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Louis C.K. On Life, Loss, Love, And 'Louie'

The comedian's latest special, Live at the Beacon Theater, was released in Early December. C.K. talks about why he went with Web distribution this time, and reflects on his award-winning TV series, his relationship with other comedians and his USO appearances.


Other segments from the episode on January 2, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 2, 2012: Interview with Seth MacFarlane; Interview with Louis C.K.


January 2nd, 2012

Seth MacFarlane -- Louis C.K.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. Today we're concluding our series of favorite entertainment and pop culture interviews of 2011. Later we'll hear from comic Louis C.K. First, we have Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated comedy series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." He does a lot of voices for the series, like Peter, the father on "Family Guy."


SETH MACFARLANE: (As Peter Griffin) How about you all sit there quietly while I make dad noises? Ahem. (Makes noises)

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane not only does voices on his shows, he often sings in those voices. But in 2011, he released an album on which he sings in his own voice. It's called "Music is Better than Words," and it features that MacFarlane loves from the American popular songbook, including several he's trying to rescue from obscurity, like this one called "It's Anybody's Spring."

It was written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, who wrote a lot of songs for Sinatra. This song was written for the 1946 film "Road to Utopia," in which it was sung by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Here's Seth MacFarlane.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) You think that money is everything, and yet it's anybody's spring. Go make a fortune, become a king, and still it's anybody's spring. And if you flash a bankroll, do you suppose a brook would care, or that a rose would say there goes a millionaire?

(Singing) It's more than diamonds around a ring because it's anybody's spring. You may be born with a silver spoon, and yet it's anybody's moon. You couldn't buy a ticket to hear the first robin sing. It's free because it's anybody's spring.

GROSS: So that's Seth MacFarlane, the creator of "Family Guy" and "American Dad," and this is from his new CD, "Music is Better Than Words." So it's amazing to hear you singing without irony. Like, you're not singing as Stewie...


GROSS: You're not singing as a cartoon character. There's no quotes around what you're doing. You're just...


GROSS: You're singing your heart out, and it sounds really good. Tell me if I've got this right, that you took vocal lessons with two people who had been Sinatra's vocal coaches.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, they had trained - God, they trained everybody under the sun. They trained Streisand at one point. Lee and Sally Sweetland, who were both in their 90s when I met up with them about 10 years ago in L.A. And Lee passed away last year.

His wife Sally actually just turned 100 a few days ago. And their son Steve has kind of taken over the business, and that family has been invaluable as far - I mean, they really drill you. They teach you the old-style way of singing, with no - you know, back when you had no electronic help. You've just got to go in and be able to do it.

GROSS: So what did you learn from them that you otherwise might now have known?

MACFARLANE: God, there are many, many things. The thing that comes to mind most of all, is show your teeth. And, you know, if you look at old photos of Sinatra while he's singing, there's a lot - you know, a lot of very exposed teeth. And that was something that Lee Sweetland just hit on, day in and day out, and correctly so because it just brightens the whole performance. It's basically moving your lips out of the way to let the sound come out.

GROSS: Were you in musicals when you were in high school?

MACFARLANE: Well, when I was a - I started young. When I was about nine years old, I was in "The Sorceror," the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And then when I got into high school - gosh, what - "Anything Goes" I remember, "Little Shop of Horrors," "Carousel," so a real wide variety of shows.

GROSS: So when you were young, were you in "The Music Man"? Because you seem to like Meredith Wilson, who wrote the score.

MACFARLANE: I was never - that's one of my big regrets, I was never in "The Music Man," and I always loved that show.

GROSS: Well, your new album gives you the opportunity to do a song from that show, and I thought we could play that one now. It's called "The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me," and you do it with a lot of pizzazz. I like this a lot. Do you want to say anything about choosing it?

MACFARLANE: You know, this is a song that, in keeping with our goal of choosing less-performed material for this record, this is a song that you don't really hear recorded in pop music. I don't know that I've ever heard - I'm sure they're out there - I have never heard of a recording of this song outside the...

GROSS: Me, neither. Unlike, say, "76 Trombones."

MACFARLANE: Right, right, right, there's a lot of recordings of that. But no, I've never heard "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" recorded, and it's such a likely candidate for, like, a really, really, you know, barn-burner of a swing tune.

GROSS: Okay, so this is Seth MacFarlane from his new album "Music is Better Than Words."


MACFARLANE: (Singing) No sweet and pure angelic lass for me. That kind of gal can spin a web, you see. She trades on wholesome innocence galore, but it's my independence that she's craving for. The only affirmative she will file refers to marching down the aisle.

