Louis CK's DIY TV

How a single dad and raunchy auteur makes his hands-on sitcom

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Photograph by Gregg Segal for TIME

Louis CK on the California set of the Season 2 finale, which takes his character from New York City to Afghanistan

Inside a crowded apartment in upper Manhattan, the executive producer of the FX comedy Louie needs to confer with the director, the star, the writer and the editor. Fortunately, they're all the same guy.

Louis CK is choreographing a scene in which his character, Louie — like him, a comedian and divorced single dad — has woken up to cries of agony from his pregnant sister, who is crashing on his couch. In quick order, Louis adds a line making clear these are not labor pains, coaches the actress on when to scream ("Give me a big spike here"), suggests a camera-angle experiment and plans his route so the lens doesn't catch the crew members crammed into the galley kitchen. They're not going to rehearse before shooting ("I don't want to waste the energy"), so he tells the cameraman to follow him and keep up: "I'm never disappointed when you don't know where you're supposed to be."

Planned chaos is not just the aim of this scene. It's Louie's operating principle. Shot on a low budget, with Louis in charge of everything from scripting to buying equipment, it's closer to indie filmmaking than the high-polish committee operation of most TV series. Louie (Thursdays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) is something the production system makes nigh impossible: artisanal TV, a small-batch distillation of a single creator's mordant, achingly funny vision.

Louis CK (the CK is a phonetic rendering of his birth name, Szekely), 43, had in some ways a typical TV-sitcom-comic career. A successful stand-up run in the late '80s and early '90s led to writing jobs with Conan O'Brien, David Letterman and Chris Rock. But his taste for the dark and bizarre led to some setbacks. In 1996, as head writer for the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, he wrote perhaps the most alienating opening sketch in prime-time history, in which President Bill Clinton showed his nurturing side by suckling puppies from his row of teats. In 2001 his deranged blaxploitation spoof Pootie Tang flopped at the box office.

Through it all, his stand-up career boomed. As he became a father, then a divorced father, he developed the persona of a salty everyman reacting to the indignity of aging ("I'm 41. My balls are, like, 72") and the grind of life (dating after divorce is like "having a lot of money in the currency of a country that doesn't exist anymore"). Comedian and old friend Marc Maron says Louis' style marries the profane and humane. "It's almost like he's this grotesque clown," Maron says. "But he has this great emotional understanding of the situation he's in."

His profile rising, Louis began taking meetings for big-budget network sitcoms. Then cable channel FX made him an offer too small to refuse. Louis would be miserable at a big network, argued FX president John Landgraf: "You're going to find yourself on a stage pretending to be Tim Allen, and that's not who you are." FX would give Louis $250,000 an episode to spend as he liked. There would be no casting mandates, no network notes on scripts. The quarter-million figure — broadcast sitcoms can cost about $1.5 million on the low end — was as much as Landgraf could commit without asking FX's overlords at News Corp.

Louis took the deal. There were personal reasons: he has custody of his daughters half the week and chose to raise them without child-care help, which led him to turn down jobs on the West Coast. "I wanted the kids to feel like they could count on me, like I wasn't just visiting," he says. (He shoots Louie late into the night on days when the girls are with his ex-wife and edits the show, on his laptop, when they're in school.)

And the freedom was priceless. The first season of Louie was a loose-knit anthology of anxiety comedy, combining small vignettes, meatier stories and clips of stand-up. Some stories were gross-out funny, like a bit in which Louie's doctor (Ricky Gervais) mocks his middle-aged body during an exam. Others were poignant and even dramatic: Louie has a date ruined when he's humiliated by a high school bully; Louie remembers his childhood Catholic-school guilt. (Young Louie freaks out and breaks into church to free a statue of Christ from the cross; in an epilogue, a blasé, cigarette-smoking handyman nails him back up.)

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