Thursday 27 July 2017

Stand-up king

One of comedy’s biggest names, Louis CK, is coming to the Carlsberg Comedy Carnival – but he didn’t always find it easy to make people laugh. He talks to Eamon Sweeney about his affection for the Irish comedy scene and why he is such a fan of the digital age

STANDING TALL: Louis CK is currently concentrating on his live act
STANDING TALL: Louis CK is currently concentrating on his live act
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Born Louis Szekely in Washington DC to a father of Mexican/Hungarian descent and an Irish mother, the world-famous comic is relishing his forthcoming trip to his mother's native land.

Indeed, Louis maintains that after a stand up career spanning nearly 25 years, one of his best shows was at the Cat Laughs festival in Kilkenny.

In recent years, Louis has been showered with accolades and awards, including a coveted Emmy. It wasn't always so. At his first performance at an open mic night in Boston in 1984, Louis found that he had only enough "material" for a paltry two minutes and found it a horrific and harrowing experience. Louis was so disillusioned with his debut he didn't go near a stage again until two years later. But when he got going, Louis quickly established himself as a key player in the burgeoning Boston stand-up scene of the 1980s, which included heavyweight comics such as Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke and Steve Sweeney.

While at its best it looks easy peasy, good comedy requires hard graft. Indeed, Bono once memorably said to Eddie Izzard, "How do you communicate to such a big crowd? I mean, I'm terrified and I have the security of my band, a guitar, a tune. Watching you, I thought, 'Now, this is the top of the food chain'."

"I think stand up is one of the hardest things to start doing," Louis admits. "There is no way to practice it apart from doing it professionally. You have to perform for an audience before you've ever done it. With something else like playing the piano, you can just sit there and take 10 years of lessons before you ever perform in front of an audience."

Louis CK found inspiration not just by watching comedy, but by listening to it. "I used to listen to Bill Cosby and George Carlin albums," he reveals. "I loved the sound of someone telling jokes with ease and getting laughs from an audience. I fell in love with the idea of holding a microphone on the stage and making people laugh. The first time I did was as far from that as you could possibly imagine, as I was choking on my own spit and not seeing straight. But the idea to keep doing it until I was as good as those guys kept driving me."

He admits the early days were frequently testing. "There were times when the bottom fell out of my confidence and I felt I wasn't going anywhere," he recalls. "When I was performing for 12 people in a Mexican restaurant who weren't even aware there was going to be a comedy show, they ended up throwing enchildas at me. In those dark moments, I certainly didn't think I'd be working with Ricky Gervais or Chris Rock or anyone like that, not in a million years!"

Speaking of the creator of The Office and Extras, Louis has just finished filming The Side Of Truth with Ricky Gervais, which is set to hit the silver screen in early 2009. "The Office is one of greatest things I've ever seen," he gushes. "I've always had an affection for English comedy and I grew up on Monty Python. As soon as I could, I tried to get to London to do pub gigs when I was younger and then Kilkenny came along, which was a fabulous thing for me at the time. Ricky just contacted me out of nowhere. I think he saw me on YouTube or something. He was wonderful. Working with him is like working with a big child who is a genius."

It's apt that Gervais discovered Louis CK's talents on YouTube, as he is a firm believer in fully embracing the possibilities of online comedy in the digital age. "YouTube is great," he enthuses.

"I've got a channel up there with 50 videos on it and it took me all of five minutes to create that channel. The best thing is that it's so democratic. NBC and all these people have websites, but the great thing is that they have the exact same bandwidth as mine. You don't need anyone's permission. You don't have to call a meeting. People don't have to know when its on. It's always on! It's a great way to get your stuff seen by people all over the world. YouTube is big in countries where TV is not great, so you get global exposure as long as your stuff is good. But the bottom line is that you still have to be funny."

Louis has an excellent website; a pleasant hybrid of a blog and a swish, professional portal. "I started my website when I went on a road trip with my dog and I took photos along the way. I began to look at the website as the front page of my newspaper and I can put whatever I want there. I don't have to call a meeting with Warner Bros."

Louis has written for some of the most iconic TV shows in America, including The Late Show With David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Dana Carvey Show and The Chris Rock Show, which saw him be nominated for an Emmy three times. He is also starring on the forthcoming feature Diminished Capacity alongside Matthew Broderick and Virginia Madsen. However, his appearance at the Carlsberg Comedy Carnival and his largest European tour to date is part of a deliberate plan to concentrate on stand-up.

"I haven't been working that much in TV and film because I've been dedicating my time to stand-up more than usual," he reveals. "I'm trying to reach this goal of having a new hour of excellent material every year," he says. "I'm booked up pretty much every weekend for this year. I haven't done anything as extensive as this before, so it's very exciting." n

Louis CK plays the Carlsberg Comedy Carnival on Sunday, July 26

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