(Singing) No golden, glorious, gleaming, pristine goddess, no sir. For no Diana do I play for, and I can tell you that right now. I snarl. I hiss. How can ignorance be compared to bliss? I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is. I cheer. I rave for the virtue I'm too late to save. The sadder but wiser girl for me.

(Singing) No bright-eyed, blushing, breathless baby-doll baby. No, sir, that kind of child ties knots no sailor ever knew. I prefer to take a chance on a more adult romance. No dewy young miss who keeps resisting, all the time she keeps insisting. No wide-eyed, wholesome, innocent female. Why, she's the fisherman, I'm the fish, you'll see.

(Singing) I flinch, I shy when the lass with a delicate air goes by. I smile, I grin when a gal with a touch of sin walks in. I hope, and I pray for Hester to win just more A. The sadder but wiser girl for.

GROSS: That's Seth MacFarlane from his new album "Music is Better than Words," and it's his first album singing in his own voice. He's known best as the creator of "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show," three comedy animated series.

So, you know, we've talked a little bit about choosing songs to sing on your new album. Let's talk about writing the theme for "Family Guy." This is the curtain-raiser every week. It's a big production number. There's actually, you know, top hat and cane and chorus line.

And the theme seems modeled, in part, on the "All in the Family" theme that, you know, Archie and Edith Bunker used to sit at the piano and sing, you know, waxing nostalgic about the olden days.

MACFARLANE: Right, tonally - yeah, and you actually see the, you know, Peter and Lois sitting there at the piano at the beginning. Yeah, you know, thematically, it is very much, you know, in the same vein. I think the difference is we're speaking a bit more - I think that was a very sincere opening. With "Family Guy," it's a bit more sardonic. There's a bit more irony to the tone for obvious reasons.

GROSS: Yes, in part that you're so crude, you'd hardly...


GROSS: Hardly be yearning for the olden days.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, it's like where are all those nice, friendly, happy family TV shows that we remember. Here's one.


GROSS: So was this one of your first outings writing a song?

MACFARLANE: It was, yeah, yeah. You know, I luckily had the music of Walter Murphy to work with. I mean, this is a great - just a great melody writer. He's written, you know, three themes for us, you know, "Family Guy" theme, "American Dad" them and "The Cleveland Show" theme. And the movie that I've just finished directing, "Ted," he's composed two songs for that. He's just really - his stuff is very easy to set lyrics to.

GROSS: So let's hear the "Family Guy" theme, and so this is music by Walter Murphy and lyrics by my guest Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the show.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) (Singing) It seems today, that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely? Lucky there's a family guy, lucky there's a man who positively can do all the things that make us laugh and cry. He's a family guy.

GROSS: So that's the "Family Guy" theme, the animated TV show created by my guest Seth MacFarlane.

MACFARLANE: And that was - you know, it's funny - and one of the few remaining - and it's a shame, but one of the few remaining television themes that airs every week. It's a tradition that's kind of going away, and part of that is that the networks are worried that people don't want to sit through the same thing week after week, that people are going to change the channel.

And so shows are being discouraged from writing themes. We actually had to fight pretty hard to do - to be able to do a theme because they thought no, no, no, people aren't going to want - it's going to bore people. They're going to switch away.

And I think what they don't realize is that no, this is - showmanship is showmanship. It hasn't changed in hundreds of years. It's a drum roll. It basically says hey, here comes a show. It's Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck walking out onto the stage doing, you know, "This is It." And, you know, it gets the audience psyched up.

GROSS: My guest is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." His new album of American popular song is called "Music is Better than Words." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated comedy series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." He does a lot of voices on the shows and often sings in character.

He has a new album of American popular song called "Music is Better than Words." Well, the "American Dad" theme - and "American Dad" is about a dad who's also a CIA agent - the "American Dad" theme sounds like it was inspired, in part, by "The Music Man."

MACFARLANE: You know, not consciously. I suppose, you know, any march is - or anything that has trombones and piccolos and bassoons and whatever else is probably - you know, might evoke "76 Trombones," but no, it was sort of meant to be...

GROSS: More military?

MACFARLANE: Aggressively - just an aggressively patriotic piece of music, you know, to reflect Stan Smith's point of view.

GROSS: Do you want to talk about writing it?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, I mean, that was a theme that - you know, we wanted something different than the "Family Guy" theme. The "Family Guy" theme is very much - and the "Family Guy" bumpers, which are essentially those little pieces of music that you hear every time you see the Griffins' house, the little snippets of the "Family Guy" theme, have a very distinct swing tune to them, very distinct swing tone.

