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This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Louis C.K. is hunched over a bowl of grapefruit when I arrive at Hudson Diner on a chilly New York morning in late March. “I wish I could still eat this stuff,” he says of the greasy omelets that line the menu. The quintessential New York diner-goer has sworn off diner food. “I just can’t do it anymore,” he continues, motioning toward his gut. Over the next hour and a half, the sardonic writer, director, producer and star of FX’s New York-set comedy Louie talks openly about his love affair with the city, which began when he settled here as a struggling comic in 1989. The man whom GQ recently dubbed America’s Undisputed King of Comedy got his big break when he was hired for the original writing staff of NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien. In the two decades that followed, he scored his own short-lived HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, snagged a part in his hero Woody Allen‘s movie Blue Jasmine and, this year, became the first comedian to sell out Madison Square Garden three times in a single tour.
In that time, C.K. (real last name: Szekely) also redefined the business of stand-up — selling recorded performances directly to fans through his website, a model since replicated by comedians including Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan — and earned a Peabody and 16 Emmy nominations (three wins) for his half-hour comedy, which returns to FX for a fifth season April 9. As C.K. riffs on everything from why he’s now glad he got rejected by Saturday Night Live to the discipline the divorced dad tries to instill in his two young daughters, passersby pause for a double take. A handful point, and a few more subtly snap pictures. For the master misanthrope, who coined the phrase “white-people problems,” this is the new normal. Which is not to say that C.K., who spent his early years in his Harvard-educated father’s native Mexico before moving to Boston at age 7, is comfortable with all of the attention. “A lot of people know me here now,” he says, “and it can be a real bummer because I love to observe the city.” — Lacey Rose
New York really drew me from the very beginning. I came here for the first time when I was in high school, and I remember going into the subway by myself. It was the really old, white metal C trains, all dingy inside, and I went into a packed car. It was all these faces — tired-looking people, people from all over the world — and my heart was pounding. It was such a thrill just to be in that. Boston was an ill fit for me as a person because it closes at one in the morning, and I’ve always been a night person. I’d be up till two, three in the morning, just driving or walking down empty streets, and it was so depressing to me. I loved that you could go to a deli at three in the morning in New York, and it’s filled with people. There isn’t an hour in New York where you can’t find a club where there are a bunch of people.
I felt like I was breathing the right kind of air when I moved here. Of course, there were moments at first when I thought, “I can’t do this.” There’s a sense of crushing loneliness that the city can impose on people, and it can sap you financially. But I lived out in L.A. for long stretches of time when I did other shows, and it’s so chaotic and spread out that you can feel like you’re drowning there. When I first moved to L.A., I had a German shepherd-Airedale, a mix of Nordic breeds that are used to a lot of snow and wet leaves, and her nose just started flaking up. She started to get yellow eyes and sleep all day. She was just in the wrong place. That dog did not belong in that environment, and I felt like it was the same for me.
C.K. has been nominated for more than 25 Emmy Awards. To date, his FX comedy has scored 16 noms. “The show kind of thrives on that stuff, and it means a lot to the network,” he says. “I feel like the awards are for everybody else.”
At first, it was really a struggle here. I wasn’t making any money at the beginning. I used to hop the turnstile on my first subway ride of the night to get down to the Village, do the Comedy Cellar, get paid $8 and use that to get to The Improv in a cab. If you’re lucky, you’re breaking even at that point, and then you try to figure out transportation and spots. The last set would usually be Comic Strip at two in the morning — you get $10, maybe, and you want to keep it so you walk across Central Park to get home. You’re happy if you did that every night.
The year that SNL passed on me  was the same year almost every comedy club in New York closed, and it was the one time where I really thought, ‘I’m probably going to have to quit.’ The early 1990s, they were ugly. The Cellar and the Strip were really the only clubs that survived that time, and they were empty. For almost five years of my life, I was starving. I’d do a club, and the owner wouldn’t pay me. I’d say, “Where’s the money?” and he’d say, “I’m just not paying you.” That’s how little leverage comedians had then. It was really, really hard.
But I don’t look back with any regrets or bitterness about my path. A [quicker] path can get you to the end quicker, and you don’t want to go so fast. You, know, I’m so glad I didn’t get cast on SNL. I’m way better off because I host it now. That’s a million times cooler and more fun because to be a castmember there or a featured player or writer is a perilous, difficult, grueling office job — like the worst kind of office job, a 12-hour-a-day job with no end in sight. As a host, you have dinner with the cast and you hang out with Lorne. You get the best of that guy, and he’s a great New York institution. As a host, you get to just sit next to him and watch him do a thing that very few people do anymore. Spending a week there is one of my favorite things I get to do.
