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Louis C.K. Comes Clean

Shame, failures, no groupies: The making of a standup genius

April 25, 2013
Louis CK on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Louis CK on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Terry Richardson

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.

Louis C.K.'s 10 Funniest Moments

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.

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