Shame, failures, no groupies: The making of a standup genius
by Brian Hiatt
He doesn’t want to do the cat story. “It fills time, that’s all it does,” says Louis C.K., staring down his toughest audience in a dressing-room mirror set against a brick wall. He’s backstage in a New Brunswick, New Jersey, theater, running through the parts of his act he does plan to perform: “It gets better. Um, divorce. Phone. Fuck. Now I really don’t remember. Holy shit. How do I get to the phone? Oh, yeah, OK, then going to the movie high, then I use my phone, then the phone with the kids, then we’re home. That’s the set.” As usual, he has nothing written down, taking cues only from a quick review of his last performance, as self-bootlegged on his iPhone. Lined up on the table in front of the mirror are the modest fruits of his tour rider: five cold waters, one beer, tea with honey, a tin of Planters nuts, a pot of the strong coffee that he gulps out of a Red Sox mug like it’s a sports drink.
He’s already cut the cat anecdote – an amusing, if inconsequential, tale about a neighbor’s pet that terrified him by sneaking in through a window as he slept – from Oh My God, his fourth comedy special for HBO. But his set is always in flux, even in its final days: He’s been working on his current act for a year, and per his self-imposed rules, will abandon it forever after the special airs April 13th. This will be his last stand-up special until at least 2015. Beginning next month, after he finishes shooting a David O. Russell movie (he’s also in Woody Allen’s new one), C.K. is devoting a full year of his time to the fourth season of Louie, his FX show, which he expects to debut next May.
C.K. is wearing stylish, thick-framed glasses and a cashmere sweater, which he removes (modestly, in the next room) in favor of a crispy-new model of his standard black T-shirt. He looks way worse in his stage outfit than in his street clothes, which seems about right. His red hair and goatee are more untamed than usual; from some angles onstage, he’s starting to bear an unexpected resemblance to one of his idols, fellow black-tee-wearer George Carlin.
Like Carlin, C.K. has become the defining comic hero of his age, except instead of Establishment hypocrisy, he savages his audience’s narcissism and entitlement. The inventor of the term “white-people problems,” C.K. tells us exactly why we’re the worst (“You hate Verizon? Well, make your own, then!”), and we beg for more. But his best stuff comes from his arias of self-loathing, the true confessions of a sad-eyed shady dude of the emotional lowlands.
Tonight, the first performance is similar to the HBO special – but despite his best efforts, he gets lost and finds the “fucking cat story” coming out of his mouth. The second show is astonishing. He begins with nearly 20 minutes of brand-new material – some of which he e-mailed to himself under the subject line “joke” (a bit about God’s ex-wife) and others that are pure improvisation (a protracted, uproarious riff on anal sex). “The idea is to stay away from the material I have as long as I can,” he says. “That energy pulls all sorts of stuff out of you.”
* * *
In our last issue, Jon Hamm said he wished people would stop constantly discussing the hugeness of his penis. Is this a problem you can relate to?
No, I don’t wake up and think that, ever. I’ve never had that thought. I don’t worry about what people say about my penis. It’s not my concern. It’s their problem.
Long ago, also in this magazine, John Lennon said that he knew since he was 12 years old that he was an artist and a genius. Is there any part of you that thinks you might be some kind of genius?
[Laughs] Fuck, I don’t know, I doubt it. What does genius mean, comparatively speaking? Is there some kind of number? Defining yourself is a really strange thing to do – to me, that’s just not any fun. John Lennon was the greatest, I love him, but I wouldn’t call myself any of those things.
You were born in the States, then moved to your father’s home country of Mexico at age one, where you lived until you were six or seven. You said onstage that one of the differences in America was, “The policemen were awake!” What else struck you in that transition?
