Comedian, writer, filmmaker, TV show creator, and actor Louis C.K. has been getting an increasing amount of attention lately and for very good reason. He is incredibly hard working and talented. Not only is he a comedian who sells out practically everywhere he is booked and appears regularly on late night talk shows like the Tonight Show, Late Night, and Conan, he has a popular television show, simply called Louie that he has complete control over, has appeared in award winning films by directors such as Woody Allen and David O. Russell, and has revolutionized the way comedians distribute their content and sell tickets. Therefore it is easy to say that he has a lot to teach creative professionals who want to achieve the same levels of success and freedom that he has had.
Here are six things that we can learn from Louis C.K.:
- Skill only comes with time and experience
Like many arts, comedy is not something that you can’t be great at right away. A good comparison would be music. You need to take years to become a virtuoso musician. Years of practicing, of performing in front of audience, of honing your style and your technique. Louis says that comedy takes at least ten years of being really bad, of building the skills, of generating the jokes to become any good. You have to fail on stage, a lot in order to know the difference between good and bad material. And to become great takes even more time. You also need to constantly be watching other comedians and learning from them. He says that he was constantly doing this when he started out allowing him to think critically about the artform.
Part of the knowledge that he had to be great came from having kids. He now had no excuse in not taking his work seriously. He now had to make plans and see them through, and stop being immature. Additionally to be able to make observations about life, you’ve had to live it. To really get good, you need to have more and more experiences that you can draw on for comedy. This only really comes from getting older. As you get better and better you are able to understand the audience better, predict how they’re going to react to certain things, and basically (as Louis puts it) play them like an instrument.
- Get outside your comfort zone:
Louis C.K. does not believe in reusing material because he thinks its lazy. Part of this is because he says his material gets better as he gets older and since he is always talking about his own life, much of his old material is no longer relevant. He also wants to give himself a challenge, a reason to be excited about his work and wants to create a better show every time he gets up on stage. He also thinks it’s unfair to the audience to keep reusing the same material over and over. They likely won’t come see him again.
Therefore, he comes up with a new hour of comedy every year. He goes to small clubs and tries out jokes on a smaller audience. He is then able to carefully craft his specials and theater shows so that only the best jokes are included. He compares the process to how Samurai swords were constructed. When making these swords, craftsmen would bang and fold the metal as it was being made until they achieved a flawless surface. Louis does a similar thing with his jokes by taking his best joke, often called the ‘closer’ in comedy because it comes at the end, and moving it to the beginning. This means he is now putting himself at a disadvantage in that he has to create an even better joke to fill the void left by the now absent closer. He keeps doing this over and over. The goal is to have an entire set of just closing bits, of material that is so strong that any of it could stand on its own.
His argument for why he does it is that feeling uncomfortable allows him to learn things. He is able to figure out better ways to work through his material or to push his television show in new directions by doing things that haven’t been done before and by forcing himself into a corner so that he was to find a creative way out.
- Use failure to your advantage:
Louis is not afraid to fail. In fact, as he Is quick to admit, he has failed many times. He has had his comedy career come crashing to a halt when the comedy boom ended at the end of the 1980’s and many comedy clubs started closing. He has seen the critical and commercial failure of one of his major pet projects, the film Pootie Tang. And he saw his first major attempt at a television show, Lucky Louie, get cancelled by HBO. But through all of it he has persevered. He realized after the failure of Pootie Tang that he felt bad for a little while but eventually he got over it and was able to move on and use the what he learned in the experience to his advantage.
- Don’t worry about what is deemed acceptable:
There are many forms of comedy and some are safer than others. Louis likes going to and past the edge of acceptability. This is where he feels he gets some of his best comedy. He thinks it is good to take people to a place where they are often uncomfortable. He likes the excitement of the high stakes that come in when you bring in difficult or bleak material. He figures that if you say one thing that will make the audience uncomfortable, you have to work to get them back. As a comic, at least a veteran comic, you control the future. He likes that challenge.
- Push the boundaries of what is possible:
Apart from being a great comedian, Louis C.K. is also a clever businessman. He has revolutionized the way that comedy is distributed to audiences by making tickets available on his website directly for a reduced price, selling his specials there as well for $5 apiece and asking people to pay the small fee instead of stealing. Not only has he made a nice profit from this experiment, he has allowed his fans to see his comedy more easily, either live or over the internet.
He also has a seemingly unbelievable amount of freedom on his FX TV show Louie. Not only has the show been critically acclaimed and loved by fans, as its creator, he has basically complete control over the show: over the stories he gets to tell, the jokes that go on the air, the people he gets to cast, the editing. He doesn’t turn in scripts or take notes from producers. This is unheard of in television. It is partially because his show is so cheap to produce and it is on at a time when cheaper advertisers, who are less sensitive to content, are paying for spots.
He is quick to stress that just because he has all this freedom doesn’t mean his employers don’t have a right to shut him down or reject and episode if they don’t like it. But he has been lucky enough to have bosses who think he’s talented and trust him. Before his most recent season, he took a year off to devote extra time to making the show as good as possible.
He has also done some unorthodox things on the show including switching the actors who play his daughters mid episode without anybody noticing, introducing characters and then not bringing them back for several seasons or at all, and using the same actress to play different characters. He’s not afraid to get surreal, mixing fantasy sequences with realistic action. He is willing to play with time and duration in ways that are unusual in television. For instance, while the first few seasons relied on a convention of self-contained episodes, the last couple have brought in multiple episode story arcs and are setting up longer narratives. He says that he has done this because the way people watch TV has changed, with many people waiting until a whole season has been broadcast and watching episodes all at once. This means the pacing that was traditional to television is no longer really relevant.
- Be Modest:
If you’ve ever watched or heard an interview with Louis C.K. than you would know he is probably the most modest man in show business. He doesn’t like it when people compliment him too much. He also doesn’t like the idea of fame. While he performs what he sees as a kind of art, he doesn’t see himself as an artist. He also sees himself as a regular guy and not as a celebrity. When he is out and about with his daughters he wants to be left alone. He doesn’t like taking pictures with fans but not because of any malice. He sees it as an intrusion and would rather talk to fans on a one-to-one level.
He also doesn’t like wearing suits. There are many occasions, such as performing at Carnegie Hall or on David Letterman where there is a certain level of dress code is expected. But Louis has never felt comfortable in a suit and doesn’t think it’s really him. Therefore he avoids at all costs doing so. In a recent episode of his shown, he lampoons his own modest stance on this issue but turning up to a gala in the Hamptons in a black t-shirt and jeans, his usual uniform, to the annoyance of Jerry Seinfeld, who he is opening for.
Louis C.K. is an unusual and important figure in modern entertainment. Some might call him a genius, although he is unlikely to appreciate that much and more likely to be embarrassed. It may be better to call him a lucky guy with some talent and perseverance who has been given some amazing opportunities and taken them head on. Thanks to him the landscape of comedy and television has changed forever, and is most definitely better off.