A funny thing happened on the way to Oz

Louis C. K. in <i>Louie</i>: 'I am still alone. But I am better at being alone than the guy in the show.'
Louis C. K. in Louie: 'I am still alone. But I am better at being alone than the guy in the show.'

WHEN Louis Szekely visited Melbourne 18 months ago, a couple of things happened. First, he experienced the confronting intensity of the Los Angeles-to-Melbourne airline departure gate. Nobody should attempt to get between anxious, impatient Australians and the boarding gate to their plane home.

Second, and for the first time in a long time, Szekely - who is best known as Louis C.K. and who we'll simply call Louis - showed up at a small comedy club in the city and played a short set in complete anonymity. Here was one of the funniest and most celebrated comedians in the world, and nobody knew who he was.

Both experiences clearly left an impression on him.

Louis is not only among the world's finest stand-ups, he is the creator, director, writer and star of perhaps the most original show on television, Louie. He is a genuine trailblazer - both in the way he distributes his comedy and the things he says on stage.

Louis is the comedy nerd's No. 1 crush - the guy who can sell out two shows at Melbourne's Athenaeum Theatre in a matter of minutes but walk Melbourne's streets, as he did for an entire day recently, and not be recognised once.

Louis has seemingly worked it all out. By insisting on maintaining creative control in everything he does, he retains his credibility and preserves the edge and darkness intrinsic to his material. Most remarkably, he does all of this and makes a very good living.

In conversation Louis is polite and amiable, but firm and opinionated when pressed on a point. He diplomatically absorbs each question, but is hardly reticent in arguing about something he does not assent to. He is economical with his words. There is little time for small talk, and certainly no dead air. This only adds potency and substance to what he says.

Returning to the subject of his first Australian tour, Louis says he arrived unsure of what to expect.

''I loved it,'' he says. ''I made an effort to get as wide-ranging an experience as I could. In Melbourne I did the Athenaeum, and snuck out and did a show at a little comedy club.

''Nobody in that audience had any idea who I was, which was refreshing. It had been a while since I had that experience. I did the same thing in Sydney. I got a sense of what the clubs are like.''

When asked to recall his experience at Los Angeles airport, boarding his first flight to Australia, he begins to chuckle.

''I remember that very well,'' he says. ''Usually an airline gate is a uniform experience, especially in the US. It feels the same everywhere. But the guy at the gate in LA reminded me of the crew hand on the Titanic trying to keep the panicking people off the lifeboats. It was really nuts. But I felt a familiarity in Australia. People feel very candid.''

Louis' comedy, as evidenced by his television series - which Foxtel plans to rerun on its Comedy Channel next month - is both obtuse and pointed. He draws huge laughs from what on paper may seem almost shocking subjects - if you haven't seen it, search Louis C.K. and ''bag of dicks'' on YouTube - without making the audience feel depraved for laughing at the material.

It's a balancing act few can master. For instance, Louis' frequent, candid musings on the challenges of being a single parent - in one scene he gives the bird to his two young daughters, behind their backs - seems caustic but is also hilarious.

Still, it's clear during our chat the social dysfunction exhibited in the show is not entirely accurate.

''My desire is to be really curious,'' he says. ''I don't talk to people much, but I like to observe.

''Usually on tour I'm only in a city for one night, so sometimes I'm not able to. I was kind of anonymous in Australia. I tend to get recognised in the US a lot, so I can't observe things like I used to. But the great thing about Melbourne was I could walk the entire city and I was left alone. One day there, I walked from 11am to 8pm. It was great.''

Louie began airing in the US on the cable network FX in 2010. Early on, many of the stories in the popular comedy series - which is based on a comedian who, much the same as Louis, is raising two young daughters in Lower Manhattan while trying to further his career as a stand-up performer - was improvised.

''The show has evolved a lot,'' he says. ''Sometimes I try to remember where it came from and try to stick with the DNA, if possible. I think I've got better at putting the show together. The stories have become more written than they used to be. I'm more interested in writing dialogue, which has changed a lot.''

In the end, the series has emerged as a sort of a more warped version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the show by Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. Indeed, there is a similarity to Seinfeld in that the show is interspersed with Louis performing live stand-up.

But as opposed to Seinfeld's sitcom set-up, each episode of Louie feels like a lovingly shot short film.

Famously, the show's pilot did not test well with market-research audiences. Rather than take notes from the network, Louis insisted on retaining creative control for the series and resisted the changes suggested by the test audiences. For the privilege, the network insisted he reduce his fee for the first season.

''I saw it as a great opportunity to use every skill I've ever acquired,'' he says. ''So as a filmmaker, comedian, actor, writer, I felt like if I could do them all in one place, it would be a great thing. And I could get maximum benefit of what I know.