Yeah, every machine was new and worked. Mexico in the Seventies was quite a place. My grandfather was a doctor who invented medical machinery, so he had a nice house and then everybody else was poor. In America we have people that are poor and middle-class and rich people – we have about 50 levels of rich; it’s like the Eskimos having a lot of words for snow. In Mexico, you have really, really rich people, and then you have peasants. There were people that were really suffering, right on the street, in every part of town. Then when I came here, everyone was kind of doing OK, and that was noticeable.
How was the adjustment for you?
I was a little kid, so all I had to do was completely reject my Spanish and my Mexican past, so I just became an American kid, which is a whole lot easier because I’m white with red hair. I had the help of a whole nation of people just accepting that I’m white. It’s got to be an uphill battle to try to assimilate when everyone just keeps pointing at you and calling you a Mexican. For me, it was, “Hey, look at that little white kid.” It was easy. I was a kid; kids learn language fast. I also forgot a lot of my Spanish, which is a shame.
Part of what you do is this way of seeing the world, just standing outside and observing it more clearly than other people. Is it too glib to attribute some of that to the fact that you came here and had seen something else?
That’s a pretty good observation. I think that that’s true. Yeah, definitely, coming here and observing America as an outsider made me an observing person. I grew up in Boston, for the most part, and didn’t get the accent, and one of the reasons is that I started in Spanish. When English is your second language, you tend to go neutral with the accent, and I can also do pretty good impressions and stuff because I have an elastic voice and I had to change.
You say the transition was easy, but were you teased?
Yeah, my first year in America, I lived in Framingham, Massachusetts, and I got teased a little bit. I remember some teenagers asking me how to say dirty things in Spanish. One kid, he was saying, “How do you say this?” And he did something kids were doing back then: You make a peace sign with your fingers, showing the back of your hand to the person in front of you, and he put his nose in the crotch of that. I guess it’s supposed to look like you’re smelling somebody’s pussy.
And you probably were not able to translate that.
I had no idea. “How do you say this in Spanish?” I said, “Estoy cortando mi nariz,” which means, “I’m cutting my nose.” It looked like scissors. I sent some teenager into Framingham saying that to girls, thinking he was saying, “I’m going to smell your pussy.”
Chris Rock said you’re the blackest white guy he knows. Is your racial vision different because of your experience?
Yeah, because race doesn’t mean what it used to in America anymore. It just doesn’t. Obama’s black, but he’s not black the way people used to define that. Is black your experience or the color of your skin? My experience is as a Mexican immigrant, more so than someone like George Lopez: He’s from California. But he’ll be treated as an immigrant. I am an outsider. My abuelita, my grandmother, didn’t speak English. My whole family on my dad’s side is in Mexico. I won’t ever be called that or treated that way, but it was my experience.
You didn’t see your dad much after your parents divorced?
It’s kind of personal. I don’t have a relationship with my dad, which is a bit uncomfortable. So it’s never easy to know what to say about it.
Have you at least resolved your issues with him in your head?
No, I’m not resolved about it at all. It’s always an ongoing thing. I have my own family, and once you have your own kids, that’s what becomes important. It’s not important to me anymore, the dad thing.
On “Louie” you actually run off and jump on a speedboat to avoid confronting your father.
That episode is me making fun of my own not dealing with it. In the show, I made it seem like a fear thing, but I don’t think that it’s fear-based for me. F. Murray Abraham as the uncle character is a huge caricature of what some of my Mexican relatives are sometimes like, these guys who were raised in this Mexican upper class and have servants and shit. It’s ridiculous.
In general, do you hold on to grudges, or do you forgive people?
No, I don’t hold on to grudges. I don’t have a grudge in my life. I forgive people. I just don’t believe that you owe anybody in your life a relationship. It’s healthy and fair to opt in or out, and it’s actually more fair to do that than to hold people’s feet to the fire for everything they’ve ever done.
You once said that you’d look at your mom watching TV after a day at work and you decided you needed to get into that box and make it better for her. Is that hindsight or really a thought you had?
