Much has been (and continues to be) written about Louis CK’s new stand-up special, which is only available on his website, not on any TV network. The pieces are either about the economics of delivering his content to viewers this way (an experiment he deems successful), or a recap of some of the material he performed at the Beacon Theater while the cameras rolled (note to reviewers: standup routines are never funny in print and out of context, because you always need the comic’s unique voice and delivery to make them work).
But not enough has been said about how prodigious Louis is. In addition to writing, directing, editing, and acting in his FX series, “Louie” (which begins production for its third season in February to air next summer), he also develops an entirely new hour of standup material every year. An hour a year may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Most touring comedians are lucky if they come up with 15 or 20 good new minutes in a year. They have to conceive it, write it, try it out in clubs, perfect the wording and timing, and do it over and over before it becomes an official part of the act. Once they get it right, they may perform that bit for several years, adding it to others that always work onstage.
If they’re lucky, one of the TV networks will offer them a comedy special, and they’ll cull their best bits from previous years to cram the half-hour (or hour) with stuff they know will kill. Meanwhile, they continue to work the road, whether it’s comedy clubs or theaters, doing essentially the same act from town to town. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, some of the cleverest comedians I’ve ever seen have only been lucky enough to grab the brass ring of TV once, yet still had long, happy careers.
If they get a second TV offer, it’s usually a few years later, which gives them lots of time to develop new material. Sometimes, the subsequent TV shot will even contain bits they did the first time around. I recently re-watched the first few HBO specials Robert Klein (once one of my comedy heroes) did in the mid-1970s and saw at least three bits he repeated — not to mention the various versions of his “I Can’t Stop My Leg” song that stopped being funny sometime around Jimmy Carter’s inaugural but became a dead horse he was still beating in his stage show as recently as two years ago.
So, when Louis comes up with a new hour of standup, it’s impressive. What’s even more impressive is the fact that, each year, he throws away all the previous material. He may still discuss the same topics — sex, parenting, his dreams and nightmares — but it’s all new every year. That’s virtually unheard of. Jerry Seinfeld at one point took the material he’d done for 20 years, compiled it into a special called “I’m Telling You For The Last Time,” and then never did any of it again. When Seinfeld decided to start developing a new act, he took along cameras to witness the journey, which became the terrific documentary “Comedian.” But even he doesn’t have an entirely new act every year.
The only other comedian I saw who regularly produced new material at that volume was George Carlin. The problem was that Carlin stopped being funny in his last decade. His later concerts and TV specials were overrated by an audience thrilled to be in the presence of a hall-of-fame comic, but his material didn’t deserve the adulation. There would be some flashes of fancy wordplay, but too often he simply ranted about one thing or another he hated about the world. It’s not that those weren’t subjects worth ranting about, but somewhere along the line he forgot to be funny.
Louis may get to that point, too, as his career continues. Forcing yourself to create that much content — and perfecting it to the point where you want to present it to the world — can burn people out. Let’s hope he’s an exception, because at the moment, he’s at the top of his game, one of the best comedians of his era.