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Louis C.K.: Independent comedian, auteur

Over the past few years, the stock value, figuratively speaking, of comedian Louis C.K. has been going steadily up. In a few years we might look back and say that 2011 is when it officially hit its peak. I hope it stays high for a long while. I suppose that depends how long C.K. can maintain it, and if he can continue building on the success he’s currently having.

In his latest (independent) stand-up special, C.K., in typical self-deprecating fashion, notes how well things are going but suggests it must be temporary: “It’s not gonna last,” he says. “It’s been about eight months, I’ve got a year left, and then I’m back to being just like you.”

C.K. right now is a guy at the top of his game, in full command of his abilities and probably at the height of his particular moment in the cultural zeitgeist — as far as zeitgeist can be captured for a man whose nature seems to eschew the very notion of being a rock star. C.K. is the everyman’s comic, and has parlayed that into becoming the everyman’s auetur — and has in turn parlayed that into becoming his own producer and distributor.

Rather than falling into the trap of being predictable or hack-like, he’s used his success to improvise on the fly and take some gutsy risks. What he’s doing could be accurately described as innovation in the entertainment industry.

There are plenty of independent filmmakers out there. But how many independent weekly TV show creators can you name? I can’t think of anyone who has done what C.K. has done with his FX series, Louie. Undoubtedly, part of his ability to make the show stems from him already being established as both a successful stand-up comedian and as a (somewhat) experienced filmmaker. But a lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the fact that he was determined to make the show he envisioned, and accepted as little money as possible in order to do so. In exchange for the most minimalistic of budgets, he has almost complete creative control and minimal studio interference.

For those who haven’t seen it, the premise of Louie might at first sound like Seinfeld, in which its star plays himself, performs stand-up at the beginning of the show, and then is documented in his “sitcom” life as himself. But that’s where the comparisons end. Louie, while technically a comedy (and a very funny one), has run the gamut of comedy and drama, is often thoughtful or whimsical, and has also gone to some very dark places.

Yes, there are the expected topics of parenthood, divorce, getting old, being fat, the dissection of offensive language, the culture of stand-up comedians and their world. But there are also topics of suicide, bullying, religion, the war in Afghanistan, feuds with other more rock-star-like comics, and finding on Facebook that girl who that one time asked him to “whip it out” in junior high.

The guest casts are filled with character actors, comedians from C.K.’s circle, and the occasional major guest star, which the show employs in effective and interesting ways that provide either a commentary upon or a sounding board for C.K.’s character. (Chris Rock, Dane Cook, and Joan Rivers all guest-star as themselves in the show’s second season.)

Sure, any of Louie‘s topics have been done any number of times on any number of TV shows. But Louie is unique in that it has a distinctly independent vibe to it. These are clearly things as seen through the very particular prism of Louis C.K. and brought to the screen with a very singular filmmaker’s sensibility (C.K. writes, directs, and edits virtually all the episodes himself). These are half-hour shows that usually play more like self-contained short films. They are shot on a clearly shoestring budget. There is a minimum of television artifice. There is not a studio’s commercial gloss to be found, and the shows sometimes have a rough, unpolished feel to them (which is not to say they are sloppy; C.K. actually has a clear love of cinematography). The soundtracks are filled with instrumental jazz.

I’m a big fan of Louie. It observes human nature more perceptively than most shows. It is unlike most things on television simply because it has such a distinctive voice and unique feel. And because C.K.’s financial arrangement with FX makes the show so cheap for them to finance, that means he may be able to make the show for as long as he wants to. I hope it can continue for quite a long time.

Meanwhile, in C.K.’s other world — one of a stand-up comic who currently stands atop his field — C.K. has gained enough popularity and clout that he decided to embark on a grand experiment — to finance, produce, and release his latest hour-long stand-up special (at a November performance at the Beacon Theater in New York) by himself without any network or media company involved. Rather than taking a large fee from a media company who would then produce and release the video — and thus own the broadcast rights — C.K.’s crew shot the special, and he made it available for download from his website for $5 in December, giving his fans the ability to download it free of any restrictions. The experiment was to find out how many people would pay for it, versus how quickly it would be copied and distributed by pirates.

I must say that I respect the hell out of this experiment. It is forward thinking in terms of looking at the possible futures that lie ahead for those in the media and entertainment industries; it considers realistically the way consumers are increasingly using the Internet for their way of consuming media. And by pricing it at $5 and making the download process so simple, C.K. makes it awfully easy for his fans to honor the honor system and pay the small fee rather than hunting for pirated copies (which, no doubt, are out there). And make no mistake — even though this is an Internet download, the quality is top-notch and the file download is completely free of any hassles, making it very possible to burn to a DVD and watch it on a large television if you’re like me and believe that the living room is still the place to view TV.

C.K. reported the results of his experiment (which has been a success, with more than $1 million in purchases as of Dec. 21), with a couple of posts on his website, which are interesting if you want to know how the numbers break down in terms of the video’s production and now its profits. He has also has announced plans to donate a very sizable chunk of the proceeds to charity.

Very cool. The stand-up special itself, if you’ve seen C.K.’s previous specials, including “Shameless,” “Chewed Up,” and “Hilarious,” lives up to what you would expect from a C.K. performance — a combination of transgressive, observant, caustic, autobiographical, and humane. I’ll leave it to the other C.K. fans in the Jammer Realm (if you’re out there) to rank “Live at the Beacon Theater” among C.K.’s others.

Here’s hoping C.K. will keep doing comedy for a long time, keep making his TV show, and turn out more specials and release them independently. Not many people have the established name recognition or the money to do something like that. (Becoming independent in this way takes many years of working within the system.) But since C.K. is one of them, it’s encouraging to see him blazing a trail.


6 Comments
  1. Patrick - Tuesday, January 3, 2012 - 8:25 am

    Louis C.K. is ok. But Patton Oswalt is light years ahead of him in the world of stand-up comedy. In fact, I’d be so bold as to call Oswalt the rightful successor to the late, great Bill Hicks in terms of literate, topical stand-up. J, check YouTube and look up the Bush and Cheney as The Dukes of Hazzard bit–hysterical!

  2. karatasiospa - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - 5:38 am

    The networks could follow his example giving all their series as downloads for a price (and internationally not only to the states). They would gain audience and they would make money and, perhaps, this way they would give a chance to many series which face the threat of cancellation to survive.

  3. Jhoh - Saturday, January 7, 2012 - 10:25 pm

    Louie’s definitely at the top for me, not just because he’s ambitious, but also because he’s socially relevant and self aware (the two most important things about any stand up), so he doesn’t try to align himself with lame partisan politics or whatever some hackier comedians do. I think that’s why Louis has been the favorite of so many people. The worst thing any comedian can do is try to be politically aligned.

    Ideally this business model that he’s testing (which has been a huge success for him) could work for a lot of other comics. Maybe sort of like how Steam is changing video game distribution, perhaps comics can more easily release a stand up special by controlling the distribution and pricing themselves, or through some company that will let them keep a nice big slice.

  4. Patrick - Sunday, January 15, 2012 - 8:38 pm

    However, I don’t want to sound like I’m slagging Louis C.K. I think he created one of the greatest balls-to-the-wall absurdist comedies of the last decade–”Pootie Tang”. It’s a guilty pleasure, but it’s like an urban Monty Python movie.

    “See, my damie, Pootie Tang don’t wa-da-tah to the shama cow… ’cause thats a cama cama leepa-chaiii, dig? “

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