Yeah, I remember thinking that. TV is a public utility, and I get mad on behalf of people when TV is bad. I don’t mind when it’s just tragically, terribly bad, because that’s just someone really taking a big swing and missing, but when TV is just OK, I get really upset. I remember I was talking to a TV executive who’s a good guy, smart man, and he was talking about a show that I hated, and he said, “You know, they have a competent cast, and the scripts change enough, and it goes down easy.” That drove me crazy, because you should be trying to be unbelievably great.
So you had that level of sympathy: “My mom deserves better than this.”
Oh, fuck yeah.
So it’s not like in your act where you’re like, “Mom, you’re a loser.”
My mom was a role model to me; she still is. She’s still ahead of me.
Got up every day, went to work, provided for you guys . . . …
Yeah, and came home exhausted. She was always cheerful. She never laid down rules. She would win by being smarter and making sense and telling us to make the right choices, but more so it was that she was an example. The emphasis she put on working and taking care of your family is something I followed, but also the fact that she enabled me to take care of myself. I love being in the kitchen, cooking and washing the dishes – I do it every day – and part of that is because I did it for myself when I was a kid. She’s my biggest role model.
Did you get your idea of how to be a father from your mother, then?
Yeah, I think so. I try not to lord it over my kids….
The fact that you’re their parent?
Yeah, “because I’m your father” is just a cheap cop-out, and it robs the kid of an opportunity to understand something. I engage them. A lot of parents don’t talk to their kids. I learned that from my mom. I provide for them but also let them experience their disappointments and their difficulties. You’re not going to keep your kids from harm, not in a million years. All their life is going to be is harm. It’s narcissistic to try to give your kids a utopian life – when they leave your house, they’re going to be in a world of shit. The only thing you can give your kids that’s going to be of any use is a mechanism for dealing with all the awful shit that’s coming. Then it won’t be that awful. As a matter of fact, it will be great.
What got you to the place where you were in junior high, dropping acid and smoking pot all the time?
I was a mess. My parents were divorced, I was living in a suburb of Boston and a lot of people were getting fucked up. It was what kids did, it was so common. I made a friend who I thought was the coolest person alive, and he taught me how to get high. Skipping school and going to Harvard Square with him and going to used-record stores. A lot of what they say is true – drug culture gets kids into drugs. We’d listen to music by cool grown-ups that get high.
I really liked Led Zeppelin. I really liked Jimi Hendrix. The Grateful Dead, for one minute, I got into. I really loved classic rock. Pink Floyd, you know, drop acid and listen to fucking Pink Floyd. Yeah, Led Zeppelin. It’s all their fault [laughs].
Were you more focused in high school?
In high school, I only had two good years. Sophomore year, I relapsed back into taking drugs. All my friends dropped out of high school after sophomore year. I had stopped doing drugs completely and I had a great half of a year, but my friends were all getting high and all had mathematically eliminated themselves from moving on to junior year. So all of my friends, from the morning through the day, are getting fucked up at one kid’s house. I’d be smoking a cigarette outside of school, and here’s my friend going, “We’re all at Neil’s house getting high,” and I’m like, “All right.” So I started going back. I was going through a pretty bad depression.
What had prompted you to quit drugs in the first place?
My mom told me to cut it out. She just said, “You can’t do this anymore, I can’t help you have this life anymore.” I felt bad; it was so unfair to be putting her into stress. Also, I wasn’t enjoying my life anymore, I really wasn’t. I wasn’t feeling anything anymore. Part of the reason people do drugs is because they can’t access their feelings, or there are certain feelings that are too much for them to access, so they do drugs to shut down. When I was younger, before I did drugs, I wanted to do creative things, write and stuff like that. I had a lot I enjoyed about life, then it all became about getting high. It was so empty.
So I quit doing drugs with no help – I only look at this now because I’m a parent. I just stopped. I wasn’t on heroin, but I smoked tons of pot. I drank, I did a lot of crazy shit. I certainly wasn’t coping with life normally, then all at once I went to this other extreme of dedicating myself to schoolwork, so I left a pretty bad pit.
