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

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Louis C.K. performs on stage at 'The Nasty Show' during TBS presents A Very Funny Festival. (PHOTO: 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.

A few days later, C.K. opens the door to his Manhattan apartment and, padding around in black athletic socks, leads me to his living room. The vibe is cozily cluttered. Antique rugs cover wood floors. There's a fireplace with an amp and a karaoke machine nestled into it. A portrait of Miles Davis hangs on one wall, and there's a trumpet on the mantle – C.K. loves jazz – beside several pictures. In one, he and his girls, Mary Lou, six, and Kitty, nine, mug goofily. (C.K. and his ex-wife, a painter he doesn't care to discuss, share custody.) In person, C.K. is friendly without being particularly warm: happy to answer questions lengthily, uninterested in small talk. He sits down behind a massive wooden desk with a vintage typewriter on it, gesturing for me to sit on a nearby couch.

He doesn't want me to identify his neighborhood. Boundaries are important to him. When he receives gifts from fans at shows he doesn't open them. If they salute him on the street, he politely keeps moving. When you tell jokes as soul-scouring as his, people can mistake that onstage candor for real-world intimacy. "I've had people bump into me outside my building, accidentally-on-purpose," he says. "I don't want some guy to John Lennon me."

C.K. tries not to be rude, because he knows what comedy fandom feels like firsthand. As a kid he'd play and replay stand-up LPs by Bill Cosby and Steve Martin, feeling a connection to them, loving the casually gripping way they spoke. "I remember watching this Robin Williams special in the Seventies," C.K. recalls. "He poured insane energy into the show, and at the end, the camera followed him backstage, and he sat down on a couch looking deeply distressed. Reeling. He wasn't like, 'I did it!' It was him, alone. I thought about it a lot. I was like, 'A really tired guy who's working hard? I could be that.'"

He was raised in Mexico City, where he lived until he was seven, at which point his family moved to Massachusetts. C.K. was a depressive kid. In junior high he took to drugs, "closing myself off from feelings," he says. "Eighth and ninth grade were two solid years of dropping acid, snorting coke when somebody had it, Quaaludes, an alarming amount of pot, mescaline, drinking. By the time I got to high school, I was a recovered drug addict." C.K. ran for a time with a bad crowd, breaking into cars and snatching valuables within. (These days he drinks minimally, and the only time he gets high, he likes to joke, is when he hurts his back and gets to take Percocet.)

Money was tight. His dad, a Hungarian-Mexican economist, moved out when C.K. was 10. His mother raised him and his three sisters herself with a paycheck she earned as a computer programmer. (When I ask C.K. if his dad is part of his life today, he replies, "Not so much," and changes the subject.) Living "near the highway" in the Boston suburb of Newton, C.K. cleaned pools, fixed cars and spent a year as a Kentucky Fried Chicken cook; he brought home KFC turkey dinners two Thanksgivings in a row. After that, he clerked at a video store, where he discovered hardcore porn. "I remember one called Personal Touch III," he says. "It was a subjective-camera porn, where they talk to the camera as if it was you. At the start, each cast member introduced themselves, so it's this girl: 'Hey, I can't wait to have this time with you.' Then another girl. Then this fucking guy goes, 'Hey, I'm Steve Powers, and I'm going to be getting all this pussy while you're playing with your little fucking dick, you loser!'" In C.K.'s comedy, lust and self-laceration are intertwined, and no wonder: Even his porn called him a loser.

Despite a C average in high school, C.K. impressed an NYU-admissions interviewer, who told him the film school would accept him if he applied. C.K. blew it off. "I just couldn't fill out the paperwork. Getting my old transcripts and putting a stamp on an envelope? It made me want to vomit," he says. "I'm still like that. That's why I have an assistant."

