“I have a no problem with something going down in flames,” says Louis C.K., the stand-up comedian and TV auteur, as we sit down to discuss his life and career on the “Awards Chatter” podcast. He continues, “I’m not afraid of that. It’s very important to me that it works, but that doesn’t come from fear of failure — failure is okay.” The 48-year-old, who is most widely known for his stand-up specials and his on-hiatus FX series Louie, certainly risked failure with his latest project, a drama series called Horace and Pete that he released through his own website, LouisCK.net. But the show has proven to be a hit with critics and, contrary to reports, will soon make money for C.K. and his collaborators — and C.K., who has historically been averse to Emmys campaigning, is going “balls to the wall” to make sure it gets its due.
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C.K.’s entire career has defied expectations. Ten years ago, he notes, his first TV series, HBO’s Lucky Louie, had flopped and was canceled after one season; he was getting divorced from the mother of his two young children; and he was selling out 1,000-seat theaters, which was great, but about as great as he ever expected things to get. A decade later, he has been described by the New Yorker as the “king of comedy” and Charlie Rose as “a philosopher king,” and he’s one of the most famous comedian in America.
Over the course of our hour-plus conversation, C.K. discusses his roots (born in Washington, D.C., he was raised in Mexico until the age of seven, grew up speaking Spanish and says, “When I go back to Mexico — anywhere in Mexico — I just start crying because I love it there — it’s home”); his school years (a “nerd” and “AV kid” with “no academic ability” but a deep interest in technology and film); his first, bumpy foray into standup (he was just 17 when he took a stage in Boston and bombed); and his roads not taken (he was encouraged to go to NYU Film School but didn’t want to burden his single mother who was putting three other kids through college, and instead spent years as an auto mechanic, pool cleaner, construction worker, house painter and KFC employee before committing to comedy).
The Boston comedy scene was big but competitive when C.K. hit it. “It was a hard place to come up,” he says, and New York, where he eventually moved, was hardly an easier place to make a living doing standup. “For the first 25 years I did it, I didn’t have any reason to really believe I would get to where I wanted to go or even make a living,” he confesses. In the early 1990s, he was hit by a motorcycle accident and the loss of his hair. Many comedy clubs were closing. And he auditioned unsuccessfully for SNL at a time when many of his friends and contemporaries were landing work on the show. It was all enough to make him contemplate quitting. But then he was hired to write for Late Night with Conan O’Brien and, he says, “That saved me.” (He would spend the next several years working in late night, also writing for Dana Carvey and David Letterman.)
By the late 1990s, C.K. assumed that the ship already sailed on his having a show of his own, and he was happily serving as a star writer for The Chris Rock Show when Chris Rock, his longtime friend, urged him to reconsider. So, after experiencing bitter disappointment with his feature directorial debut Pootie Tang (2001), which taught him the importance of fighting for creative control of his work in the future, he shot a comedy pilot in 2004 for CBS called Saint Louie, which marked his first time acting — “I had a big learning curve,” he acknowledges. It didn’t get picked up. Then Lucky Louie came in 2006 — and went in 2007 — and so it was back to live performances for C.K., only now as a more famous figure. From 2006 to 2010, C.K. made a living solely as a standup, and put out a new TV special — with completely fresh material — every year. During this run, he says, “I didn’t care about being on TV.”
But then TV came calling for C.K., who began receiving substantial offers to do a series for broadcast networks. He was tempted to “cash in,” but found untenable the idea of relocating to Los Angeles and being away from his kids; having only a portion of his material, and the rest notes from a network, make it onto his show; and having to do endless press and promotion. Simultaneously, he received outreach from John Landgraf, the president and general manager of FX, who could offer only $200,000 for a pilot and any subsequent episodes that might happen, but who would allow C.K. to shoot in New York; have complete creative control of the series; and do only as much press for it as he felt comfortable doing. For C.K., who had recently seen Woody Allen‘s wildly adventurous 1977 comedy Annie Hall, the opportunity to do something truly original was too good to pass up. Landgraf wired him the money to make the pilot and then, C.K. says, “It became an obsession — that was it — and I really gave a shit about the show and applied everything I’d learned — everything — to the show.”