But then you started again.
Yeah, I started getting high again and I stopped going to school completely, and then I had a homeroom teacher who organized a meeting with my mom, and my poor, single, working mother came to school, and they told her I hadn’t been coming, and she was like [defeated voice], “Oh, Jesus Christ.” She was just tired; she couldn’t even fight anymore. She said, “What are you doing?” and I just told her the truth. I said, “Everybody’s down the street. But the real problem is, I’m having a hard time being in school. I just hate it.” I told them all, “I won’t do this anymore.” And then the teacher said to me, “Listen, you can’t do nothing. If you don’t want to go to school, what do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to make movies and television.” And he said, “If I can find something like that for you to do, would you do it?” And I said, “Of course I would.” Long story short, that guy got me an internship at a local-access cable-TV station.
Where you learned to shoot and edit video.
Yeah, that’s where I did all that. That guy saved my life.
You don’t write down your comedy sets, and the wording can differ dramatically from show to show, even on the same night. What do you like about that approach?
I had an acting coach named Bob Krakower, and he said something to me that I always remember, which is if you perform something twice and you do it differently each time, that means you’re doing it well, because you’re focusing on the intention and not the mechanics. I’ve always thought about that in stand-up: Whenever you have success, which is getting a laugh, you’re going to keep doing it, and it’s a path that gets grooved in deeper and deeper, but it starts to lose its luster after a while. Sometimes with certain bits, I realize they’re getting kind of crusty, so I go, “Forget how you say this bit, go back to the wordless idea, and express it as if you never said it before.” If you do that with a joke five times and then mix the five versions, you get this amazing thing.
That may be where the “genius” part comes in.
I’m just studying it and figuring stuff out. The only way to learn that stuff is by failing; all this is learned by having bad times. You have to be willing to have a bad time. People that need to feel like a star and like they’re succeeding every time will not ever get better. But if you are willing to feel bad, do badly, have a stale, boring version of yourself out in front of everybody, you can find this stuff in the muck that’s very useful. What I just told you about comes from having gotten really stale and having written a joke and having it stay thin and shitty until it wasn’t getting laughs anymore.
When you sit down to write “Louie,” what are your work habits?
When it’s time to write, I have one computer that has no ability to get on the Internet. Because the ability to just move your finger less than a millimeter and be looking straight into someone’s pussy or at the new Porsche, or a whole movie – To Kill a Mockingbird, let’s just sit here and watch the whole thing! – it’s too much. So if you put a couple of moves between you and that, you’ve got a fighting chance. When I hit a stopping moment in what I’m writing, a moment of agitation – that itch always leads to a brand-new thing, to inspiration. But if you bail out and buy a product online, you’re robbing yourself. It’s terrible, so I sit there: “Fuck, fuck.” The worst thing happening to this generation is that they’re taking discomfort away from themselves.
There was a moment onstage tonight when you almost forgot what came next and had to reorient yourself. Do you ever just get fully lost?
You have a very loud clock ticking in your head. Sometimes I get disjointed and it’s great. I get outside of the act and I’m able to just talk, and that feels good. Sometimes you get outside of your act and there’s nothing there, there’s no other thoughts, and you just go, “Tick, tick.” Then your brain supplies you with whatever it wants, and if you’re greased up enough and oiled up from a long tour, like I am, you probably get the next bit. But if you haven’t been onstage for a while and your act’s kind of disjointed, sometimes it will give you an old bit or something that you’re like, “I should not be doing that.”
Early in your career, did you have moments when you froze?
When you start out and you’re doing four shows a night in the clubs to make a living, and because you’re hungry, a thing that happens to a lot of comedians is you’ll repeat a joke. Or you just go, “Uh, anyway, that’s crazy….” A lot of terrible things have happened to me onstage.
What are some of the worst?
