The entire comedy industry has been gushing over Louis C.K. ever since his FX show Louie debuted in 2010 (preceded by the industry gushing over him at a lower volume for about a decade prior to that). That’s because he’s pulled off an impressive feat that no one in the history of comedy has ever done before: being the country’s preeminent stand-up and an excellent filmmaker at the same time. Ever since he ditched his early persona as an absurdist jokesmith and became a deeply personal comedian, C.K. has become the closest thing this current crop of stand-ups has to a Pryor or a Carlin. One might argue that Louis C.K.’s idol Woody Allen, in his prime, was also an excellent stand-up and filmmaker, but he never did both at once. Allen quit stand-up to pursue moviemaking, but Louis C.K. is on top of his game in both fields at the same time.
Let’s take a look at all of the movie and TV projects Louis C.K. tried out for or turned down, and his shows and movies that never made it to screens to begin with, including a slew of unaired TV pilots, stints as Chris Rock and Conan O’Brien’s head writers, and what’s preventing him from making another movie.
Saturday Night Live (1993)
It’s not really the case anymore, but SNL used to be hire a lot of stand-ups to fill out its cast. After the success of Adam Sandler and David Spade on the show in the early 90s, the producers began hunting for a new crop of stand-ups to hire as cast members, which led to the likes of Norm Macdonald, Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr, Janeane Garofalo, and Laura Kightlinger getting hired. Prior to the start of the ’93 seasons, though, Louis C.K. auditioned for the show. Here’s C.K. telling his side of the story during an excellent 2006 interview with Matt Belknap:
“They had a big audition at Catch [a Rising Star] in New York for every comedian. At the time, every club in the city was closing. The Improv closed, and there was no work anymore, anywhere… the ‘80s comedy surge was gone. At the Comedy Cellar, there would literally be nobody in the audience, and they’d make you do the show, because if somebody happened to wander in, there couldn’t be no show, so you’d literally be on stage in an empty room and you had to do the jokes. I mean, it was fuckin’ awful.
So it was like that for a few years, and I was going broke. And SNL was like the last chance, the last boat leaving, so Dave Attell, Laura Kightlinger, Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr and me and a bunch of other people all auditioned. I remember that I was put first on the show, and the SNL people hadn’t shown up, and the guy that ran Catch, Louis Faranda, was trying to put me on anyway. He was like, ‘Go on.’
‘But they’re not gonna see me.’
He said, ‘I don’t care.’
It was cruel as shit. And I think that Jon Stewart was there and he offered to go on and stall for me, which he did. But finally I had to go on, and as I went on stage they all filed in, and I remember that David Spade was with them, and he had seen me, so he made them sit down, Jim Downey and them, and said, ‘Watch this guy,’ which I’m forever indebted to him for even though I didn’t get on SNL.
It made a difference, because I went on and I had a really solid, good set, and then over the following week, Laura Kightlinger got cast, Dave Attell, Sarah, Jay, everybody but me [got cast], like everybody that was on that [showcase] but me.”
The SNL audition may have been a nightmare for Louis C.K., but it directly led to his first TV gig, writing for Conan O’Brien. SNL head writer Jim Downey recommended C.K. to Conan O’Brien’s head writer Robert Smigel, who was just then putting together the new show with Conan. Impressed by C.K.’s standup and his short films, Conan and Smigel quickly hired him to become a part of their show’s original writing staff.
Late Night with Conan O’Brien (1995)
After Robert Smigel left Late Night with Conan O’Brien to work on The Dana Carvey Show for ABC, Louis C.K., who had been the first of the core group to leave Conan, was offered the chance to replace him. Here’s C.K. about the Late Night head writer gig:
“That would’ve been enormous. I was like 26, 27 years old. I remember having a meeting with Conan where he said, you know, ‘Take this job, you can’t lose, you’re gonna be the center of a show that is going to be more and more considered a great comic brand, and you are going to go to L.A. and be a millionaire.’
