The Short Films of Louis C.K.
Much has been said about how Louis C.K. singlehandedly writes, directs, edits, and stars in each episode of his acclaimed FX series Louie, but it’s made even more impressive when you consider that he started making films as a teenager.
In the 80s and 90s, Louis C.K. made a series of short films that he credits with preparing him for the heavy workload he’s taken on for Louie. Using his friends from the New York comedy scene, like Amy Poehler, JB Smoove, Robert Smigel, and Todd Barry, as actors, C.K. created a series of short films, some of them reminiscent of the work of his role model Woody Allen and surreal French new wave filmmakers. Decades before the dawn of YouTube, C.K. was shooting his own little movies on 16mm film with full film crews — basically putting himself through his own self-directed film school — with only festivals and honing his craft as the goals. His short films may not be as riotously funny as Louie or his stand-up, but they have their own off-beat charm and they’re a revealing look at Louis C.K.’s talents as a filmmaker at their earliest stage.
Below, you’ll find most of the short films Louis. C.K. has ever made, from his early 90s black-and-white shorts to more recent sketches he made and uploaded to YouTube.
Early short films
As a teenaged stand-up comedian, Louis C.K. sought to emulate Woody Allen’s career by making movies too. At age 17, he made a short called “Trash Day,” about criminals who steal garbage, with help from his mother and his friends. C.K. directed, in 1990, a short called “Caesar’s Salad” that won at the Chicago Film Festival and the New Orleans Film and Video Festival. C.K.’s mother helped him to pay for “Caesar’s Salad,” the production of which required him to close down a street and use a cop car. In the Louis C.K. episode of Marc Maron’s podcast, Maron mentions that he was cut out of “Caesar’s Salad” but some of his guitar playing remains on the soundtrack. “Caesar’s Salad” and “Trash Day” are currently unavailable for viewing online, unlike the vast majority of C.K.’s early short films, which can be found below.
“Ice Cream” (1992)
Starring his stand-up buddies Laura Kightlinger and Craig Anton, “Ice Cream” is a riff on Golden Era Hollywood films, and it’s the first short to net Louis C.K. a lot of attention. “Ice Cream” played at the Sundance Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in 1994. On getting into Sundance, Louis C.K. said, “I got really lucky. It was like the biggest deal of my life when I got that.” The movie was shown on TV in Europe and on US cable networks like IFC and Bravo and won C.K. the Grand Prize at Aspen Shortfest. Most importantly, however, is that C.K. included the movie as part of his submission to be a writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which became his first big TV job. C.K. says the fact that he made his own films impressed O’Brien and then-headwriter Robert Smigel and, along with his reputation as a stand-up, was largely responsible for him getting the job.
“When I made that thing, you had to actually write to a film festival. Like you had to go to the library and get a book that has all the film festival addresses in it. You had to write to film festivals and say, ‘Can you please send me an application.’ And all these film festivals would send you applications and then you make VHS copies of all your stuff, of your film, and send it in and hope you get in” – Louis C.K. in a 2011 interview.
“Hello There” (1995)
The first in a series of shorts C.K. made for Howie Mandel’s Showtime sketch comedy show Sunny Skies, “Hello There” stars Ron Lynch and is my favorite of the short films C.K. made in the 90s. Keep an eye out for some ace extra work by Louis C.K. himself at 1:12.
Also made for Showtime’s Sunny Skies, this action movie parody stars stand-up Rick Shapiro as a clueless boat hijacker and also features Todd Barry.
“It was a way to make movies without having enough money to make them. Short films are cool because you can play with visual and character ideas for a short time. My show is sort of a short-film anthology, and I’m able to tell little stories that don’t necessarily carry a whole episode in terms of narrative. I like the audience not being sure what they’re getting. I think it’s more fun to watch something when you’re discovering it as you go along.” – Louis C.K. in a 2011 interview.
“The Letter V” (1995)
Louis C.K. recruited his Conan and Dana Carvey Show cohort Robert Smigel to star in another Sunny Skies segment, with Smigel playing the host of a Sesame Street-esque childrens’ show host pushed to his limits.
Another Sunny Skies short, Louis C.K. wrote this one with Rick Shapiro, who stars as a neurotic Jewish mother. It’s easily the raunchiest of C.K.’s early films. As one astute YouTube commenter point out, “This video taught me that Marc Maron looks like Rick Shapiro with lipstick and a wig.”
