I interviewed Louis C.K. at his apartment in Manhattan in November, 2011, for a Rolling Stone profile (you can read the story in full here). This is a condensed and edited transcript.

Louis C.K.

New York, November 16, 2011

JW: You don’t want me to say where you live.

I’d rather not. Let’s just call it an apartment in New York City. That would make me happy. I’ve had people bump into me outside, accidentally-on-purpose. I don’t want some guy to John Lennon me. Nobody’s ever shot a comedian, though, I don’t think, so I probably have less to worry about.

JW: It’s a nice place.

I pay too much rent, I pay more rent than I should responsibly be paying, but that’s how I choose to live my life. I’ve lived in New York for 20-plus years now, and I have kids and I’m not going to fuck around anymore. That’s the way I figure it. My accountant doesn’t want me to be paying this; he’s not happy about it. But I’m living here.

JW: Did you have an epiphanic moment when you decided to become a comedian?

I remember listening to Bill Cosby records with my friend Jeff when I was a kid. That was a big formative thing, the sound of a comedian talking into the microphone, the way he used the mic, the sound of an audience, a grown-up audience laughing, and the liberating way that he spoke – every comedian does, except for the old guys that did real shtick-y stuff, routines, I never liked things like that.

JW: How old were you?

Third grade, second grade, really early. Cosby spoke in a grown-up way, but any kid could get his jokes. It’s that kind of familiar and relaxed way of talking and making people roll with laughter, that, to me, was a really exciting idea. Then the Gong Show and shows like that were on TV a lot, stand-up comedy in the Seventies, there was a few big guys. Sometimes they’d have bad comedians on there. They had a guy called the Unknown Comic, who would come out with a bag on his head and do bad jokes. He was terrible, but I liked him, I liked that he sweated and tried really hard. I was in fourth, fifth grade. Steve Martin, hearing those guys...

When I was a kid, I could make people laugh. I think it was third grade, we did a show and tell, and we had a record player, and I used to play “Rockin’ Robin.” I’d put it on and I did this crazy spastic dance that made everybody laugh, so it just became part of show-and-tell, I’d close show-and-tell pretty much once a week. After a while they got tired of it. I remember there was this one time I did it, and they were all giving me dirty looks.

Third grade was really the year that I started doing that, and we had a vocabulary lesson where you had to take new words and make sentences with them, doing them out loud, and I asked if you could take two words and combine them in one sentence, so he said yes, and my sentence was, “I want to take off my clothes and climb a building.” I made everybody laugh, then it became known that I did that, but then the other kids, the popular kids in the class, started doing their own versions, and I was forgotten: it just became a whole bunch of people doing that, and theirs weren’t funny. They were all private jokes about each other and stuff – sort of the way TV works now. I remember being disillusioned, like, this has been stolen from me and ruined.

JW: Were your parents funny?

No. My mom has a good sense of humor, she makes me laugh sometimes. My dad, not so much. He finds things to laugh at, I guess.

JW: Your early routines sound like they were more for other kids at school, rather than taking over the dining room.

Oh no, I wasn’t funny at home, I don’t think. But I was funny with my friends. I liked impressing teachers by being funny.

JW: I read that your parents had met when they were both attending Harvard.

When I was doing Lucky Louie and I had this blue collar profile, people were like, “Yeah, but his parents met at Harvard,” which is funny to me. My dad’s upper class for Mexico, and his father was an immigrant from Hungary. My mom was from Michigan, she lived on a farm in Michigan, and she grew up with nothing. She was just academically really bright, and she went to Harvard summer school to take some courses, and my dad was there going to grad school.

They weren’t undergrad, that’s the thing to remember. If you go to Harvard undergrad, you’re a spoiled brat, and you probably got in through some legacy, and you’re not even getting that good of an education, most Harvard people, but Harvard grad school is where serious professionals get their degrees and licenses. My father was there studying as an economist, and my mother was doing some post-grad stuff.

JW: Computer stuff?

She was headed towards it with science and math. I’m not sure what she was studying at Harvard. They were both just very academically driven.

JW: There’s a story of your first job as a car mechanic –

It wasn’t my first job. I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I had jobs before then, too, like cleaning pools and stuff. Everybody I knew, when I was a kid, we grew up in a part of Newton that wasn’t very opulent. It was next to the highway, and everybody worked. You had a job as soon as you could, and it was money to fuck around with.

JW: How was KFC?

I worked there for a year or something, and that was really hard work. I was a cook, and you had to do everything. I’d always figured it was some kind of frozen thing, but it’s serious chicken cooking. You get a big box of whole Perdue chickens in the morning, not frozen, but cold as hell, and you have to break them up into pieces. Some of them you break, and the little bones rip your hands up, it’s so hard, and then you marinate the chicken in this big metal drum. It’s a process, it starts early in the morning. The marinade is water and…it’s all MSG, that’s all it is, MSG and salt and some other stuff, and it gets turned in this drum to soften and marinate it, and there’s these packets that don’t say what they are, and a breading, and you throw it all in this breading, and there’s this basket you shake out until it’s just coated with the breading, and you put it in these cages, this cylinder, then you close the cage up, and there’s a drum-like deep-fry cooker, hot, hot, hot grease, and you drop it in there. When you drop it in, the grease burbles up, and there was a fucking thing where in order to lock it into place, after you dropped it, three-quarters of the way down, you had to turn it and then it goes in, so you couldn’t let go of the thing. They made these hooks that you’re supposed to use to do the turn with, but they just didn’t work. You had to just do it with your hands.

JW: Do you have scars?

Now I don’t, but my hands were a fucking nightmare. After a while you wouldn’t wash your hands, because if you get a few layers of that breading on you, it would protect you, you’d basically have Kentucky Fried Chicken hands after.

JW: How did you last a year?

