And yet, every attempt he’s made to get this sensibility on film has failed. A 1998 black-and-white indie called Tomorrow Night aired at Sundance but went nowhere. Pootie Tang, his absurdist hip-hop comedy from 2001, crashed when the studio stepped in and reedited material he was already struggling to complete. Lucky Louie, an arch take on The Honeymooners, was canceled after twelve episodes on HBO in 2006. In the aftermath of that, he was hesitant to commit to another TV deal. But following a sold-out show in Los Angeles, offers began pouring in again, the numbers ratcheting upward. Then at a meeting Louis nearly decided not to attend, John Landgraf, the president of FX, offered him $250,000 to make a series about his life, a number that included Louis’s salary. “I thought, I’m too fucking old to stand in the cold with a young crew—and I’m just gonna go through the same shit for less money.” But Landgraf impressed Louis, pitching a model designed to keep shows “pure.” “I said, ‘Okay, the only way I’m doing this is if you literally wire the $200K to me and I go to New York and just make it. I don’t gotta tell you what it’s about. I don’t know what it’s about.’ ”
Louis’s manager promised he could bump up the number to $350,000, but Landgraf called Louis directly. To get more money, he explained, he’d need to call Rupert Murdoch. And Louis would have to take network notes. “I called my manager and said, ‘Shut your fucking mouth!,’ ” recalls Louis, laughing.
The thirteen episodes he produced swerved radically in tone and style. One takes place during the week Louie’s ex has custody: He falls into a wormhole of self-indulgence, binging on ice cream, getting stoned with a neighbor, and watching a water bottle tumble five stories onto a car. Another is an extended flashback to a Catholic-school trauma (the kids are forced to nail Christ to the cross). In the episode that made me a convert, Pamela Adlon—the burr-voiced actress whom Louis calls, with amazement, “the only real comic collaborator I’ve ever had”—shrugs off his come-ons at a wintry New York playground. Instead, the two single parents trade increasingly lurid suggestions about other parents to hit on: “Look at her. I bet she’d suck your dick just to break the awful pattern of her life.”
“No one on Earth has what I have right now. And I don’t know that I ever will again.”
These episodes weren’t written as traditional scripts. Instead, according to his producer, Breard, Louis produces write-ups for sketches, then films out of sequence, often without an exact sense of where each scene will go. As the airdate approaches, Louis edits episodes in his living room or sometimes in a coffee shop, using music as glue. His goal, he tells me, is a first-draft sensibility, in which jokes show their seams. “I’ve seen how much he’s grown over time as an artist,” says Breard, a close friend who first worked with him when he made Pootie Tang. “He’s confident in his choices. And there’s a real humanity, a gentleness in what he’s saying. It’s never gratuitous; it’s coming from a humanistic POV.”
Even back in his twenties, Louis had fantasies about the potential for independent TV. “You know, the people who do indie film and decide who gets those little budgets? They’re mean, man. They’re cold and very cool-oriented.” TV in general “has lower self-esteem, so there isn’t this lofty sense of ‘We’re all C. B. DeMille.’”
He doesn’t watch much television other than boxing and news, but he’s willing to throw off some fairly caustic opinions about other sitcoms. “Yeah, I can’t stand that shit,” he tells me about 30 Rock and Community. A few minutes later, he acknowledges: “To be honest, I’ve only ever watched part of one episode of 30 Rock.” It’s not the quality of network sitcoms he objects to, he explains; it’s the antic energy he can’t take: the machine gun of polished bits. Although he’s a fan of Family Guy (he watches it at bedtime, since hes too anxious to fall asleep in a dark room), most self-referential comedy gives him welts. He recalls a recent promo for 30 Rock in which Tina Fey makes a joke about another NBC star, Steve Carell. “What are you doing?” he cries out. “Why are y’all talking about each other? It’s crazy. I think Tina’s really funny, but they get to this place where it gets really madcap, and I just smell a roomful of writers getting off.” He knows how this sounds: “totally bigoted, it’s obnoxious.” But he adds, “I think a lot of my feelings about this have to do with having lived in that world for too long.”