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The Hemi Q&A: Louis C.K.

The car mechanic turned world-famous comedian and star of his own TV show discusses flopping onstage, boxing and the delicate art of raising kids right— even while mining them for material

By David Carr
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

HERE’S THE FUNNIEST THING about Louis C.K., the scabrous comedian who makes family life sound like a chamber of horrors: He actually goes kind of gooey and sweet when he talks about his kids—two daughters, 6 and 9.

Gooey and sweet aren’t a big part of his blockbuster standup performances, but a dose of that sentiment has trickled into Louie, his brilliant and at times disarmingly tender show on FX, now in its second season. On the show, which mixes standup and absurdist dramatic vignettes, he riffs on the indignities and peculiarities of everyday life, offering a rolling interrogation of why things are the way they are from the perspective of a comedian turned loving single father. It’s the brainchild of a walking hyphenate and control freak: C.K. writes, directs, produces, acts, edits and supervises the show’s music.

The son of a Mexican father and an Irish mother, he grew up in Mexico City and moved to the Boston area at 10. After a slow start in comedy, the onetime auto mechanic moved to New York in 1989 and started working his way up.

Now, with two lauded standup specials, a couple of feature films, one short-lived HBO sitcom (Lucky Louie) and a stint writing for the hugely influential Dana Carvey Show under his belt, C.K. has become one of the biggest comics in the land. In April, his concert film Hilarious won the prize for best standup special at Comedy Central’s comedy awards.

When we talk over the phone, there is a lot of noise in the background. After a bit of prodding, C.K. admits that he’s out in his neighborhood in Lower Manhattan buying scooters for his kids. What a softie.

HEMISPHERES: I did standup three times. The first was a gimme: I MC’d an event with a lot of funny people. The second time I did a decent 20 minutes and got some laughs. The third time, I walked out, died and never recovered. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life, and I never did it again.

C.K.: That span pretty much describes the comedy experience. I went through them all, except that each one lasted years. I’ve had a couple of years where I wasn’t getting any laughs. But there was a feeling I got from hitting the dirt that hard, knowing that I was still functioning and that my limbs would regenerate. After a while, I was ready to try it again.

HEMISPHERES: It’s hard not to panic, yet you never seem to, like when things get a little quiet on your Tonight Show appearances.

C.K.: What happens on the Tonight Show is that Jay always gives me the first slot, even though I’m not as famous as most of the other guests on the show. It’s usually a big star that opens, and then I get a few minutes of people going, “Who is this guy?” It’s not the end of the world. I know there’s success beyond that if you can stay cool, if you can keep your confidence and keep your heart rate low. Like boxing.

HEMISPHERES: You do a bit of boxing yourself. You used to train with Mickey Ward, the guy who inspired The Fighter.

C.K.: Mickey is such a decent person. He boils all these mythical things people are addicted to—like making your dreams come true and being The One, the American Idol stuff —into a lesson about hard work, responsibility and things like courtesy and decency.

HEMISPHERES: Do you think that part of the reason you’ve had so much success is that you’re willing to say unspeakable things aloud? Like how you have absolutely no interest in single people because their lives have no stakes? Or how unfair it is when your daughter makes up her own hide-and-seek rules, because it’s clearly just cover for how bad she is at the game?

C.K.: Comedy is a license to remove reason from a situation. If you take reason and logic out of a statement and leave in the passion and confusion, that’s really funny to people.

HEMISPHERES: You seem more bemused about contemporary life than angry.

C.K.: I never think of myself as angry. I’m open to any idea. I want to be in a state of constant reanalysis of everything, because life’s more interesting that way. Once you make judgments and rules for what you’ve decided to believe, you’re missing out on discovering things you might not have any idea about.

HEMISPHERES: You say amazingly funny stuff about your kids, but it can be savage. I assume audiences let you get away with it because they believe you are actually a kind, loving father.

C.K.: I’ve done sets where people tell me that those bits work because they just know what a good dad I am. And I’m like, “How do you know that?” But look, both of my kids know that I talk about them onstage. Most of my act is not okay for kids, but I’ve told them some of the bits that I do.

HEMISPHERES: Do they think you’re funny?

C.K.: They do. But the reason why they think it’s funny when I rail and yell about them onstage is that it’s not what I’m really like. If I screamed at my kids at home and then joked about it, it would be horrible for them. Also, my kids and I are honest about what’s tough in life. We’re able to laugh about it. We’re not all polite in the house.

HEMISPHERES: So are you their boss or are you their pal?

C.K.: I don’t believe in this idea of the godlike power of a parent, because it doesn’t really help kids in the end. I give my kids their day in court and let them talk to me about what we’re dealing with. I always tell them that crying ain’t going to get you there, and saying “please” five times isn’t going to get you there, but if you have a reason, I’ll listen. They don’t often find a way to change my mind, but I do think it’s worthwhile to let them sharpen their ability to reason.

HEMISPHERES: Your show on FX got renewed for a second season. That must feel pretty good.

C.K.: I see everything as a challenge, but I don’t see anything as a reward. I just see it as an extra challenge. I work out with boxers when I’m really trying to get in shape for standup. When I did my first special, Shameless, I worked with this boxing trainer in L.A., and I told him that this was my title fight, the big one. And he said, “No, your big one isn’t your title fight. It’s your first defense of your title.”

HEMISPHERES: Meaning when you’re the challenger no one sees you coming, but when you’re the champ, everyone does.

C.K.: That’s right. The first time you go out there to defend your belt they know what you’re capable of and they’ll throw everything at you. Right now, FX has said, “Yes, the show works, go ahead and do it again.” But I still think of it as a challenge. Can I sustain the show? Is it still going to be good? Is it worth watching more than 13 times? Can it be better? And if it’s not, there’s absolutely no one to blame but me. I get an enormous amount of help from everybody on my crew, but these are my decisions. If the show stinks it’s precisely my fault.

HEMISPHERES: So, let’s have a little speed round. Least favorite kind of heckler?

C.K.: Selfish ones. Dumb hecklers are just being dumb, but selfish hecklers want to suck up all the attention.

HEMISPHERES: If you’re having a night out for fun, what is it?

C.K.: I am a night out, so when I have time to relax, I usually just stay home.

HEMISPHERES: Are there things that are always funny and things that are never funny?

C.K.: If something was always funny I’d be a billionaire. And I don’t believe there’s anything that’s never funny.

HEMISPHERES: The funniest person alive?

C.K.: I doubt it’s a comedian. It’s probably some guy in a rice paddy somewhere in Vietnam who keeps his fellow workers laughing as hard as they can all day.

HEMISPHERES: Or maybe it’s just a determined car mechanic from Boston. You know, some guy just wrenching away and dreaming that some day he’ll take over the world. But that could never happen, of course.

C.K.: Of course not.

DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for The New York Times, always seems to laugh at the wrong time when other people tell jokes.

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