I needed the money, and I really wanted to have the money. I’d just started to learn how to drink and stuff, and a couple of kids who worked there were old enough to buy peppermint schnapps or whatever we wanted, buy some pot with the money, and kids, working class kids, work. I wasn’t giving the money to my mom, but my mom wasn’t giving me any money. If you wanted to do anything, you had to work. I took home turkey dinner every Christmas. I know twice I brought home Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys; they gave you them for free.

JW: You remember the whole process step by step.

Every single thing, I remember.

JW: You seem to have that kind of brain.

There are certain things I really soak in and keep, certain details I never forget, and KFC made a big impression on me. I’m amazed that I did that. And I worked at a photo/video store, where we processed photographs and rented videos. It was run by these two guys who didn’t really know what was going on there half the time, and I ran the whole store. I was probably 17 or something, and there was no computer or anything, just people come rent videos, and they’d pay mostly in cash, and I remember I used to take money out of the cash register and buy Steve’s Ice Cream next door, take home whatever videos I wanted, so I got a great education. I watched a lot of movies. Then they bought this machine that transfers movies and photos and slides to videotape. They bought this monster machine, and it came with this guy who trained me on how to use it, the only one who knew how to use it, and he left, and then I had this thing on these guys, I knew how to use this thing, and it was worth a fortune, they made a lot of money doing it.

So I worked there, and I also discovered porn there, unfortunately. I really would have liked to have waited a little longer to find out about that. He had a hardcore porn section. I didn’t know that shit existed – magazines, but not video porn.

JW: What do you recall from that section?

I remember one that was funny, it was called The Personal Touch, and it was a subjective-camera porn, where they talk to the camera as if it was you, like you were there, and I remember two things about it were really funny. One was that they started the video with an empty chair, and each cast member would sit in the chair, introduce themselves, and get up and leave. So it’s this girl, “Hey, I can’t wait to have this time with you, it’s going to be great,” really suggestive and cute, and another one, and then the fucking guy sits down and he goes, “Hey, I’m Steve Powers, and I’m going to be getting all this pussy while you’re fucking playing with your little fucking dick, you loser. Remember me, Steve Powers,” and he made the middle finger with the balls, and he walked off, and it was such a – why would anybody want to see that? I remember telling a lot of my friends about that, I remember that was really funny. It ruins it for you.

There was also a scene where a girl is egging you on to masturbate, she’s on this chair going, “Come on, come on,” and right at the point where you’re supposed to cum, somebody threw a bucket of cum on her, as if she was the size of herself on the screen, and she just was drenched in whatever they pretended was cum. She laughed a little, she turned her face away and you could see her shaking, you could tell she was laughing. You’re supposed to think you’re going to cum that much.

So that was that job, and I worked as a mechanic for a while. I’ve always benefited from knowing machines well, because it’s freedom, it gives you freedom, I always knew that. I love machines, and some of them are cameras and cars and bicycles, and I didn’t have a mom that could buy me all kinds of those things, but I remember I had a bike that was stolen when I was a kid, and I think I stole somebody’s bike, too, but there’s a lot of bike-stealing going on. My dad bought me one good bike, and I lost it pretty fast, of thievery. Then I think I stole one and felt real bad. I didn’t enjoy it much, because I had a stolen bike.

My friend, Jeff, my Bill Cosby pal, he was into Motocross and stuff, so he knew how to build bikes. There were always bike parts around his house, and I think he and I went to a junkyard and got bicycle pieces, and I learned this thing, you can go to a junkyard, or even pick up off the fucking street, you can build a bike, it’s not hard. Not only that, you can spray-paint it any color you want. It’s so much more satisfying than buying a Huffy with tassels on it – you can make your own bike. The bikes were always fucked up, there was always this one Achilles Heel to it, the joint, the goose-neck, where it grabs the handlebars, was always stripped out, so the bars would always…I’d flip over a lot, it was never safe, it was always hard and stressful. But I learned that you don’t need a bike, you can build one, and later in life, I had a car that was so shitty that when the clutch went out, I was told it was totaled, it would cost two grand to replace the clutch, and this car cost me 1,500 dollars. It was a Datsun B210. So there it was, sitting in my driveway, worth nothing, and I thought, “What the fuck, it seems crazy fixing a car,” but I bought the book for the B210, the guide, and I got a set of simple tools, I bought a creeper, which is what you go under a car with. A small investment, a creeper and a good air jack, a jack that could take the weight of a car and keep it up there for a while, and I just really carefully…I’d never done anything that carefully, I was always a hot mess as a kid, but I told myself, “If you really teach yourself how to do this, you could have your car back.” The clutch costs 70 dollars or something, it was nothing, and the book was $10, at the most, and all the tools were probably $30. 100 dollars. I dropped the transmission down, removed it, all that shit, reset the fly wheel, took the spindle from the old clutch, all this stuff, and that was a huge revelation. It had a hydraulic clutch, that car, it was hard to figure out how to do, and I had to bleed the master cylinder and the slave cylinder…I never quite got that right. Sometimes I’d drive and I couldn’t get the clutch to go. I also had a few brakes…I tried to bleed my brakes and I’d drive down the street and have no brakes. I had to make a few calculated collisions to stop the car once in a while.

So I went to a service station, a good garage run by a family of men, the Springers, and I applied for a job, and they said, “We can’t, we’re looking for an actual mechanic who’s been to school,” and you buy these Snap-On tools and pay for them your whole life. I didn’t have that, I had a box of tools. But they hired me, and I got something like eight dollars an hour, five maybe, and I was an apprentice.

JW: You were doing stand-up when you were working at that place. What did those guys make of it?

I loved it there, it was great. The younger son, whose name I forget, we fucked around and made jokes a lot. I made him laugh a lot and I wasted a lot of time, then I started coming in real late because I was out late at night doing clubs, and I wasn’t learning very quickly, and so I got fired. The guy said to me, “I don’t think it’s working out,” and I said, “I really want to stay here,” and he said, “I don’t think you’re learning quick enough,” and I said, “I know all this stuff, I know I can do it better,” and he said, “You show up late, you’re not good, it’s not working”: I kept making him say meaner and meaner things. So he took me down the street to Don Cooper’s garage, another garage, where they sold gas, a real shit-hole, and got me another job. So I worked there for a mean and stupid guy. I paid my penance there.