“The Legend of Willie Brown” (mid-90s)
Another genre exercise, this one sees Louis C.K. parodying jazz mockumentaries.
“Ugly Revenge” (mid-90s)
Ron Lynch, JB Smoove, and Amy Poehler all star in this western set in modern day Manhattan.
Transition to features
As the 90s wore on, Louis C.K. found success on the writing staffs of The Chris Rock Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but he continued to devote time to filmmaking. He wrote and directed his first full-length film, Tomorrow Night, a black-and-white indie that featured appearances from Chuck Sklar, Matt Besser, and Steve Carell, amongst others. C.K. spent his life savings making the movie and ran out of money midway through filming. During an appearance on Conan O’Brien, Louis C.K. played a clip from Tomorrow Night and jokingly begged for money, which helped him to convince more investors to come on board so he could finish the project. Tomorrow Night premiered at Sundance but didn’t get distribution. Sadly, the movie isn’t currently available streaming or on video.
Louis C.K.’s next film, Pootie Tang, a Chris Rock Show spinoff, was released in 2001 after creative control of the project was wrestled away from C.K. He’s spoken publicly about how he’s not happy with the changes the studio made to the movie, and as of this writing, it’s the most recent full-length movie he’s directed.
Back to shorts:
After Pootie Tang failed, Louis C.K. continued to hone his chops as a stand-up and to take TV and film writing jobs. When YouTube was launched in 2005, C.K. was an early adopter, joining the site the following year and uploading a series of new shorts and sketches, as well as some of his older short films and pieces of a scrapped HBO sketch pilot.
“Jimmy Carter builds a house” (2006)
Adhering to the teachings of the Chevy Chase School of Presidential Impersonation, Louis C.K. opts not to alter his appearance, voice, or mannerisms to portray ex-commander-in-chief Jimmy Carter in this, his first YouTube video.
“Louis C.K. learns about the Catholic Church” (2007)
In C.K.’s second original YouTube video, he tackles one of his favorite topics, the Catholic Church. The video became a viral hit and earned C.K. plenty of attention and acclaim.
HBO sketch pilot (2007)
After Louis C.K.’s HBO sitcom Lucky Louie was canceled in 2006, the network hired him to make the stand-up special “Shameless” and to create a new pilot for a sketch show, composed of his absurdist short films. HBO passed on the show, but C.K. has uploaded pieces of the pilot to YouTube. This is part of the opening, for which C.K. rented out a helicopter:
This video, another helicopter-centric piece, also seems to be a part of the same TV show:
The idea of a comical helicopter getaway would resurface on the first episode of his FX show Louie, wherein Chelsea Peretti plays a woman on a bad first date with Louie who escapes via chopper.
This animated short also may or may not be a part of the same HBO pilot:
Airline safety video (2007)
An absurd fake airline safety demo from Louis C.K.
“I Say the Darndest Things to Kids” (2008)
Bill Cosby has been a longtime hero of Louis C.K.’s and in this very short short, which was possibly a part of his HBO sketch pilot, he gets the chance to do his own version of Cosby’s Kids Say the Darndest Things.
“Louis C.K.’s Last Chance” (2009)
Louis C.K. made this short film as a promo for his FX show Louie a few months before the series debuted. In “Last Chance,” he plays himself, trying to make a sex tape to save his career.
C.K.’s YouTube era videos were what helped FX to see the potential in doing a show like Louie with him. The resulting show, which is basically just short films and snippets of stand-up strung together, has earned him a lot of critical acclaim and artistic fulfillment. While studio interference ruined his first mainstream feature film Pootie Tang, and his three-camera sitcom Lucky Louie wasn’t a perfect fit, Louis C.K. has found his greatest success by returning to making his own short films, something he’s been doing throughout his entire career.
From the movies he made for film festivals and cable TV shows in the 1990s to the ones he made for YouTube in the 2000s, you can really see C.K.’s sensibilities as a filmmaker and as a comedian develop by looking at these shorts chronologically. I’ll leave you with this video, from 1998, in which Louis C.K. urges others to make short films, as it’s been so rewarding for him. Not that the YouTube generation needs any encouragement in that department now, but it was nice of C.K. to share his passion at a time when making short films was much more difficult and expensive and getting people to watch them was also way more challenging.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.