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Louis C.K. On His 'Louie' Hiatus: 'I Wanted The Show To Feel New Again'


This is FRESH AIR. During this holiday week, we're listening back to a few of our favorite interviews of the year. I always love talking with Louis C.K., who is now generally acknowledged as one of the greatest comics of his generation. When he joined us last May, we talked about the fourth season of his FX series "Louie," which was underway. He created, writes, directs and stars in the series as a standup comic named Louie, who, like Louis C.K., is the divorced father of two young girls and shares custody with their mother.

In one episode from this year, Louie is with his two daughters in the New York City subway. Just before getting on the train, Louie reminds the girls of the family subway rule, which is if one of the girls gets separated, she should stay put until daddy comes and gets her. Then the three of them get on a train, but just as the subway doors are closing, the younger daughter, Jane, steps out on to the platform. Louie yells for the train to stop, but it pulls out of the station without Jane. Panicked, Louie then follows the subway rule. He and his older daughter get out at the next station and run to get the next train back to where Jane is. When they finally get there - out of breath and terrified - they're relieved to find Jane has obeyed the rule and stayed in place. Louie grabs her, and she repeats what she's been saying all morning, that she's asleep and still dreaming.


LOUIS C.K.: (as Louie) Jane. Jane.

PARKER: (as Jane) Daddy, it worked and this is all part of my dream.

C.K.: (as Louie) No. This is not a dream, Jane. It's not a dream. This is real. People get hurt. It's a dangerous world. Kids get stolen and they disappear forever, Jane. This is real. Bad things happen. You can't do stuff like that ever again. Just...

HADLEY: (as Lilly) Dad. Dad. It's enough.

C.K.: (as Louie) No.

HADLEY: (as Lilly) It's enough.

C.K.: (as Louie) Go ahead and cry. That's right. That's what you should be doing.

HADLEY: (as Lilly) No.

C.K.: (as Louie) You should be scared and crying. Do you know what could've happened? No. It's not OK. Never do something like that again - never. Why did you do that? Why did you do that, Jane?

PARKER: (as Jane) I don't like this dream. This is a bad dream.

C.K.: (as Louie) No, it's not a good dream. You never do this again.


GROSS: Oh, it's just so upsetting just to hear that.


C.K.: Yeah, brutal.

GROSS: So...

C.K.: It's a comedy show, by the way.


C.K.: It's a comedy. This is a comedy.

GROSS: That's hysterical.

C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: No, but there's, you know, I mean, parents are supposed to reassure their children, but I guess there's a time when you really got to, like, scare them and let them know there really is a dangerous world.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But you're also trying to reassure them, it's OK. It's not - the bogeyman isn't in the room (laughter).

C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: So...

C.K.: Well, the bogeyman is not in the room, but you're too little to be alone. I mean, you've got to connect your kid to the fear they should be feeling, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

C.K.: If your kid does something that's dangerous and they are not afraid, you've got to connect them to some fear. I mean, you got - sometimes you got to make those connections for kids. You got to sort of go, here you are, here's what you just - this is the choice you just made, here's how you ought to feel about it. You know, sometimes that's empathy, like gees, you just slapped that baby and you're not - you don't seem upset - or whatever it is.


C.K.: So that's - yeah. But, you know, I don't think that's an absolute - I don't know - premium - kids must feel safe. They shouldn't feel safe if they're not. They should be aware of what maintains their safety. Why not? Why shelter them from that? In this scene I'm reacting emotionally. This was the easiest acting I ever did because the idea of it was so easy to channel, of how terrifying and horrible it would be if my kid did something like this.

GROSS: Part of the series "Louie" is about your character playing an active part in the lives of his daughters, co-parenting. You know, he's divorced. And...

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...You've maintained a really active role in your children's lives. You're divorced. When your parents divorced when you were young, you grew up in Mexico for the first seven years of your life. And your father - my understanding is your father stayed there and you haven't had a lot of contact with him. So he did not remain an active presence in your life in the way that you've remained an active presence in your children's lives. Did that...

C.K.: That's not entirely true.

GROSS: It's not entirely true? Oh, sorry.

