After years working the stand-up circuit, Louis C.K. is well established as a comic powerhouse; his FX series Louie is in its fifth season, and C.K. also has a new comedy special that's available as a digital download on his website. But the laughs didn't always come easily. C.K. was a teenager when he first ventured onstage at a local comedy club's open mic night.
"I sputtered, my whole throat constricted and I heard this roaring in my ears and my eyes were watering," C.K. tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "All these adults ... were looking at me like I'm an idiot and I just choked through, like, two minutes of jokes. It was a terrible, terrible feeling. I just walked offstage to kind of confused little applause. I felt like a pile of garbage. And then I kept doing it."
C.K.'s FX series follows the daily life of a middle-aged comic who, like C.K., is a divorced father of two young girls. Both the comic and his character struggle to do right by their children. In C.K.'s case, this sometimes means talking frankly with his daughters about the mistakes he made growing up. "My kids know that I did drugs; they know that I've struggled with that kind of thing," C.K. says. "I think it's important to share your mistakes with your kids, because you get knowledge from your mistakes and wisdom from it. If you can't pass that on, what good are you?"
On getting started in stand-up
People who start doing stand-up are very crazy. They really want it so badly, it's a very deep desire. When you start, you stink. There's no other way to do it. It takes some kind of mental illness to push against that, you know, to go onstage and just bomb horribly and then still do it because you love it. You just have some really deep desire to make it work. Actually, it's usually the comedians that start awkwardly and badly who end up being interesting. From my experience, when I've seen people show up and from the first day onstage they're just easy, like, really amiable comics who just know how to talk to people, they don't usually end up being that special. They get some quick success but they don't turn into something like really unusual and great.
On finding his way as a comic
The first time I went onstage I did kind of offbeat and weird jokes just because I thought: You might as well try being more like what makes you laugh, you know? I did really well. My third time onstage I got really big laughs and other comedians came up to me and said, "Hey, you're funny. You've got something." I was so excited that I had a little foot in the door that this is something I could maybe do. I thought it's me being kind of weird, the way I am in real life. I like to say things that don't make a whole lot of sense or surprise people a little bit. But then I got seduced by getting big laughs and once you get laughs, you're like, "Oh, I'll do anything for that feeling. That feels really good."
On how being a parent shifted his focus
The road really sucks when it's all you have; it's really sad. It's very lonely out there. So I was happy to be in a family and be married and everything. ... When I first got married and had kids, I had some friends I played poker with on Mondays and I thought: The poker game on Mondays, that's the water line. If I don't make that game, I'm losing something. I'm losing something if I don't make it to that game. It means I'm letting go of my youth, I'm letting go of my manhood, all these things — my independence.
But then after a while I realized: Why would I want to go play poker with a bunch of guys in a smoky room when I could be at home with my family? I realized that a lot of the things that my kid was taking away from me, she was freeing me of. There was this huge pride in having a kid and also that I didn't matter anymore. The greatest thing about having a child is putting yourself second in your own life. It's a massive gift to be able to say you're not the most important person to yourself.
On the importance of being useful
I saw a movie once where Spencer Tracy catches this woman about to kill herself — it's a pretty dark movie for the time — but I forget the name of the movie, but Spencer Tracy is on a boat and sees a rich, young girl about to throw herself off the boat because her fiance left her for another woman and he's trying to talk her out of suicide and he says to her, "Do you have a job? Do you have anything that you do in your life?" which was a funny thing to ask because she's, like, a 1920s socialite and she said, "No," and he said, "I think you should get a job, because it's very hard to be sad and useful at the same time."
Ever since I saw that I keep that in my head. If you can be useful, which means to somebody else, not to yourself, if you can be useful, it just makes you feel better. So I live in service for my kids, that's the first priority and then things like my career, they feed into that, they're part of that, because I'm providing for them but also it's just not that important. If something's not important, it's more fun.
On doing drugs as a kid
I was in eighth, ninth grade when I started to smoke pot and get high and drop acid and snort speed and all kinds of stuff. Yeah, it was really intense. It was a lot of drugs. I mean, literally, I dropped LSD every weekend, it was crazy. My mother, poor mom, my single working mother of four, didn't know where I was half the time; I would just disappear and I was barely cognizant of any kind of life. I never went to classes and yeah, I stole triple beam balance scales from my science teacher, who I really liked, and sold them to a drug dealer. ...
The thing that I think it's important to know if you have kids, especially teenagers, is that the people they meet that are going to offer them drugs are not bad people, they're really cool people. The fiction that you tell kids that people that offer you drugs are evil is not a good fiction to tell them — because they're going to be cool people who like them. That's why drugs are so easy to fall into as a kid. Right away, "Well, my parents are liars because this person is cool. This person understands me better than they do." That's part of why people do drugs — it's because they're making a connection with people that they really feel strongly about.
