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

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The show blissfully ignores continuity. Last season Louie had a brother; this season he doesn't. The same actress played his date in the bully episode and his mother in the Catholic-school episode, an oedipal accident of casting. (He's careful to stress that his family on the show is not his real family, and the malleability of the characters bears it out.) The main connecting thread — beyond the bedrock divorced-dad premise — is Louis CK's deadpan, put-upon sensibility.

Louie stretches its budget through ingenuity and a do-it-yourself ethos. There are no regular cast members, a major budget line for most shows. (Last season, two actresses played Louie's youngest daughter in the same episode after the first booked a TV pilot.) Louis takes no salary beyond the union minimum, treating the show like a calling card for his stand-up work.

Some things that make Louie cheaper actually make it look more expensive. A self-described AV geek, Louis buys rather than rents his camera lenses, which cuts long-term costs and gives the show a bit of a vintage, '70s film look. "We have a red no one else has," he says with pride. In the show's pilot, Louis' longtime co-producer M. Blair Breard found a low-cost helicopter for a scene in which a woman ends a bad date with Louie by boarding a chopper and flying away. ("I try to never say no," Breard says.) For the Season 2 finale, set in Afghanistan and shot in Texas and California, Louis got FX to double the budget — but it still reportedly costs CBS twice as much to get Ashton Kutcher to walk onto a set for one Two and a Half Men episode.

It may seem like a writer's dream, but most — even dialogue machines like Aaron Sorkin — don't have the technical skills or visual sense to pull it off. O'Brien recalls a Late Night bit by Louis, Bad Fruit Theater, in which rotting pears and oranges enacted scenes from classic dramas. For Apocalypse Now, O'Brien recalls, "there was a decaying banana rising out of this ooze," à la Martin Sheen. "It was surreal and haunting and funny. You could tell this guy has a director's eye."

In Season 2, Louie is finding his legs as a single dad, and Louis is stretching as an auteur. Some stories take up full episodes and deal even more overtly with the kids, parenting and its stressors. (A house hunt triggers angst about his success as a father, leading him to try to buy a $17 million townhouse with $7,000 in his bank account.) In a way, Louis' commitment to the physical, hands-on work of filmmaking is the perfect analogue to the way Louie deals with the physical, hands-on work of single fatherhood. Few sitcoms are so conscious of the sheer labor of parenting — trudging to school, carrying backpacks, slicing up mangoes. "It's like Platoon," Louis says. "You just have an impossible amount of s--- to carry." When he talks about making a show, it's not much different. "There is fatigue, and it's f---ing hard. But what I know from experience is that if I was getting a million dollars a show, it wouldn't make it easier."

Louie's comedy is scored to the ticking of the middle-aged protagonist's earthly clock. The theme song is a version of the '70s hit "Brother Louie" that changes the chorus' final line from "Louie, Louie, you're gonna cry" to "Louie, Louie, you're gonna die." Mortality even makes it into his jokes about his kids. In one stand-up bit, his daughter asks him if the sun will be in the sky forever. He says it will explode someday — but, not to worry, long after she's dead. Then he realizes what he's told her. "She's going to die. Everybody she knows is going to die. They're going to be dead for a very long time. And then the sun's going to explode. She learned all of that in 12 seconds."

Louis acknowledges that mortality is a theme in his humor, but he doesn't see how that's a big deal. "It's kind of like being on a bus to Pittsburgh and I say, 'I wonder what time we're going to get to Pittsburgh?'" he says. "And everyone's like, 'What? Why are you talking about Pittsburgh?' Well, it says it on the f---ing tickets and on the front of the bus. That's where we're going. Aren't you interested that we're all headed there?"

A more immediate concern, he says, is that ratings pick up. (Louie attracted just over a million viewers per episode in Season 1.) If not, well, one advantage of a cheap show is that it can stay on the air despite numbers that would get most series canceled. FX, Louis says, has told him "it's going to be up to me whether I keep doing the show or not. As if I would ever want anything but to do it." Louis CK has more to say. And with luck — as the whole weary lot of us must hope — it's still a long way to Pittsburgh.

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