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Louis C.K., ‘Americans’ Stars Get Silly But John Landgraf Gets Serious at Center for Communications Tribute

John Landgraf FX
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Quips about “television’s it boy” and “Peak Landgraf” were flying Thursday at the Center for Communications’ tribute to FX Networks’ chief John Landgraf.

But the honoree injected some gravitas to the affair by reminding the audience at the Pierre hotel about the transformative power of storytelling in human history. He offered a reading suggestion to the crowd – the 2011 tome “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari – and he sounded a note of alarm about what he described as “tyrants” who rely on narratives woven of “reassuring falsehoods” to gain power.

Landgraf didn’t mention Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump by name, but he didn’t have to.

“Imagination is the foundational tool for our society. Like any powerful tool stories can be used for good and they can be used for ill,” he said. True artists craft stories in their search for “profound knowable and unknowable mysteries of the human experience.”

Tyrants, however, “started using stories as a path to power by offering reassuringly simple answers to salve our deepest fears,” Landgraf continued. “Artists embrace the mysteries of life and are willing to brave their fears in search of truth. Tyrants on the other hand want to build moats and walls of delusional safety out of reassuring falsehoods or comfortingly simple stories. There’s never been a tyrant in human history that didn’t gain power without a seductive set of lies. Our very freedom — the best of humanity — are really founded on the path that artists lead us down to a more complex and better understanding of ourselves and our place in this vast mysterious universe.”

Landgraf’s remarks as he accepted the Center’s Frank G. Stanton Award only reinforced the preceding laudatory comments about his taste and intellect, or “big brain,” as Denis Leary put it in a tribute video. Speakers cited FX Networks’ recent success at the Emmy Awards with “People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and the 12 years of breakthrough shows delivered on Landgraf’s watch.

But the boss also came in for some serious ribbing (even with his mother, Lee Joslin, in the crowd). The event began with a PowerPoint presentation on the problem of “Peak Landgraf,” a spoof of the exec’s research presentations to reporters about the overabundance of scripted TV shows.

“There’s just too much Landgraf and not enough hours in the day,” Center for Communications’ president J. Max Robins said as he flipped through line and bar charts.

Louis C.K. saluted the exec for finding a way to make quirky offbeat shows commercially successful enough to allow more people to make them.

“All over television, people are listening to more kinds of ideas because they see them work” on FX, C.K. said. That’s a contrast to what he described as the tried-and-true formula for success in television: “White tits and guns.”

C.K. also joked about the low-budget model for series production that FX hammered out for his comedy “Louie.” “I was a touring comedian when I first met John,” he said. “A year later I was making television, and making about half as much money as when I was on the road. I’m back on the road now so I can afford to make television at FX.”

“The Americans” stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys offered earnest praise (“In my opinion he’s as peerless as he is fearless,” Rhys gushed). AMC Networks’ Josh Sapan, chair of the luncheon, brought along a video of a barbershop quartet singing “I’m Just Wild About Landgraf,” sprinkled with zingers (“he’s no longer just a Plepler wanna-be,” referencing HBO’s Richard Plepler).

After his soliloquy about storytelling, Landgraf vowed that FX would contribute to the Center’s mission of nurturing young talent across various creative disciplines. “We will do our utmost to inspire the next generation and what I hope will be far and away the most diverse generation to enter our business,” he said.