Louie writer-director-star Louis C.K. recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the show’s second season, episode by episode. This section of his interview covers episodes four through six, beginning with “Joan” and concluding with “Subway/Pamela.” Part one posted yesterday.
Louis C.K.: Yes. “Joan” was totally inspired by seeing [Rivers’] movie A Piece Of Work on a hotel room pay-per-view movie thing. I’ve loved Joan Rivers since I was a kid. I saw Joan Rivers on 60 Minutes back when I was young, and I remember how hard she worked. And I always just liked her. She always made me laugh. And her hard work, I would always be inspired by. And when I saw that movie, it was moving to me. I was so into her, and it was the most full connection to me. Because working hard in comedy and getting through tough years, that meant a lot to me. And hearing her say it. The thing that kept getting me in the movie was that every hard thing that happened to her, like her husband killing himself, and all of the losses she suffered, when she would describe them, she would say, “That was really difficult.” She never said, “That killed me.” The kind of things that people say. “I was overcome by that. That was too much.” She would just say, “That was difficult.” And Jesus, I felt so much compassion for her, and I admired her. And so as I was watching the movie, I thought “If she were in front of me, I would want to kiss her on the mouth.” And I realized, “Well, this is a great story.” I had to take myself back to before I knew what I know now. Because I’m smarter in real life than I am in that episode. But I have been that dumb.
I gotta give Joan a lot of credit, because I wrote the episode, sent it to her, and she was delighted to do it, but I was told she wanted to speak to me on the phone. So I get on the phone with her, and she said, “Can we go through this script? Because I come off like a real asshole. I’m really boring, and I’m really preachy.” And my heart fell, and I thought, “I’m not gonna rewrite fuckin’ Joan Rivers.” But she started to go through it, and she made a lot of sense, and she also started making me laugh. She was the one who said the whole thing about—I mean, I wrote the thing about, “Don’t you know his name?”—but she wrote, “You gotta know the names on the way up so they catch you on the way down.” All that stuff. “Get a plastic-lined purse. Steal the food from the cafeteria.” That’s all her. We did some of it together, because I played in Atlantic City too, and I’ve been there, to the cafeteria.
It’s amazing that she remembers it still. So we arrived at some good jokes for her. I wrote some stuff that she liked, like, “Betty White’s dusting off her old tits.” So yeah, it was just always on the horizon, “We’re gonna shoot this thing with Joan Rivers.” And we found a hotel in Manhattan that looked like an Atlantic City hotel for her scenes. And before we shot her scenes with me, we went to Atlantic City where she was playing, and it just seemed right to shoot the performance. And goddamn, was she good. I mean, I couldn’t believe that she marched around on that stage and did her jokes. She had so much energy. So it just worked perfectly. And then we got this terrific actor, this guy Jack [O’Connell], who played the club owner. He was so fuckin’ real. That’s just what I wanted! I wanted a guy who seemed like maybe we really got a casino manager, and got him to talk.
The A.V. Club: With a lot of the actors, it’s easy to think, “Where did you get that guy?” They don’t seem like actors.
AVC: Which is the mark of being a really great actor. People are like, “Wow, they really got a security guard to play that role.”
LCK: Exactly. Right. So that was a real fun one to do. And I knew while making it that some people would think it was real corny, and some people would be bigoted against Joan, and I just thought, “Fuck ’em.” I’m 43, you know? A lot of my fans are younger than me, but I’m an old-fashioned guy. I used to wish I could get on Carson some day.
AVC: You want to have a sense of history.
LCK: Yeah, exactly.
“Country Drive” (July 21, 2011)
Louie takes his daughters to visit their great-aunt in Pennsylvania and is horrified to discover she’s a hateful bigot. He also rocks out, in a hilariously extended fashion, to The Who’s “Who Are You.” The episode ends with the longest bit of stand-up in the show’s history, an extended rant about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
LCK: Well, that came out of a bit I was doing onstage about having prejudice in your family and an old lady, you go see her and she goes, “You want some nigger toes?” [It’s an old slang term for Brazil nuts. —ed.] Something I used to do onstage. And then you go, “What am I gonna do? Kick her in the stomach? Scream at her and try to make her liberal for the last 10 seconds of her life?
AVC: Take back the last 70 years of conditioning?
LCK: Yeah. That was the target for me. Have a small moment with the kids. Let’s have the kids witness this moment with the “nigger toes.” And so I wrote this thing, and then the drive there was the same thing as making dinner for the kids when the sister shows up. I wrote us on the road and just thought, “Fuck it. Let’s just let this play out as long as it may be. Maybe we’ll end up pushing the aunt into another episode, it doesn’t matter. This is worth watching.”
AVC: It seems like writing long gives you a fair amount of flexibility in terms of what you throw out and what you keep.