On talking to his daughters about his past mistakes
All I can say is, "Hey, I'm here. I'm your dad and we have a lot of history, your whole life, and I love you and I'm here." That's all you can really be for your kids, is present. I think in the end that's the best thing you can do for your kids when they come to you with real problems is try to understand how they feel and try to give them a place to say how they feel so that they can sort it out. And give them what you can about your past, you know? I think to tell them that the world is this place where you're supposed to act perfectly and represent that you did is a huge disservice to your kids.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I always enjoy it when comic Louis C.K. is on our show, so I'm very happy to have him back today. He's one of the greatest comics of his generation. His FX series, "Louie," which is now in its fifth season, is very funny, but it's also taken some surprising emotional and dramatic turns over the years. It's about the daily life of a middle-aged comic named Louie, who, like Louis C.K., is a divorced father of two young girls and is struggling to do right by them and to keep his own life and career together.
Louis C.K. has become much more successful and famous since the series began, but that's not true of the version of himself he plays in the series. Louis C.K. also has a new comedy special that's available as a digital download on his website and will air on FX May 28. And he's going to host the final episode of this season's "Saturday Night Live" on May 16.
Let's start with a scene from last week's episode of "Louie." Louie is at a kitchen cookware store. He wanted help with some pricey items, but the young woman who works there hasn't been helpful and just keeps telling him it's closing time. Here he is complaining to her at the checkout counter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) So you just don't care about your customers.
CLARA WONG: (As Andrea) That whole customer's always right approach is kind of old school.
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is it? Oh, OK, then - then noted. Thank you very much. In the future, I will take my business elsewhere.
WONG: (As Andrea) Please do. Please go to Williams-Sonoma. They'll be very indulgent.
C.K.: (As Louie) Wow. Wow, that's a new approach. So you have nothing to learn from thousands of years of human commerce - just nothing. I really hope that works out for you.
WONG: (As Andrea) Well, I'm 24, and I own my own store in Manhattan.
C.K.: (As Louie) All right, then. All right. I will alert my entire generation that your generation needs nothing from us. We will just be on our way.
WONG: (As Andrea) Well, if you could help clean up the environment you ruined on your way out...
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is there anything else we can get for you, your majesties?
WONG: (As Andrea) Do you always get uncomfortable around younger people?
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah. I don't know. I don't know why.
WONG: (As Andrea) I think I maybe know why.
C.K.: (As Louie) OK.
WONG: (As Andrea) Because we're the future, and you don't belong in it. Because we're beyond you, and naturally, that makes you feel kind of bad. You have this deep-down feeling that you don't matter anymore.
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, that's pretty true. Yeah.
GROSS: That's a scene from Louis C.K.'s series "Louie." It's a scene from this current season, which is season five. Louis C.K., welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's so great to have you back on the show.
C.K.: Very glad to be back. Yeah, I still listen to this show more than anything else.
GROSS: Oh, wow. Thank you. (Laughter).
C.K.: I love it. Yeah.
GROSS: That makes me happy. What were you working out about age in your mind when you wrote the scene that we just heard?
C.K.: Well, it's an interesting thing, you know. You - when you get older and you become less in the center of things, which I think is part of getting older, you know - there's more energy and focus on younger people - you start to resent it at first. You start to feel like, you know, somebody's taking something away from you. But then you realize that there's a privilege in that, and that it means that we're all developing. And it's part of your responsibility as a human, I think - is to, you know, get old and die. Get out of the way...
C.K.: ...So things can get better.
GROSS: Yes, get old, and die. And get out of the way (laughter).
C.K.: Yeah, exactly. So it's an interesting theme to confront people who are younger than you who aren't children, you know? Once you get to your 40s, you start to confront younger adults. And because they have so much pure, nice, sugary, smart blood in their veins, they are very convinced that they really know everything that's going on. You know what I mean? So - but since you've already been them, and now you're you, you feel like, well, I just know twice as much as you. But it's just not true...
GROSS: Who were you...
C.K.: ...Because they know...
GROSS: Who were you when you were them? Like, what did you think you know that the people older than you did not which made you smarter than them?
C.K.: Well, I was - I didn't think - I thought I wasn't. I thought I didn't know. I thought that older people knew more than me. I did. I really did (laughter). I didn't have that feeling like I know everything and old people are stupid. But the thing is that they do know more, in a way, 'cause they know new things. They know new things that we didn't know yet, so - because as a collective, the human race is getting smarter - you hope, anyway. So in a way, they do have the edge.
GROSS: So I realized one of the things that - what comics can do, like you, that most of us can't is take things that have happened in your life, including bad or embarrassing things, and make them funny in such a way that we, the audience, not only laugh, but we go, oh, yeah, that happened to me, or that nearly happened to me. And then there's the kind of comic who gets on stage, and you just kind of feel sorry for them (laughter) because they're not - they're just not good enough at it, which leads me to the next scene I want to play from your series "Louie." In one of the episodes, you were asked - you know, you've done your act at the comedy club where you perform in the series, and then you're asked, at the last minute, to host the open mic night part. And you really don't want to do it. But you negotiate a deal for a few hundred dollars, so you're willing to do it. You have to introduce yourself from the backstage mic 'cause there's no one else to do (laughter).
GROSS: That's pretty funny.
GROSS: But anyways, before the actual open mic night starts, one of the very young comics comes up to you and says, can you listen and then give me a critique? And you really don't want to do that. And then the guy goes on stage. And he talks in this very monotone way, totally without affect, about when he was a child, he used to wet his bed, and his mother beat him. And there's absolutely nothing funny in how he tells the story.