And "American Dad," we wanted to give it something different, and so you hear a lot more snare drum, you hear a lot more, you know, a lot more of a - as you say, military tone. But it was really - it was supposed to be aggressively cheerful, aggressively patriotic, aggressively optimistic, like hey, everything's still fine, you know, here I am, Mr. White Guy waking up to his white-bread family, you know...


MACFARLANE: Just like, you know, Stan Smith's delusional happiness that the world has not changed around him. And, you know, that's kind of what that was supposed to evoke. So here's the "American Dad" theme, with music by Walter Murphy and lyric by Seth MacFarlane, who created that show, as well as "Family guy" and "The Cleveland Show," and here's the theme.


MACFARLANE: (As Stan Smith) (Singing) Good morning, USA. I got a feeling that it's gonna be a wonderful day. The sun in the sky has a smile on his face, and he's shining a salute to the American race. Oh boy it's swell to say...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Good morning USA, good morning USA.

GROSS: So that's the theme from the show, the animated series "American Dad," which was created by my guest Seth MacFarlane. And that's you singing, too, right?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, that's...

GROSS: And that's you singing on the "Family Guy" theme, too.

MACFARLANE: Correct. Singing in character voices is actually - people ask often, is it hard? And it's like no. It's actually a hell of a lot easier than singing straight.


MACFARLANE: Because well, you're singing in a character voice. There's - it's almost like there's a shield of sorts around it because we assume Peter Griffin probably shouldn't be able to sing all that well, so you can kind of keep it loose and you don't have to really think too much about it. It's more work to sing straight.

GROSS: Well, how about singing in Stewie's voice? Can you talk in his voice for a second?

MACFARLANE: (As Stewie) Why don't you talk in his voice? I'm sick to death of it.


MACFARLANE: (As Stewie) You draggle-tailed, blunt-head guttersnipe.

GROSS: (Laughing) Singing in his voice has to be tricky, no?

MACFARLANE: You know, again, not really because it's not like, you know, it's not like you have to maintain shades of subtly. It's Stewie. I mean, Stewie singing is essentially Rex Harrison singing in "My Fair Lady." I mean that's just...

GROSS: Well, Stewie sings better than Rex Harrison.


GROSS: Stewie has more range than Rex Harrison has.

MACFARLANE: Maybe a little bit, maybe after that Bryan Adams song. But yeah, I mean but again, it doesn't have to be as rich. It doesn't have to be quite as textured. It's a different type of character than the character that you try to put into a straight ballad or a straight swing tune.

GROSS: So let's get back to the creation of "Family Guy." What was the basic idea that the series grew out of?

MACFARLANE: Well, I mean I had been studying animation for a while, been interested in animation, and when "The Simpsons" came about, I, at the time, was really interested in becoming an animator for Disney. Disney was having sort of their renaissance in the film world with movies like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast."

And that was what I wanted to do, and then here comes "The Simpsons," that says hey, you know what? You can also do this. We're completely rewriting the rulebook with regard to what you can do on television. And I was laughing.

You know, this is something that actually was for me. It wasn't for, necessarily, for a family audience, like me as a single guy with sort of an edgier sense of humor and what I was looking for.

I was doing standup at the time and, you know, enjoying that, and enjoying working with, kind of, more risque humor, and so I decided to develop an animated idea. And, you know, I looked to my own region, in this case, where I was brought up, for character ideas.

And, you know, Peter Griffin is very, very much the quintessential big, fat, you know, loud New England guy who is very, very good at the core - big-hearted guy - but just has zero self-editing mechanism.


GROSS: Yeah.

MACFARLANE: No idea what is appropriate and inappropriate, and you kind of have to forgive him because he just doesn't know any better, and I knew so many of those guys. My father knew tons of those guys when we were living back East.

Was he one of them?

My father? No. Ironically, my father was very much, you know, very liberal, very intellectual. But a lot of his friends were, you know, more like Peter.

GROSS: OK. To illustrate your point about Peter having like...


GROSS: sense of what's appropriate, this is a scene from the hundredth episode of "Family Guy." And Peter and his wife Lois are on a cruise, and they have the privilege of sitting for dinner at the captain's table. And as this clip begins, the captain is telling this inspiring story and then Peter talks next.


MACFARLANE: (as Captain) And that was the first time I saw the Northern Lights at their peak. And as I dazed, astonished at their lustrous brilliance, I turned to my first mate and I said, we are looking into the very eyes of God.

ALEX BORSTEIN: (as Lois) What a wonderful story.

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) All right, I've got one for you. So me and Lois are driving up to Vermont to get this abortion.

BORSTEIN: (as Lois) Peter.

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) Hang on. Hang on, Lois. Don't ruin it. all right. So we're driving up to get this abortion and we get to the abortion clinic and the abortionist has one hand.