I didn’t think about the possibility that I could do stand-up. I always thought, “What, do you go to Hollywood or something, New York, work up a routine, how the fuck does that work?” I was doing other pursuits, too, I got into video and stuff. In high school, I had an internship at a local access cable station, and I got really into that, I knew how to fix the machines.

JW: You’d make shows?

I made little funny videos and stuff. There was one little video I made called “Trash Day,” I don’t even know if I have a copy of it anymore, but it was my friends: you see these guys preparing for a crime, guns and stuff, just toy guns that we had that were pretty good, cocking pistols and sharpening knives, pulling on ski masks and stuff, and this music from Star Wars, stolen from a record I had of Star Wars music, then you see them getting in a van – one friend of mine had a vehicle, and I was in a car behind, following, and then you see my mom come out of the house, taking out the garbage, and she gets down to the bottom of the walkway, they pull up in this van, pull guns on her, and they grab the garbage from her and tear off.

I remember there’s a moment where they pulled it up and show that it’s garbage; I wanted to make it clear that my mom wasn’t…that there wasn’t something going on you didn’t know about. So they took it out and looked at the garbage and said, “Yeah, garbage.”

That was a long day of work. That was one of the first things I did that was me shooting something and directing, knowing what I wanted, making sure we got all the pieces.

JW: This would have been 16 or something?

I guess so. I was a sophomore in high school when I got that job. I was probably a junior when we made “Trash Day,” 17 or something.

JW: So you wanted to make movies and do stand-up comedy at the same time.

Yeah, I always figured I’d do one or the other. The big inspiration for that, for me, was Woody Allen. Woody Allen, you knew a little bit about his life, he was trying to make it as a TV writer, and he tried stand-up and got known as a stand-up, and that drove his film projects. So I figured, I’ll make movies, I want to make movies, and I read things about guys like Spielberg and how he found an office that was empty at Universal Pictures, just started producing movies out of it, and once you’re sitting in a desk with a phone, you can use that phone to call and say, “I need a pass for tomorrow.” He’s got some great story like that. I thought if I just started working now, I had a shot at it. I knew I wasn’t getting a good education. I was being offered one, but I wasn’t taking it. I thought I’d just have to start learning, and I loved it, I loved lenses and cameras and shooting.

JW: There’s a clip of you online doing stand-up in the ‘80s, where you make a high pitched noise and say, “Dolphin humor, people, come on.”

That’s one of my first videos, but I’d been doing it for a while. It was at Catch at Cambridge, that was my home for a while. I was being pretty absurd when I started, I was really weird, sometimes drawing blanks from the audience, but I didn’t mind it. I also knew how to get some pretty good laughs. Boston is a very Darwinist town to do stand-up in; it’s not fun to bomb there, people are pretty vicious. They sing, “Na na na na na, hey hey, goodbye” – they’ll chant you off the stage, it’s brutal. So you learn some skills. Or you don’t. If you’re still around, you must have.

You ask me about starting, and I didn’t think it was possible to be a comedian. I found out there were clubs in Boston. I was washing the kitchen floor, my mom was going to pay me 10 bucks, and I was going to use the money to take a girl out on a date, and I was listening to WBCN, which was the big radio station, they had five o’clock funnies, they played a guy named Chance Langton, a local Boston guy, he was really funny, and after his set, they’d say, “If you want to come to Stitches, you can do an open mic, do five minutes, anybody can do it.” And I was completely electrified. That’s how I started.

JW: Did they chant you off that first time?

I did less than two minutes, and I walked off to pure silence. Worse than being chanted off. It was a total failure, it was horrible. It was terrifying and uncomfortable.

Stand-up, I didn’t know what that was going to feel like. I guess I thought it would feel like it does in TV shows or movies: they’re going to laugh. That’s part of it, right? You tell a joke and then they laugh. It has this feel to it that I knew, and boy, when you realize how wrong you are, that’s a fucking cold slap in the face. I think that’s true of anybody’s first time. The thing I tell people if they want to do this, and I don’t give people advice much about it, but it’s to not bring your friends the first time. I’ve seen that a million times: People come in and have 50 people there for them, and their friends laugh and cheer them on, and you see their face get red and excited, and the next time they don’t come in with their friends, and they’re fucking doomed. You need to enter stand-up with that cold slap in the face, or you’ll never really understand what you’re doing.

JW: What were you like in high school?

I was depressed a lot in high school. I did all this stuff outside of school: I did my internship, I loved my teachers a lot, I loved school and learning, but it wasn’t consistent enough. I’d always end up getting behind, getting in trouble, and I’d stop going, I’d feel bad, and everything would…I struggled, I did a lot of drugs when I was in junior high school, so I was already like a recovered addict. By the time I got to high school, I had been in and out of a massive drug problem.

JW: Worse than pot?

Oh god, I dropped more acid than I remember in eighth grade. Eighth, ninth grade were two solid years of dropping acid, snorting coke when somebody had it, Quaaludes, smoking an alarming amount of pot, mescaline, drinking, stealing shit, crime, dumb, always in trouble, terrible time.

JW: What crime?