GROSS: It's just totally sad. He comes off stage, and then he asks you for a critique. You very reluctantly take him to a coffee shop, and here's the conversation that you have.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
C.K.: (As Louie) So I don't know what to tell you, Bart.
NATE FERNALD: (As Bart) I'm not funny?
C.K.: (As Louie) Well, it's tough, but no, you're not. You're not funny. I mean, not on stage, anyway.
FERNALD: (As Bart) OK, OK. What do I change? Is it my jokes or...
C.K.: (As Louie) Jokes? See, I - that's the thing. I don't really know that those were really jokes. Like, when you talked about wetting the bed on stage, did you think that would be funny?
FERNALD: (As Bart) Well, in comedy, you're supposed to tell the truth, right? You know, just be, like, honest about stuff.
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, but you've got to - but it has to be - you have to start with what's - what makes you laugh.
FERNALD: (As Bart) What makes me laugh?
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, you - what makes you laugh. That's where you start. When you think about what to talk about on stage, you start there. What is - what's funny to you?
FERNALD: (As Bart) Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball.
C.K.: (As Louie) OK. OK, listen. You can't do this to comedy. You can't do it, Bart. I'm sorry. And I - you're a nice kid, and I appreciate that you're so earnest. I really do. But - and I would never normally say this because it's not my right. But I like you, so I have - I've got to tell you. You're not going to be a comedian. I mean it - never. And you got to get out. You got to save yourself some pain.
FERNALD: (As Bart) I can't quit - never. I'll die first. I love comedy. Is there anything you can tell me that will make me better - anything?
C.K.: (As Louie) Talk in a funny voice, maybe.
GROSS: (Laughter). That's a scene from Louis C.K.'s FX comedy series, "Louie," which is in the middle of its fifth season. Does this happen to you a lot, where younger comics ask you for advice and hope that you'll be their mentor?
C.K.: Once in a while, but I'm a lot meaner than that in real life. I just say...
C.K.: ...No, no. I've got to go. I've got to go. And I just walk away from them.
C.K.: But no, once in a while - I don't know. I actually, sometimes, will be proactively - I - when I see a comedian who shows promise, that's very exciting to me. I love comedy, so when somebody young is - has a spark to them, I'll often come up to them and just spray out some things I think might be useful to them. But people that are in - who start doing standup are very crazy, you know? They really want it so badly. It's a very deep desire. And when you start, you stink. There's no other way to do it. It's a very - it takes some kind of mental illness to push against that, you know, to go on stage and just bomb horribly and then still do it because you love it. You just have some really deep desire to make it work. And actually, it's usually the comedians that start awkwardly and badly that - who end up being interesting. The guys who - from my experience, when I've seen people show up, and from the first day on stage, they're just easy, you know, like, really amiable comics who just know how to talk to people - they don't usually end up being that special. They get some quick success, but they don't usually turn into something, like, really unusual and great.
GROSS: Do you remember your first open mic night? Was that how you started?
C.K.: Hell yeah.
C.K.: Oh, yeah. I'll never forget that.
GROSS: Can you tell us about it?
C.K.: It was horrible. Well, I got this - I found out that you could do open - there was an open mic night at a club in Boston where I started called Stitches. And I was actually, like, 17, almost 18 years old, and I thought, jeez, you can go on stage. It just - they said, you do five minutes. You just put your name in a hat, and you get on stage. You can be anybody. That was so exciting to me.
So I went to this club Stitches, which is very grown-up. They didn't even want to let me in 'cause I was underaged, and they have a drinking - you know, a liquor license. And then I went on stage, and I did about two minutes because I didn't have enough material. Like, I just ran - I sputtered. My whole throat constricted, and my - I heard this roaring in my ears. My eyes were watering. My heart was pounding, and I couldn't control myself. I couldn't think straight. And all these adults - like, drinking adults were looking at me like I'm an idiot. And I just walked off stage to a kind-of-confused, like, (clapping) little applause.
C.K.: And I just felt like a pile of garbage.
C.K.: And then I kept doing it (laughter).
GROSS: OK, so you did really terribly on stage.
GROSS: What made you think, I need to do more of this; I want to get back on there?
C.K.: Well, I didn't do it for a little while. And then at the time, I was working at a video rental store in Newton, Mass., where I grew up, and Kevin Meaney, who was a very big star in the Boston comedy scene back then - Boston had a very strong local scene. And I knew who Kevin was. I heard him on the radio and stuff. And Kevin was a customer at the store I went to - that I worked at. And I told him that I had done an open mic, and he said, oh, well, you've got to come on my show. He had a show that was a huge - him and Steve Sweeney, these two great comics. They had this show where they would, you know, they would pack the room and put on all the best comics in Boston. And he said, come be on my show. And I said, well, no, I need to practice and, like, you know, do more shows to get good enough. And he said, no, I won't let you go on my show unless you go on now. He said, I'm - it's interesting 'cause you don't know what you're - like, it's comedy tragedy. He kind of wanted me to go on and bomb.
C.K.: And so I went again into Stitches. And it was a Wednesday night. It was Sweeney-Meaney night. It was jam-packed. And I went on, and - I think the audience - they actually - people's mouths were open.