Louie debuted in 2010 to tremendous critical acclaim. But “the Louie deal,” which many other creative artists covet but few, if any, have ever been given in TV, also enabled C.K. to stop and start the series whenever he desired. And he has taken advantage of that, taking a two-year hiatus between seasons three and four and an “extended hiatus” after season five that continues to this day. “I don’t ever want to do the show because I owe another season,” he says. “I don’t think that’s fair to anybody.” But can we expect it to return in the foreseeable future? And, if so, in what form? “I think the guy that I played on the show, the just-divorced kinda under-water dad/struggling New York comic — I don’t think I have stories for that guy anymore,” he reveals. “But the show is autobiographical, so what John Landgraf and I have always thought is that it may come back with a different set of stories from a different angle a little further down the road. And I don’t know where that’s from yet, so it just depends on if it writes. I think, for me, if I’m on TV again doing a single-camera show, it’s Louie. But I don’t know. I have no idea. I needed to not know if I’d ever do it again — I needed to feel that way — so that’s the way I feel right now.”
In the interim, between last July and October, C.K. was inspired to write a drama — “I call it a tragedy,” he says — about a fictional Brooklyn bar called Horace and Pete’s that was owned by a Horace and a Pete for over a century, and is now owned by a particularly troubled Horace and Pete. “They were very emotional to write,” he says. “I started to get excited about different ways to do it, like make the episodes as long as you want, shot as a sitcom but without an audience, let it feel like a play, have an episode where two people talk and nobody else is in it, have a 10-minute monologue before you know who [the character] is talking to. And I started to think, ‘This is gonna be a little tough to fit into the FX frequency and how they make television, just stylistically.” So C.K., who had previously had positive experiences selling tickets to a concert tour — and made millions selling streams and downloads of two comedy specials — via his website, decided to sell Horace and Pete the same way.
In total secrecy, he lined up an all-star cast — Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Alan Alda and the list goes on — to star alongside him in return for little upfront salary but big profit participation. “I told all these people, ‘You don’t have to promote this show,'” he recalls. “‘Just show up. It’s something new and if you don’t like it’ — I told everybody this — ‘I’ll kill your character and you can leave. If you don’t like how it’s going, you don’t have to stay. And I’m not gonna make you commit to it — you can do other projects if you want to.’ So that got them interested. But it was the scripts that they liked.” Nobody in the media or general public knew about their involvement until, one Saturday morning, Beyonce-style, C.K. dropped a surprise on his fans. He sent a cryptic email linking them to where they could buy the first episode of Horace and Pete for $5 or all 10 episodes for $31. “I’m amazed that we managed to keep it a total secret,” he says.
What of some of his creative choices? Why shoot a show in the multi-camera format but without a live audience or laugh track that almost always accompanies that format? “It puts me in a trance,” he says, “I can’t hear any of those shows anymore.” (The only two that appeal to him are The Carmichael Show and Black-ish. “Those are both very worth watching because they’ve given those folks some room to be somebody, to be a character and just talk a little bit, and I think that’s fascinating. I’m really excited for those shows.”) And why have an intermission each episode? As an excuse to feature the “scat vocal version” of the closing theme music that C.K.’s friend Paul Simon composed for the show.
By selling a show through an independent website, C.K. was taking a gamble — but was it one he could afford to lose? Comments that he made during an April interview that he gave to Howard Stern were subsequently interpreted by many as suggesting that his investment in Horace and Pete had left him broke, but he says that is far from the case. “It was just a weird distortion of what I said because I said on Howard Stern that I took on debt,” he explains. “I mean, Howard’s a comedy guy, so I wanted to make it sound funny, and I knew he would laugh if I said I’m in debt… I told him, ‘Yeah, I’m millions of dollars in debt,’ which I was, technically — I took a line of credit to finish the show. But there’s no other way to make a TV show — every TV show that you ever see is running a deficit… I took debt so I could get through production, but I knew that I would make the money back — I knew it. I almost have. I mean, in a couple of months, this show will be paid for.”
C.K. also says that the media has gotten something else wrong: contrary to widely publicized reports, he reveals, he has not ended Horace and Pete. Following the April 2 release of the show’s tenth episode, he emailed fans and said, among other things, “So. That was it.” and described it as “a very very sad thing to be done doing it.” But what he meant, he says, is that season one was over, not the whole series. “Here’s what happened,” he says. “I was writing an email every week to my fans with every new episode. But the tenth episode was the last one, and I didn’t want to say, ‘Here’s the last episode,’ because I had a very dramatic ending to the season. And by the way, I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but that’s up to me… I could do a second season of Horace and Pete, of course I could — and I’m considering it. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do. I know I will do this kind of show again.”