BORSTEIN: (as Lois) Peter, for god...

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) I'll tell it. I'll tell it. So I turn to Lois and I says, you want to get an abortion here? You want to get an abortion with the abortionist having a stump hand? We can't get an abortion here. So we turned around and went home and two and a half months later our daughter Meg was born.

I love that taxpayer dollars just paid for you to air that.


GROSS: That is so...

MACFARLANE: This is National Public Radio.

GROSS: That is such a funny clip.


MACFARLANE: This is why the Republicans hate us.


GROSS: This is like, if you want to get an inappropriate story, there you go.


GROSS: And, you know, I also love watching couples fight about how to tell a story and whether to tell a story.


GROSS: And that's just like the quintessential version of it.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Pretty much. It's, yeah.


GROSS: So what kind of reaction did you get to that scene?

MACFARLANE: You know, we never really know what is going to raise the ire of the more conservative members of our audience. We - I don't think we ever really got any flak from that.

GROSS: Because it's not really about whether abortion is right or wrong. It's...

MACFARLANE: Yeah. It's...

GROSS: ...just about how wildly inappropriate he is in his storytelling.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. He doesn't - he just doesn't know, I mean it's an extreme example, but it's like that, you know, from my experience back east, not that extreme.

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been fun. I really enjoyed it.

MACFARLANE: All right. Thank you.

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane created "American Dad," "Family Guy" and "The Cleveland Show." His album is called "Music Is Better Than Words." Our interview was recorded in October, when it was released. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're concluding our series of favorite entertainment and pop culture interviews from 2011 with comic Louis C.K. In 2011, GQ named him the comic genius of the year. And Time magazine named his FX series "Louie" the best TV show of the year. The description said, quote, "It's a show about everything: death, war, divorce, masturbation, parenting, unrequited love, an R-rated, painfully funny meditation on life as something ridiculous, terrible and beautiful," unquote.

Louis C.K. created the series, writes and directs it, and stars as a comic named Louie who, like C.K., is a divorced father of two young girls. Last month, he released a new stand-up comedy special, "Live at the Beacon Theater," but instead of being on HBO or Comedy Central like his previous specials, he decided to try something different: He's making this one available exclusively on his website for $5. He hopes to break even, but so far he's made over a million dollars and is giving a lot of it to charity.

Let's start with an excerpt of the special. He's talking about how his recent success has allowed him to fly first class. That means he boards first and gets to watch tired and frustrated passengers - and often soldiers - slowly board and take their less comfortable seats in coach.


LOUIS C.K.: I see soldiers fly all the time, because that's how they get to the war. You think they get to go in a cool green plane with a red light - go, go, go. No, they just go to Delta, and they just wait in line to go to a war.

And they always fly coach. I've never seen a soldier in first class in my life. It could be a full-bird colonel. He's between two fat guys in coach. And they're always nice. I've never seen a soldier get on the plane like yeah, I'm in the Army, (beep) you. I have a gun. They're always like oh, yes, sir. Thank - yes. Thank you very much, ma'am.

It's like having an extra flight attendant. They help everybody put their (beep) up. They're awesome.


C.K.: And every time that I see a soldier on a plane, I always think: You know what? I should give him my seat. It would be the right thing to do. It would be easy to do, and it would mean a lot to him. I could go up to him: Hey son - I get to call him son. Hey son, go ahead and take my seat.

Because I'm in first class - why? For being a professional (beep). This guy is giving his life for the country, he thinks, and so he has to...


C.K.: But that's good enough. That's good enough, the fact that he thinks it. I'm serious. He's told by everybody in his life system that that's a great thing to do, and he's doing it. And it's scary, but he's doing it, and he's sitting in the (beep) seat, and I should trade with him.

I never have, let me make that clear. I've never done it once. I've had so many opportunities. I never even really seriously came close.

And here's the worst part: I still just enjoy the fantasy for myself to enjoy. I was actually proud of myself for having thought of it. I was proud. Oh, I am such a sweet man. That is so nice of me to think of doing that and then totally never do it.


GROSS: That's Louis C.K. from his new comedy special "Live at the Beacon Theater," which is on his website. Louis C.K., welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is so great to have you back.

C.K.: C.K.: Thank you.

GROSS: And I have to tell you, I really relate to that, not in giving-up-your-seat kind of way, but I have so many fantasies of all these things that I'm going to do that are going to make me a good person that I never follow through on. (Laughter) So I'm really with you.

C.K.: I know, I know. So it's like - but at least you get to enjoy it. You know, at least you get that part. It's really, like, the height of selfishness to enjoy philanthropy without doing it.