LCK: Yeah. Nothing has any obligation to be any length. Or to continue being in the show. So as long as it’s feeling right, I keep writing it. Any scene. So me with the girls. And then I thought, “Boy, this really is long. It’s gonna make the aunt thing terrific, because it’s gonna be such a distraction, and the audience is going to feel like what they’re being asked to do is witness a kind of vérité, sort of like Wild Strawberries. Those guys are gonna be honored, but in the end, he’s just with these weird, odd, young people, and they’re driving. So it’s just a journey. It’s just a pointless journey somewhere. And then there was all this interesting stuff to talk about. You know, being bored, and about older people. And then, the Who thing happened because I was with one of my daughters and we were going somewhere and I was parallel-parking the car somewhere in the Lower East Side and that song came on. “Who Are You.” And I just went nuts and turned it up and fucking performed the song in the car. And I look back at my daughter, and she was just staring at me. It was hilarious, because she was just not reacting. It meant nothing to her. And when I was done, I just took a breath, shut the car off and said, “Let’s go.” Neither of us made a comment. And as soon as that happened, I got out my Blackberry and I wrote an email to Blair [Breard], my producer, and I said, “Can we get ‘Who Are You’ by The Who? I wanna to play the whole song on the show. Just find out.” And Blair never says, “You’re crazy.” She just goes, “Well, we’ll find out.”
AVC: Presumably the rights to that are very expensive.
LCK: Well, everything we’ve done on the show is something that should have been too expensive to do, and we always find a way. And the method we’d hit on was: Identify as early as possible all the things we want, the things that are expensive, and start working on them now. And this was very early in the season that she went and approached whoever owns that song. It’s like Universal, or one of the big ones. MCA or somebody. I don’t know how much you know about music licensing, but you have to get the master rights for the recording. And then you have to get the rights for the song itself, which is the publishing rights. And our network has a very rigid policy about how much rights they demand that we have to our music. We can’t get a partial deal. We have to get a massive license.
So we went to MCA or whoever has it and they said, “Well, we have the master rights and Pete Townshend’s publishing company has the publishing, and it’s a favored-nations deal.” In other words, whatever we negotiated with them, we would then also have to pay Pete and the publishing. So their first offer was, I think, $150,000. [Laughs.] Because it was the whole song! So we’d have to pay $300,000 total. That’s a whole episode for us. That’s the whole budget for the entire episode. But we didn’t give up. That’s the way it worked. And either the company or someone else told Blair, “The other way to work it is to go to Pete Townshend first.” Because it’s the same in the other direction: Whatever deal he makes, they have to honor his deal, too. They have to take whatever offer he gives. They have to match it. But try to go get Pete Townshend on the phone. That’s even harder. So it just took a lot of fuckin’ time. And occasionally, we’d be on the set shooting “Blueberries” or “Moving” or whatever it is, and I say to Blair, “How’s it going with The Who?” and she’d either say, “Dead” or, “I just talked to a guy today” or, “A guy I talked to today is looking into something.” And it went on and on. And finally, she said, “Well, Pete Townshend wants to know exactly how it’s being used, and he wants to see the show. He wants to see some episodes.” So I wrote him a synopsis of how it would be. I described it very carefully, and we sent him the DVD of five episodes from last season. And then, I don’t know, three or four months later, it felt like, he came back to us and said, “Can you send me 7,500 bucks?” [Laughs.] Yeah! And so the whole thing cost $15,000, which is fucking nothing!
AVC: Especially considering how prominently it’s featured.
LCK: Oh yeah!
AVC: I can’t remember a song being used as extensively or as memorably, for that matter, on a television show.
LCK: Exactly. So I had to learn the lyrics. That was a hard shoot with the girls. It’s not easy to shoot with children. I probably have the two best kid actors in the world, but it’s a challenge. And the aunt, we shot that in a very cold house that had no heat, that somebody had died in. It was brutal.
AVC: It looks like a house that somebody had died in.
LCK: Yeah, that’s what it was. An old guy had died in it, and I think he lay dead in it for a long, long time, and then his kids were liquidating it, and somebody in our camp said, “Hey, can we shoot in it before you demolish it?” That’s sort of what happened. It was horrible. Then we got that terrific Eunice [Anderson, who played the great-aunt]. She was so fucking good. I knew I had this ending where she just fucking dies, but to me it was the only way to end that, because to me, the compelling part of the story was everything up until me telling the girls, “Yes, you may talk to her about this.” And then actually watching them talk to her? Yuck. What are you going to fucking do? It’s the way it is. And I wasn’t sure I was going to end with her dying until I actually saw her lying on that rug, and I was standing above her, and I was just, “I like that.” I figured we’d just go to standup. The other thing about that episode to me was, what I knew I was going to do all along was close it with an uncharacteristically long bit of standup. The entire third act of the show, this standup about Huck Finn. It’s the only episode where I’ve done that, where the standup isn’t used as a condiment, it’s like a major part of the episode.
“Subway/Pamela” (July 28, 2011)
Louie has a surreal experience in a subway. Later, he’s rejected after professing his love for friend Pamela Adlon.
