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Un-comfort zone

Comic Louis C.K.’s new show follows no rules — and that’s how he likes it

(Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / June 25, 2010

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NEW YORK — Every year, like a compulsive spring cleaner, Louis C.K. throws out all of his material. It’s not that he gets tired of the jokes or that the act isn’t working anymore. On the contrary. After 12 months, the comic’s stand-up set is so beautifully hewn, “it’s like a little Buddha statue, all smooth and well-curved. You just — bang! — drop things where you want to. It’s so easy.’’

And easy is not the street where Louis C.K. wants to live. Discomfort is a far more valuable commodity in his line of work. So he forces himself to start over again and again — no jokes, no direction, no confidence — because the troubling unknown is where he finds the truth in its most twisted iteration: humor.

On Tuesday the Newton native makes another fresh start with “Louie,’’ a semi-autobiographical television series on FX that challenges our tolerance for the truth in all its coarse, humbling, hilarious glory. On screen, that means everything from the sight of Louis C.K.’s middle-age butt under unforgiving fluorescent lights to a sketch about the radical consequences of Googling a middle-school crush.

The show also spurns the traditional tenets of half-hour television comedies. “Louie’’ deals with the everyday mortifications of life as a divorced single dad in an unconventional format (basically, there isn’t one) that alternates stand-up comedy with related scripted vignettes. There are neither traditional story arcs nor reliable rhythms. Many inspired moments go nowhere. A character may appear once and vanish forever. Or not. Depends on how Louis C.K. feels.

In a novel arrangement with FX, Louis C.K. is creating “Louie’’ without any input from the channel, which is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group. He is the writer, director, producer, editor, and star. Louis C.K. says he turned down bigger offers from bigger networks because autonomy is more precious than a fat paycheck. He gets to live full-time in New York, where he shares custody of his two young daughters with his ex-wife. Plus, he doesn’t want to turn into Charlie Sheen (i.e. a rich, famous tabloid staple), which is the end game FX president John Landgraf jokingly warned of should Louis C.K. opt for a lucrative sitcom deal with another network. Louis C.K. tried it once before at HBO, in 2006; “Lucky Louie’’ was canceled after one season.

“Some people work brilliantly within the limitations of structure, and Louis is the opposite of that,’’ says Landgraf. “If you make him jump through hoops and raise his hand, you essentially rob him of the things that make him great: his iconoclasm, his courage, his multi-hyphenate originality.’’

Louis C.K.’s unvarnished perspective has helped him carve out a broad career — as a successful stand-up comic; a writer for David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Chris Rock’s television shows; director of the blaxploitation film satire “Pootie Tang’’; and star of numerous TV specials. For his latest venture, having sole control was key.

“I told him the only way I do this is if you wire me the money, literally. I’m not telling you what the show is about,’’ says the genial comic, matter-of-factly. “You can’t read the script, and I’m not pitching anything. I just make the show.’’

On a recent afternoon, the bulky, balding 42-year-old comic is hunched over his laptop in the control room of a West Chelsea recording studio, studying footage from the series. The scene on view is a flashback, a nightmarish montage with a punch line: There’s young Louie racing into a church and ripping out the nails from a Jesus statue’s hand. Here’s a horrified nun collapsing in the aisle. There’s blood, trauma, confusion. Cut to a handyman, cigarette hanging from his mouth, blithely hammering a fresh set of nails into Christ’s palm.

Meanwhile, the exotic strains of an oud pour into the control room. Louis C.K., who grew up Louis Szekely (and Catholic) in Newtonville, has hired an ensemble to help him build a library of music to use in “Louie,’’ and he likes the idea of Middle Eastern sounds underscoring the church scene. He doesn’t know much about music production, but what he lacks in technical vocabulary he makes up in vision: over the course of an hour he asks the assembled musicians to improvise “some scary alone cello,’’ “something with a Mingus-y vibe,’’ and “really sad music that bums everyone out.’’

Modest in budget but expansive in spirit, “Louie’’ manages what often feels like the miraculous task of blurring the line between vulgar and poignant. One moment he’s explaining to airport security officers why he travels with a tube of lubricant, and the next, in a stand-up bit, he sketches in quick strokes the futility of all relationships, even if you meet “the perfect person who you love infinitely, and you even argue well, and you grow together, and you have children, and then you get old together . . . and then she’s gonna die. That’s the best-case scenario, that you’re going to lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostinos with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.’’

The show is smart, raw, and real — “a heightened version of me’’ is how the comedian describes it. And that, according Ricky Gervais, who cast Louis C.K. in the 2009 film “The Invention of Lying’’ and has a role in “Louie’’ as a practical joker with a medical license, is the pinnacle of good humor.

“There is no image or character, just this extremely articulate world-weary guy who jumps onstage and is bleeding his heart out,’’ says Gervais. “He isn’t trying to outwit the world. He’s doing his best, and it isn’t working. As modern and new as ‘Louie’ is — and it’s state-of-the-art comedy writing and performing — this is a middle-age man in crisis. He does what a comedian should do: air out his worst moments for our pleasure.’’

Louie C.K.’s material is in every sense adult, and a far cry from the goofy gags he pulled onstage during his formative years in Boston in the late ’80s. The one common thread says writer/comedian David Cross (“Arrested Development’’), his former South End roommate, is the empathy Louis C.K. has always evoked.

“His act was very, very silly, with a lot of noises,’’ says Cross. “But he’s always had this vulnerability to him. He’s about as honest a comedian as I can think of.’’

Revered by some, reviled by others, Louis C.K. cares only about the former.

“You only collect the positives,’’ he says. “Negatives don’t amount to anything.’’ Louis C.K.’s one regret is telling stories in his act about his wife after they split up.

“I shouldn’t have done that to her,’’ he says, offering that the two daughters in “Louie’’ are very different from his own, to whom he is clearly devoted. Still, he doesn’t shy away from the grimy side of the parenting coin. “Being a parent is a frustrating life. You make a lot of sacrifices and bad choices and have a tragic sexual life. Why don’t grown-ups get to say that? I think in America there’s this a sense of trying to manicure your kids’ understanding of the world. Family isn’t polite and good and happy and perfect. It’s a filthy rotten thing that begins with sex and ends with death.’’

It’s no wonder he trains in a boxing gym before going on tour — not so much for the physical benefits but to prepare for the psychological rigors to come. Louis C.K.’s audiences would do well to follow suit.

“I see people in their seats going, ‘Why did you bring this up?’, and I’m ‘OK, just listen, I’m your friend and this is worth it.’ Everything funny has got something upsetting about it. The more upsetting the subject matter, the likelier there is something funny there. If you go there and find humor, it’s not such a scary place be anymore. And what’s not good about that?’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com

LOUIE On: FX

Time: Premieres Tuesday, 11 p.m.

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