If one were to think of the ballsiest performers in comedy today, a handful of comedians may come to mind. There's Daniel Tosh, who, on his Comedy Central show, Tosh.0, once named Bill Murray, Norm Macdonald, and Will Ferrell the only talent worth a damn in the entire history of Saturday Night Live—audacious slander towards countless Hollywood heavyweights. There's also South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone, who've been tackling taboo topics with reckless abandon since 1997. Ricky Gervais' controversial Golden Globes hosting gigs may land him on your list. And what about the underrated Jim Jefferies? His FX series Legit deals with paraplegia and does so in a way that never makes fun of or demeans those afflicted. Where other comics may take the low road, the far easier road, Jefferies doesn't, a choice that's both ballsy and commendable.
In an entirely different realm of defiance, however, rests Louis C.K, the ballsiest man in all of comedy (who's set to host Saturday Night Live tonight for the second time in his career). Aside from his brutally honest approach to joke writing, it's Louie's trailblazing efforts on the business end of comedy that set him apart from all of his peers.
Back in 1993, Louie performed as part of a showcase for the aforementioned Saturday Night Live. This potentially life-altering set couldn't have come at a more opportune time. After grinding and hustling on the East Coast comedy circuit for the better part of a decade, Louie found himself damn near broke. He's been quoted as saying that he thought this would be his last hope, his one last shot at comedy stardom.
Everybody, that is, except Louis C.K.
Dejected and at a comedy crossroads, he didn't quit. As Louie himself said in a recent interview with Howard Stern, he kept on keepin' on until receiving a call from Robert Smigel, a former SNL writer who at the time headed the Late Night with Conan O’Brien's writing staff. Smigel, who many know as the voice/hand behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, offered Louie a job. As Louie told Stern, he didn't even have a bank account prior to accepting the gig. He was living hand to mouth. And then, suddenly, he was employed by NBC and earning the Writer's Guild minimum, which at the time was roughly $3,000 a week.
Two years later, Louie was unexpectedly asked to replace the departing Smigel as head writer. Not long after being just south of destitute, Louie found himself in a position to not only more or less run a popular late night show, but to net a very enviable salary in the process. The decision was a no-brainer, right?
Wrong. Louie's response:
The comedian's reasoning was that if he had accepted the job, then that would be it. He saw his entire life's trajectory right before his eyes. And even though that life was one where he'd be a wealthy man working on a major television program, and also an important cog on Lorne Michaels' wheel, that wasn't what Louie wanted for himself.
He turned down guaranteed money and career stability to return to his first love: stand-up. And make no mistake about it, the odds of making it as a stand-up are no better than the odds making it as a professional wrestler, rodeo clown, or competitive eater. The Louis C.K.'s of the world are, by far, the exception and not the rule. But Louie had faith that he was indeed the exception. That self-confidence, unwavering resolve, and relentless drive—that's where Louis C.K. sets himself apart. In most instances, 10 out 10 other comics would have taken the job as Conan's head writer. In fact, there are likely stand-up's out there who would literally kill for a gig like that.
When it comes to Louie, taking such a blind leap is almost to be expected. Some people are followers, whereas others, those with sheer balls, fortitude, and foresight, tend to lead. And in 2011, Louie rolled the dice, bucked the system and changed the comedy game—forever.
When distributing his special Live at the Beacon Theater, Louie decided to go the unconventional route and sell it exclusively on his website, as a digital download, for a mere $5. Louie produced and directed it himself, bypassing traditional distribution and forgoing any outside funding in exchange for complete creative control. This could have been a massive failure. Without a promotional machine letting the masses know of this special's existence, it could have easily been a "If a tree falls in the woods but nobody's there to hear it…" type of situation. Luckily for Louie, taking that chance proved to be anything but that. His method of providing his fans with the most bang for their buck was an immediate success.
The download-only special grossed over a million dollars in just 20 days. And who saw those profits? Louie and Louie alone. Following in his pioneering footsteps, comedians Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, and Bill Burr have all since released successful specials using this same business model.
Louis C.K. should be a role model to anyone who aspires to control his or her own creative destiny. The best possible example of this is the once-in-a-lifetime deal he inked with FX. A case could easily be made that Louis C.K. currently has more creative control than anyone in Hollywood.
While negotiating the deal for his second self-titled television show (the first being HBO's ill-fated Lucky Louie), there were certain parameters to which the network had to agree. Those parameters were, and still are, almost unheard of: in an unprecedented move, FX granted Louie complete creative control over his show.
Louie. Controls. Everything.
Within the industry, this has come to be known as "The Louis C.K Deal."
The creative end of television is normally a kitchen in which several cooks insist on adding their own ingredients. However, Louie, a master chef if ever there was one, insisted that his series operate in groundbreaking fashion. He writes. He directs. He produces. He stars. Hell, during the first two seasons, he also edited. Louie wanted his show's success, or failure, to land firmly on his own shoulders.
But that television business megalomania isn't the unprecedented deal.
FX doesn't see the Louie episodes—not the script, not the dailies, not even the casting list—until everything is completely shot and edited. Normally, nay, always, networks will give notes every single step of the way. But not with Louie. FX was somehow convinced into blindly giving Louis C.K. money to make this series, with the agreement being that he'll turn in a phenomenal finished product. And, time and time again, that's exactly what Louie's done. The series is both a ratings success and a critical darling.
At the 2012 Television Critics Association panel, Louie told the press, "I don’t know why they gave me this much freedom. If I was running FX, I would have never given me what they’ve given me. It was irresponsible."
Thanks to legions of fans who love the comedian's uninterrupted vision, his popularity has skyrocketed. Louie's stand-up specials are bona fide pop culture events. They're destination viewing in every sense. That's also where Louie currently makes the lion's share of his money: doing stand-up, something he truly loves, something he at one time did for free.
Louis C.K. is the reigning and defending king of comedy. He's the most sought-after name in the business, and, arguably, one of the best to ever grace a stage. If he wasn't blessed with the massive balls that he undoubtedly has, the world would collectively laugh far less than it currently does.
Written by Peter Hoare (@PeterHoare)