C.K.: They were shocked at how bad I was - just shocked. And I got off stage. And Kevin wouldn't look me in the eye, and nobody would. And it was just the most pulverizing humiliation. It was much worse than the first time because it was a really - you know, the first time was an open mic night. The premise of the show is that most of us don't know what we're doing. But this was a professional comedy show, and I went on it and just flailed. I mean, it was a nightmare.
GROSS: So was Kevin Meaney cutting you a break or being really cruel in putting you on after that?
C.K.: You know, that's open to interpretation. I don't know. I mean, (laughter) he must've known how bad it was going to hurt me. But to me, I think he was giving me a break. It was up to me to make it into something. Who knows? Maybe I could've - maybe I was funny. He hadn't seen me. Do you know what I mean? So he was giving me a chance. He was letting - it's interesting when somebody becomes an agent in your life for a minute, you know what I mean? And they go, well, let's see what happens if you do this now. It was a formative experience. Sitting here now, I'm very glad I had it.
C.K.: It was a great, great thing. Because it was - it gave me a really realistic, shocking picture of what I was facing. That show that I did and that audience and that night - that was still the terrain that I work at today. I think if you're just looking for easy ways or you're looking for victories through life, I don't think you're really getting much out of it. I think you have to - if you really know how hard stuff is and despite that, you extract some tools out of yourself, it's better for you. And the next time I went on stage, I was very wary (laughter).
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Louis C.K. And his FX comedy series, "Louie," is now in the middle of its fifth season. And he also has a new comedy special, Live From The Comedy Store In LA, that's available on his website as a digital download and that's also about to be shown May 28 on FX. So let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Louis C.K. And his FX comedy series "Louie" is now in the middle of its fifth season. And the download of his latest comedy show is available on his website and will be shown May 28 on FX.
So what was the first time when you felt like you started to understand who you were onstage and, like, what your onstage personality was going to be, what your, you know, persona - if I could use that word - was going to be - like, what the stage version of you was going to be?
C.K.: The first time I went onstage, I did kind of offbeat and weird jokes just 'cause I thought that you might as well try being more like what makes you laugh. I did really well. My third time onstage, I got really big laughs and other comedians came up to me and said, hey, you're funny. You got something. And I was so excited that I had a little foot in the door, that this is something I could maybe do. And I thought it's me being kind of weird the way I am in real life. I like to say things that don't make a whole lot of sense or surprise people a little bit. But then I got seduced by getting big laughs. And then I just started doing - once you get laughs, you're like, oh, I'll do anything for that feeling. That feels really good. So then you start thinking of just jokes.
GROSS: So the first time you were onstage and started doing jokes, where comics were coming up to you and saying, that was good, you've got something, what were you doing? Or what is it that you were doing onstage that they had a positive reaction to?
C.K.: I was doing more kind of contemplative, weird jokes. I don't think I did things that were self-reflective. I did things that were just like - well, one of the bits was about street signs, that I thought they should be punctuated because I got confused by them, like, signs like, No U Turn.
C.K.: You know? Drive Slow Children - that kind of thing. It was just taking these street signs and re-imagining them. And that was an offbeat, funny, silly bit, and it made people laugh. And that's the only one I remember from then now.
GROSS: When did you start talking about yourself, being self-reflective, as you described it?
C.K.: I think when I - I don't know. Once I was in my 20s, you know, I had grown up so much on the road. 'Cause I started doing standup so young, I didn't go to college. So my formative years were being on the road, which meant I had a lot of embarrassing sexual stories because I didn't have a girlfriend all those years 'cause I was on the road. I was traveling everywhere. And also I was doing a very unusual thing. I was doing standup when most people my age were in college, so I was an odd fit with everybody around me, you know?
So I started telling stories that were like confessional about strange sexual situations I'd been in. I think that's when I started to enjoy confessing and putting myself out there. But then - but I also talked about things like, you know, the absurdity of being poor and trying to have money in the bank and stuff like that, so it was about life in general. I think it's when I got - when I was married and had children that I started to really talk about my own life and what my life felt like.
GROSS: But before you realized how being a father would give you material for your comedy, did you think, OK, I'm going to be a father and now it's over for me? No more independence, no more easy life on the road, the door slamming shut.
C.K.: Well, there's always a give-and-take. I was glad to let go of some of that. The road really sucks when it's all you have. It's really sad (laughter). It's very lonely out there, so I was happy to be in a family and be married and everything. And, you know, when I first got married and had kids, I thought, you know - I had some friends that I played poker with on Mondays, and I thought the poker game on Mondays is - that's the water line. Like, if I don't make that game, I'm losing something. I'm losing something if I don't make it to that game. It means I'm letting go of my youth, I'm letting go of my manhood - all of things - my independence.
But then after a while, I realized, why would I want to go play poker with a bunch of guys in a smoky room when I could be at home with my family? And I realized that a lot of things that my kid was taking away from me, she was freeing me of. A lot of things that men hang onto when they're younger, they're just not good for you. And that there was this huge pride in having a kid and also that I didn't matter anymore. The greatest thing about having a child is putting yourself second in your own life. It's a massive gift to be able to say that you're not the most important person to yourself.
GROSS: Why is that a good thing?