A lot of people know me here now, and it can be a real bummer because I love to observe the city. When they’re looking back at you, you don’t get as much data about who they are. I like to feel like a member of the community, too, and whenever you’re set apart, you feel less included. It took me a while to get used to it. I still have the same habits I always did. I still take the subway everywhere with my kids, but now I get on and there will be one or two people who know who I am and make me feel kind of weird. Sometimes somebody will loudly say hi to you, and then everybody is looking at you and it kind of ruins it. I try to say as little as possible so I can melt back in because that feels normal to me.
In addition to ‘Louie,’ C.K. is at work on two new projects — Zach Galifianakis’ ‘Baskets’ and Pamela Adlon’s ‘Better Things’ — both of which he will co-write and produce under his multiyear development deal with FX. The network will air his latest stand-up special May 28.
I didn’t start doing really well until I was about 42 years old; I’m 47 now, so I got 42 years against five good ones. I still have a lot to draw from, and life doesn’t get easier. It’s still cold when I’m outside like it is for everybody else. I’m also raising two girls, and I run a company that produces my show, another show and probably two others after that, and I have to manage a road schedule and all this stuff. Everything is a bit of a high-wire act,and it’s a huge expenditure of energy. And I’m still paying off old tax debts, so you’re never really in the clear. Now, I’m definitely further into the black than I have been before, but I tend to push stuff back out instead of holding onto it or saving it.
It’s funny, when you start having success as a stand-up, you’re like, “Oh my god, they’re paying me $2,500 for seven shows in a week. I’m so excited.” Then you start doing theaters, and you find out what kind of money there really is out there. I mean, I could make 12 movies next year, and I wouldn’t make half of what I make on the road. When I first started making tons of money, it freaked me out. I would always get 10 grand in cash every show because I needed to touch the money. I needed to feel like it wasn’t just going to pay my bills. I’m a bit like boxers in that way. Boxers go and buy, like, a gold car because they just want to feel like they understand what they have. I’ll be a little dumb like that. So I was squirreling away cash — I had something like $100,000 hidden in my apartment. This was probably 2012 and Chris [Rock] was over, so I showed him where I hide my $100,000, and he looked at me and said: “You’re such a n—er. You’re such a f—in’ n—er.” That’s what he said, and I was pink and proud to be called that by him. I don’t hide money in my house anymore.
I definitely have huge benefits to how well I’m doing, but you do find yourself missing the climb. It’s a little like Mount Everest. When you summit, you spend about 20 minutes up there, and you do a little dance, but if the 20-minute dance was really it, would you really risk your life for the amount of work it takes to get up and down? So every time I feel like I’ve found a clearing, I try to find something else that I don’t know how to do yet. That’s just much more interesting to me.
C.K. roasted NYC mayor Bill de Blasio at the annual Inner Circle dinner in March.
If somebody said to me, “Here’s a part in a play,” I’d definitely try it, and some day I’d like to try to write one. That’s a huge mystery to me. Every time I go to a Broadway play of any kind — good or bad — as soon as the lights go out and people come onstage and start to speak, I start to cry. I can’t help it. The first minute of any play feels really stupid — they’re pretending the audience isn’t there, and they’re having this loud dialogue, and you’re like, “What the f— are these people doing?” — but it’s so vulnerable. It’s such an effort, and it’s such a generous thing to do, and so I always get all choked up.
Once in a while, somebody asks me about a late-night show, and I mull it around for a minute. Since I have kids, the stability is half interesting. But I just have too many other things I like to do. I get off onstage, so I’ll never stop doing stand-up, and I love to have my summers off, and going out on the water on my boat is one of my favorite things. Plus, that’s a pretty high id factor job to every f—ing night be like, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the whole country. Here’s what happened to you today and here are the famous people and I’m going to be the filter you’re going to see it all through.” Also, because I worked for Conan, I know how difficult the job is, even as a writer, and I never thirsted after it. I never thought, “Oh geez, I want that.”
I would like to try making a movie. I’ll probably do one next year. I don’t feel like I need anyone to tell me anything with a TV show because I know exactly what I’m doing, but I’d be arrogant to think that I can take someone’s $8 million and just turn in a movie. Movies are different. There’s a permanency to them. And I’d like to be able to shoot on the subway in New York City without the hassle that we have with the MTA [on Louie]. I watch movies where there are chases on the subway, and I’m like, “How the f— did you people get that kind of access?”
C.K. (left) was part of the original writing staff for ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’ on NBC. “That’s when I really started to learn about writing and making television,” he says. He later turned down the head-writer gig on the show and left to pursue his stand-up career.
I was a brat back when I made Pootie Tang [the 2001 Rock film he directed and subsequently was fired from]. I was dealing with people every day whose pressures I didn’t understand, and I wasn’t very nice about how I said no to them. I put myself in a position I didn’t have to be in. A lot of what makes this kind of stuff work is empathy. If you’re taking money from somebody, they have a right to look after it. It’s all just trying to be clear about the arrangement. That’s why when I set up Louie, I just said, “This is what I’m comfortable doing, and if you don’t want to do it, I don’t blame you. But in exchange, I’ll take very little money.” I was only getting $200,000 per show from them, which is insane, and it goes up just by tiny increments every year.