Once, when I was probably 19, I was opening for Anthony Clark, from Yes, Dear, and at the time, in Boston, he was a huge comic. Everybody in Boston loved him, and he killed every night. So I went and did a show with him in New Hampshire at some Holiday Inn, and he asked me to get high with him before the show. So I smoked a joint with him. It was really, really powerful, and I hadn’t been high in a long, long time, and then he said, “I need to jump on first, because I have another show to do.” I had no ability to follow Anthony. He goes on and just fucking destroys for 40 minutes, and then I go onstage. I’m superstoned, and I’m looking at the audience, and the way I remember it, I talked, and they stared at me. I don’t know what was coming out of my mouth, but people looked really upset at what was going on. I didn’t get a single laugh; I don’t think I did more than five minutes. All I could think of was my car in the parking lot: “I have to get in that car, and I have to get away from this building really quickly.” I started looking around for the door, and I saw where the manager was staring at me, and I just fucking walked of the stage. Nobody applauded – that’s how bad it was. I got the fuck out of there. That was bad.
Doing shows and only five people are there and you have to do an hour; living in Winnipeg for two weeks in the dead of winter. Miserable life. Doing gigs in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where folks are talking and not that interested in what you’re doing, and you just feel like an asshole. You’re just trying to survive the moment, so those were tough days.
Do you think you needed all those years and failures to become great?
Yeah, all the tools I have come from those years. There’s nothing elusive or ethereal about it; it’s very practical and directly related. I learned how to avoid a huge amount of pitfalls by walking into them and surviving. Then two things happen as you go along. The first thing that happens is your best gets better, but what really matters is when your worst gets better. You can’t always be crackling with energy. Sometimes you go up there, and the thing didn’t happen, but you’ve got to put together a fucking amazing show anyway, so your worst show has to be above everybody’s best – that’s what you really want. So your worst, that comes with time, that comes with experience.
A lot of people dream of overnight success, rather than slogging it out for 20 years and gradually improving a craft.
It’s understandable for people to want all their favorite things to happen, but the crazy thing is to think that they can avoid all of the hard things. To want everything that you ever dreamed of, to the exclusion of anything hard, that feels common to me now in a way that is hurting people. They’re ignoring how much good there is in being present for the hardest parts of your life. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I loved all that time; it was hard and I suffered. Times where you’re like, “I think it’s over, and I’m in too deep to start anything else.” There are really scary moments in a showbiz career, but it’s so great that they got to happen. It’s a very unforgiving field; it doesn’t say goodbye nicely, and there’s no one there to keep you going – it’s all you. But if you survived that time, that’s always there.
Would you keep doing it if you found yourself playing smaller venues again?
I don’t need to be this success I’ve been for the last few years for this to be good for me. I just love doing it, it’s a thing that I generate, this stuff, and I love to communicate it, so I would be OK if it levels down, and it will. If I cruise to a Steven Wright altitude, that’s pretty fucking great. That’s what I wanted when I started. If I needed this level of fame, I’m in trouble. I don’t really want to be generally famous.
I was struck by interviews while you were making your long-vanished HBO series, “Lucky Louie,” where you were imagining 10 seasons of it.
Yeah, for sure, I dreamed about it. I never buy lottery tickets, because if I buy them, I start thinking I’m going to win. But it doesn’t hurt me to fantasize and then have things not work out. Like when I just got nominated for a Golden Globe. I knew I had a very slim chance, and I thought, “So, I’m going to really hope I win.” I got to live the feeling of winning, because I was very close – I was one in five. The second they’re saying the names, everything, you get this totally uncontrollable rush. Then in the next second, it’s like I’m watching Don Cheadle cum in the woman I was just fucking. I pulled out and he’s cumming in her [laughs]. And he’s got this rosy “Oh, my God!” Then the next thought is, “I am so fucking glad that Don won that,” because he’s an actor. I’m not an actor; I’m self-employed. He could win a pile of those and still be really struggling. I mean, Kevin Costner was at my table, and he was like [forlorn voice], “I hope I win.” The last thing in the fucking world I need is a Golden Globe, Jesus Christ.