C.K.: No we - I lived in Mexico 'til I was about 7 and we moved to the states. And when I was about 10 or 11, my parents got divorced, but we were all living in Massachusetts. And so when my parents got divorced, my father stayed in town. He was still around, but he wasn't actively involved in raising me. But he was in America, so...

GROSS: Did that have an effect on what you wanted to do as a divorced parent?

C.K.: Oh definitely. I mean, when I was married, I was very - and when we had the two kids - I was very connected to the kids. As soon as I had one kid, that sort of became the most important thing in my life was my kid's life. And so once I was with two kids, that was a big part of life to me was being with my kids and spending time with them and them expecting me there and taking part in their daily life. And actually, when my marriage to their mom started to, you know, come towards a place where it had to end, I was scared to because I assumed it would be like my dad, that I wouldn't really see them, that I wouldn't really be an active part of their lives anymore. And that to me was not OK. To me, that wasn't something I was willing to do. And then I met a guy named Andrew Dice Clay (laughter), of all people. I'd never met...

GROSS: Mr. Sensitivity. Yes.

C.K.: ...Andrew - yeah exactly. And I met Andrew at a show. And we talked about marriage and he said - I said I didn't think my marriage was going well, but that I didn't want to get out because I wanted to be with the kids. And he told me, you know (imitating heavy New York accent) hey, I'm divorced, I got kids. And he told me that he had found that in divorced life, you stay in your kid's life. This is something I had to go out and learn, that there's a version of divorced life where you're partners and you're both taking care of the kids. The kids are spending equal time with each parent and there's balance there.And there's harmony between the parents because they're not married in a bad marriage anymore. If you do it right, it's a much better life for the kids. So, yeah, and their mom is a good co-parent. We're good partners together, we're friends. And we've both, I think, done a pretty good job of letting the kids feel like they have everything. They have a mom and they have a dad who get along and who are both there for them. And they have...

GROSS: So you have a better relationship than the divorced couple does on the series "Louie."

C.K.: Yeah. Yeah. I definitely - the mom - my kids' mom in real life - you know, the kids on "Louie" are nothing like my kids. All the stuff on the show has really departed into its own world based on the cast. The two girls that play my girls, I write towards them, not towards my own kids.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

C.K.: And Susan Kelechi Watson, that plays my ex-wife, she's got this amazing slow burn and this great...

GROSS: Yeah.

>>C.K. ...Way of staring me down. So that's what I've been writing towards.

GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview recorded with Louis C.K. last May.


GROSS: You've hosted "Saturday Night Live" twice?

C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's great because your opening monologue, it doesn't seem like the kind of opening monologue that the script writers write for most of the guests. It seems like you bring your stories and you tell them as if you were the comic whose show it was. You don't do the typical guest host thing. And your monologues have been great. And I want to play an excerpt of the most recent one. And so this is Louis C.K. on "Saturday Night Live" and you manage to talk about religion in this.


C.K.: Personally, I don't think there's a heaven. I think maybe there's a God but there's no heaven. I think that's the best news you're going to get. You die, and you're like, hey, God. And he's like, yeah? And you're like, where's heaven? And he's like, I don't know who's telling people that.


C.K.: I'm supposed to make a universe, and then another whole amazing place for afterwards? You guys are greedy [bleep] down there.


C.K.: Well, where do I go? Just stand in this room with me now.


C.K.: I don't like it. Tell me about it, I've been here since 1983...


C.K.: ...Or whenever, I don't know when God started, but...


C.K.: I'm not religious. I don't know if there's a God. But that's all I can say, honestly, is I don't know. Some people think that they know that there isn't. That's a weird thing to think you can know. Yeah, there's no God. Are you sure? Yeah, no, there's no God. How do you know? Because I didn't see him.


C.K.: How do you - there's a vast universe. You can see for about a hundred yards when there's not a building in the way. How could you possibly ?- did you look everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom, where he goes sometimes? I haven't seen him. Yeah, I haven't seen "12 Years a Slave" yet, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I'm just going to wait until it comes on cable.


GROSS: That's hysterical and very profound.


GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing that and deciding you were going to do a bit about is there a God?

