“I mostly don’t feel wildly popular,” says Louis CK over the phone. It’s the kind of downbeat career appraisal you’d expect from a man who, despite making $1m from directly distributing a recent stand-up show and being named one of Time magazine’s most influential people, makes Larry David look like a sunny optimist. As his Emmy-strewn sitcom Louie lands in the UK, ShortList spoke to the 45-year-old comedian about the rudeness of hecklers and why, despite his protestations, things are going pretty well.
Louie isn’t your typical sitcom. How would you describe it to the uninitiated?
It’s kind of a free-form narrative and, depending on the episode, we only tell one or two stories. It’s interlaced with me doing stand-up on stage. It’s about some guy with two kids who’s divorced and is a middling stand-up comedian.
It also features surreal action sequences and hugely embarrassing sex scenes. What have been the toughest moments to film?
The hardest thing about this show for me is that we shoot it in the winter mostly, and I’ve had it with standing out in the cold. No toughness will help you with that. I don’t mind throwing my body into a boat and cracking my knee, which I’ve done. The whole thing is exhausting, and that kind of exhaustion I don’t mind. But I hate the cold. It makes me want to quit.
You direct, write and star in the sitcom, so do you feel extra responsibility?
The buck does stop with me, so I have to feel there’s a good reason to be doing it. It puts pressure on me. But I’m usually the one who starts saying, “Let’s wrap it up…” And my crew go, “Hey, man, we could get a better version of this if we stick around.” [Laughs]
Ricky Gervais guest stars in the first series as your antagonistic doctor. Does that mirror your real life relationship?
He’s awful. I get the most insulting emails from him, just awful, mean stuff. Anything I shared with you that Ricky has written to me personally would end his career [laughs]. He gets in trouble for some things he says to people, but
if I showed you even half of what I’ve got, he would be over. And vice versa, I say worse things to him. One time we were going back and forth and getting horrible, and he ended it by saying, “F*ck me, I hope you don’t lose your phone now.” It was so despicable.
David Lynch has also guest starred on Louie. What was he like? Disappointingly normal?
He cares massively about all the work he does. There’s hardly a director that’s more meticulous and more consistent, so it was amazing and it was easy because he’s just so committed. His day is based around coffee and a cigarette, as often as he can do it. So we gave him one of our assistant directors, a woman called Fifi, to get him his coffee and cigarettes. That was her new job.
Has anyone ever reacted violently to your material during a stand-up show?
Well, I’ve been doing this for 27 years now, so I’ve had people storm the stage, I’ve had people yell at me, I’ve had drunk people heckle me for no reason. I can handle it. Now it doesn’t happen as much but any time somebody interrupts a performance, I’m pretty outraged. I get really mad.
So you don’t enjoy the combative element of audience interaction?
I hate it. I mean, everybody’s different, but I hate when people interrupt for no reason. I can’t believe you would go to a show and do that. It’s just unbelievably selfish – such a self-centred thing to do. Just imagine it. Close your eyes and imagine being at a club or theatre and raising your voice and saying something out loud. It’s such a sh*tty thing to do. When I used to come to London to work when I was younger, I was always told that people in London heckle. And it was, “Ah, yeah, they heckle. It’s what they do.” My response was, well they’re assholes. They’re all assholes [laughs]. There’s no excuse. It’s like people going, “Yeah, Thomas Jefferson had slaves but, you know, folks had them back then.” No, he owned people.
Finally, you’ve had a wildly successful 18 months, but do you still feel like a struggling comic?
Here’s the thing: I definitely have a better life now, materially speaking, than when I was coming up. But I was a struggling comic for 22 years, so I’ll never live long enough to eclipse those years [laughs]. Even if I have 10 incredible years, the majority of my career will still have been a massive failure. So I have plenty to draw from.
Louie starts on 22 January on Fox at 9pm; see Louis CK at The O2 on 20 March; buy.louisck.net