GROSS: Exactly. So I hope you don't mind, we're kind of bleeping and editing clips that we'll be hearing as necessary.

C.K.: Sure.

GROSS: So with this new comedy special, what you've decided to do is put it on your website and charge $5, as opposed to getting it on a TV network, like your HBO comedy specials in the past. So why have you decided to do it this way?

C.K.: Well, I've done - I mean, this is my fourth full-hour special, and the first two I did for cable, one for HBO and then one for Showtime. And those were the traditional, that the cable network pays for the production, and they give you a little bit of money, and then it goes on the air.

And then they put it on video, you know, on iTunes, Netflix and DVD, and then they go try to make a profit with it. You're supposed to participate in that profit, but I've never seen a check from a comedy special.

And then this time, I don't know. I just thought this might be interesting, to give this a try. Put it on my website, make it $5, make it really, really easy for people to watch and to buy and to enjoy. And I don't - you know, first of all, the money for the production, I put it down myself, but it came from the tickets that were bought for the performances.

I shot two shows at the Beacon Theater. I performed three. I shot two of them, and all the money I made for those shows, for those tickets, paid for the production. So all I had to do was sing for my supper, you know, to start with. That was the plan. And I figured if I make a profit, that's terrific.

GROSS: So my guest is Louis C.K., and his new comedy special "Live from the Beacon Theater," is available on his website. And it's the first time he's doing something like this.

So your second season of your FX series "Louie" was fantastic, and...

C.K.: Thank you.

GROSS: I assume it'll be on DVD sometime soon, so viewers will get a second chance to see it if they missed it. I want to talk about another episode from season two, and this one was with Joan Rivers. And in this episode, you're playing the lounge at an Atlantic City casino, and you're doing jokes about the lounge and about Donald Trump, who owns the lounge, and the manager says to you: You can't do those jokes. You can't insult Trump. You can't insult the casino.

And you decide to take a principled stand and not compromise as a comic, and so you quit. And then you see Joan Rivers, who's playing the main room, and you sit down, and you're having a talk with her. And she is just really shocked that you quit, and she thinks it's a really stupid move. So anyways, here you are meeting with her, and she speaks first.


JOAN RIVERS: (As herself) You're in the lounge.

C.K.: I was.

RIVERS: You were fired?

C.K.: I quit.

RIVERS: What do you mean you quit? Nobody quits.

C.K.: I quit.

RIVERS: Are you crazy? Are you a trust-fund baby, that you quit?

C.K.: No, it's just that they got upset because I was saying stuff about the casino and I was making fun of Trump, and...

RIVERS: You're in a Trump hotel. You don't make fun of the owner of the hotel. Are you crazy? He's not going to hire a comedian who's going to say (beep) Donald Trump.

C.K.: I know, but I just...

RIVERS: Now, this is not an easy business. I mean, you want to try my life sometimes? I work in Arizona, how about that, in Indian casinos. Do you think that's easy? You tell a joke, they don't like it, instead of a tomato, they throw a tomahawk. What are you expect? I mean, you got a job. How lucky are you, for goodness sake?

C.K.: Yeah, but come on, you're in the nice theater here. They got me in the (beep) lounge.

RIVERS: I was in the (beep) lounge, sweety-puss, two years ago. For all I know, I'll be back in the (beep) lounge two years from now, and you'll be in the main room. Things change. That's the business. Look at the perks you're getting. You've got a job. You got a card for the free food in the employee cafeteria. I mean, stop bitching and go buy yourself a pocketbook that's lined in plastic and throw food in when they're not looking.

C.K.: Yeah, great.

RIVERS: You know what's wrong with you guys? You don't know when you're lucky. Appreciate where you are, for God's sake.

GROSS: And that's Joan Rivers and Louis C.K. from Louis C.K.'s season two of his FX series "Louie." And I want to explain to our listeners again, we have to do a lot of bleeping and editing to play these clips.

I love how she makes what you thought of as your principled position look actually foolish and kind of self-serving. That was so interesting. Have you - first of all, before we get - talk about getting Joan Rivers involved, have you been in that position of trying to think about, you know, should you quit and take a principled position because they're trying to limit what you can say, or just do what you can while you can do it?

C.K.: Yeah, I - you know, when you're young as a comic, you don't have a lot of leverage. So if they hear something they don't like, they just say shut up, you know. And it's not based on some morality. It's just, you know, like she's saying. It's the Trump hotel. What are you doing? Nobody needs to take that from you. You know what I mean?

So you kind of think you're high and mighty, and you think it's a principled position, but if your principle is that you want to say your art and say your speech to the world, then shutting yourself up because you didn't get to say F-Trump is just dumb. It doesn't make any sense. F-Trump is not a principle, you know. And also, you got to work, and not a lot is being asked of you.

