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FX at 20: Louis C.K. Succeeds by Following His Own Rule Book

If you have school-age children nearby, you won’t want them to read this interview with Louis C.K.

Keeping your kids away from the creator-writer-director-editor-star of “Louie” isn’t, as you might expect, due to the salty standup’s penchant for so-called “mature content” or colorful language. It’s because he credits his success at FX with their understanding of his work rituals, which were formed during his days as a student. “I didn’t do well at school,” he explains. “I didn’t turn in my papers, or do notes in class or do homework. So FX is probably the only place that suits my abilities. I don’t object to notes, I just have a personal problem and I don’t do them.”

If Louis C.K.’s scholastic habits don’t make him the perfect role model, his savvy awareness of the realities of the TV business and determination to move from being “the comic’s comic” (translation: hip but probably broke) into a rule-breaking force in primetime is worthy of emulation.

Looking back at the genesis of his show’s place on the FX roster, Louis C.K. recalls meeting network president John Landgraf “at the right time.”

“John was ready to give someone a shot at a pilot and he was willing to take chances without worrying about his credibility. I was confident and happy as a road comic and was really in a position where doing a show like this under these conditions would interest, but that was it. There was no other way to do it and nothing else that interested.”

While that origins story sounds like the beginning of a great collaboration, anyone who has watched “Louie” knows that the show’s boundary-busting terrain — which includes all kinds of bodily functions/excretions, dating mishaps and other assorted dashes into darkness and taboo-testing — could cause network S&P pros many sleepless nights.

Louis C.K. agrees and says the key to the show’s freedom is the network team’s willingness “to talk about what I’ve done after we make it. On paper, a lot of these things look like “too far.”

“Louie’s” edgy humor, while raw and raucous, is grounded in the hurly-burly of families and relationships. A prime example is the hilarious “Telling Jokes/Set Up” episode from season three, where Melissa Leo plays a blind date who is more than Louie can handle.

“You can’t pitch a story like that,” explains the comic. “I had to execute the whole thing and if it’s human and it’s funny, it works. I need that freedom on every episode. If go over (the line), maybe we figure out a way for an alternate version and we put it online.”

Digging deeper into the process, Louis C.K. admits, “I have the least perspective. But after every episode is turned in, John and I talk and he gives me advice about the show, the content, the editing, lots of things. It’s very collaborative. There was a standards and practices person at FX, Darlene Tipton, and she used to say her job was ‘to keep me on the air and on the edge.’ John very much fulfills that role.”

Since his Pig Newton production banner is now in business with the network on the new Zach Galifianakis comedy project, the comic’s view of what makes FX tick goes beyond the needs and habits of “Louie.” He describes FX as “not going down the obvious roads. There are networks that articulate their goals such as ‘we want young viewers’ or ‘our shows have characters that are likeable or relatable.’ And those kinds of approaches are well-intentioned, but at FX the dialogue is more like ‘What are the stories? Are they compelling and new?’ or ‘That story is really fucking good!’ FX is about doing things that are totally unexpected and the brand is about the shows, not the brand, which makes me curious and wanting to see their shows.”

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