Louis CK’s DIY TV

9 minute read
James Poniewozik

Inside a crowded apartment in upper Manhattan, the executive producer of the FX comedy Louie needs to confer with the director, the star, the writer and the editor. Fortunately, they’re all the same guy.

Louis CK is choreographing a scene in which his character, Louie — like him, a comedian and divorced single dad — has woken up to cries of agony from his pregnant sister, who is crashing on his couch. In quick order, Louis adds a line making clear these are not labor pains, coaches the actress on when to scream (“Give me a big spike here”), suggests a camera-angle experiment and plans his route so the lens doesn’t catch the crew members crammed into the galley kitchen. They’re not going to rehearse before shooting (“I don’t want to waste the energy”), so he tells the cameraman to follow him and keep up: “I’m never disappointed when you don’t know where you’re supposed to be.”

(See Louie in the top 10 of everything 2010.)

Planned chaos is not just the aim of this scene. It’s Louie‘s operating principle. Shot on a low budget, with Louis in charge of everything from scripting to buying equipment, it’s closer to indie filmmaking than the high-polish committee operation of most TV series. Louie (Thursdays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) is something the production system makes nigh impossible: artisanal TV, a small-batch distillation of a single creator’s mordant, achingly funny vision.

Louis CK (the CK is a phonetic rendering of his birth name, Szekely), 43, had in some ways a typical TV-sitcom-comic career. A successful stand-up run in the late ’80s and early ’90s led to writing jobs with Conan O’Brien, David Letterman and Chris Rock. But his taste for the dark and bizarre led to some setbacks. In 1996, as head writer for the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, he wrote perhaps the most alienating opening sketch in prime-time history, in which President Bill Clinton showed his nurturing side by suckling puppies from his row of teats. In 2001 his deranged blaxploitation spoof Pootie Tang flopped at the box office.

Through it all, his stand-up career boomed. As he became a father, then a divorced father, he developed the persona of a salty everyman reacting to the indignity of aging (“I’m 41. My balls are, like, 72”) and the grind of life (dating after divorce is like “having a lot of money in the currency of a country that doesn’t exist anymore”). Comedian and old friend Marc Maron says Louis’ style marries the profane and humane. “It’s almost like he’s this grotesque clown,” Maron says. “But he has this great emotional understanding of the situation he’s in.”

(See a Q&A with Louis CK.)

His profile rising, Louis began taking meetings for big-budget network sitcoms. Then cable channel FX made him an offer too small to refuse. Louis would be miserable at a big network, argued FX president John Landgraf: “You’re going to find yourself on a stage pretending to be Tim Allen, and that’s not who you are.” FX would give Louis $250,000 an episode to spend as he liked. There would be no casting mandates, no network notes on scripts. The quarter-million figure — broadcast sitcoms can cost about $1.5 million on the low end — was as much as Landgraf could commit without asking FX’s overlords at News Corp.

Louis took the deal. There were personal reasons: he has custody of his daughters half the week and chose to raise them without child-care help, which led him to turn down jobs on the West Coast. “I wanted the kids to feel like they could count on me, like I wasn’t just visiting,” he says. (He shoots Louie late into the night on days when the girls are with his ex-wife and edits the show, on his laptop, when they’re in school.)

And the freedom was priceless. The first season of Louie was a loose-knit anthology of anxiety comedy, combining small vignettes, meatier stories and clips of stand-up. Some stories were gross-out funny, like a bit in which Louie’s doctor (Ricky Gervais) mocks his middle-aged body during an exam. Others were poignant and even dramatic: Louie has a date ruined when he’s humiliated by a high school bully; Louie remembers his childhood Catholic-school guilt. (Young Louie freaks out and breaks into church to free a statue of Christ from the cross; in an epilogue, a blasé, cigarette-smoking handyman nails him back up.)

See TIME’s Summer Entertainment Preview 2011.

The show blissfully ignores continuity. Last season Louie had a brother; this season he doesn’t. The same actress played his date in the bully episode and his mother in the Catholic-school episode, an oedipal accident of casting. (He’s careful to stress that his family on the show is not his real family, and the malleability of the characters bears it out.) The main connecting thread — beyond the bedrock divorced-dad premise — is Louis CK’s deadpan, put-upon sensibility.

