels more like an independent film the way that we run it, and it kind of comes together,” he says. “We shoot pieces without knowing what episode they’re going to belong to. The network is completely MIA. They don’t do anything until they watch the episodes when they’re finished being edited. So it’s just us making a show. So I think that’s the biggest difference. Besides that I’m doing a single camera show now instead of multi-cam.”
C.K. says he knows he’s earning that freedom on an episode by episode basis. “If I turn in two bad episodes in a row, they’ll come visit me and they’ll want to read the scripts and they’ll want to visit the set,” he says. “They have that right, contractually, but they’ve laid off so far because they’re happy with what they’re getting this way, which is that they leave me alone.”
Many will point out the similarities to Seinfeld, at least in format. Each episode shows C.K. in New York, dating or hanging out with friends, interspersed with footage of C.K. at New York City comedy clubs like the Comedy Cellar or sometimes Caroline’s.
But the similarities mostly end there. “We’re as different as night and day as far as what we talk about,” says C.K. Louie’s point of view comes from a single dad working as a comedian and trying to raise two young girls, a reality that Seinfeld’s show about nothing wouldn’t have addressed.
And there is no typical set-up and resolution in a half-hour format. Every particular idea is given its own space, and if it’s something that can be addressed in just a few minutes, then it begins and ends there.
“In the same way that stand-up gives you the freedom to choose how long you talk about something or just drop in one word about something, it’s kind of like a collage, an eclectic kind of a form. This show, I wanted it to feel like that. I wanted it to feel almost like a stand up set,” says C.K. “It’s sort of herky-jerky different, different lengths of pieces, different … on things, different reasons and tones for talking about things or showing things.”
There will be plenty of Boston-centric cameos from people like Robert Kelly, who plays C.K.’s brother. But each character will come and go a bit more naturally in the series, and there is no set cast.
“It feels like when you cast a show up front, when you do a series, you’re making a series of bets that you kind of have to stick by,” says C.K. “You hire eight people, or whatever it is in a cast, and you just have to really hope they stay compelling and interesting, and if they don’t, you still have to service all those people. That’s actually how you talk about it in the sitcom writers’ rooms, is we have to service these characters, even if we don’t like them.”
You’ll see Kelly and Di Paolo in recurring roles, but not every week. Di Paolo will be playing himself.
“I only hired Bobby to play my brother for one episode just because I felt like having him for that one episode, but he was really good and compelling and pathetic, so he’s in two more, I think,” says C.K. “Nick is in three total. Nick DiPaolo and I were roommates back when we were both struggling stand ups in the early 90s. He’s still a struggling stand up, and that’s only because he’s a miserable guy. He’s never happy in success, either. But anyway, Nick and I have a very easy rapport.”
A less recognizable Boston name is Kimberly Barlow, who plays an ex-girlfriend from home with whom Louie reconnects on Facebook. C.K. says he looked at about 300 actresses from New York, but couldn’t find anyone who felt like a Boston girl from back home.
“We actually went to Boston and had a very cheap casting session there on like VHS tape,” he says. “Kim was so authentic and so real, and I think we pretty much blew her mind by flying her to New York and giving her this huge part in the show. She stepped up, though, and she was awesome. I often get comments about her, that she seemed really real, and she was. So she was my favorite Boston rescue.”
C.K. says his freedom also extends to subject matter, a very important point to him. “I feel like there’s no story I can’t tell,” he says. “The tricky thing about my situation is that if you write a script and they flag something as, you can’t do this, you at least save time. Because they don’t see anything until it’s been shot and cut, I run the risk of shooting things that they will then not approve, because they do have a Standards and Practice department. But the woman who runs it is an extremely intelligent woman, and she’s great. I kind of know what her limits are.”
The result is a show the feels like Louis C.K., sounds like Louis C.K., and looks like Louis C.K. in all of his awkward, thoughtful, rough, and profane glory. “It’s not perfect, my show,” he says. “I think that’s the trade off. It’s not slick and perfected, but it’s really from the gut. Stand-up is like that. You say er, um, a lot, and you don’t cut it out. You get caught picking your nose on stage, but when you hit, you really hit. So I’m hoping that’s what the show is able to do.”