As we negotiate deals for the other shows we produce for FX, like Baskets [starring Zach Galifianakis], I can’t believe what those people are getting paid. It’s really weird to me because they’re like, “This amount and not a penny more for Baskets.” And I’m like, “That’s f—in’ twice what we get on Louie.” The other part of the arrangement with FX is that if this stops working for them, they should just tell me and we’ll stop doing it. Contractually, FX has a right to demand that the scripts be filtered through them before I shoot them, just like any other show. But from the beginning, they haven’t read anything, and they like the show. If I start turning in shit, then they’re going to start asking to see scripts, and that’s perfectly fair.
The attention can make me uncomfortable. I go to the Emmys because there’s just too much pressure not to go to the Emmys, and I don’t want to be an asshole. But I feel like the awards are for everybody else because I got what I wanted: I got to have a show on TV, and I got paid to do it. I’m a total winner. So all of it is a little goofy to me, but, at the same time, I grew up watching the Emmys and the Oscars, and it’s not lost on me. And I like being at an event like the Golden Globes and making Jessica Lange laugh for an hour. I’m a bit of a starf—er, so a lot of time I’m just happy to be in the same room as these people.
Remember, I didn’t go to college, I didn’t get a diploma, I missed a lot of early life landmarks. And I’m an ambitious guy, so, as far as my show goes, I’m a bit competitive. I’m proud we’ve been nominated for best comedy series; that’s a phenomenal thing for me. With the other ones, it depends. I’m happy to have the writers awards, and I feel like I’ve earned them. I’m really trying hard with acting, but I feel like I’m more uneven as an actor. So I always get it [with regard to] who wins. Jim Parsons is on a show that’s watched by 10 times the amount of people who watch my show. Why the f— would it go to me? I have a weird little show that’s kind of disgusting, foul and rude, and most people don’t like that, so I don’t think it’s even right for me to win it.
No matter who you are or where you come from, when you get to that moment and they start opening that envelope, your body gets this rush — and when it’s not you, you get a hit. I had nine nominations one year, and I didn’t win any, so I went down nine times, and it f—ing hurt. But I won’t [campaign]. If I’m in [L.A.], they’ll get me to do a screening and then talk to some goofy guild members, and I never mind doing that because I know who’s actually there. It’s not some great privileged people that I’m asking for a handout; it’s a bunch of folks who are excited every year that they get to go to those panels. And it makes the network happy. But when I was a kid and I found out that people paid to take classes to take the SATs, it made me really mad. I never got over that. It’s part of the reason I didn’t go to college. I thought the whole thing was rigged and phony.
There’s an easy thing of saying, “Yeah, it’s all bullshit out there [in Hollywood],” but if you can’t smell the bullshit here in New York, you must have your nose packed with it. Hollywood is full of opportunity, and I’ve gotten shot after shot after shot out there. I’ve gone there with the dumbest ideas and found somebody willing to pay me tons of money — more than my whole family lineage had on both sides combined — just to jack off and try to be funny. The difference between there and here is that the whole city of L.A. is given to this industry. It’s a community of artists, but there’s also an old-fashioned, almost plantation-y feeling to California. There’s a whole, huge [class] of people — the El Salvadorans, the Guatemalans — who make the city run, and they’re invisible to people. So when you go to L.A. and your liberal friend is rude to the valet guy or the busboy, it can be a little shocking. In New York, everyone is so mixed together that there’s less of a feeling of class here. Outside some fancy office building, you see a CEO getting his cigarette lit by a cleaning lady. Everybody is dealing with the same shit, everybody is on the subway elbow-to-elbow.
I really didn’t have anything growing up, and you never forget that. We lived in a split-level house, and my mom worked all day and raised us on saltless crackers. I always have a sense that I still might end up back there — or driving a cab or teaching community college somewhere. Who f—ing knows. You’re always two bad moves away from losing all of your stability. The thing that keeps me stable now more than anything is my kids. They’re who I bring the Emmys home to, and they’re excited for me and proud of me. But I also make them aware of what it takes to get to these places. I talk to them about work, and I hope they both have shitty minimum wage retail jobs when they’re old enough. I really try to be aware of not letting them grow up weird or spoiled, which is easier to do here than it is in L.A. My 13-year-old daughter leaves the house at 7:15 every morning and takes a smelly city bus to school way uptown. It’s like 8 degrees out, and it’s dark and she’s got this morning face and I send her out there to take a bus. Meanwhile, my driver is sitting in a toasty Mercedes that’s going to take me to work once both kids are gone. I could send her in the Mercedes and then have it come back to get me, but I can’t have my kid doing that. I can’t do that to her. Me? I earned that f—ing Mercedes. You better f—ing believe it.
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