Louie stretches its budget through ingenuity and a do-it-yourself ethos. There are no regular cast members, a major budget line for most shows. (Last season, two actresses played Louie’s youngest daughter in the same episode after the first booked a TV pilot.) Louis takes no salary beyond the union minimum, treating the show like a calling card for his stand-up work.

(See “Louis on Louie.”)

Some things that make Louie cheaper actually make it look more expensive. A self-described AV geek, Louis buys rather than rents his camera lenses, which cuts long-term costs and gives the show a bit of a vintage, ’70s film look. “We have a red no one else has,” he says with pride. In the show’s pilot, Louis’ longtime co-producer M. Blair Breard found a low-cost helicopter for a scene in which a woman ends a bad date with Louie by boarding a chopper and flying away. (“I try to never say no,” Breard says.) For the Season 2 finale, set in Afghanistan and shot in Texas and California, Louis got FX to double the budget — but it still reportedly costs CBS twice as much to get Ashton Kutcher to walk onto a set for one Two and a Half Men episode.

It may seem like a writer’s dream, but most — even dialogue machines like Aaron Sorkin — don’t have the technical skills or visual sense to pull it off. O’Brien recalls a Late Night bit by Louis, Bad Fruit Theater, in which rotting pears and oranges enacted scenes from classic dramas. For Apocalypse Now, O’Brien recalls, “there was a decaying banana rising out of this ooze,” Ã la Martin Sheen. “It was surreal and haunting and funny. You could tell this guy has a director’s eye.”

(See an interview with Louis CK.)

In Season 2, Louie is finding his legs as a single dad, and Louis is stretching as an auteur. Some stories take up full episodes and deal even more overtly with the kids, parenting and its stressors. (A house hunt triggers angst about his success as a father, leading him to try to buy a $17 million townhouse with $7,000 in his bank account.) In a way, Louis’ commitment to the physical, hands-on work of filmmaking is the perfect analogue to the way Louie deals with the physical, hands-on work of single fatherhood. Few sitcoms are so conscious of the sheer labor of parenting — trudging to school, carrying backpacks, slicing up mangoes. “It’s like Platoon,” Louis says. “You just have an impossible amount of s— to carry.” When he talks about making a show, it’s not much different. “There is fatigue, and it’s f—ing hard. But what I know from experience is that if I was getting a million dollars a show, it wouldn’t make it easier.”

Louie‘s comedy is scored to the ticking of the middle-aged protagonist’s earthly clock. The theme song is a version of the ’70s hit “Brother Louie” that changes the chorus’ final line from “Louie, Louie, you’re gonna cry” to “Louie, Louie, you’re gonna die.” Mortality even makes it into his jokes about his kids. In one stand-up bit, his daughter asks him if the sun will be in the sky forever. He says it will explode someday — but, not to worry, long after she’s dead. Then he realizes what he’s told her. “She’s going to die. Everybody she knows is going to die. They’re going to be dead for a very long time. And then the sun’s going to explode. She learned all of that in 12 seconds.”

Louis acknowledges that mortality is a theme in his humor, but he doesn’t see how that’s a big deal. “It’s kind of like being on a bus to Pittsburgh and I say, ‘I wonder what time we’re going to get to Pittsburgh?'” he says. “And everyone’s like, ‘What? Why are you talking about Pittsburgh?’ Well, it says it on the f—ing tickets and on the front of the bus. That’s where we’re going. Aren’t you interested that we’re all headed there?”

A more immediate concern, he says, is that ratings pick up. (Louie attracted just over a million viewers per episode in Season 1.) If not, well, one advantage of a cheap show is that it can stay on the air despite numbers that would get most series canceled. FX, Louis says, has told him “it’s going to be up to me whether I keep doing the show or not. As if I would ever want anything but to do it.” Louis CK has more to say. And with luck — as the whole weary lot of us must hope — it’s still a long way to Pittsburgh.

See a video with Louis CK.

See a history of standup comedy.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com