We used to break into people’s cars and steal whatever was in the car. A friend of mine had been growing pot in his yard or something, so I had this homegrown pot that was unsmokable, it was a joke. I had an ounce of it, though, it was green. Anyway, we got caught, arrested, me and my friends, for stealing money out of people’s fucking cars. I had this big bag of pot on me, and so we ended up in court two months later, and I was cited for possession, and by the time, it got to court, it was dried out and looked like a street bag with an ounce of pot. It was bad. I remember there was a woman who testified, and she talked about how we stole some papers out of her car and threw them on the ground and they weren’t recovered, and she had to take time out of work to go get a new registration or whatever else we did to her, and my mom was so ashamed, because I had a single working mom, and this woman looked just like her, and my mom said, “That could have been me, how did you do something like that,” and I felt so crummy, and I dragged my parents to this courthouse…

JW: You’ve talked about a period early in your stand-up career of feeling like hot shit: you had a pocketful of cash and were riding your motorcycle back and forth doing gigs. There’s a turning point where you have this crash on the motorcycle, all these clubs go belly-up –

That was horrible. I lived in New York for a good two or three years before that happened, ’91-’92 is when everything really went to shit; I’ve lived here since ’89, ’90, something like that. I graduated from high school in ’85. After high school, I worked at a local access cable station for money in Marblehead, Massachusetts. That was really depressing. And an old teacher of mine got me an interview at NYU film school, and I brought all these videos I’d made, and photographs, a portfolio – I’d gotten into photography and stuff, and they said that they would accept me to go to film school. So I quit my job with that in mind, and I’d been doing stand-up, but not well or successfully, and then I never filled in – I got these forms from this guy to fill in, on the floor of my apartment somewhere, but I couldn’t get my brain to…I was supposed to go back to my high school and get my transcripts, and the idea of doing all that, just that paperwork – going to NYU film school was this dream come true for me, but I couldn’t fill out the thing, couldn’t fill it out and go to the Xerox machine and put a stamp on an envelope, all that stuff. It made me want to vomit. That sort of thing has always been the case for me, I can’t get that done. That’s why I have an assistant. Now if I just dream up shit I want to do, I have her to take care of it.

So I decided, “Fuck it, I’m a comedian. I’m just going to do that, I’m going to stay in Boston.” That’s when I worked at the garage. I stopped working at local-access cable. I drove a cab for a while. I started taking shitty jobs so I could do stand-up, I didn’t want an all-encompassing job. I liked that, I just liked having dead-end jobs and doing stand-up. I thought, “Fuck it, that’s what I’m going to try to do.” I had an instinct that if I just kept hammering it and hammering it, I had a head start on people, I was very young, and I was resilient, I didn’t mind living stupidly, I wasn’t anxious about making a living, just played it close to the bottom for a long time, and I knew how to do that, it didn’t bother me. I liked the freedom, I didn’t have a job-job, I’m not working for a company, I’m not going to a school, I live on my own. So I did stand-up, and I got good enough, I came to New York and was accepted to the community in New York, that was a big deal to me to come here, New York was thriving, and I had that time that I described to Marc Maron, and then it all went away, there were no clubs to work at, couldn’t make a living…

JW: What was the force that closed the clubs?

The Nineties and the end of a boom of comedy, an over-saturation of stand-up by the clubs, and on cable TV and all that stuff, it was way too much of it and people got really sick of it, all at once.

JW: You told a story about doing a show and the guy booking you says he’ll give you 50 bucks…

No, he shorted me about 150, 200 dollars.

JW: Was that common?

I don’t think anybody but him ever did that to me. It was rotten working those places, but I didn’t care. Again, I was young enough to take it, although I had had better, that was the hard part.

JW: What was the rotten stuff?

Kevin Brennan and I, I was driving a ’67 Camaro that was barely holding it together, and we drove it to Virginia and did a show in Norton, Virginia, somewhere in West Virginia and Ohio, Chillicothe, Ohio, I think – these horrible little towns. I think the lounge of the Holiday Inn was the best, “This is great, we can stay in a nice hotel.” Fucking brutal, and driving for hours and doing these shows where there’s no way you can screw yourself into thinking, “I’m a comedian working towards a stand-up comedy career.” I’m just holding the fort for these drunks, making 150 dollars, and this string of gigs is going to get me a check in three weeks for 800 dollars. That was hard to take. Some of those guys were on TV now, SNL and stuff like that.

JW: And this is the early Nineties.

Yeah, that was a real struggle, living in New York City, it was an alarmingly expensive place to live, so you hit the bottom really fast here. Sometimes I’d ride and go up to Boston and do the old gigs there. There was more money to be made there, more one-nighters. But the comedy clubs, stuff was gone. There wasn’t any sense of, “How is this all going to work?”

JW: And then you get a call from Robert Smigel?

Yeah. Smigel called me and said, “I heard you auditioned for SNL, Jim Downey told me you had something going on. Do you have any writing samples?” I had a few little things, and I gave him my short films. I made short film called “Caesar’s Salad” that went to a couple of festivals here and there. I always had so many different things going on. The short film stuff, I just made a movie called “Ice Cream.” That did well for me, I showed at the MoMA. It opened for Clerks at the MoMA new films festival, and it was at Sundance. It showed in Europe, on television in Europe, and it won awards. That’s ’92, I think. It was in the middle of that shit. I don’t know how I pulled together the money to do “Ice Cream,” but I did. And Paul shot it, my DP. He shot that, “Caesar’s Salad.” My mom helped me pay for “Caesar’s Salad.”

JW: You were a film buff – with “Ice Cream,” at the end, when the parents are crushed by the car in this very stylized way, were you thinking of the ending of Pierrot Le Fou?

I might have seen that. I know I’d seen a couple Godard films, and there was one that’s really fucked up where there’s just road accidents throughout the movie, it almost takes place on a high way, a lot of bloody road accidents. At that time, I was living on Bleecker Street in New York, and I used to go to Kim’s Video – Kim’s was a huge institution, and they had everything in order of directors, and I really educated myself there. That’s another education I never stopped drawing from. In one week I was going to see every Godard film, and I saw whatever they had, I was going to see every Pasolini film. Bergman – I found out where Woody Allen was stealing all his ideas from. I had no idea all this shit was out there. In Boston, that’s a great town for culture. I used to go to movie theaters that showed Seven Samurai. I saw that when I was doing drugs.

JW: “Ice Cream” seems like the work of a guy who loves French new wave movies.