He continues, “We put the bar in storage — I can’t let go of it, I love that bar and I love those characters and I certainly love that cast and they all loved doing it and they want to keep going, so we may do it again. It depends on what I write. But the first season has a very dramatic ending to it and I wanted that ending to have its full impact, and the way I sought to take advantage of the fact that we were working in the dark and folks were watching in the dark was for them not to know that the tenth episode would be the last episode. I saw huge dramatic value in watching an episode and the ending being so dramatic, not even having known that you were watching the last episode… The impact that that would have would be heightened by the 10th episode going out with just, ‘Hey, folks, here’s another episode,’ and I wrote some smarmy thing like, ‘Here it is, enjoy!’ But because I had been communicating with the fans through these emails, I wanted to say goodbye to them on the season, so I [subsequently] said, ‘Okay, well, obviously that was it,’ to people who had watched it. ‘That was it. We did it. Thanks for watching. This was a great experience. I miss doing the show. I’m sad not to be doing it. Now it’s finished — now it’s complete — and now I’m gonna go tell the world about it.'”
C.K. places blame for the confusion on “a specific website, Time.com,” because in reporting on his final email about Horace and Pete, “They wrote ‘cancels the show.’ That is a big leap to take. And then they say, in big letters, ‘Now it’s finished.’ They not only took it out of context, they created a context for it… So Time prints that, and everybody else prints it as a fact… Why would I cancel my own TV show? I mean, I’m paying for it myself!”
As it turns out, C.K. says, the show’s finances not only weren’t bleak enough to cause him to cancel the show — but are actually looking quite strong. “The tax rebate we’re getting from New York State and the amount of sales we have so far have put the show in the black,” he says proudly. “The show’s paid for — with no advertising. There isn’t a TV show with this kind of cast that has that kind of success.” It has further room for growth, as well, he says. An app is being designed, and is expected out in July, that will allow people to watch the show on their mobile devices. Additionally, he says, “We’ll sell the show to other services,” adding, “We’ve got a few offers and we’re kind of not paying attention to them right now… I’d like to spend the rest of the year seeing how it does in the wild, and then when it’s time sell it, I can split these checks with my cast, who all own big pieces of the show.”
The other thing that could give Horace and Pete a big boost is some Emmy love — it might well become the first show released by an independent website to land at least one major nom, a prospect that C.K. recognizes and desires greatly. “I’m taking this on as a big league challenge,” he says, “so we’re spending a ton of money and doing a real Emmy campaign. We’re sending DVDs of the entire season to every voter, so they’re all gonna get the DVDs. We’re gonna take out ads in Emmy magazine. We’re gonna give people a little code so they can watch it on the website.”
C.K. still finds Emmy campaigning a bit distasteful — “I have always had a feeling like if you’re going out and asking for an award, you’re kind of a schmuck,” he admits, “and there are things in Emmy campaigning that I haven’t done because they feel a little over the top.” But going to bat for Horace and Pete feels different: “I want to show that Horace and Pete is as legitimate as any other TV show. I want to show that this model works… I want to go all the way to the end of the line, go to the Emmys, get Alan Alda an Emmy; get Steve and these people — at least get them nominated; get the show nominated; I think [guest actress Laurie Metcalf] deserves it; I think some of the episodes, based on what I’ve gotten writing Emmys for in the past, I think I’m at least a contender; and then in the drama category, as a series, you know, you never know… I’ll certainly go balls to the wall to try to make it happen because if we get that far, then we can do this again.”
Regardless of what happens at the Emmys, C.K. won’t lack for things to do. He currently serves as an executive producer on the Zach Galifianakis show Baskets (FX); the Pamela Adlon show Better Things (FX); and the Tig Notaro show One Mississippi (Amazon). He’s also making his first foray into animation, having created — and now voicing — a show with Albert Brooks for FX. And, looking beyond his current plans, he’d like to create a project for a medium other than television, including but not limited to a film. “I’d love to make a Broadway play,” he volunteers, noting, “I’ve had lunch with Broadway play producers who have said, ‘If you write a play, we will put it on.’ Horace and Pete is like a play and we could adapt it for Broadway, we could do that. I’d like to do a new piece of material, too. Maybe both.” But, as much as anything, he says, “I’d like to go back to what I just did with Horace and Pete, and try that again.”