Like she said: Know when you're lucky. That was a big thing. So I mean - I guess my whole career has made me - the early years of my career is that lesson.

GROSS: Did you ever have a comic say that to you?

C.K.: Tell me to know when I'm lucky?

GROSS: Yeah.

C.K.: Yes, yes. I remember there was a guy named Paul Kozlowski, who was a comic in Boston at the time who I really looked up to. And I told him how frustrated I was, and that I just felt like I wasn't getting enough work and it wasn't fair, and I was depressed about my career. I was about 20 years old.

And so I - and I was already a beaten veteran, apparently, in my head. And Paul, who was a veteran, said OK, well, get out. We have enough comics. Like, give up then. I don't need to hear this. And it was really a chilling thing. It stuck with me for a long time. Obviously, I still remember it, you know, 30 years later, or something.

GROSS: So what did you think of getting Joan Rivers involved in this episode?

C.K.: I saw Joan Rivers' movie, "A Piece of Work," her documentary. I have always loved Joan Rivers, since I was a kid. I've always looked up to her. And then I saw this documentary, and it just ripped me to pieces. I just - I was very affected, and I thought I want to try to get Joan. I want to write something for her to say that represents the beauty of her. And then I'd try to make out with her. That's interesting, and it's funny. So that's what we did.

GROSS: So was she immediately onboard when you invited her to do this?

C.K.: Well, we sent it to her, and - you know, another thing I learned from the documentary is that she fields every offer. She called me. And she said - the script was very different at the time. And she said, you know, what is this? This is preachy. I hate this. She said, I want to do it, but we've got to make it funnier. And I was like oh, brother. I don't want a writing partner, Joan Rivers here, you know.

But she started - she said the thing about the pocket with the plastic lining and a trust-fund baby and tomahawks. She started throwing stuff like that, just on the phone with me, just saying, you know, why not say this, this, this. And I'm furiously writing it down. And she made it funnier. And then she showed up and put in a harder day of work than almost anybody I worked with. She just worked so hard. She was great.

RIVERS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Louis C.K. and he has a new comedy special, "Live at the Beacon Theater" in New York, that's on his website only. Season two of his FX series "Louie" begins in the late spring.

Now you performed in Afghanistan.

C.K.: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And actually, it was a tour of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. Do I have that right?

C.K.: Kuwait. That's right.

GROSS: And...

C.K.: That's right.

GROSS: In season two of "Louie" you actually go to Afghanistan to perform.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So let's talk about real life first. Why did you want to do a USO tour?

C.K.: Well, it started for me because I went to Washington, D.C. on a USO sort of little tour with Pamela Adlon, who played my wife on "Lucky Louie," and she works on my series "Louie" as a consultant, a consulting producer and a sometimes writer.

She is a voice actress and there was a group of voice actors like, you know, people that do cartoons and stuff, who went to D.C. to do hospital visits at Walter Reed, which isn't there anymore, and Bethesda, and a few other USO-type things around Christmastime. This was a few years ago. And so they invited me to come and do a stand-up comedy portion. So I came and I did stand-up in a few - in some Army and Navy base cafeterias, you know, basically. And visited a bunch of wounded warriors in their hospital rooms. And this was, you know, something I will never forget.

But basically the doctor goes in first and says do you want USO? Do you want a visit? And they always say yes. And you'd come in and this soldier, whose face is totally disfigured like freshly, like cotton in the eye socket where the eye should be, like just a cotton ball, and their arm is just destroyed and no leg or whatever. And they're sort of sitting up in the bed with this smile and they're hosting you in their room. They're like, welcome. It's unlike...

GROSS: So did you do comedy there?

C.K.: Yeah, I did comedy like in the cafeteria of the hospital. I did comedy in the naval base chow lounge and stuff like that.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you this. You know, a lot of your comedy is about sex.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

And, you know, whether it's one-on-one or with another person.

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, a lot of the wounded veterans have injuries that will temporarily or permanently affect their sexual lives or...

C.K.: Sure.

GROSS: ...ruin their sexual lives.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So did that make your sex jokes off-limits? And sex jokes, that's something that you know ordinarily that you could really have in common with soldiers.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You know, jokes about sex.

C.K.: Well, it's interesting because, you know when you do USO - this is the first time I had done it - the last thing they want is for you to mess around and say anything controversial - sexually or otherwise. And so they just ask you please just make it simple and please just keep it polite because, that's just, they just don't want any trouble.

But here's what always happens. You find yourself in front of a bunch of wounded veterans, and they just want to have fun and they don't want to hear polite comedy.

