How ‘Louie’ got a shorter season because Louis C.K. got high

Senior Television Writer
05.28.15 27 Comments

The network TV season ended last week, which means we’re diving deep into Emmy campaigning season. The official Emmy ballot gets sent to TV Academy members in early June, and in the meantime, networks and studios are doing their best to put on good faces for potential voters, sometimes with elaborate screener packages, sometimes with For Your Consideration panels featuring the creators and stars of their shows.

Last week, I moderated one of those for “Transparent,” and last night, I got to do the same for “Louie,” sitting down for a conversation with Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon after the audience got to watch this season’s “Bobby’s House” and the nightmare-fueled “Untitled.” While some of these panels are recorded and later made available to the public (I believe that’s the plan with the “Transparent” one), FX didn’t film this. But it was memorable enough – particularly since C.K. doesn’t do a lot of interviews about the show – that I wanted to present a few highlights, as best I can remember them. (I would guess that even the few quotes I use aren’t entirely exact.) We talked a lot about both episodes, about this season as a whole, and the larger process of making “Louie,” so I thought I would bounce around a little, starting with the night’s most candid anecdote.

(The fifth season finale of “Louie” airs tonight at 10:30 on FX; I’ll likely have a review tomorrow morning.)

* How did C.K. wind up doing only 8 episodes this season? Well, originally, he wanted to delay season 5 so he could film it in the fall, since shooting previous seasons in winter – particularly the recent crippling New York winters – was wearing him down. Then, the night before FX chief John Landgraf was going to announce the delay, C.K. smoked a lot of marijuana, felt a burst of inspiration for stories he wanted to tell this season, and wrote pages and pages on his computer, breaking out all of what he felt would be an amazing season. He called Landgraf and asked if he could produce on the original schedule; a frustrated Landgraf told him they had already allocated most of his budget to other shows, and the best they could do was a half-season. So C.K. agreed, Landgraf announced that, and in the sober light of day, C.K. finally read what he had written… and it was gibberish. He didn’t use a single idea or joke from it in making season 5. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or, at least, don’t make big decisions while high.

* Because C.K directs every episode, a season isn’t filmed one episode at a time, but in the same manner a feature film is made: lots of scenes at the same location, then the next, everything when certain guest stars are available, etc. That also gives him freedom to play with the structure of stories, moving certain ideas around from one episode to another, or expanding how long it would take to tell a story. Last year’s “Elevator,” for instance, wasn’t designed to fill six episodes, but he liked what he was filming and it eventually took up almost half the season. (When I noted that the six episodes combined, minus commercials, come out to the length of a feature film, C.K. joked that he wouldn’t necessarily pay money to see that movie in a theater.)

* “Elevator” guest star Ellen Burstyn was in the audience, and when we opened it up to questions from the crowd, she asked, “When are you going to bring me back?” C.K. suggested that he could still do that, since her character lives in the building. When she pointed out that she had moved back to Hungary with her daughter, C.K. threw up his hands and said he wasn’t going to go film an episode in Hungary.

* He liked doing a bunch of longer stories last year (which also included a three-parter, as well as the hour-long “In the Woods” flashback episode), and even though he felt the season was uneven, he liked that there were more highs to go along with some of the lows. Still, he enjoyed taking a more back-to-basics approach to this season’s episodes, because he liked being able to tell more stories and bring in more characters and actors along the way.

* How many tries did it take before C.K. settled on the drag name “Jornetha” for the gender swap role play scene from “Bobby’s House”? “Just the one,” he said, explaining that he had been trying out a Scarlett O’Hara type character in his stand-up act and wanted to use it on the show. When I pointed out that Parker Posey’s character had also dressed Louie up like a woman, he admitted that he forgot about that until after this season was finished, but apparently he likes writing stories where women get him into drag. While some of the show is autobiographical, he said ideas like that are fun to try precisely because they’ve never happened to him. (Though Adlon got a shared story credit on that episode, she wanted to make very clear that the role play plot was 100 percent CK’s.)

* Also not entirely autobiographical: Louie in this season’s second episode having a bathroom emergency while out buying groceries with the girls. C.K. explained that in real life, he’s always potentially “45 minutes away from diarrhea,” so he tries to be aware of bathroom access, but he has occasionally cut it close.

* The nightmare man from “Untitled” comes from one of C.K.’s earliest memories, of a nightmare he first had when he was 7 years old. They auditioned a bunch of contortionists and other performers who might move weird, and the show’s makeup artist – who usually has very little to do given that, other than in “Bobby’s House,” Louie himself is usually not made up – went to town on making the contortionist they hired match C.K.’s nightmare. C.K. liked the idea of doing a nightmare episode because it would be the one chance in his career to really scare the audience. Even in horror movies, he argued, you go in knowing that you will be scared, whereas nobody would expect that from a sitcom about a divorced comedian.

