Comedian Louis C.K. says to let people talk, even if it costs them the occasional gig — like the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Assn. Dinner he’ll be skipping
"I don’t think it makes any sense to try to get anyone to not talk," says Louis C.K., America's best standup comedian and the mastermind of one of its best shows. "I think talking's always good. So whether it's the left or the right wing saying, 'You shouldn't get to talk,' I think all of that's silly and reactionary."
He's standing in the most middle-American of places, a bowling alley. Okay, it's a fancy one, in Manhattan. But a dingier section of Manhattan, on a corner next to a busy roadway. The Lucky Strike is the site FX, which airs C.K.'s hit show "Louie," has chosen for a party to present its upcoming shows to advertisers.
The location captures exactly where Louis C.K. is in his career: Trying to stay grounded even as he becomes so successful a comedian that people ask him to weigh in on issues like politics, his D.I.Y. business model, and how to live.
C.K. (an abbreviation of his last name, Szekely) is talking about who should talk – everyone, is his basic answer – in response to a question about Greta Van Susteren. Earlier this month, at the height of the outrage over Rush Limbaugh calling a law student a slut, Susteren trotted out six-month old tweets from C.K. in which he said ridiculously filthy and over-the-top things about Sarah Palin. Van Susteren was appalled, just appalled, that this "pig" – C.K. – was the host of the upcoming Radio and Television Correspondents' Assn. Dinner in Washington.
C.K. shrugged it off, and the dinner, too. He didn’t much care about the gig, and didn't want a fight. So he just bailed out, never mentioned Susteren by name or the reason for his exit.
"I wasn't going to stand there and defend something I ddn't really feel like doing anyway," he told TheWrap. "I wasn't that excited about it, I didn't want to cause them problems, I didn't think it was what they invited when they hired me. And I didn't think about it much. It was like one morning I woke up, I heard there was static. I'm in production, so I have no reason to be in conflict with anybody right now."
No matter how much he's asked, C.K. would never presume to tell other people what to do. (Well, aside from one of his greatest bits, when he told Americans to stop complaining about cell phones, airlines, and other things would have been miracles a mere century ago.) He doesn't suggest, for example, that Susteren shouldn't have complained. Talking about the mini-uproar, he still doesn't mention her by name.
"Talking is good," he continues. "So the people saying, 'You shouldn't have said that,' is also talking. It's all dialogue. America's a family. We all yell at each other. It all works out."
C.K.'s FX show has brought him a larger audience than ever before – and drawn invites to events like the correspondents' dinner. It's one of those nights designed to inform the national conversation, or at least make journalists feel like they're accurately recording it. Did this feel like a Louis C.K. year? A year to take a risk with a comedian who mixes self-deprecating masturbation jokes with insights about racism, homophobia, and Americans' sense of entitlement?
No, it is not a Louis C.K. year. Because C.K.'s no-bullshit approach calls for doing his own thing, even if it has to be on a smaller scale, rather than milking some trumped-up controversy.
He has bypassed television networks when it makes sense, too. In December, he sold his new comedy special directly to fans online. Then he split the first million dollars in profit between himself, employee bonuses, and several charities. The most uncompromising Reagan-era punk band, living out of a van, couldn't have criticized his D.I.Y. bona fides.
He developed the D.I.Y. approach through hard lessons. In 2001, he was pressured to change his directorial debut, "Pootie Tang," to make it less baffling for mass audiences. (It features a belt-wielding ghetto vigilante who speaks in made-up jive.) C.K. now considers the movie a huge failure, but one he learned from. On Thursday, he offhandedly mentioned that he made the decade-old film "like 20 years ago" – which should be a sign of how close it is to his heart.
His approach may have found an ideal partner in FX. The network gives show creators much less money upfront than they could make elsewhere in exchange for almost limitless creative freedom. For the show's first two seasons, C.K. wrote, edited, produced, directed, starred in and edited every episode. For the coming season, premiering June 28, he's scaled back a bit by hiring an editor. Susan E. Morse worked for 22 years with Woody Allen.
"I only was willing to give up editing if I could get the best editor in the world, and I think that's what she is," C.K. said. "I wasn't looking for any editor, I was looking for Susan Morse."
With the third season of "Louie" set to premiere June 28, C.K says the less-money-more-freedom approach hasn't gotten old.
"Because for my scale, how I grew up and live my life, I'm making plenty of money," he said. "I've been paid more, so it's a voluntary downtick in money for an enormous amount of fulfillment. It's well worth it. It only gets more worth it. It would be very hard to go the other way and take a bunch of money for something I don't want to do.