Yeah, I definitely was into that stuff, and Stranger Than Paradise, a black and white movie with people in their leather jackets, that was obviously an influence.

I don’t think we had any kind of permits or anything, I don’t know how we did that then. When I did “Caesar’s Salad,” I closed streets, we had a cop car and closed the street, so I did that early. I love that part of filmmaking, and I was doing that since I was whatever that was, 20 years old, closing streets, getting special permissions, special access to stuff. When I worked at Conan, that was all usable. Remotes, we shot things…having that kind of ambition to do stuff out in the world, some people just shrink from it and just don’t want to do it.

JW: You hear crazy stories about SNL in the Seventies. What was it like on Conan at the beginning?

Conan was a huge thrill. We were at 30 Rock. Letterman was everything then to comedy, he was just the coolest guy in the world, and then there he was gone, and this guy, Conan, takes over, who the fuck is that? The morning after Smigel called me, I went to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and got my little pass and went in there, and there’s these goofy guys: Conan was 30 years old, Smigel was 31, and all the writers were in their mid-twenties. Conan was a Lampoon guy, of course, and Smigel was his SNL buddy. So Conan and Smigel were really nice to me and impressed with what I did. I think they were really keen on the fact that I was a stand-up who made films. I had just finished “Ice Cream” and it was part of my submission, and they really liked it.

Then I was so nervous, and Dino Stamatopoulos and all the other writers were saying, “You’re the new writer here,” and I was like, “I haven’t been hired yet,” and Dino was playing games with me, saying, “Congratulations, you’ve been hired,” and I was like, “I haven’t even been interviewed yet.” I hung out with him while I was waiting, then I hung out with Smigel and Conan, who were in this really weird position, that in two months from now, they were going to be on the air to replace Letterman, a complete unknown replacing this massive…they started pitching ideas to me for their opening, and they had just started talking about this open where Conan’s really excited to go to work. Everybody goes, “Good luck, you’d better be as good as Letterman,” they keep saying that to him and he doesn’t care, and he goes into his dressing room and puts his head in a noose and they knock down the door and he has to go on. He told me he was going to put a gun in his mouth, and I was the new guy, and I said, “Are you really going to do that?” and they were like, “You think that’s too dark?” and I said, “You can’t do that, that’s vicious, that’s really hard for people to take.” I talked them out of it, and it was like they were asking me for permission. “Really, is it too much?” “Yeah, guys, that’s crazy.” A gun in the mouth, Jesus.

JW: You can’t not see the head exploding. A noose is more of a cartoon.

Yeah, there’s something cartoony about a noose. So they listened to me and did the noose. I loved it. I was like, “These guys are brethren.” I felt like I belonged.

JW: That was the first comedy job you had, right?

Carolines comedy club had a thing called Carolines Comedy Hour on A&E, and Colin Quinn was the host, and they decided to do a few sketches, so they hired…that was my first real writing job. It was me, Dave Atell, Susie Essman, and the head writer was Jon Stewart: That was the crew, and we did little sketches, funny little sketches with Colin.

JW: Did you like being in a writer’s room?

I did, but I actually asked Jon, who was the head writer at the time, to let me make little films on my own. I asked for a little crew and I could shoot my own little film, they let me, so I shot some little things that weren’t good, they weren’t particularly funny, but I fucked around over there and did some things like that.

Then when Conan hired me, they called me the day after I was there, two days later, it wasn’t long, and Robert said, “We’d like to hire you, so congratulations, now you have to make your deal.” I remember being really anxious, “Does this mean I’m hired, or I have to make a deal, what does that mean?” I got a boilerplate writer’s network late night salary, which was something like 2,500 dollars a week, and that was an enormous amount of money to me, I couldn’t believe I was making that, I couldn’t believe that. What is that a year, 100,000 dollars a year or something like that? About 100,000 dollars a year. I remember going into a bank to open an account. I’d been waiting to open a bank account my whole life, I went into a Citibank, and I said, “I want to open an account here, I’m going to be making $100,000 a year. I think you want my business.” He was like, “Congratulations…” I was that dumb.

JW: How much money did you have to your name before?

I was making no fucking money. I was really struggling. It was comfortable and it was a union fucking salary, beautiful checks that NBC made. I remember the day I got a job, it was summer, I drove my bicycle to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, to the front of it, and I just sat on that marble wall and stared up at that building. I was there for hours, I couldn’t believe I was going to get to work there.

JW: Were there clashes you had? Was it always as smooth as saying, “You can’t put a gun in a mouth”?

It was a hard job. It was an enormous amount of material, and Conan was new, and he was reviled by a lot of people when he started. It was a painful existence, and Smigel runs a pretty exhausting ship. For Robert, it has to be right, it has to hit this pocket, and you could be there all night. I got the feeling, and I never worked at Saturday Night Live, but there was an abusive nature there, there’s a culture of abuse, or there was then, I think maybe it’s different now, but people were really hurting a lot that came from there, and Smigel and Conan had sort of escaped, and they seemed like they were victims of the abuse, but there was this thing where you had to stay until four in the morning.

It was hard to do, it hurt. It was hard to do that, but I loved the work, I loved it, and Robert let me do anything I wanted to, anything. I got to shoot some really elaborate, crazy shit there, and it’s something I learned how to do: live comedy, sketch comedy with an audience, and I hunkered down, watching it happen.

Once in a while I’d get to be in sketches, screw around, and me and Dino, sometimes they just needed voice-overs, and they’d call down, “Can you run down here and do a voice, 700 dollars.” Every week, I’d get a stack of checks ranging from 400 to 1,000 dollars, in addition to my salary. I was single, and I was too busy to spend the money. It was fucking crazy, and I got another motorcycle.

JW: Which is kind of crazy after the crash.

I didn’t care, though. It was a good life.

JW: When you talk about doing sketches in front of audiences – there’s something you said to Maron about “Harvard writers don’t like audiences.” What does the audience being right there mean to you?