''I never cared how the show tested. I was making a good living as a stand-up, so if the show happened, good. If not, I didn't really care. That gave me the freedom to do the show really purely creatively. Usually you have a lot of pressure to try to get on the air, and that guides your decisions. I was just able to tell the story.''

This has allowed Louis to do things like shoot a scene where he appears on Fox News in a debate defending his right to masturbate, among other things. There are no rules about structure or narrative - in the same episode, the show can be surreal or shockingly raw.

Another important part of Louie is the music. A jazz soundtrack often frames the show's big scenes.

''The music is a big deal to me,'' Louis says.

''All of it is original. I go into the music studio about 10 times a season and work with the musicians. It's all stuff I put together myself with these guys. We try to be eclectic with what we use, but it always seems like the jazz feels right for the show.''

It's no surprise that Louis is a big fan of another jazz aficionado, Woody Allen. During season three of Louie, he relinquished some of the editing duties on the show for the first time. He did this by employing an editor who often works with Allen.

''I grew up loving Woody's work,'' Louis says. ''It was always an inspiration.''

Much to his own amusement, Louis recently spent four days working with Allen on his new film.

''That was a huge thrill,'' he says, almost earnestly.

As somebody who runs his own show, he found it cathartic to step back a little.

''It's a huge relief to give in to someone else's thing sometimes,'' Louis says. ''I can only hope to please Woody. It's a luxury to just have to show up and act when they tell you to. It was fun to look at the camera and think, 'That's somebody else's problem.' I just tried to be funny and execute Woody's story.''

Louis sits down at the beginning of each season and writes all the show's episodes, one after the other, over about a month. Some follow a narrative, others, like a recent episode set in Miami, come from elsewhere.

''That was originally a movie I was going to write but I never got around to it. So it was a 20-minute compression of what was supposed to be a feature film. And any time you compress something, it gets better, usually.''

There were some clear trends in season three. For one, Louis was dating frequently and looking for love. One of the season's highlights was a minor part from indie-actor Parker Posey, who played an eccentric bookshop staffer he dated.

He has said the Louis in Louie is about five years behind the real-life version. Is this still the case?

''I definitely had those dating stories in mind,'' he says. ''I'd been in a relationship for a couple of years prior to season three, and then I was single again writing this, so it reflected a bit of what's going on in my life. I just write the stories and sometimes they start to link up. The fact is, what I am feeling will usually bleed into each episode without me intending that specifically.''

In Louie, he says, the real person and the TV show character can be interchangeable.

''His career in the show is behind where I am,'' he says.

''I have progressed in a lot of ways. I am still alone. But I am better at being alone than the guy in the show. Season four will tell more of where I am.''

Where that will be is hard to say. Louis recently announced there would be no new episodes of Louie airing in 2013. Season four will arrive in 2014.

''One of the reasons I took this year off was to not only get a break, but to take more time to prepare for the fourth season,'' Louis says, when pressed. ''I usually start shooting in January and go on air in June. This time I will go on the air in May 2014, but I will start shooting in September. I should get more time to execute the show. I wanted to put some air into it. It was just getting too hard. There's too much to do in too little time. I wasn't surviving it. For the show to get better and to get a sense I'm doing things that are good, rather than just trying to finish, I took the year off.''

Famously, each year Louis builds up his stand-up show, records a show that is sold online or to a network such as HBO, and then tosses out the whole thing and starts again.

Jerry Seinfeld, a friend of his, recently said the way Louis works made him uncomfortable. He wants to put out his best work, but says he doesn't have the discipline to do what Louis does.

Does Louis feel that tossing out the material - he is performing an HBO special later this month, after which he will again start from scratch when he hits the road - is liberating, or does it put him under pressure?

''I really like starting with a clean slate,'' he says. ''Frequency of act turnover is different for everybody. Seinfeld does what he does, I do this - it's whatever works. My goal isn't for everybody to see a different show every year, my goal is to have the material as good as possible. And for me, this makes my material better.''

There was one episode of Louie that perhaps most encapsulates the closeness between the man and his on-air alter ego. During the episode, he returns to the suburb he grew up in near Boston, with the aim of visiting his father, to whom he hasn't spoken for many years. He arrives at his father's doorstep but loses his nerve and runs to a nearby jetty, where he hires a boat and drives it so far out from shore it runs out of petrol. When he realises the situation, a huge smile creeps across his face.

''That was really fun to shoot,'' he says. ''The story was an amalgam of going home and about family and how different people can make you feel. I shot it all very close to where I grew up. The thing is, I used to get in trouble when I was younger, and now here I am and I have the police department cordoning off streets for me and helping me shoot my show. That was a great experience.''

Louie season three will screen again on Foxtel's Comedy Channel in March.

This story A funny thing happened on the way to Oz first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.