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How Louis C.K. Became the Darkest, Funniest Comedian in America

He may joke about humiliation and masturbation – but he also desperately wants to do the right thing

December 22, 2011

Louis C.K. performs on stage at 'The Nasty Show' during TBS presents A Very Funny Festival.
Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

One Thursday this fall, Louis C.K. was in a dressing room at Manhattan's Beacon Theatre, passing time between two back-to-back stand-up performances and feeling, as he so often does, like a piece of shit. "I was so upset," he recalls, sitting in the same dressing room a couple of evenings later. The Thursday performances were being taped for an upcoming special, and although they'd both sold out in no time, and although he'd polished his jokes in clubs for months, C.K. had suddenly convinced himself that his material was garbage. "It happens every time," he says, his stocky frame parked in a plush armchair, his thinning red hair freshly trimmed. "I tape two shows, and the first one feels lackluster and uninspired. The audience feels judgmental and disappointed. I'm going, 'This was a mistake. This material's not as good as last year. This is gonna be the one where they say, "He didn't do it this time." I didn't do anything right. All this stuff is shit.'" He grins. "Then a few minutes before the second show, I go, 'No. This is fun. I enjoy it.'"

Tonight's Saturday, and he's in a better mood. In 15 minutes he'll head downstairs to riff about receiving impatient hand jobs from Jewish girls, letting deviants fuck his corpse and watching bears eat his daughters from the safety of a locked car. It's the last night of three months on the road and the last time C.K. will ever perform this set: He scraps his act every year, forcing himself to start again. "It's the greatest," he says. "If you write a book, you can't keep writing it." He's enjoying a deli sandwich, unfolding the greasy wax paper and digging in. His friend, the actress Pamela Adlon, who plays C.K.'s crush on his FX sitcom, Louie, is sitting nearby. "I feel good, man," he says.

Feeling good isn't really Louis C.K.'s thing. Over 25-odd years of stand-up gigs, a half-dozen cable specials, a short-lived HBO sitcom and, most recently, the FX show, he's perfected a unique mixture of abject self-loathing, crushing pessimism, wide-eyed curiosity and, here and there, glimmers of hard-won sweetness. He'll joke about how his dick and balls resemble "an old horse that nobody brushes anymore" and how he is constantly, revoltingly, tugging on the thing; about how deeply he loves his two little daughters, even if they sometimes act like assholes (his word); about his discomfiting realization, after much thought, that if pedophilia were socially acceptable, pedophiles wouldn't kill children, which would be, oddly, an ultimate good. He's fearless enough to follow his mind wherever it leads, but, beneath all the dejection and dick jokes, there's a deep moral seriousness to C.K.: He's a guy who desperately wants to do the right thing, even if he regularly messes up in the process.

C.K., 44, is ringing out a career year. Louie is a critically adored hit that blurs together cringe comedy, poignant drama, bathroom humor, slapstick gore and surrealist flights of fancy: It's impossible to say exactly what you're watching, and impossible to pull your eyes away. In an unprecedented arrangement, C.K. wields absolute creative control over the series, not just starring in it, but also writing, directing and editing every episode by himself, with no network interference in matters of scriptwriting, casting or shooting. It's a deal he insisted on after years of seeing his outré ideas buffed down by writers'-room committee or squashed outright by meddling studios. After Louie's second season wrapped this summer, C.K. (the initials are a rough phonetic rendering of his surname, Szekely) hit the road, selling out clubs, steadily building a meticulously crafted two-hour set that feels like an off-the-cuff confessional. By C.K.'s count, it contains "about four raucous laughs" – his term for the hyperventilating, kick-the-seat-in-front-of-you, holy-grail eruptions he craves, the ones that make other laughs sound like background hum by comparison: "From the stage you feel this boom, this impact. It's incredible." The money's pretty incredible, too. He's earned between $25,000 and $100,000 a night on the tour; for four shows here in New York, he'll pocket $200,000. "Louis is the funniest man in America," says his longtime friend Chris Rock. "Everything's clicking. I'm sure Prince felt this way when he did Purple Rain."

There's a knock at the dressing-room door. In walks a guy wearing designer jeans, a black blazer over a T-shirt and wraparound sunglasses. "Heyyy," C.K. says warily. He doesn't rise. The visitor is Louis Faranda, general manager of venerable Manhattan laugh spot Carolines and a New York comedy-circuit big. He's been booking comics since C.K. was starting out, and he helped put together these New York shows. He's hand-delivering C.K.'s checks.

"You having a good time? I'm always worried about you having a good time," Faranda says.

"Why?" C.K. says. He seems irritated all of a sudden.

"You're my biggest worry. You love me, you hate me, you love me, you hate me . . . "

"I only do one of those things," C.K. says.

"Which is it?" Faranda asks. "I've known him since he's 18. You happy?"

The exchange is deeply awkward. "I'll leave you alone," Faranda finally says, backing off. "OK," C.K. responds.

"I don't know why he wants to keep testing this ground," C.K. tells Adlon after Faranda's gone. "Do we like each other? No, we don't."

Turns out that, back in 1993, when C.K. was auditioning for Saturday Night Live at a comedy club, Faranda ordered him to take the stage before the SNL people had arrived, despite his pleas. "I didn't used to sell tickets and he didn't book me; now I sell tickets and he books me," C.K. says. "It's that simple. But he always does this thing: 'Do you love me, do you hate me?'"

"You were so real with him just now," Adlon says approvingly.

He pulls on a plain black T-shirt, his onstage staple, and we cram into a tiny elevator, descending to stage level. Faranda's waiting.

"I don't know if you love me or you hate me," he tells C.K.

"What does it matter!" C.K. howls. "We don't have a personal relationship! You're not my dad!"

To C.K. – having spent more than half his life toiling in crappy venues and high-pressure writers' rooms, taking shit from comedy-club gatekeepers and notes from network execs and movie-studio suits – true success means having to kiss zero asses. This year has been his monument to that vision of success, from the FX show to the special, which he will edit, post on his website on December 10th, and sell to fans for $5. He hasn't merely cut out the middleman, but the top man, too. "I have a little bit of a problem with authority," he says later. "I don't like being told what to do or say. It bothers me down in my guts."

Backstage, he cools down. "Look, I'm grateful to you for the past few years," he tells Faranda.

"What about the early days?"

"Of course I'm not grateful to you for them," he says, laughing.

With that, C.K. strides onto the Beacon stage, and 2,800 people roar.

"Don't yell shit out," he warns potential hecklers. "If you have something to say, here's what you do: You write it down on a piece of paper, you go out in the lobby, and then you go home and you kill yourself." The crowd claps and hoots with delight. C.K. smiles.

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