What I said about Harvard writers applied to writers I met later in life, sitcom writers. Late night writers were very different. This was a group that was very respectful of the audience, but yeah, having the crowd right there, you’re watching the sketch go down, you’re seeing what laughs it gets, and it was like old-timey, it felt like you were on Sid Caesar’s show. And you’re in a historical place. So you learn to respect that kind of stuff.

JW: It’s seen as a good time for TV comedy now. You had a great turn on Parks and Recreation, but you’ve complained about a certain virtuosic, “writerly” writing that you see on a show like 30 Rock that doesn’t turn you on.

Yeah, I mean, I felt bad saying that, because Tina Fey is so cool and funny. It’s better to have that on than a whole lot of other stuff. But I guess I feel like comedy writing sometimes gets a little self-involved, it feels like it, just for me, for my own taste –  look, I’d rather 30 Rock was on TV than a lot of other things. There’s so many funny people on it, Scott Adsit and Judah Friedlander, all those people. I would take back almost every negative thing I’ve ever said.

I think it goes in waves. For a while people really got off on comedy writing, watching the way shows were structured, and that show, Community, I haven’t really seen it very much, but what I hear about it is that people really like the way it deconstructs the form of sitcoms and is playful with it, and that’s really turning people on, and I just don’t know anything about it, I haven seen it and I don’t have the same…everything, especially television, is shaped by what else is on and what’s been on. So that’s what that’s about, people are on a sort of diet right now, and Community gave them a brand new contextually interesting thing to like. I think that’s awesome.

JW: It’s looking like it’s going to be canceled.

Yeah, I know, it’s such a bummer. I think anything that’s not like everything else that over a million people watch, you should leave it on the air, just to keep the ground fertile. Not for some, “Fuck Hollywood, this was better,” but to keep enough variety, I think it’s important for TV to have that.

JW: You talk about writing getting “self-involved.” Maybe we could talk about Lucky Louie as a contrast. You and Pamela Adlon talked about wanting to write funny dialogue that wasn’t a bunch of linguistic somersaults, but the way real people talk.

Yeah, the way most sitcoms are written, there’s a big screen, flat screen, with the script on it, and first they break the story, use words like “vetting dialogue.” I remember at one point I was changing dialogue on the floor of Lucky Louie, me and Pamela were rewriting some of the dialogue, and one of the writer’s got mad at me and said, “We vetted that dialogue very carefully.” I got really offended by the idea that we’re vetting our dialogue.

With a lot of these shows, I know what’s going on, and I think the audience does, too. Here comes the part where they’re going to walk in the door while the credits are still rolling. They’re going to trade quick barbs, “What did you do?” “I went to the store to get a coffee and they had the Michael J. Fox coffee today, so they spilled it.” “Oh, ha ha ha.” “What happened to you today?” Kind of inconsequential jokes. Joke, joke, joke, then somebody goes, “Somebody was here to ask you about this” – here comes the story, and it gets quiet, and then, “Oh, I can’t go, because I have this thing,” “He’s only in town for one day,” and now we’re laying pipe and it’s getting quiet. “What are you going to do about that?” “I don’t know,” because here’s a joke about the character that is an outside world joke or observational joke, and then the blow, the big fucking blow to get out of the scene – you have to have a blow, a big enough laugh, and it’s something really contrived: people sat there in the writer’s room, fucking eating fast food and going, “Where’s the blow for this scene, I want to go home.”

Then here comes the funny character, the guest star, who’s in town, and we find out what the lead character hates about him, and then there’s the guy, the character, that carries all the jokes. He says dumb things and keeps it going, there’s this energy, he’s like a circuit or something, just does this one thing. I was explaining to my girls, we went by a Chinese restaurant that has the big LED sign, and it has this sweeping pattern, then flashes red, then blue, then blue sweeps across from left to right, right to left, red sweeps across, and they said, “How does it do it?” and I said, “There’s a circuit, somebody writes a program that tells the stupid lights to do this pattern, and they burn the program onto a circuit, and so that circuit just keeps taking this one trip.” So there’s a guy on every show that does that, he has his one way, he has his variety, about eight different joke formulas, and you refill them with different stuff. He’s either the dumb guy or, like, Lisa Kudrow’s character on Friends or whatever. “I thought coffee was from Brazil.” “Ugh, no the guy’s name is Coffee. He’s from Italy.” Garbage like that. Then you start building the story, then you go away on an act break. Then you build a third act that just is the train wreck of not really much fun, but it pays everything off, it leaves everybody feeling exactly the same way they left, that they felt before the show started. That’s what shows are meant to do, is leave on par and leave a few jokes behind, to be printed in Entertainment Weekly’s sound bites.

JW: What current television comedy do you like?

I started watching Family Guy recently and it’s a huge comfort to me. I love Family Guy. It’s what always happens with TV shows or movies, something makes you go, “What did it just do?” Like when I saw The Office, Ricky’s Office, I didn’t want to see it, because I was annoyed with how much everybody loved it, it was, “Enough already, with the fucking Office.” “Oh, it’s the greatest thing you ever saw. It’s about a horrible boss.” “Yuck. Who needs to see that shit?” Then I’m watching one online, I think it was when iTunes started offering television, and Ricky is giving a guy a tour of the office, and there’s the yellow monkey, and he points at it for a really long time, and I was like…how long that took him to do, I really liked that, and so it got me watching, and then when they were doing a seminar to the guy and he said, “Hey, there’s been a rape up there,” in the hotel, I was like, “This is my favorite thing ever.” Then I watched each one. It was like I’d just discovered the Beatles and I was slowly working my way through each album. God, I love that show. There’s a few special things like that.

JW: It sounds like you don’t watch many sitcoms.

No, not now, there’s nothing I watch now. I watch boxing, any boxing match.

JW: So the turn on Parks, was that because you were friends with Amy?

