"Boston is a great town to grow up in, but I really wanted to get out of there," says comedian Louis CK. "I'm a nocturnal person, and Boston closes at like 1:30. It drives me nuts."
Like many a great artist, the Newtonian funnyman knew he'd have to slip the surly bonds of his hometown in order to find fame for himself. But that doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy coming back. (And, let's face it, it made for the perfect locale in which to set his unjustly short-lived HBO series Lucky Louie.)
On Saturday night, stand-up/actor/writer brings his newest comedy show, Hilarious, to the Orpheum Theatre. The Phoenix called him last week to talk about his hometown, his idol George Carlin, his pals Conan O'Brien and Chris Rock, the perils and pitfalls of writing for late night television, shooting a movie with Ricky Gervais, and finally reaching that stage in life where one can treat the front row of the Green Monster like one's own private restaurant.
Does performing in Boston feel like a homecoming to you?
I love it. And I always kind of save it up. I don't work there often, I kinda come like once a year. And last year I did my special there, Chewed Up, at the Berklee. It was really nice. People I know come out and see me, and it's also, besides where I grew up, it's where I started as a stand-up, so it's a meaningful place.
Talk about coming up in the '80s Boston comedy scene.
I started in like '85, and guys like Steven Wright were still around and Kenny Rogerson and Steve Sweeney and all these amazing comedians, and it was like this really high bar, a great talent pool. So it was really inspiring to come up around those guys. It was a big comedy scene so there were a lot of opportunities to work, so I was able to get on stage a lot and had a lot of influence to be as good as possible. it was really rich soil for a comedian — as opposed to if you started in Cincinnati in the '90s and there was like one club and two local comics. But if you're gonna be a comedian, you'll find a way. You'll get to where the comedy is.
I'm guessing you felt the need to leave Boston in order to make it.
Boston was like it's own world, entirely, and there were guys who really made their whole career being headliners in Boston. And I kind of realized that if I put a lot of time into doing that, that would be all that I did. So I wanted to go out. I used to drive around the dead streets of Boston in a car. I just didn't know what to do with myself. And also, I needed a lot of input and a lot of stimulus, and when I moved to New York it was just a constant, overwhelming non-stop amount of stimulus. I more moved to New York as a person [as opposed to a comedian] and there's loads of face time in New York comedy clubs. And in Boston, that whole comedy scene is gone now. It couldn't survive there. When I left, it was starting to get too big, and it was clear that it was gonna burst, which obviously it did.
I was reading the newVanity Faircomedy issue, recently, where they interview you about the rant you did on Conan O'Brien about how people today are a bunch of spoiled, self-obsessed brats. I agree with everything you say. But it also got me wondering: I know you're a huge George Carlin fan, and that he was an enormous influence on you. Do you agree at all with those who say that, toward the end of his life, Carlin was less of a comedian and more of a professional curmudgeon? Is there a fine to walk line between cutting topical comedy and just a rant?
Well, I think it's totally subjective. Some people find things funny and some people don't, you know? Even in his last special, Life is Worth Losing, I forget which one, he does a whole long description of someone committing suicide that just was hilarious to me, I just loved it. I still think the specials where he was just yelling himself hoarse about stuff that pissed him off, he still had great bits in there. This whole thing abut fuck the kids? Jeez, it's just so good. He was very prolific and he had a wide range of ideas and sometimes he wanted to just get down and say something he believed. People are very consumer-ish about their art now. About their comedy and music and movies, and they're like, 'yeah, that didn't really work for me.' Yeah, well, just watch it and try to figure out why he did it that way. Rather than going [adopts a sort of Bugs Bunny voice], "Ehhhhh, I want jokes! I don't like that one." There are many ways to do comedy. And I don't think that George was so great that he had a right to just stand up there and talk, but he was still hilarious. If you weren't laughing, it might be you. His stuff about 'the Earth doesn't need us to save it,' all that stuff, it's really, really great. He's having thoughts that no one had put together in that combination ever before. And it's still funny. It has to be funny. If you stand up there and start having thoughts that are not funny at all, or not caring that you are? I think you should start calling yourself something else: then all of a sudden you're in a different boat. If you wanna start calling yourself a storyteller or a prophet or a writer or something? Then, oh, let's put you up against Kafka or all those other guys who do that much better. But you still need to try to make people laugh, that's what people are watching you for. So it's not fair to do a bait and switch on an audience, really. But, I think people who were saying Carlin wasn't funny in those specials, they probably just didn't find those specials funny.