They want to hear you go crazy. And so, every time I did these shows, I would start polite, and then I would maybe test the waters with one something dirty, and they'd go crazy. And I'm looking at a bunch of guys who want relief, and they want to laugh.

And listen, if you just had something, if you just had an IED take away part of your sex life, I think laughing about sex is actually a relief for you. These guys laughed so hard at the sex jokes that I just got dirtier and dirtier.


C.K.: And then I got offered to go on the sergeant major of the Army's tour in Iraq and Kuwait and Afghanistan, so that's – I jumped at it because of the experience that I'd had in D.C. And over there it was the same. There was sort of like this – I would be told by a battery of people to keep it clean, keep it clean.

And then I'd go on stage and the soldiers would beg me to get dirty and I would get really dirty. And then I'd come offstage and apologize. And then I started to realize that that's what they all wanted me to do, including the people telling me to keep it clean.


C.K.: And there was one night, actually, because the sergeant major of the Army, he's like the guy, he's the main - I don't know to explain what he is, but he's a very important guy in the Pentagon, and he took us on the tour and he was a little pissed off at me for being dirty over there.

But there was one night in Baghdad where we were doing a show for 2,000 soldiers all just standing in gravel and it was cold - I didn't know it gets cold in Baghdad. And there was country-western bands that was most of the show, and I was just this comedian break in the middle of it. So the first country-western band was on stage and the lights went out and the sound went out.

Somebody didn't fill the generator so there was just suddenly no show and it would take an hour to fill it with gas and start it again. So I said I'll go out there because I can yell. I don't need a guitar. So I stood on the lip of the stage and in the dark in front of 2,000 people in Baghdad, and I just yelled my act. And it was one of the most profound experiences I've ever had as a comedian.

Because the audience, these people rallied for me and they were dead quiet when I was speaking and then they cheered like crazy for every joke, whether they found it funny or not, I think. And I did a full hour to this audience of soldiers.

And because I was yelling, I had to be really coarse and rude. There's no subtlety to that kind of comedy, and it was one of the most amazing hours of comedy I've done in 26 years or whatever it's been. And when I came off the sergeant major was standing right there and he shook my hand and said, you done good.


C.K.: And, you know, it was this real kind of Army moment. Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He has a new comedy special that's available on his website. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. Time Magazine just named his FX series "Louie" the Best TV Show of the Year. He writes, directs, and stars in the series. He plays a character based on himself.

So I want to play one more clip from the second season of "Louie" and, you know, there were several episodes that dealt with comedians. And this one is about a comic who you hadn't seen in many years and he shows up and he's broke, he's living in his car, he doesn't have work, and he's really crude onstage but he's really crude and rude offstage to people too.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he's actually really embarrassing you because he has no social skills at all. And so you're driving with him, like, late at night after your show and he basically tells you - then you stop and get out and talk and walk and he tells you basically that he wants to kill himself and that his doctor gave him some pills and told him not to take too many of them because it could kill him.

And he interpreted that as the doctor saying, you know, I know you want to kill yourself. You should kill yourself. Here are some pills that will help you do it.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So he's just kind of laid this on you, that he wants to kill himself and that he plans on doing it at his next stop. And you have to decide how to react. So here's an excerpt of that scene.


C.K.: (as Louie) Why are you here telling me this right now?

DOUG STANHOPE. ACTOR: (as Eddie Mack) I don't know. I guess I just wanted to say good-bye to someone. You know, if I leave a note it's just going to get burned with my clothes. So I figured you for the one guy that I could say adios to.

C.K.: Eddie, this is (bleep). You can't kill yourself.

ACTOR: Oh, yes I can. I have a note from a doctor.

C.K.: I don't give a (bleep) what that guy said. You can't do that.

ACTOR: And why can't I do that?

C.K.: Because.

ACTOR: Louie, look me in the eye and tell me I have one good reason to live.

C.K.: No.

ACTOR: See, you got nothing.

C.K.: No. No, I'm not - I'm not playing that. I'm not doing it.

ACTOR: What do you mean?

C.K.: I mean - I mean (bleep), man. I got my reasons to live. I worked hard to figure out what they are. I'm not just handing them to you. Okay? You want a reason to live, have a drink of water and get some sleep, wake up in the morning and try again like everybody else does.

ACTOR: Yeah, I get it. Tough love.

C.K.: No. No love. Okay? More like tough not giving a (bleep) anymore, Eddie. If you want to - if you want to tap out 'cause your life is (bleep), you know what? It's not your life. It's life. It's life as in bigger than you. If you can imagine that. Life isn't something that you possess; it's something that you take part in. And you witness.