Yeah, I love Amy, and she was in a tiny short film of mine. I love her. She reached out to me to do Parks and Rec. I’d never seen it, and I said, “No,” I didn’t read it, my manager said, “Amy really wants you to do it.” He also told me that they were trying to get some more obvious choice for her, a good-looking, young guy, and she was fighting to have it be me, and I appreciate that, not only personally, but I appreciated what situation she was in. So that made me read it. A lot of times, I just won’t read them.

JW: It’s not like you watched the show before or after.

No, I never saw it. Then I read it, and I was like, “This shit is funny,” and me and her doing it, I totally saw it, and I had a character in my head I can do, and it was a cop – I’ll play a cop on anything. So boy, am I glad I did that. I’m going to do it again in a couple weeks. That’s a great group of people who do that show, I love it there.

JW: You’ve said that becoming a dad the first time changed your comedy. The version you told was that suddenly there’s something outside of you, bigger than you, that mattered. How come it took kids to do that in a way that other things hadn’t?

It was because before I was a kid, I think, and I’d simply escaped – those were just childhood annoyances that I escaped from, I think, through a certain kind of comedy. But having kids, you don’t escape from it, you seize onto it, it’s a big, stressful, exhilarating, real life thing. And it’s permanent, it’s something that you have to evolve for. Some people don’t, but I think you have to actually change your values system, and you have to revolutionize yourself in order to do it properly, because kids can’t raise kids, and I think you’re somewhat a kid until you have them, then you really have to grow up. Again, some people don’t, there’s a lot of bad parents. That’s what you call on.

JW: There’s the stand-up bit you did, and it’s in the Lucky Louie pilot, too, where your daughter keeps asking, “Why, why, why,” to everything. Doesn’t your comedy sort of do the same thing?

Yeah, Pamela always says to me that onstage, I’m a kid, I’m a child, and she always points that scene out and says, “That’s you.” It’s this deconstruction to a point where there’s not any answers. I don’t think you’re really through…when you’re learning about something and dissecting it, I don’t think you’re really through until you don’t understand anything about it. If you study something and you find all this stuff about it, you just went skin deep, so if you keep going and going, you should be left with a fucking mess of unanswered questions. If you take any subject and keep asking, “Why,” without stopping, you’ll get to a point where there really isn’t any clear answers. It can be a bit painful and scary, so I think that’s a fun way to come at it.

JW: You’ve talked about how you’ve had to explain moral lessons to your daughters, but do it in an inarticulate, catchy way. It’s almost as though you’re writing material for them. What’s the place of morality and ethics in your comedy?

I think those are questions people live with all the time, and I think there’s a lazy not answering of them now, everyone sheepishly goes, “Oh, I’m just not doing it, I’m not doing the right thing.” There are people that really live by doing the right thing, but I don’t know what that is, I’m really curious about that. I’m really curious about what people think they’re doing when they’re doing something evil, casually. I think it’s really interesting, that we benefit from suffering so much, and we excuse ourselves from it. I think that’s really interesting, I think it’s a profound human question.

JW: Like the bit about driving your Infiniti when there are people in the world starving.

That’s the center of how I think about everything, but again, I don’t live by it, I enjoy the life I have. I have very opposite values about everything, I’m very ambivalent, because I do think that’s a real evil, but I also believe that it’s just the way things are, and I do have a kind of Darwinist view of things. Folks will get corrected, nothing lasts forever for anybody – and not morally corrected, but what will the system tolerate, that’s all.

I think it’s really interesting to test what people think is right or wrong, and I can do that in both directions, so sometimes it’s in defense of the common person against the rich that think they’re entitled to this shit, but also the idea that everybody has to get handouts and do whatever they want so that there’s not supposed to be any struggle in life is also a lot of horse shit. Everything that people say is testable.

Like you and I were talking the other night about this Penn State guy: there’s people that are loved and revered who are excused in their violent pedophilia because they’re exemplary heterosexuals, and on the other side of the spectrum, someone who’s doing really good in their community and being a great example to younger people is destroyed and ostracized simply because of what they do privately.

And look, I don’t know that that guy didn’t fuck those kids in that shower. I don’t know that he wasn’t… There are people that get undressed in the shower with kids, I don’t know, there’s all kinds of crazy shit. Woody Allen dated a 16-year-old in Manhattan, and in the Seventies, it was OK to talk about stuff like that, so I don’t know what happened to Sandusky, he might be the greatest victim in America right now. Sarah Palin said, “He must be hung from the highest tree.” The guy hasn’t even been on trial yet, no one even knows if he did it or not.

So it goes in all directions, then when people say things like, “Reverend what’s his name, with god hates fags, and abortion clinic bombers, those people are all crazy lunatics, they’re bad.” If you really believe that abortion is murder, you’re an asshole if you’re not throwing yourself in front of an abortion knife. If you really believe it, that America’s rampant with homosexuals and that’s why god hates us, fucking go to a solider’s funeral and hold a sign up.

Then again, why would they do that? The fact that they do it at veterans’ funerals is just the worst possible thing. I think there’s no simple answer. People want simple answers and they don’t get them. When I first posted stories about my USO trips on my website, I got a lot of emails from young people saying, “Congratulations for helping murderers feel better,” stuff like that. The first few times I wrote anybody back I said, “I wish for you that it was that simple, but it just isn’t.” It just isn’t that simple. Go spend some time with people that are in the military, and the existence of military professionals is just a whole other category if you care to look, and it has nothing to do with George Bush or Saddam Hussein or Bin Laden or any of it. Military families, it’s a whole other thing, and also they have their own level of bullshit to them, too. Any time you are confronted with a real human being in any case, you usually go, “All right, I don’t really know what to think now.”

JW: You have an old bit about a friend’s sister who grew up on a farm and comes to Port Authority for the first time and sees this homeless man, and you re-enact it. You’re describing this homeless guy who smells like piss, whose dreadlocks aren’t “cool, in-a-band, medical-marijuana dreadlocks,” but “clumps of neglect”…

People laugh like crazy when I do that.