One night, he heard a radio ad promoting an open-mic night at the Boston comedy club Stitches. "I was electrified," he says. Amateurs were offered five minutes; C.K. prepared in earnest – and bombed. "I did less than two minutes and walked off to pure silence," he recalls. "It was a total failure. It was terrifying and uncomfortable."

He was hooked. Working hard, he built a reputation, his sense of humor tending toward the absurd – you can watch him on YouTube telling a joke in 1987 in high-pitched dolphin-speak. "He was admired and respected early on," recalls the comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, who came up in Boston around the same time. "His material was conceptual, and he was loud. Boston crowds had this aggressive attitude. The way Louis dealt with it was by taking them off-kilter and jarring the audience."

When C.K. moved to New York around 1989, a stand-up hotshot on the make, he'd race his Honda Super Sport 750 motorcycle up and down the FDR Drive, doing 100 mph between gigs, his pockets bulging with cash from promoters. "I had the world by the fucking balls," he recalls. Then things came toppling down: He crashed the motorcycle, banging up his body. The Eighties comedy bubble burst, clubs closed and ticket sales waned citywide. Stand-up gigs were increasingly hard to come by. He once drove all the way to Norton, Virginia, and Chillicothe, Ohio, "holding down the fort at a Holiday Inn lounge for these drunks and making, like, $150." A New York-area promoter shorted him brazenly. "What are you going to do about it?" the guy asked; hard up, C.K. worked with him several times afterward.

In 1993, he got a call he describes as life-saving from a former SNL writer named Robert Smigel: Would he like a job on a new show called Late Night With Conan O'Brien? "Louis' stand-up was too interesting to ignore," says Smigel. C.K. joined the writing staff, earning $2,500 a week and opening his first-ever bank account.

C.K. was a major force behind Late Night's early, unhinged laughs: He'd dress up as an ant and interrupt Conan's interviews, or re-enact Apocalypse Now with pieces of fruit. As a stand-up with a strong independent streak, C.K. enjoyed the collaborative energy of a writers' room, but made sure to carve out his own autonomous turf. "Robert let me do anything I wanted," he recalls. "I got to shoot some elaborate, crazy shit there." Smigel says that C.K. would bridle at the job every now and then, but the rebellions took mirthful form. "In the writers' room, Louis found the most creative ways to waste time. Once, he started throwing money out the window with notes attached to it, like, 'You pathetic pig.' People on Sixth Avenue would pick up the money and read these vile notes, and he'd be looking down, laughing."

C.K. went on to write for The Dana Carvey Show and The Chris Rock Show, where he won an Emmy. When he became a dad, in 2002, his daffy side began to take a back seat to darker, more personal and self-critical material. Age and fatherhood, he says, compelled the change. "Having kids, you don't escape from it. It's a big, stressful, exhilarating, real-life thing. And it's permanent. You have to grow up."

He started exploring what it means to be a decent person, morphing from an absurdist in the Monty Python tradition to an absurdist social critic in the Bill Hicks tradition. In a 2008 bit, he talks about how fantastic it is to be white: "I can get in a time machine and go to any time and it will be awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can't fuck with time machines! A black guy in a time machine's like, 'Hey, anything before 1980, no, thank you.'" Correcting himself, he adds, "I don't wanna go into the future and find out what happens to white people. We're gonna pay hard for this shit." (Chris Rock calls C.K. "the blackest white guy I know. I called him a nigger a couple of days ago.")

C.K. describes his approach as "deconstruction to a point where you're left with a fucking mess of unanswered questions. It can be a bit painful and scary. That's fun for me." He doesn't want to come off like some moralizing gasbag, of course, so he'll throw in something "totally indefensible." "I'm fucking around with a lot of big ideas, and I don't have the authority to seriously talk about them. So when I make a joke about a baby with a tree branch growing out of its head being the same thing as a Chinese baby, I don't expect you to believe any of this. I'm just being a dick."