You once told Howard Stern a story about an encounter with a crack whore who attempted to murder you.
Was that the most shameful orgasm of your life?
Oh, I definitely have had worse than that, shamewise. That was probably the most dangerous one I ever had. I do want to correct that: “Crack whore” were not my words. I don’t think there’s anything meaner you could call somebody. “Whore” is a really mean word for a prostitute; it’s the derogative. I made no judgment on that woman. She was just doing what she had to to supply her crack habit, but that doesn’t make her a crack whore.
The part where she teamed up with a dude to try and kill you, maybe you can judge her on that.
I can judge her on it, but not as “whore.” That was just rude.
Your work makes it seem like you find all orgasms shameful.
No, that’s definitely not true. I used to when I was younger, but you kind of outgrow that. You get to a point where, when you have that moment, you’re like, “I’m entitled to this, I earned it.”
You described a time of being newly single, and you said there was some “young, good pussy” for you, but you soon realized you didn’t want to sleep around. How long did that take?
A few months. It was a little while that it was just sort of casual sex without much else going on. The thing is, you get to the point where you realize, “I’m waking up with these people; this is really intimate.” That’s a big commitment to a person I don’t know. When you’re younger, you don’t think of it that way, but when you get older, you’re like, “This person is in my bed; this is my bed. This is a pretty private place, and they’re here and I know nothing about them. Why is that happening?”
There’s a George Carlin quote, “The women who line up at a comic’s dressing-room door are not what you’d call your class groupies,” and he compares the situation to “watching an animal trainer and then wanting to fuck the chimp.”
Yeah, that sounds true. But I don’t know who was showing up to dressing rooms. I’ve never had a woman show up to my dressing room in 30 years. So I think he was lucky to be getting those chimp-fuckers. Where’s my chimp-fucker?
You’ve said you learned in therapy that your compulsive behavior – eating, sex – is just self-medicating your anxiety. Does having that insight help?
Oh, definitely. Once you say that to yourself, “Oh, this is anxiety,” you get to say to yourself, “Why am I anxious?” because when something’s bothering you, you don’t name it, you just start eating something. I’m still going to eat the two Twinkies, but when I start opening the second package, I say to myself, “What’s going on, buddy?” That will get me to two Twinkies instead of eight.
Have you, as you suggest in your act, given up on reaching any ideal weight?
I’ve never cared what the shape of my body is, in terms of what it looks like. I do think that, at 45, there’s no way I’m going to get to some trim place. I don’t care. I want to be able to move around, that’s all, and I am concerned about having too many fat cells, because it means my heart’s working harder. I don’t give a shit what I look like – it’s nothing to me.
No, I never wear makeup on the show, never, not a stitch of it. Once you get started on that, “OK, I’m going to get makeup and hair?” That means I have to be manufactured to look like that every time. And it means you can’t really age. But I always look just, like, bleh, so that’s easy to achieve.
You’ve made a number of jokes about child murder. Do you try to exorcise dark thoughts and fears in your work?
Laughing at things that are scary is a positive thing. What most people do with these events that happen, the violence in our country, is really disgusting, which is to pore over it. Everyone congratulates each other about how upset they are. There’s a lot of ghoulish behavior.
You mean something like Newtown?
Every time there’s a tragedy in America, there’s all this gawky fascination and a lot of fucking exploitation. There’s a lot of fucking Nancy Grace, gleefully making fun of a murderer, someone’s kid is dead, or someone’s dad is dead, and they have Nancy Grace going [zany voice], “This isn’t adding up!” What a nightmare. But whatever, that’s what she does. I don’t think any of us are doing healthy discourse. The way we chew up what’s going on in the world, when there’s a new video of a terrible thing that happened, and it has a Snapple ad in front of it – it’s weird. It used to be, you watched the news and then there’s a commercial break, but now it’s like, “This beheading is brought to you by Snapple.” Fucking crazy. I used to read Huffington Post, and I can’t anymore, because it’s all “Britney Spears’ ass stuck out of her pants.” It’s just mean. There’s so much meanness slung on people, people that are victims. Everybody gets made fun of, the way they look, and we all just fucking yap and speculate with quote-unquote outrage, tragic sadness. I don’t think anybody’s doing a great job with this stuff.