C.K.: When they asked me to host the show again, to me the one thing I wanted to really have was a great monologue. They give you total free rein on the monologue - I mean, if you're a standup. That's the biggest audience I ever see is the top of the show "Saturday Night Live." I don't know how many people it is, but it's something like - I don't know - four million people watch that show? I never tap four million people except for in "SNL's" monologue. So I thought if I can really make it something - not just have it go well.The first time I did the - hosted "SNL," I realized I learned something that I didn't know, which is that the audience there is a pretty young audience. They're families that go together. It's kind of a Disney audience. It's very - and I'm not putting these people down - they're tourists from outside of New York usually. And they're not a dark people, you know what I mean, like in their intent or their feelings. They're not nightclub standup, you know, let it hang out people. They're cheerful, ready for a good show, sweet, sweet middle-of-America people.

GROSS: Not your audience (laughter).

C.K.: And - not my audience - well, I mean, I play to those audiences all over the country. I play every city in America. But usually when I go to like Minneapolis, yeah, I'm tapping Minneapolis's more nefarious types. I'm not...

GROSS: Right.

C.K.: I'm not getting the Chamber of Commerce and the, you know, the Catholic League coming. So yeah, I thought I want to do something that's compelling and really a good monologue, but the crowd might not be there for it. It may not be there thing, so I trained for that monologue. I did a lot of sets in town and I did a lot of clubs where there was no audience really, or places where I knew I would do poorly because I wanted to be sure that the monologue would go well whether the audience likes me or not.

GROSS: That's great...

C.K.: I wanted to be ready for that.

GROSS: So how do you find a place that you know you're going to do poorly?

C.K.: Well, there's places that just you're up against it. There's like, you know, open mic type places where there's not much of an audience, or the audience is just other comedians with notebooks waiting for you to get off stage. You know, I did a lot of weeknight sets, like a Tuesday night, 8:30 p.m. show somewhere where there's really only eight people in the audience, that kind of thing. I found a lot of...

GROSS: They must've been surprised to see you.

C.K.: Yes. Yeah. People were usually surprised that I would walk in, depending on the place. Some places nobody cared. But I kept working on the set, working on the ideas in the set and connecting to the material and not worrying about what the audience was doing. And then I got lucky; the crowd at "SNL" was awesome. They loved it and they were ready for it and they were excited. And something I've learned over the years is that when you talk about religion, you want to talk to religious people. Even if you're talking about something that's contrary religiously or provocative, a religious audience is a better audience for that.If you talk to a bunch of cool atheists in leather and suede, you know, sucking on their vape sticks or whatever they're doing, they're not going to get it because they don't even think about God. It's not even on their radar, you know? So they're - but if you tell religious people I don't know if there's a God. I don't think there's a heaven. Where's God's ex-wife? These things - they have a connection to it that means something. Yeah.

GROSS: You've said that your specialty is going to - as a comic, your specialty is going to a place where people get uncomfortable and then you stay there. How did you realize that was your comedy, that that's what you do?

C.K.: I kind of couldn't help it, you know? It's like stuff - like the stuff in that monologue. It's very touchy stuff. The areas I'm going into, you know, are touchy. Maybe there's a God, maybe there isn't. Is God divorced? Did God kill his wife? You know, some things that are like, oh boy, you feel a little sweat on the back of your neck when you get there. But if you stay there for a second, you can find something joyful and funny in it. And it's such a great thing to go to a scary place and laugh. I mean, what's better than that? I guess I found out, though, because I couldn't help it. I just couldn't help straying into these areas. I'm also not afraid of it. I'm not afraid of if I go somewhere and I upset everybody. I've been there.

I don't know, I guess I was in trouble a lot when I was a kid, so I got used to it. Like, when you're never in trouble, you can never go to places like that. But if you're in trouble all the time, it's like, why not? I mean, I know what this feels like. I know I can survive everybody being pissed off at me. So when I started going onstage I realized, yeah, if I talk about this stuff I might upset people in the room, but it's worth it because maybe there's something there.

GROSS: Louis C.K., recorded last May. Our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year continues tomorrow. If you want to catch up on interviews you missed or just listen on your own schedule, check out our podcast. It's free, and you can get it from iTunes or your phone podcast app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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