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One-Man Show

Louis C.K., shooting in West Chelsea, in March.  

The fictional Louie has a serious Charlie Brown streak. He’s awkward with women; he stares gloomily down at his jiggling belly. In person, however, the nonfiction Louis C.K. is an attractive man in his early forties, built square, with pale brown eyes and a neatly trimmed goatee. He carries himself with physical confidence (a few years back, he trained with boxer Micky Ward, whom he knows from his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts). He is not warm, but he is smart and direct. He answers questions in a lucid flood but doesn’t ask much back. Every once in a while, he grins, and when he does, his face softens and lights up, his eyes twinkling.

After the masturbation shoot ends, we go downstairs, where his new show assistant—the first he’s ever hired—is waiting. It’s her first day. (She’ll be let go within a month.) “Did you do the thing with the car?” he asks her, and she nods, smiles, hands him his keys.

We get into his Infiniti and head down the West Side Highway, toward his apartment. As he drives, Louis describes his influences, which include oddball films like Robert Downey Sr.’s surreal Putney Swope, as well as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which Louis tells me nearly wrecked its director in the making. Films like this gave him a naïve impression of how Hollywood worked, how far you could go, how strange you could be. And historically, it’s been even more difficult to make something original on television, where the default is compromise.

“Everybody wants to improve the material, so they will comb over it, take out abnormalities,” he says of the traditional writers’ room. “It’s like certain kinds of food: You like them to be chunky and irregular. And they’ll just keeping puréeing and puréeing till it’s perfect, and who the fuck wants it?”

Not surprisingly, this is a philosophy based on years in the purée mines. After an early childhood spent in Mexico City (his father is a Mexican-Hungarian economist, his mother an Irish-American computer programmer), Louis moved to Massachusetts; when his parents divorced, his mom raised Louis and three siblings on her own. He worked as an auto mechanic before trying stand-up, at 19, in Boston’s thriving open-mike scene. On Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, a cult outlet for comics, Maron and Louis—former best friends who have since lost touch, in part due to Maron’s envy—reminisced about their early twenties. From Louis’s account, these years seem to have consisted of bold comedic breakthroughs broken up by financially irresponsible binges. He ruined his credit when he bought a car on his Visa card; he lived in an apartment so slovenly he didn’t clean up a shattered steak-sauce bottle for months. (I ask him about whether he and Maron are back in touch after years of estrangement, and he says they are, now and then. “I tell him I’m happy to sit down anytime for a real conversation, but he just wants me to do the podcast again. It’s a little weird.”)

In his early thirties, he directed short black-and-white films with his ex-wife, painter Alix Bailey. (He’s uploaded many of these to YouTube.) But he also made a living in the writers’ rooms he now decries, ginning up jokes for Letterman, Conan, and Chris Rock. In 1996, he was the head writer for The Dana Carvey Show, where he wrote a notorious opening sketch that poked fun at the feel-your-pain empathy of Bill Clinton, in which the president breast-fed the nation, squirting milk out of a line of dog’s nipples. The show was canceled after six episodes.

Along the way, Louis honed his stand-up act, moving from surrealistic wordplay to a more confessional approach. He became a role model to other comics—one of the rare “alternative” comics to gain mainstream success, famous for generating material at a radical pace (he trashes his entire hourlong set after each special). He has memorable riffs about race, about sex, and about politics; a rant about technology called “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” went viral. And he has become a particular fascination to parents for his cathartic routines on the existential aspects—the grossness, boredom, and rage—that accompany raising kids. “When you first get married, you have a relationship that’s so important to you, and you’re working on it together,” he explains in one routine, which he performed while he was still married. “But then you have a kid. And you look at the kid and you go, ‘Holy shit, this is my child! She has my DNA, my name. I would die for her.’ ” He takes a short, killer pause. “And you look at your spouse and you go, ‘Who the fuck are you? You’re a stranger. Why do I take shit from you?’ ”