C.K.: Because you're - because you'll always - I don't know - because that's always going to let you down, you know what I mean? The idea of I've got to get me right. I've got to get what I want. I've got to get - that's got to be right. That's never going to quite work. You know, life just isn't that satisfying. But if you can be useful to somebody else, that you can actually accomplish, you know what I mean? You can go, I did a pretty damn good job today as a dad - pretty good - best as I could. That's worth so much more, you know?
I saw a movie once where Spencer Tracy catches this woman about to kill herself. It's a pretty dark movie for the time, but - I forget the name of the movie. But Spencer Tracy's on a boat, and he sees a rich, young girl about to throw herself off the boat 'cause her fiance left her for another woman. And he's trying to talk her out of suicide, and he says to her, do you have a job? Do you have anything that you do in your life? Which was a funny thing to ask 'cause she's like a 1920s - you know, she's like a socialite. And she said, no. And he said, I think you should get a job because it's very hard to be sad and useful at the same time. And ever since I saw that, I keep that in my head.
If you can be useful - which means to somebody else, not to yourself - if you can be useful, it just makes you feel better. So I live in service for my kids, you know? That's the first priority. And things like my career, they feed into that. They're part of that because I'm providing for them. But also, it's just not that important. If something's not important, it's more fun. It's more of something you can look at from objectively instead of having it be this albatross around you. I've got to get this right. If this isn't perfect, my life is a nightmare.
GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K. His FX comedy series, "Louie," continues its fifth season Thursday. After we take a short break, we'll talk about how he started doing drugs, including LSD when he was 13, and how those experiences are affecting how he's preparing for his daughters' teenage years. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Louis C.K., who writes, directs and stars in his FX comedy series, "Louis." He plays a character named Louie who, like Louis C.K., is a middle-aged comic and a divorced father of two young girls. The series is now in its fifth season. Louis C.K. also has an acting career. His films include "Blue Jasmine" and "American Hustle."
Last season, in season four of "Louie," there was a two-episode season that was largely a series of flashbacks to when your character was in high school and started smoking a lot of marijuana and started just kind of disconnecting emotionally from people. So he wants to start buying himself, so he goes to, like, the neighborhood dealer, who's played by Jeremy Renner.
And the dealer's kind of, like, colorful and, in his own tough way, almost big brother-ish. And to get more money, Louie starts stealing. Because the dealer needs scales to weigh the marijuana, he convinces Louie to steal scales from the science lab at school. And Louie does that in spite of the fact that he's actually stealing these scales from his best teacher's lab. And when he's discovered, he wants to go back to the dealer and get the scales back. So this is the scene where he goes to the dealer, played by Jeremy Renner, and asks for the scales back.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
JEREMY RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) What can I do you for?
DEVIN DRUID: (As Young Louie) I need to get the scales back.
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) What?
DRUID: (As Young Louie) Can I get them back?
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) You - (laughter) you want me to get the 10 scales from the drug dealers I sold them to.
DRUID: (As Young Louie) I'll find a way to pay you back. I just need to return them.
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) How are you going to pay me back? You still got that weed I gave you?
DRUID: (As Young Louie) I smoked it.
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) You smoked it? All of it?
DRUID: (As Young Louie) I shared it, but I...
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) You shared it. Well, that's nice of you (laughter), but now you've got nothing.
DRUID: (As Young Louie) Well...
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) Not so smart, after all, are you? Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie, I've got to help you now, right? I'll help you out. I've got to help you out. Come here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCUFFLING AND GASPING)
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) Just breathe. You OK? You're all right. You're all right. I'm here. You're all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF GASPING)
RENNER: (As Jeff Davis) You listening to me? Listening? You scared? OK, 'cause a second ago, you weren't scared. You scared now? Yeah. What do you think? Huh? 'Cause you're a kid, I ain't going to hurt you? You think this is games? No, no. This is man s*** right here. You understand that? You're not a kid. You're a man now. You stole property, Louie - a lot of property. Ten scales - that's, like, two grand, isn't it? That's larceny. That is some sick s***. I never did nothing like that.
GROSS: So that was Devin Druid as the young Louie C.K. and Jeremy Renner as the dealer. Did you get into trouble when you were in high school because you started smoking marijuana? Is this a fairly autobiographical...
C.K.: Yes, it is. That's pretty much exactly - well, not exactly. There's a bunch of differences. In - this all happened when I was in junior high school. I was in eighth, ninth grade when I started to smoke pot and get high and drop acid and snort speed (laughter) and all kinds of stuff.
C.K.: Yeah, it was really intense. It was a lot of drugs. And, I mean, I - literally, I dropped, like, LSD every weekend. It was crazy. And my mother - my poor mom - my single mom - single working mother of four - didn't know where I was half the time. I would just disappear, and I was barely cognizant of any kind of life. I never went to classes. And, yeah - and I stole triple beam balance scales from my science teacher, who I really liked, and sold them to a drug dealer.
The difference is the Jeremy Renner character - the first time I meet him in the show is closer to the truth. He was a nice guy. He just made me feel grown up and treated me like a grown-up and made a square deal with me. The part where he gets scary didn't happen to me. I didn't get scared by - the thing that I think is important to know if you have kids, especially teenagers, is that the people they meet that are going to offer them drugs are not bad people. They're really cool people.
