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.
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