LOS ANGELES — The most interesting and beautiful comedy on television right now, to my mind, is “Louie,” from the comedian Louis C.K., who not only stars in the show but produces, writes, directs and edits it as well.
The series, now in its second season (airing at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT Thursdays on FX), is not really a sitcom and not really a sketch comedy, though it has elements of both. Intercutting shorter and longer stories with complementary scenes of C.K. doing stand-up, it is a sort of fictional, mosaic self-portrait of the artist as an aging man, divorced with daughters: artful — art, I’d argue — without being arty and a rare bit of auteurism in a medium most often ruled by committee.
C.K.‘s dominant mode is a kind of mournful hopefulness that reminds me, the talkiness of his humor notwithstanding, of the silent-movie comedians of old, for whom the world was a long line of open manholes. I spoke with him by phone recently.
Q. Was stand-up comedy always the obvious outlet for what you had to say?
A. Well, I used to want to make movies a lot. But stand-up was always the thing I was able to do best. And it’s such a gettable job for me — TV and movies take so much work getting the job before you can do the actual work, but stand-up you can just go and find an audience.
Q. You did make films for a time.
A. That’s right, that was a road I was trying to go down for a while. I made short films, and then I did a little feature called “Tomorrow Night” and took it to Sundance and tried to get some movies made after that. But that’s really hard. (Laughs.) You know, I got that movie “Pootie Tang” (a parody of blaxploitation films, based on a sketch from “The Chris Rock Show,” on which C.K. was a writer), and that turned into a studio movie in the middle of the project. Originally it was going to be Paramount Classics, which was their little-movie arm; it was just a throwaway for them, because Chris Rock was hot and that character was popular. Then they got some higher hopes and the budget went up, but then it started getting overseen by Paramount (proper). It didn’t really stand for that kind of scrutiny, and neither did I. I wasn’t ready for all that. But it was a great education.
Meanwhile, stand-up was surging, and television. I had started having this rule of “Go take the jobs people are really asking you to do instead of trying in vain to get a job they don’t want to give you.”
Q. Are there filmmakers whose work you see in your stand-up?
A. Maybe. I always loved Woody Allen, although he was both. I grew up watching all these crazy movies, European movies and stuff, and I guess that I always laughed at things that were a little more offbeat. So I was willing to try things onstage that weren’t strictly joke-telling; I had some faith that they would be compelling to do.
Q. I was struck by that small moment in the episode “Moving” where you’re looking out the window of an apartment you might rent and a car pulls up on the street outside, exchanges one homeless person for another and drives away.
A. Moments like that, they’re crazy, but they feel weirdly real to me. And I just had an instinct that that would be really interesting to watch and funny in its own way. I don’t know, but for some reason that means something to me in that story.
Q. Was it an idea you’d had before, or did it just come up in the moment of writing the scene?
A. Yeah, that’s exactly right. Sometimes I feel that the story is telling itself to me, like I was sort of writing myself through that apartment and I got to that place where I’m looking out the window and I just kind of saw this thing happen in my head. And it made me laugh, so I just jotted it down. The freedom of the show, the ability to make it without any kind of restriction, makes it possible, ‘cause if I had to send that idea up the chain, I’d be asked, “Who are those guys? How does that come back?” There’d be a yearning for context.
Q. Are there things you learned from the first season that you brought into the second?
A. I think (the episodes) just got better — there weren’t any hard lessons learned. Well, some were learned and not applied. I learned that I really have to write more before I start shooting, and this time I did, a little, and we built a month into the middle of the schedule with no shooting so I could take a month to write. But unfortunately I was just exhausted from shooting, and I just didn’t get inspired, so I didn’t write much. (Laughs.) I did learn that there was more territory that the show could go into that I just didn’t necessarily expect before the first season. And it succeeded; people liked it when we tried these other things. So I’m going into even more territory that’s unexpected.
Q. Can you give some examples?
A. Well, one thing is this season the kids are way more in the show. Often in adult shows, kids are just suggested as a backdrop to the person’s life. Part of that is it’s just easier: It’s hard work to shoot with kids. But this year there’s way more dialogue between me and the children.
Q. With HBO’s “Lucky Louie,” you made a straightforward three-camera sitcom, and you made a pilot for CBS (“St. Louie”) that I presume was more or less a traditional situation comedy. How did you come to this structure, mixing shorter and longer pieces with interludes of stand-up?
A. I guess through not being good at those other ones. (Laughs.) I think you have to try and fail, because failure gets you closer to what you’re good at. I just kept searching for different ways to put stuff together, and with “Louie” I just decided, “Here’s all the things I don’t like having to do — I’m not going to do them this time. I’m going to try, anyway; I’m going to see if a show without any of these constrictions works and still has something worth looking at.” So far it’s working out.
Q. How do you see the relationship between pessimism and optimism in your humor?
A. Well, I think that the guy in the show that I am is pessimistic, but the stuff that happens to him is optimistic. The show is happening to me, I’m not driving it, which I like. I’m the same, the same, the same, which is generally pessimistic, and life in the show keeps throwing at me all these different examples where I’m wrong.
Q. Can we talk a little about the look of the show? It’s unusually beautiful and atmospheric, especially for a comedy.
A. Oh, a lot goes into that for me. I love filmmaking. It’s something I get a huge satisfaction from, technically. I take a lot of photographs, and I’m into lenses and how they’re ground and all that stuff.
It’s important for the show to have a distinctive look because there’s so many images being pelted at people. I think people don’t know why they like to look at the show but that it’s pleasing. And that’s great.
Q. How much do the stand-up segments in the show allow you to get away with the parts of the show that aren’t keyed to getting a laugh?
A. Oh, it’s a huge benefit. Because when you’re writing a sitcom, you need to go out on what they call the blow — you know, you need to go out on a laugh — and often having a laugh destroys the reality of a moment, takes away from everything. Somebody has to ramp up to a joke, and that act-break feeling, that is a huge chore in writing half-hours. I’m able to have moments in the show that kind of linger and are broken and uncertain, but I’m there to bail it out: I tell three jokes and people go into the commercial happy.