C.K.: If somebody - the fiction that you tell kids - that people that offer you drugs are evil - is not a good fiction to tell them 'cause they're going to be cool people who like them. And that's why - that's why drugs are so easy to fall into as a kid. And right away, you know, well, my parents are liars 'cause this person is cool. This person understands me better than they do. That's part of why people do drugs is 'cause they're making a connection with people that they really feel strongly about. And also it's their first connection that they choose - is their teenage connections.
GROSS: What do you get...
C.K.: But anyway, yeah...
GROSS: What do you get out of LSD when you're in eighth grade? I mean, you're too young for the kind of mind-altering experience where there's some kind of new, transcendental understanding of your place in the world. And you're seeing things with a new perspective, and you realize things about the world that you didn't. That's, like, not going to happen to you in eighth grade.
C.K.: So how much acid did you do, Terry?
C.K.: When you were...
GROSS: But - so what is the eighth grade experience of an LSD trip?
C.K.: Well, I don't know. I think that the one you're describing is - I'm not sure whoever got that. I guess they did that back in the '60s. They had those feelings when they dropped acid. I don't know. It's a really strong drug. I didn't have anything - any epiphany. I had some bad trips. Me and my friends went up to a rooftop once.
My - when I got in trouble in school once, my dad took me to work with him and made me sit in a room in his office, like, as punishments 'cause I'd been suspended from school, so he was like, you're not going to just get a day off. You're coming to sit. He kind of put me in this jail inside of his office that he worked at. And when I had lunch - he let me out for lunch, and I explored the building and found out that you could get out on a roof of his building really easy. And so - that also there was a trick to getting into the building.
And so I started to drop acid with my friends and go up on that roof at night. (Laughter) So we would just set up a rooftop and look at the world. And just - you take the world in with this really intense euphoria when you're on acid. It was too much for me. It was too much. I used to get - it used to scare the hell out of me every time I took acid. It really rattled me. It was very traumatic. And I'd do it again. I don't know why.
GROSS: Yeah, I was going to ask you why.
C.K.: I don't know. It's like you're looking - you're just looking for stuff to put in your body and wreck your brain with when you're - I guess I was - I wasn't in a good place then, you know? I was in a bad place, so I don't think there was a good reason for any of the drugs I was doing. It starts as self-medication, I think, when you're getting high at first as a kid. You're trying to disconnect from your feelings, like you described in the beginning of this. It's a disconnection. You're trying to walk away from stuff.
GROSS: Well, in the episode, a therapist tells him, look, your parents divorced. That's hurt you. And yeah, the drugs are working. You're emotionally disconnecting. They're doing their job, but you're making bad choices.
C.K.: Yeah, and that actually - that therapist is a real guy. That was a real guy. I remember his name was John Longo (ph). He was a social worker my mother took me to. And he said that almost exact thing to me. He said, yeah, you're medicating. And the things - some bad things have happened to you, and you don't - and it's making you feel bad. You need to start making one good choice after another. That's all. He said, you just need an adjustment. You're not a bad guy, which is what you should tell a kid who's that age, who's making those kind of choices.
GROSS: Did you - did you believe what he told you?
C.K.: I did. It really helped. It was a huge help because it just gave me kind of a clean slate. It's like what Catholics look for from confession - a place to just say, look, I've done all this bad stuff. And then they can say, yeah, I get it. It's the kind of stuff people do. It's not the end of the world. And by the way, you were handed kind of a bad deal, so I get it. Try harder.
So that's what he gave me, you know, and as a kid, that's what I needed. And also 'cause my parents were divorced and my dad wasn't present in my childhood and teenage years, there's this - you kind of have to raise yourself. It's something that happens to kids, you know? Not all kids get a great set of parents. Sometimes they get one who puts in about 50 percent and one puts in about 20. So they've got to make up that 30 for themselves or find it in other people - in friends and teachers, you know.
I remember when I was on "The Tonight Show" once with Jay Leno. Rickey Minor was the bandleader for Jay Leno. And he told me that he had a son who was going to start doing comedy, and I said, oh, great. And he said my son graduated law school, but before he goes to be a lawyer, he wants to try comedy, just as a perspective. And I said, it sounds like you raised a great kid. And I asked him, what was your father like? And he said, I never knew my dad. And I said, oh, you were raised by a single mom, like I was. He said, no, my mom was a drug addict and couldn't raise me. I said, who raised you? And he said a bunch of people. He said, I would just look for mentors in life. He said that he never took having two good parents for granted. You'd think that's the kind of thing that people have to take for granted, but he didn't. He found mentors and coaches. He would find - ask people for advice. He built parents in the aggregate.
And I think all kids have to do that 'cause nobody gets a complete set, you know? No parents are perfect, by the way. It's not just that some parents are just awful, and these poor kids - it's part of life. Your parents are going to do the best they can, you know, so I think that's what I got. I had a very strong working mom. She was an incredible role model for me, but also, she had a job. She couldn't pay full attention to me all the time. I have three sisters, too, so...
GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K. His FX comedy series, "Louie," is in its fifth season. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Louis C.K., and his FX comedy series, "Louie" is now in the middle of its fifth season. He also has a new comedy special, live from The Comedy Store in LA. That's now available as a digital download and as audio and video download. And it's about to be an FX comedy special on May 28.
