How to be a brilliant comedian

Louis CK reveals how it's done

Louis CK has revealed the dedication it takes to be one of the world’s top stand-ups.

The comedian turns over a new 90-minute show every year, and says throwing out his best material, then honing new routines in front of tough crowds, is the only way to become a better comedian.

Speaking at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, he said: ‘You have to assume, if you’re a comic, that the stuff you’re doing now stinks. The way to improve is to say, “This is OK, but it’s not the best I could be doing”. Comics say “I don’t want to lose a joke”, but you need to create a void. You need to destroy it.’

He admitted that for 15 years, he was stuck in a rut ‘going in ever decreasing circles, spiraling downwards. The only way is to throw everything out and start over and over again.’

‘I like pressure; it’s enabling. Every year I’m an open-micer again. I go on stage with half-baked ideas, my confidence is gone, I’m awful – but I look forward to it.’

He said that after writing in his New York home, he goes out to ordinary clubs on the road, at places like Zanies in Nashville. ‘It’s just a bar,’ he said. ‘They are not going to sit there for nuanced bullshit, they just want to laugh.’

Asked whether anyone could be taught how to be a stand-up, CK said you could learn techniques such as the pullback to ‘joylessly ply the craft of stand-up’, but it took writing from the heart to become good.

He said many comedians generated generic material by imagining going through life and ‘acting like an asshole’, complaining about everything, which is exactly how he how he started. But he said: ‘Now I explore my festering thoughts. If you deal with death and fear, and you can laugh, then that’s positive. I think.’

However, he said he wanted to make sure that such dark material could be made to appeal to a broad audience. ‘I love taking a fucked-up, far-fetched idea and getting anybody to laugh at it. Seeing people think “I don’t want to go down that road” and then showing them there’s something nice at the end of it.’

He said the tough early years on the road ensured he had the abilities to play not just to a niche of fans. ‘You start in comedy in the worst situations,’ he said. ‘Playing in college cafeterias with no stage or lights, with people trying to do their homework. After so many shows I would sit in my car, the experience sitting heavy on my chest, going “Oh, that was so bad”.

‘But of you can kill to a crowd of drunks, that’s a good offset for playing to smart people. You just wouldn’t want to get stuck there.’

He also revealed that he never committed his sets to paper. ‘I never write it down,’ he said. ‘Stand-up is a spoken form, and if you write it, you filter it. It’s not funny until I’m in front of an audience.’

He said the pressure to make them laugh forces him to get his ideas across in a funny way in the heat of the moment. ‘The audience is the instrument you play,’ he said.

The 43-year-old added that stand-up was his first love, and that he expected to always be able to earn a living from it, citing the likes of Stephen Wright who successfully tours 800-seat theatres, giving him a decent wage, despite no longer having a major profile.

CK added that the security of stand-up also ensured he got a rare deal to write, direct, star in and edit his own FX series Louis, with no network interference, because he was always willing to walk away from the show if he had to make compromises.

‘The worst that happens to talented people is that they compromise and do a pilot they don’t like – and it’s a success,’ he said. ‘Then they are stuck with it.’

‘I’m saved by the fact that if this goes bad, then I can always just do stand-up.’

Meanhwile, Louis CK this week made his first appearance on David Letterman’s show in 15 years, to great acclaim:

Published: 30 Jul 2011

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