LCK: Yeah, “Subway” was another where we worked way ahead of time to try to get the rights to shoot the subway, because that’s really expensive.
AVC: Did you have to call Pete Townshend for that one as well?
LCK: [Laughs.] The MTA put us through a lot, but they gave us what we wanted. There’s a scene from that missing that I really wish I could have done, and it’s what I wanted most of all. The whole subway episode was supposed to be an entire episode of me observing and not talking to anybody. I wanted to do a whole episode that just shows me scratching in my notebook and looking at people, and seeing things happen. And there was going to be one piece in the subway episode where I see a guy with a briefcase waiting for the train, and the train’s just starting to rumble toward us in the distance. He has this ice cream that he’s eating, and a napkin that he has floats down onto the tracks, and he was going to get in the tracks to get his napkin and then get out. Not putting himself so much in danger, but something that completely would give you a heart attack if you saw somebody do it. And we were going to shoot that, but the MTA wanted $50,000 for that one shot, because they said that he would have to spend a month in track school. [Laughs.] And that they’d have to shut off the third rail for a bunch of the city, and I don’t know. There was no way I was going to spend that money. But anyway, we actually shot two other scenes that belong to the subway episode that just didn’t work. I just failed with the two scenes.
AVC: How so?
LCK: The first one was a very visual gag, and it just died. I couldn’t make it work. It was brutal. There was a lot of work, too. I’m walking down the street and there’s these women standing in front of a storefront window with their noses almost touching the window. This is something I saw in New York once. Then I sort of looked at the whole picture, widened out my perspective, and realized that it was a nail salon. That they were in the dryers, and the dryers were just butted up against the window. It was really awkward, because I was standing with my face two inches from her face and she couldn’t move, and she looked really pissed off, the woman. And it’s almost like a Jacques Tati moment or something. I tried to make it work, and we had to fucking move these dryers, and we had a carpenter building shit for us at 2 in the morning, it was so horrible. My crew really kicked ass trying to make it work, and it just didn’t work.
Then there was a whole scene of me being in this restaurant, and it’ll probably be on the DVD extras. The whole episode was supposed to end with me being in this restaurant, and there’s a table full of guys that are kind of mobsterish, and they see me writing in my notebook, so they start harassing me. I won’t say anything more on that, because it will eventually be out somewhere being watched by somebody. But it also didn’t flow well with the subway. Less the fact that these scenes didn’t work than the fact that the subway sequence was perfect. To narrow it down to these few moments. The violin player, I came up with because a woman played violin at my daughter’s school concert, and I almost cried just from hearing the music, so I kind of dreamt up that sequence. And the Coke on the seat was a real fantasy I had in my head once. I was on the train and I saw this horrible spill, and how disturbed people were, and in my head, I pictured taking my shirt off and cleaning it and making everybody intensely happy.
Then we had that terrific cello music. The music is a really big deal to me, too. The cello player, whose name I wish I knew right now, is really wonderful. He just improvised these loops for me. We used a few last year, and this year, he made us really gorgeous ones, including the one in “Subway.” And we had that great violin kid. That kid is like a Czechoslovakian or something, and he’s a model, and he’s a violin player, and he was just amazing.
AVC: That man is too good-looking.
LCK: He’s gorgeous. He’s gorgeous.
AVC: And then the other half of the episode would be “Pamela.”
LCK: I knew from the beginning of the season what I wanted the arc of Pamela’s character to be. I knew I wanted her first to be in the “Moving” episode, and then to have this episode where I connect with her. And try to jump on it and make something happen, and it so doesn’t. Then the last one. But the second one, I really loved, because some funny, funny shit happens, and I love shooting with Pamela, she just makes me laugh.
And I think we have a good rapport. I saw that piano guy somewhere, threw him in. I think we were going to shoot it in a park, and all these parks said, “Fuck you” to us; it was really hard. Then I came up with the idea of a flea market, because it’s such a New York-y thing. So we created that flea market. Amy Silver, our production designer, went to a bunch of flea markets and just got vendors to bring their tables and set them up. I wanted this guy to be able to love somebody on the show, but I didn’t want him to succeed at it. To me, I think that when a person loves, that’s a big part of a person, to feel love for somebody else. I can’t have him fall in love and have somebody love him back, that’s a mess. But how beautiful, because I could fucking write a poem to this woman, and just show that much heart and love, and have it completely dashed on the rocks in the most depressing way. That’s money. That’s good shit. So that was easy to write.
AVC: Were you worried too much about falling into the “will they/won’t they” paradigm?
LCK: I guess that I don’t care. If I were really compelled to make a really conventional show, just rife with conventions, I would do it. I don’t feel like I owe it to anybody to avoid anything, any more than I owe it to anybody to do anything on this show. There’s nothing. We don’t have any obligation, any characters that we have to service. But if I feel like having somebody around for two seasons and having a playful love dance with them, just don’t watch those episodes. To me, it’s worth it. I think a lot of people covet somebody, they have somebody who’s like, “Boy, that’s the one.”