JW: They do, but then there’s a turn where you say, “That’s the guy you’ve been laughing at for the last 10 minutes,” kind of pulling the rug out from us, and then you smile. The shifts of perspective are complicated.

Yeah, they are complicated, and I think it’s fun. Comedy is a great, perilous place – it’s a great crow’s nest from which to look at this stuff.

JW: Your material always seems incredibly thought-through. It’s not just button-pushing for the sake of button-pushing.

Yeah, sometimes. But I’ve said things onstage that are totally indefensible if you take them at their naked truth, and it’s all part of a thing. I remember when I did the joke the other night about the weird babies, and I said Chinese babies are the same as deformed babies – that’s just…what a horrible thing to say, and Pamela said to me, her natural stance is, “Don’t pick on people, don’t say things, you don’t have to hurt people,” but she now said, for the first time, things like the Chinese people joke are really important in your act, and they are, because I’m fucking around with a lot of big ideas, and if I just did those, it would start to…I don’t have the authority to really talk about those things, I don’t have the education or the right to seriously talk about these things. I have no fucking right to be talking about that, and when I make a joke like about a baby with a tree branch growing out of its head and a Chinese baby being the same thing, I’m just being a dick, and I’m being a dick in a new and exciting way, I’m really good at it, and I’m able to find jokes like that in places that people didn’t know that they were before, so that’s just a really good joke to me, but it’s also weird, it takes away my credibility, it makes it clear that, look, I don’t expect you to believe any of this, I’m just being a dick, I’m just enjoying myself. It’s just fun. Really, this thing about evolution I said, you’re really going to think I’m taking it seriously? I just said that Chinese babies are deformed for being Chinese – what kind of person would say that? If you’re a really Hitler-esque eugenic person or something, or someone who’s just honking a big horn and being a dick, just riding a bike with exploding shoes, just being a numb-nuts…

JW: Does your masturbation material serve a similar purpose?

That’s different to me. That’s my personal…you go in and out, you do stuff about the outside world and then stuff about what you do, because it’s interesting, it’s just autobiography and observation.

JW: You talked once about how you can make upwards of $100,000 in a single night these days.

It depends on where I’m working, but yeah, I can make a lot of money. A 100,000 dollar show is unusual, but I do hit it once in a while, at a casino or something. Two shows at the Beacon is worth a lot of money, and the two shows at the Beacon plus the extra show on Saturday, and then the show in Staten Island, all together it’s 200,000 bucks for all of those. That’s what I get. That’s not the gate, that’s what I get.

Usually it’s more like somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000 for a show, but I string them together, so then I’ll do…one weekend I did Wilmington, Delaware, and I did two shows there, and that’s a small theater in a small market, but I did two shows. Then I did Foxboro, some casino. Casinos are always a lot of money, because they don’t mind losing money on you. They’re getting money all other ways, just getting people in the building. I went to Toronto and did two shows at the Sony Center, which is their biggest theater there, 3,600 seats, and I sold it out twice. So that whole weekend was worth a shitload of money. But then the next week I’ll do Raleigh, Richmond, Virginia, New Orleans, or Asheville, I did three or four cities that week, probably made as much as I did in Toronto that one night. It’s a balance. But it’s lucrative.

JW: Why did Lucky Louie die? Was it a ratings thing?

No, our ratings were good, our ratings improved every week. Go ask somebody that works there now. Nobody that worked there when I was there works there anymore, nobody. They’re all gone, so the people that gave me the show, I think there was a regime change happening gradually. I think it just didn’t fit HBO’s thing, they had very smart shows. But they told me to get ready for a second season, we hired new writers, we paid them. They paid me and my partner to stick around and not take other jobs. They paid for eight scripts, they picked up the show script-wise, they paid for eight episodes written, and we wrote those eight scripts, we hired new writers and we wrote them. Then they canceled the show. The people who green lit the show originally, I don’t think they had the kind of capital that they had when they picked it up. There were other people, new people coming in to HBO, one in particular who hated Lucky Louie, who hated it, had a fucking vendetta against it, and he killed it. He worked to kill it, he was an up and comer. I’m not going to say his name. If you look on HBO’s websites and stuff, Lucky Louie doesn’t even exist. They have all their old shows, but Lucky Louie? Nothing. And Lucky Louie had a following. People loved that show. It was a funny show. It was a flawed, broken show, and it needed another year to find its place, but it was at least worth trying.

JW: Your dad leaving the family when you were 10 – how much is that still hanging over you and your work?

I don’t think it hangs over my work much. The way it’s affected me is that I ain’t going to walk out on my kids, that’s important to me, and being a father is something I had to figure out on my own, because I didn’t really have a role model for a dad. I look at other fathers and they’re role models for me. And as far as work goes, I had to raise myself. When you don’t have a dad, you sort of collectively and from within find the strength that a dad is usually called on to give a kid. So that informs the way I work hard when I do and also when I’m not able to, it probably gives me a little bit of a problem with authority, I really don’t like being told what to do or say, it really bothers me, down in the guts, so I think that’s probably from that.

JW: Do you still have anger towards him or did you reconcile?

I can’t really talk about that, but…

JW: Is he part of your life?

Not so much. To me, the thing I hope for with my kids is that when they’re going up, we’re friends, they still value me as somebody to talk to.

JW: Making the FX show, do you see yourself as a benevolent dictator?

I’m not a dictator, because I’m not in control of anything, I’m just deciding what to try. To me, it’s not that I control a bunch of people, it’s just that nobody controls me. There’s nothing above me except responsibility to the product. That’s the ultimate responsibility, is if the show sucks, then what was the fucking point of being in charge? I’m right about these things on the show, and when I’m not, it’s interesting to watch me be wrong. I don’t think you have to be perfect, you just have to be compelling in the work you do.

All content copyright © 2012 Jonah Weiner

Jonah Weiner

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