* Given that C.K. is not only starring in virtually every scene of every episode, that he’s also directing and writing and editing the shows, and that seasons get filmed out of sequence – sometimes working on scenes from 5 or 6 episodes in the same day – how does he keep track of what he and/or Louie are up to at any given moment? He gave credit to other producers (like Blair Breard, who was in the audience), but admitted that when he’s acting in scenes, he’s often distracted with thoughts of other tasks he has that day. He does his best to be present for his co-stars, but it isn’t always easy. Adlon said that when she’s acting opposite him, or just on set in her function as a producer, she’ll sometimes have to step in and tell him to focus more on the next take.

* With Adlon on the stage, and with the audience just having watched “Bobby’s Place,” the subject of Louie and Pamela’s relationship came up a lot. I noted how well the two get along in real life, and contrasted that with how toxic their fictional relationship is. “I wouldn’t call it toxic!” Adlon insisted, and when we got to talking about Pamela dumping Louie mere moments after their very fraught gender-reversed sex, she argued that this was Pamela being nice to Louie, and keeping him from getting in too deep in a relationship where he wouldn’t be happy. C.K. said he didn’t think much about trying to keep the relationship in balance – and tries to never judge the actions of either character – though he likes that both of them exist as people with their own agendas, so Pamela isn’t just The Girlfriend.

* Along similar lines, he recalled choosing Adlon to play his wife on HBO’s “Lucky Louie” over the runner-up, Lolita Davidovich. He had nothing but praise for Davidovich, and said that when he read with both her and Adlon for HBO boss Chris Albrecht, he and Davidovich sparked and got along very well, while he and Adlon played the scene like they couldn’t stand each other. Afterwards, Albrecht said that C.K. clearly had chemistry with Davidovich and none at all with Adlon; C.K. countered that he had seen the kind of relationship he and Davidovich were playing on a million other shows, and he liked the idea of portraying something different, where the spouses don’t always get along or know how to communicate with each other.

* Adlon, as you might expect, enjoys making fun of her longtime collaborator, and at one point told a story about filming a scene in a motel room that was “basically one giant cum stain,” and being horrified when C.K. put his craft services sandwich on the bedspread without a plate or napkin or anything else in between. In disgust, she asked if he was just going to wipe the sandwich all over the bedspread before eating it, which he did. And how, I asked, did the sandwich taste? “Good,” he said. “You can’t taste germs.”

* An audience member asked about switching back and forth between the two elderly actresses playing Jack Dahl’s secretary in season 3’s “Late Show” arc, and wondered if he was just trying to “f–k with us.” C.K. insisted that he never tries to f–k with the audience, but that they had two different actresses come in, and he ultimately liked both so much that he decided to use them both. At one point, he hoped to alternate between them from one line to the next, but that edit was terrible.

* Robert Smigel got a story credit on this season’s “Cop Story” because an incident like that really happened to him, down to the cop crying in his apartment while Smigel went out, found the missing gun and carried it home, terrified that anyone would notice. Michael Rapaport’s character wasn’t based on the guy Smigel knew, however, since all Smigel ever told C.K. about was the gun itself.

* Most of C.K.’s nightmares in some way involve something terrible happening to his penis (he left it to the audience to psychoanalyze what that says about him), so he knew in “Untitled” that he would have to depict that. But it took a long time to find a depiction that would both fly with FX standards and practices and seem at least slightly funny, rather than simply horrifying. That’s why he dismissed one approach that looked “like a stump,” or like there was simply nothing there, and settled on what they dubbed “the pinwheel penis.”

* C.K. has lots of ideas for stories each season, and sometimes takes a while to realize which stories belong together in which episode. The two scenes with Louie’s brother in “Bobby’s House” were originally meant for a different episode, but he decided that he liked the idea of Louie’s ordeal with the women in his life finally giving Bobby something to laugh about. And Louie getting beaten up was originally meant to be a more even fight between him and the woman at the bus stop, who was played by an actual boxer; filming it, he realized he had no business holding his own in a fight with her, and instead let it play out as a total beatdown. Also, he told the actress, over her protests, to actually hit him in the head, rather than stage punches, because it would play funnier that way.

* Jane’s panicked discussion of her feelings with Dr. Bigelow at the start of “Untitled” was inspired by a brainstorm C.K. had before the season: “Jane becomes pure energy.” But he decided he couldn’t do it – in part because he didn’t want to lose Ursula Parker from the show – so he had her just describe that feeling to Bigelow. Though he also said he could imagine Parker herself turning into pure energy. (Speaking of which, here’s a little dance break for you.)

* I sat next to the actors as the episodes screened, and when “Untitled” came to the end with its disturbing but catchy song about diarrhea, Adlon began singing along in as chipper a voice as I’ve ever heard from her. And while I can’t give you that particular earworm, I invite you to listen to the version from the show. You’re welcome.

Back tomorrow to discuss the finale.

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