Louis C.K. Reveals How to Write, Direct, Edit and Star in Every Episode of a Hit Show (and Not Go Crazy)
As FX turns 20, the "Louie" multihyphenate shares the secrets to how he writes his comedy: "I typically don’t write out in the world. I think people who do that are exhibitionists."
As FX turns 20, fifteen of TV's top scribes -- from Rescue Me's Denis Leary to Louie's Louis C.K. -- reveal what it's like to write for a network that encourages smart TV (almost) without rules as part of a series that The Hollywood Reporter is rolling out this week. This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I start each season by thinking of raw ideas and writing them in a notebook -- I don't write on a computer for a while. I compile ideas first. Some are story ideas overall; some are settings like: "Let's go on the road. Let's do something at a hospital." And some are just characters or funny moments. Then I make note cards for the stories, but I'm still not thinking about episodes; I just write the stories and themes. I essentially have an "idea season" and then a "writing season," where I write all the scripts. They're just pages, though -- I don't even know if they're going to be whole episodes or not. Only when we start shooting do we start seeing how long stuff is. For example, I wrote a story that was around 100 pages, and it turned into six episodes. We shoot and figure out in editing what works.
I typically don't write out in the world. I think people who do that are exhibitionists, showing off that they are writers. And I say that because I've done it -- you want to be in a coffeehouse with your notebook and look really thoughtful. Sometimes I will go sit at a diner, though; that's a great place in New York to kill off some thoughts. Mostly I'm not recognized; 99 percent of people don't give a shit or don't know who I am.
When I'm actually writing the scripts, I use a 13-inch MacBook. I have a few of them. When a new season starts, I like to have a clean computer -- I throw them around a lot. I also edit the show on a MacBook. I have a USB flash drive I carry around and plug that into whatever machine I'm using, but they get really wrecked because I wear them around my neck.
Most of my episodes end up being stand-alone pieces -- you don't need to have seen the ones that came before. I've always liked doing it that way. I like resetting the values in every episode; I like to have every one be free to go where it wants to go. Why not make every episode different? Let's tell the hell out of this story and forget about it! Although I'm getting more in to these longer arcs. There is actually a through-line of a love story this season: We know he's been dating this girl, and he likes her. But you wouldn't be lost if you hadn't seen the ones before.
My process is very organic. It's kind of like a garden, the way it comes out. And I'm only able to do it this way because FX doesn't oversee the writing. If I had to go through the broadcast network approval process, I'd have to congeal every idea I have into an episode script! I'd have to know exactly what is going to happen throughout the season and then rewrite it over and over before shooting. FX approaches my show as if we are telling stories and being artistic. They're never worried about stuff like, "Is this guy likable or good-looking enough?"
So what I'm trying to say is, I could never make my show anywhere else.