Material first comes to C.K. in "pieces," he says – ideas occur, and he'll just start talking about them onstage. "I go down a road, and if I teeter off, OK. Other times, it's, 'I found something!'" Like a comedy Jay-Z, C.K. doesn't write out his sets. "It's all in my head."

Louie is a mad clearinghouse for C.K.'s ideas. One of the most transfixing moments came last season, when Dane Cook played himself on an episode. In 2006, Cook was accused of stealing C.K.'s jokes, which Cook denied. This year, C.K. decided to write a Louie scene in which the two confront each other. He e-mailed Cook the script. "Dane wanted it to be lighter. He said, 'I'm not angry anymore.' And I said, 'Then it's not interesting. I want it to feel private, uncomfortable.'" The fictionalized Cook unloads all the rage and humiliation he's been nursing for years; C.K. says he still believes Cook lifted the jokes, albeit unintentionally.

For his part, Cook maintains that he innocently concocted similar jokes. "When Louis proposed it, I told him, 'I'm getting on the next flight to New York,'" Cook says. "It was an emotional moment for me." He says the accusations carried extra sting because of his admiration for C.K. "He's the best stand-up doing it."

The deal C.K. has with FX is that they give him a relatively meager $300,000 per episode, and he spends it however he wants. He declined more lucrative deals, because those came with strings. He'd been burned when HBO, amid a regime change, canceled Lucky Louie after one season, and he'd been chastened by the experience of writing and directing the 2001 blaxploitation parody Pootie Tang. It was supposed to be his big directorial break, but Paramount, he says, unhappy with his work, yanked the movie away and recut it without him. Today, he declares that the only way he'll make another movie is if a studio gives him $8 million and total autonomy. "It's not that I control a bunch of people," he says, describing the way he likes to work. "It's just that nobody controls me."

C.K. gets out from behind his desk and walks to a table in the living-room corner. "I have got to start editing this fucking special," he says. It's hard to say how much of C.K.'s bummer-prophet persona is an act, and to what degree he's that way in real life. But he's certainly healthier than his comedy lets on (he's been boxing pretty rigorously), and, you get the sense, happier, too. He's been in a long-distance relationship for two years, and though he won't talk about it on the record, he concedes that this news will "probably make people happy knowing how miserable I am on Louie."

On the table are two computer monitors hooked up to a flatscreen TV. C.K. fires up Final Cut Pro. By releasing the special himself, he says, he can keep the price down. You see his working-class values on this score; he even grilled his online dudes on whether fans could pay with money orders if they didn't have credit cards in good standing. "I really feel connected to the people who pay to see me," he says. "They end up paying all those premium ticket costs and add-ons for the promoters – it's fucking brutal. I don't want people to pay more just because they like me more."

He has to post the special in a few weeks, and he's stressed about the deadline. "I have to edit stuff myself," he says. "I can't sit behind someone, telling them what I want and waiting for them to do it." He finds the footage he thinks will open the special. It's him walking down Broadway, glancing wide-eyed at deli owners and street weirdos, a ginger Travis Bickle about to go ballistic with masturbation jokes.

"Where's the sound?" C.K. says, clicking through folders. "Fuck," he says. Click, click. "That's real bad. That's fucking dumb." Click, click. "Ah, boy, I might have fucked something up here." He plugs in an external drive, checks it – nothing. He exhales deeply. "It'll be OK. It's somewhere." One downside to having full creative control is that it means a ton of grunt work. Another downside is that, if things go wrong, there's no one to blame but yourself – that's the deal if you're the only person you can stand taking directions from.

"I wouldn't have taken all this on if I didn't think I could do it," C.K. says. "I used to need help. Now I know I can do it myself. I'm right about things, and when I'm not, it's interesting to watch me be wrong. There's nothing above me except responsibility to the work. If that sucks, then what was the fucking point of being in charge?" He furrows his brow, turns back to the computer. It's him, alone, a really tired guy working hard.

This story is from the December 22nd, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1146: December 22, 2011