Louis C.K. was on Conan last week, (and all over your Facebook newsfeed, so sorry in advance for writing this) and not to sound like the gushy piece of garbage that I am, I have to admit - I, as a 26-year-old man, felt the same exact joy and giddiness while watching him on there that I remembered feeling when I would watch him as a guest on Late Night when I was a 12-year-old kid.
Obviously, Louis is a huge star now, known for his numerous stand-up specials and his Emmy award-winning television show. But back then I just knew him as that absurd stand-up comedian who I looked up to because not only was he telling silly jokes in clubs all over the country, but he also got to write comedy for a living for some of my favorite late night talk and sketch shows over the last couple decades. He was a guy who was respected by some of the most reputable comedians in both the stand-up and sketch community. It was the exact path and career that I wanted back when I started, and continues to be what I strive for to this very day.
Why am I saying all of this?
Well, because at the tail end of the interview on Conan last Thursday, there was a very sincere moment where Louis thanked Conan for giving him a chance back in ’93. At the time he was really desperate and was seriously going to quit comedy the night before. In a past interview, he actually even said he was about to “empty his brains out into a bathtub” until Robert Smigel, the first head writer on Late Night, called to hire him, thus obviously preventing him from doing so. For me, watching him take that moment to thank Conan was so beautiful and it reminded me to be grateful for all the help and advice that I’ve received so far in my short and not nearly as successful career. It made me think of all of those who even just took a couple minutes to share their wisdom with me when I was just starting out. “Who were some of those people?”
I sat there, thought about it and then it struck me. Holy shit. An insane realization washed over me.
One of the first people to ever directly give me real advice in comedy was Louis C.K. himself. Quickly, I ran to my computer and with the magic of the Internet, I was able to track down those exact pieces of advice and realized it should be mandatory reading for anyone who is getting into comedy.
The first time I went on stage was in May 2005, in my hometown of Erie, PA, at a club called Jr.’s Last Laugh. It was the graduation performance for a stand-up class I took. I did okay and decided I wanted to keep doing it, but the club didn’t offer an open mic night or any other way to regularly perform there. The only way I could get my fix until I moved to a bigger city was to obsess over it on the Internet. And that’s exactly what I did.
In August 2005, I began visiting a Google newsgroup, which was essentially a message board, called “alt.comedy.standup.” If I remember correctly, there weren’t that many active members, but among the regulars, was Louis, who responded to my first ever question in the group…
“Subject: Advice for an 18 year old aspiring comedian...
My name is C.J. and I'm an aspiring comedian. I started back in May at a room here in Erie, PA called Jr.s Last Laugh. I'm in love with comedy and since then I've done open mics everywhere I can. Since then I've auditioned for the Cleveland Improv (got it, but they're not too picky), did an open mic at the Comix Cafe, and I'm moving to Pittsburgh on the 25th of this month and got a spot in an open mic at The Improv there on the 31st. What I really wanted to ask was if any of you experienced comics have any advice, pointers, tips, tricks etc that you'd be willing to share. Being that I just started I love looking for inspiration wherever I can find it. I'd love to hear about anything, from how the business works, what to look for and even horror stories.
Thanks in advance!”
Four replies down. Louis C.K. responded…
“i started when i was 17. i got a good head start, skill-building wise, but I sometimes think I missed out on a lot of "Life" that I could be drawing from now. Try to go to college and get some knowlege. If you don't do that, make a deliberate attempt to read a lot and educate yourself, so that you don't just becauase a siv for American pop culture. If you spend all your time on stage talking about the cover of People magazine, you won't go far, you won't last, and you'll be bored before you get good.
Take advantage of the head start you're giving yourself by stopping as often as possible to live your life, explore America and grow as a person. When you go to some shit town to do a one-nighter, get there early and walk around before the show. Watch people. Observe and remember.
Go on stage as often as possible. Any stage anywhere. Don't listen to anyone about anything. Just keep getting up there and try to be funny, honest and original.
Know that it's not going to be easy. Know that it's going to take a long time to be good or great. Don't focus on the career climbing. Focus on the getting funnier. The second you are bitching about what another comic is getting you are going in the completely wrong direction. No one is getting your gig or your money.
Keep in mind that you are in for a looooong haul of ups and downs and nothing and something. It takes at least 15 years, usually more, to make a great comic. most flame out before they get there.