ACTOR: You are - you are so excited right now that you get to give the big speech. You would love to be the guy that talks this loser who you never think about out of suicide so you can feel better about yourself.

GROSS: That's my guest, Louis C.K. and Doug Stanhope in an episode of Louis C.K.'s FX series "Louie". Have you been in that position where somebody's told you that they want to kill themselves and you have to decide what are you supposed to do with that?

C.K.: Well, it's a scary thing to ponder, you know, but it's emotional to hear that clip now because, I mean, I wrote that about a lot of comedians I knew coming up and comedy and show business are very cruel and they don't have a nice way of saying no or good-bye, you know? And a lot of guys live really tough lives in this racket.

And I've known a lot of them and come up with some of them and some have made it, some haven't. And, you know, the idea of somebody saying to you look me in the eye and tell me I have a reason to live, it's terrifying to think, well, what if I fail them in that moment? And Doug Stanhope is somebody I've known for a lot of years, not well, but I've always known him.

We've traveled the same paths and I love Doug. I have real affection for him. And, you know, he doesn't take very good care of himself and he, you know, medicates himself in many different ways. And I've always been scared for him. I've always been afraid that he's going to let himself go and die. And...

GROSS: So you sent him this script in which he wants to kill himself. How did he react to that?

C.K.: Well, you know, he's - when I've felt that fear about Doug, for a lot of years and then I look at what he writes on his website and I've listened to him, and I realized that there's something narcissistic in my fear. You know what I mean?

Like, he's taking care of himself and he's making his choices as a grown-up. And so that was sort of an evolution of thinking for me. But then the reason I guess it's emotional now is because I lost my friend Patrice. Sorry.

GROSS: No, that's okay. This is the comic who - you want to take a break for a second?

C.K.: No, it's okay.

GROSS: Okay. This is the comic...

C.K.: Patrice.

GROSS: dedicated your special to him and...

C.K.: Yeah. Patrice died of, you know, in a diabetic coma, and he didn't take good care of himself. And there's part of me that is, you know, upset with him for not taking care of himself, you know, because he took himself away from us. So I guess to me it's like it's funny to hear that now and - you know.

GROSS: Well, you wrote that before this happened, so...

C.K.: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: You certainly weren't thinking about his death.

C.K.: No. No. No, not at all. And, you know, it's just funny because I had such a different perspective on that issue of, like, someone's not taking care of themselves. Someone's not keeping themselves safe, and what is your role in that? And the anger I feel towards Doug in that scene is the kind of anger I feel about Patrice now that he's gone.

So it's interesting to look back on it because the thing - the place I took myself in that scene, as I was writing it, I didn't know where it was going. I knew I wanted to stand on that street and have him give me that news and I didn't know where I wanted it to go.

So I started writing to him my argument why not to kill yourself, and as I was writing it I realized for this argument to succeed would be really gross. For me to, like, be the guy who gives him the reason to live is so self-serving.

And the fact that I was even attempting it on paper, I was embarrassed alone in a room. And so the way that I - the path I found to the truth of the scene for me was having Doug be the one to tell me how full of crap I was for trying it. So in other words, as I was sitting there typing here's why you shouldn't kill yourself, I stopped and said to myself, oh my god.

Congratulations, you pig. You know, who do you think you are? And so then I had Doug basically say that. And, you know, Doug is a lot more together than any of the people that I'm asking him to play there. Doug has a real career and he's a great comedian. He's one of the best. And I didn't know he could act. He's never acted in his life. That's the first thing he ever acted in, really.

And I had called him and I said I wrote this thing, it's kind of an amalgam of a lot of guys and your voice would sound great doing it. Do you want to do it? And he said - he said, I can't act. He told me right away, I can't do it. And I said, I didn't ask you if you can; what I'm asking is do you want to. And he said, well, yes, I do want to.

And then I thought, well, that desire will make it work, you know. The crazy thing is that I was so exhausted when we shot that episode - it was one of the last things we shot - I was so strung out I didn't know any of my lines. I was so - I was depressed, I was just really not in good shape.

And Doug came so prepared and he's so - he was the best - I'm going to say he's the best actor I had on the season.

GROSS: Well, Louis C.K., it's really been great to talk with you again. I really appreciate you visiting FRESH AIR. Thank you so much.

C.K.: Thank you, Terry. I love doing this show and I love listening to it. I never miss it.

GROSS: My interview with Louis C.K. was recorded last month when he released his comedy special which remains available exclusively on his website. Season 2 of his series "Louie" was shown in 2011 on the FX network. Season 1 is on DVD.

We'll be back with all new interviews starting tomorrow. All of us at FRESH AIR hope 2012 is a happy, healthy, and fulfilling year for you. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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