When you decided to change your life and to stop doing drugs, or at least do less of them, and to start emotionally connecting better to your family, what were the changes that you made?
C.K.: Well stopping the drugs was the first one. And I went about it in a way that probably wasn't good for me, which is I just stopped. You know, I kind of envy people that went - I didn't even - it never occurred to me to go to, like, a 12-step program. I just stopped. So I got pretty depressed. Like, if you use drugs as a kid, and then all of a sudden you have no drugs and you took two years off of building your emotional support for yourself, all of a sudden you got nothing. So I got real down.
But I started paying attention in school more. I started being fascinated by what I was learning in school. And I had a teacher in high school who got me an internship at a cable TV station in Newton, Mass. They had a cable - local access cable station. And I started learning about shooting video and editing. I started learning how to edit and how to use a camera and how to be a producer even. And I shot the high school football games and the hockey games. Like, I became, like, the whiz kid at the local access cable TV station. And I taught myself how to use every machine in there. I taught myself how to repair the cameras, and I became obsessed with production.
Yeah, I just dove into that. That's what got me in - that's what got me off the hook. And I started reading books I liked. I liked Dostoevsky back then, and I got into Russian literature. And, also, my mom is a great, great person. And so she was - the great thing that she gave me was that she was always my friend. So after I came out of that horrible cloud that caused so much trouble for her of drugs and stuff, she was there as my friend. She was there to - as somebody to talk to. So that was great.
GROSS: When you were taking a lot of drugs in junior high and you would do something that made you paranoid, like, the drug was making you paranoid, what were the kinds of things you would get paranoid about?
C.K.: Well, I remember one time me and my friends took acid and went to a Grateful Dead concert at Boston Garden, and it was a pretty amazing feeling. And back then, you know, Jerry Garcia was alive and well. And I'm in Boston Garden, and Jerry Garcia is singing Grateful Dead songs. And I'm on acid and I'm - I mean, what - how old are you in eighth grade? I was 13 years old (laughter).
GROSS: Thirteen sounds right, yeah.
C.K.: (Laughter) And I was at a Grateful Dead concert on acid and surrounded by people of all ages and types that are wasted - all tripping. And Jerry Garcia was probably tripping and on heroin or whatever. And it was so - I went over this hill of, like, excitement and euphoria and, like, feeling this rush of, like, there's, like, caramel. Like, the air smelled like caramel, and I felt like I was breathing it. It was an amazing feeling. But then I went over that hill into this horrible - it totally changed to a building packed with predators, strange people who I didn't know what they were thinking and I didn't like Jerry anymore (laughter). And I turned to my friend and I said, I have to get out of here. I'm freaking out. And my friend didn't want to leave. He was having a good time. So now he's mad at me. And, yeah, it was - that's one of the most terrifying things that I've ever experienced...
GROSS: Did you leave?
C.K.: ...At the Dead show. Yes, I left. And then I was walking the streets of Boston trying to get home, and it was freezing cold out. And the whole world was a nasty, hostile place. And it was going right to the - I had no - I had no comfort. You know, like, you kind of imagine your skull, and your hair is like a little bit of shield against the rest of the world. You have your own mind. It was like the cold outside was getting right to the center of my brain. It was a horrible feeling.
GROSS: And then you did it again (laughter)? You did it again after that.
C.K.: (Laughter) Yeah, I suppose I did it again. I don't know how many more times I did it after that.
C.K.: But, I mean, I knew kids who dropped acid when we were in junior high school who didn't come back from it, who got, you know, who got real quiet and weird after one time.
GROSS: My guest is Louis C.K. His FX comedy series, "Louie," is in its fifth season. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Louis C.K. His FX comedy series, "Louie," is in its fifth season.
So we've been talking about your real experiences compared to a flashback episode of "Louie" last season. In that double episode with the flashback, a scene in the present involves you going to a street festival because your friend Todd Barry has told you that there's, like, going to be lots of attractive women there. And the person you see there is your preteen daughter, and she's actually smoking marijuana with some friends, and you're really upset. You walk over and you drag her away. You go out for a burger. You take her home. And then she's really afraid that you're going to give her, like, the big lecture. But here is what you say to her. So this is Louis C.K. from last year's arc of "Louie."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
HADLEY DELANY: (As Lilly) Are you going to say a big thing now about the pot and everything?
C.K.: (As Louie) No. Just goodbye to your childhood, I guess. Maybe. No. Just, I love you, and I'm here. That's all I got.
GROSS: I think what we're hearing the background there is the breakfast that he's cooking (laughter) - or dinner.
C.K.: Yeah, bacon.
GROSS: The bacon, yeah - sizzling in the background.
C.K.: The soundtrack to my whole life is bacon sizzling.
GROSS: (Laughter) So I love it when you say to her, that's all I got. There's just something so honest about it, and you know - you know in that episode, from experience, that the lectures aren't going to be that helpful. I mean, your therapist was helpful, but your parents getting angry at you. So can you just talk through, like, what's gone through your mind now that your daughters - or one of them is becoming a teenager? What's going through your mind about how to talk to your children about stuff like that 'cause they must know that you did drugs or, at the very least, that, you know, you smoked marijuana when you were young.