And yes, be polite and courteous to every single person you deal with. Not because that will make you a better comedian, but because you're supposed to do that.
As far as how to get funny or write jokes, no one can teach you that. Just make sure you know what you're trying to do and that you're doing it in a way no one else is doing.
If anyone tells you they can teach you how to do comedy, they are lying.
I agree with Bent that you should fill yourself with the history of standup. Watch Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Bill Cosby himself, and listen to all of their albums as well as any other comedy cd you can get your hands on.
I don’t think I have to specifically reiterate anything he said there and say that it’s important. All of it’s important. As I look back on it, I was extremely fortunate that the information that was going into my dumb impressionable 18-year-old brain was from Louis C.K.
That wasn’t the last of the advice either.
On September 27, 2005, 18-year-old me asked…
“Subject: Better Market For Rookies: New York or Los Angeles?
What's a better city to get your comedy career started after you've established yourself in a smaller city and you want to make the jump? ”New York City or Los Angeles? Why?
Three replies down, Louis responded…
"you can get more stage time in new york. there are more clubs, more shows. There is no subsitute for stage time and lots of it. Don't go to LA till you are ripe and ready because once you get there the development process will halt.
I didn’t completely listen to his advice on this one because I didn’t move to New York. Instead, I moved back home, saved some money, then moved to Chicago where I was able to get as much stage time as possible. That was the most important part of the advice that he gave me; go somewhere that allows you to get as much stage time as possible. I consider my time in Chicago the most important time of my life. I learned everything I know now because I was able to get onstage there as much as I wanted to and was allowed to fail.
Who knows what would’ve happened if I moved to LA back then? I probably would’ve been depressed as shit and would’ve quit because I couldn’t get onstage enough to see any development. Thankfully, eight years later, I finally moved to LA and now I’m only depressed as shit just a little bit. But seriously, I now find myself in position to slowly but surely swim upstream in this new and extremely intimidating scene, rather than drown, which I honestly think would’ve happened if I didn’t listen to him and decided to move here as an 18-year-old kid with no experience.
Now, here’s my favorite occurrence of him giving me advice, because it’s on video, (from his short-lived video podcast) and done in the most Louis C.K. way, by insulting me in the process.
He even included an amazing video of him bombing at the Comedy Cellar in the dark days when stand-up died right after the boom in the 80s.
It’s really inspiring to me to hear him talk about his entire career up until now. He struggled. I know he got hired as a writer at 26 for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but if you go back and do the research, you’ll know he had several downfalls since then.
This is where the pieces of advice he gave me back when I was 18 begin to ring true for me now. Now as someone who is 8 years into their career. It’s made me realize things like getting that one job isn’t the end all-be all. In fact, it’s how you respond and react to not getting that one, or several jobs, that is going to define you and your career. It’s about those years before and in between your “big breaks.”
You think Louis is the incredibly insightful comedian that he is today because he was told “yes” every step of his career?
No. He’s that way because he had doors shut on him in this business and in life that helped prepare him for whatever his next pursuit was.
He was hired by Smigel and Conan in 1993, but if you ask most pedestrians or casual comedy fans what piece of his work was first cemented in their brains, they’ll more than likely say his special, Shameless. That came out in 2007, fourteen years after getting hired to write for Late Night.
What happened in between then?
TV appearances, a short-lived sitcom, movies, and more shit that little amounts of people seemed to care about.
What did Louis do, though?
Like in that first piece of advice he gave me in that Google Newsgroup, he worried about continuing to get funnier. He continued living life. He continued studying the craft. Everything eventually fell into place for him because of that and now we get to fully enjoy his work through all sorts of mediums.
Who knows what else he’ll end up doing, but the possibilities are endless, and it seems like now he has a choice. He gets to retain 100% integrity and is allowed to genuinely express his thoughts and feelings any way he wants to.
Isn’t that what we all want as artists? That’s the real goal right there.
I can’t remember if 19-year-old me was appreciative of the advice back then, but I will say 26-year-old me is right now, and it has probably, whether I actually ever realized it or not, prevented me from also “emptying my brains out into a bathtub.”
So thank you, Louis. I’m glad your brains remained inside your head so mine and hopefully others’ remain in ours as well.
-C.J. Toledano is a stand-up comedian who has written for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Onion News Network. His real credits are the six television shows that said “no” to him this past summer. Make fun of him for writing something sincere: @CJToledano.