You enjoy some cultural products that people would consider lowbrow, like “Family Guy” and Andrew Dice Clay. You weren’t afraid to get a laugh by saying “faggot,” and at the same time, you make one of the smartest and artsiest shows on television, and you were making short films influenced by French New Wave. In your mind, how do you reconcile those two sides, highbrow and lowbrow, dumb laughs and smart laughs?
What does reconcile mean?
Balance them out….
What for? What a sad thing, to go, “Oh, well, I can’t enjoy this because it’s not artsy.” If Andrew Dice Clay has some really unique timing skills and things inside of his act that are lovable, I’m going to enjoy them without thinking about what label he’s supposed to have. By the way, Godard is just as full of shit as Andrew Dice Clay.
What do you mean by that?
Of course he is, he’s a fucking artsy, French, crazy filmmaker who doesn’t give a shit what anybody understands about the story, which is very exciting to me, but there’s a little bit of “full of shit” to that. It’s so much more interesting to look at art of any kind and say, “Why did they do this this way, what’s their tradition, where did they come from, what were they influenced by and why are you doing this?” If you just go, “Oh, yeah, that stuff sucks,” too bad for you, you’re just leaving a whole bunch of stuff out that you could be seeing.
You’ve said that you’re currently in debt. Why, given the success you’ve had? Psychologically, does that work better for you, to still have to work it of rather than being free and clear?
No, I don’t need to manufacture angst. I’m 45, and I’ve been successful for four years! So I have 41 years to draw from. Life stays hard for everybody; everybody’s life stays hard. I’m not a millionaire. But my experience has always been that I’ve always lived a little better than I should, and I do find that motivating. I’ll be living in a place that’s comfortable for how much I’m making, and then I’ll go get a place that I shouldn’t be getting. What always follows is that I catch up to the place with work and earn it. It’s happened every time so far, and the way I figure it is there will be a time where I overextend and I’ll have to take it down, and I’m ready for that to happen, but so far, it’s worked out OK. It is motivating. I’ve had jobs since I was 14 years old. Going out and working to earn is a model that I was raised with, and I think it’s a really good one.
You’ve said that unlike the Louie on the show, you’re pretty happy. Is that true, and when did you realize you were happy?
The Louie on the show is pretty happy, and I’m about as happy as he is. I don’t mind feeling sad. Sadness is a lucky thing to feel. I have the same amount of happy and sad as anybody else. I just don’t mind the sad part as much; it’s amazing to have those feelings. I’ve always felt that way. I think that looking at how random and punishing life can be, it’s a privilege. There’s so much to look at, there’s so much to observe, and there’s a lot of humor in it. I’ve had sad times, I’ve had some hard times, and I have a lot of things to be sad about, but I’m pretty happy right now.
You do have that way of making life seem simultaneously beautiful and amazing and really ugly and horrible. Is that how you see the world?
Yeah, I try to observe and report, and the more purely and without editorial I can do that, the better, especially on the show. Then what comes out, if you just show everything, all sides, is that everything is sad and happy and hilarious and depressing.
Do you fear death?
I don’t care about it. It’s got nothing to do with me. Somebody asked me once, “What happens after you die?” and I said, “Other people keep you alive. It’s not about you anymore, you just become nothing, so what? I’m not interested.” I don’t have any fear of it, none. Maybe some will come, I don’t know. It could happen any second.
Do you care about your legacy, how people look at your work after you’re gone?
[Softly] I hope my kids are OK after I’m gone. That’s all.
Published in Rolling Stone, April 25, 2013, pp. 48-54