VIDEO: Louis C.K.'s Airline Safety Video parody
Shamelessness has finally paid off for Louis C.K. After two decades in the air-conditioned trenches of TV and scriptwriting (Chris Rock, David Letterman), and directing movies (Pootie Tang), the Newton-raised comedian has found an audience to embrace his repertoire of raw sex jokes, playfully psychotic fantasies, and profanity-laced screeds about his family.
That’s thanks to his first hour-long HBO special, the aptly titled Shameless, which debuted Tuesday. It’s full of his trademark outrage, boasting jokes about murderous road rage, sucking a bag of dicks, and even rape — the latter a tough laugh topic to justify, but C.K. is determined to push any and all buttons without remorse.
“Believe me, I wouldn’t do this material if people didn’t like it,” he says over the phone from his New York base. “I have no interest in pissing people off. It’s stuff everybody thinks about. If I was getting boos instead of laughs, I’d stop really quick. I just think people connect with certain subjects, and I try to get inside these topics and let my imagination run wild. I guess I have a dark sense of humor. I get excited about dark ideas; to avoid them is just silly. I also obsess about sex a lot, as many people do. And there’s no more value to clean humor than there is to dirty, so that’s the way I prefer to go.”
C.K., whose abbreviated moniker is close to the correct pronunciation of his surname, Szekely, got his early inspiration from Bill Cosby — who probably wasn’t a fan of C.K.’s recent one-season, profanity-laced sex-and-marriage HBO sit-com, Lucky Louis. But hearing Boston comic Chance Langton on the radio lured C.K. to the stage. “He was really funny, and when he was done, the announcer said, ‘If you want to try stand-up comedy, come to Stitches for open-mic night.’ So I worked up five minutes of material and stayed on stage for about 90 seconds. It was a horrible, terrifying, awful experience. I did it one more time and it was even worse, so I didn’t do it again for another year, but it got me hooked.”
C.K.’s barbed wit did win him writing gigs for Saturday Night Live, Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and The Chris Rock Show. In 1999, he won an Emmy for his Chris Rock work. And the 2001 blaxploitation satire Pootie Tang, his best-known film, was inspired by a character he developed for Rock. All the same, he hungered for a live audience: “I’m a better stand-up comedian than anything else, but if people don’t know who you are, they don’t come to your shows.” Until 2005, he even made frequent appearances at Cambridge’s cozy revue-programmed Comedy Studio to hone new material.
C.K. wrote, directed, and starred in Lucky Louis, HBO’s first multi-camera sit-com. Having failed to click, it got dropped after one season, but it did sell HBO on his talent: Shameless went into production, and it premiered on the network last August. “I decided I was going to write all new material for Shameless, and in the months working up to it, I really focused and tried to bring everything I’d learned about being on stage for 20 years to the performance.” His ease and his natural delivery, even when the topics are uneasy and unnatural, is a big factor in helping his grittiest jokes slide down.