C.K.: Yeah, well, you know, it's interesting. That therapist in real life and in the scene in the show, he was able to give me some, like, a bit of a grounding, but he wasn't my parent, you know? I don't know that I would have heard that the same coming from my mom. I don't think my mom could have said that. You know, the mother depicted in the show was just - she just didn't know what the hell to do. She just didn't have a move to make that would help anything.
GROSS: And she was really offended. She was hurt that...
C.K.: Of course she was.
GROSS: ...Her son was, like, rejecting her and disconnecting. But, anyways, I didn't mean to interrupt you.
C.K.: Yeah, because, finally, it's like when your kids are going through something, you know, you engage and try to help them. But when they finally don't even look at you with any love, where do you go from there? And also, it's - the stakes are too high for a parent to really know how to handle it, I think, to really be able to do what that therapist did, which was kind of, in some ways, smugly say, you know what? This is just part of life. You're going to do some drugs. You're fine. What parent can say that to their kids? It's too scary for your kids to be putting this - I mean, you know, my mom never knew, and probably won't until she hears this interview, how badly I hurt myself with those drugs. It's only dawning on me now even describing it to you what kind of psychic damage I did to myself. And the idea of my kids taking those kind of drugs is - you know, I mean, pot is one thing. It has a more benign way to chip away at will or your, you know, your - I don't know. I think it does a lot of things that people aren't realizing. But acid, I mean - holy moly. And there's - kids will always do something that's really scary that you don't know what it is.
But, anyway, in that moment in the kitchen in that scene, I, you know, I haven't had that with my kids yet. And I - it was an interesting exercise to me when I wrote those - that story. There's this parallel that I'm remembering what happened with me when I was a kid and what it felt like to go down that road. And I'm remembering what my mom was like and how it was for her in my memory and also in hers, since I've talked to her about it since then. And then, parallel, I'm watching my kid start down that road, and I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do about it. And so, after that therapist said that whole thing to me, not only that, look I'm not a bad kid, but also that part of this is because my parents were divorced. Well, I'm divorced. And in the show I'm divorced. So here I'm looking at my daughter and I'm like, well, what do I say to you now? Because I don't know everything you're going through. And, also, I'm part of it. I'm part of what happened to you. You know, your mom and I divorced, and that took a toll on you that I don't - I'm probably in some denial of, you're probably in some denial of, like the kid was in the episode.
That's from real life, that this therapist said to me, your parents got divorced, and it hurt you. And I said, that's just not true. I don't care that my parents divorced. I don't feel anything about it. And he surprised me by saying, so I guess the drugs are working then 'cause you erased that pain. So everybody's going to have to do - everybody has to do that to some degree.
But so here I am in the episode - I'm like, I don't have the authority or the high ground or the understanding to really have something great to say to my kid about this. All I can say is, hey, I'm here. I am your dad, and we have a lot of history - your whole life. And I love you and I'm here. That's all you can really be for your kids is present. And I think, in the end, that's the best thing you can do for your kids when they come to you with real problems, is try to understood how they feel, and try to give them a place to say how they feel so that they can sort it out. And give them what you can about your past, you know?
I think to tell them that the world is this place where you're supposed to act perfectly and to represent that you did is a huge disservice to your kids, you know? So, yeah, my kids know that I did drugs. They know that I've struggled with that kind of thing. I think it's important to share your mistakes with your kids and - because you get knowledge from your mistakes and wisdom from it. If you can't pass that on, what good are you? To give your kids an impossible bar to reach that you didn't reach and to say, oh, yeah, I never did any of that and neither should you, you're just making it impossible. But if you can say, yeah, listen, I did it. It really screwed me up. I don't recommend it. Tell me what's going on in your life that's leading you to get there.
You know, my daughter is 13. My other one is 10. We haven't confronted this. But the only way I've tried to get ahead of any - any of that kind of scary thing is to just try to be there for her and also be humble about her life. I don't know everything that she's going through. I don't. I don't know what it's like to be a teenager today. And I barely know what it's like to be an adult today. I'm a little lost myself. So I try to be a little more stable than her and try to be there for her as her pal and protect her. Yeah, I don't know what else.
GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck with that.
C.K.: Thanks. Yeah.
GROSS: Louis C.K., thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR again. And I am so grateful for your comedy, for your stage performances and for your series. So thank you so much. And I'm glad you're going to continue to do "Louie" because it's a great series. Thank you.
C.K.: Thank you, Terry. That means a lot to me. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Louis C.K.'s FX series, "Louie," continues its fifth season Thursday night. His latest comedy special will be shown on FX May 28 and is now available as a download on his website. And he'll host of the season finale of "Saturday Night Live" May 16. There's a chapter of the interview we didn't have time for in the broadcast, but you can hear it as an extra on the podcast version of today's show, which is available on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on our show, I'll talk with Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, two of the three women who were kidnapped as teenagers and held for 10 years by Ariel Castro in his house in Cleveland. They were chained and repeatedly raped. Amanda has a daughter fathered by Castro. We'll also talk with journalist Mary Jordan, who co-authored a new book about their ordeal and escape. Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.