But he also… He’s a really cool guy, and he also — I was hesitating, and he said, ‘I think I know why you’re hesitating.’ And he described when he worked at The Simpsons, he saw his whole future ahead of him: he’s gonna get an SUV, move to Bel Air, create a couple more shows, get a bunch of points, and have a family. And he could see so far ahead that he could see his grave. He didn’t like that anymore. And that’s why he went and decided he’s gonna do this thing that no one thinks he can do.
And that’s how I felt. I didn’t want to stick around, so I quit… and quickly didn’t know what the fuck to do.”
Louis C.K. quickly found work making short films for Howie Mandel’s Showtime sketch show Sunny Skies before jumping to a brief stint as a Letterman writer, and then taking a job with former boss Robert Smigel as head writer on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show.
The Chris Rock Show (1997)
Right after Louis C.K. accepted his Dana Carvey Show job, Chris Rock, whom he knew from the New York stand-up scene, offered him the chance to be head writer of a new HBO show he was putting together. C.K. turned the gig down, which seems like a wise move at the time considering how much more popular Dana Carvey was than Chris Rock back in the mid-90s.
"So he called me right before I went to Dana and I had quit Letterman, and he said, 'Don’t do Dana’s show, come work on my show.'
And I said, 'I’m doing The Dana Carvey Show on ABC and I’m the head writer and producer, this is like… Why would I do your fuckin’ HBO show?'
And he said, 'Alright, well look…' He called me like three or four times, and he said, 'You’re gonna have an awful time there, you’re on ABC, they’re gonna hate you. On my show I’m gonna let you do anything you want. I don’t even know what my show’s gonna be, so it’s, you can just create it.'
And I said, 'Fuck that.'"
The Dana Carvey Show was canceled after just seven episodes, and C.K. called Chris Rock and got a job on the show as a staff writer, where he stayed for four years and had a much better experience than on Dana Carvey.
Louis C.K.'s first movie, Tomorrow Night (which is still unreleased), ran out of funding midway through production, and C.K. had to call his comedy friends to lend him money to finish the project. Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Brett Butler, and Denis Leary all gave C.K. money, but when it came time to ask Jerry Seinfeld, things didn't go as well…
"The farthest I reached was Jerry Seinfeld, and he didn’t give me money. I called him, and I think he thought I was asking for a job, and it occurred to me during the phone call, 'I could be working for Seinfeld in two minutes.' I used to open for him when I was younger, so I just called the Seinfeld show and asked for him. And he called me back, and he said, 'What’s up? What can I do for you?' And I could hear in his voice, like, 'I could use a writer.'
And I thought: Why don’t I just say I want a job and just go to LA right now? It crossed my mind.
But instead I said, 'I’m making a film and I need money,' and he immediately went, “Ugh, God.” He regretted calling me back, and I basically severed my line to Jerry — my ability to get a call-back from Jerry ended right there. I reached way too far — I hadn’t talked to the guy in like ten fuckin’ years. Fuckin’ awful."
Boomtown (1999 CBS pilot)
Fresh of his success as a Seinfeld writer, Spike Feresten scored a development deal with Rob Reiner’s company Castle Rock, and he chose to write a pilot with Louis C.K. as a starring vehicle for the comedian. Boomtown would have followed C.K.’s characters and his friends, a bunch of struggling creative types in New York. After a disastrous table read, however, the project fell apart, and the pilot was never filmed.
"Spike Feresten, who wrote for Seinfeld, got a development deal at Castle Rock and he and I wrote a pilot for me to star in. Somewhere around the same year — it was a crazy year. We wrote the pilot and took it to CBS and I read it at a table for Les Moonves, and the wheels came off — I couldn’t act, and it was embarrassing…I couldn’t hear because there was blood in my ears… My head was moving with my pulse, [that’s] how hard my heart was beating. It was so awful."
Untitled Fox Pilot (circa 2002)
Louis C.K. wrote another pilot for Fox. Here’s C.K. describing the show:
"The one for Fox was me with a wife who’d just gotten pregnant and started to get serious about life. That one I really enjoyed writing, but that went all the way to [Chairman of Fox Entertainment] Sandy Grushow, who said, “I don’t get this,” and that was the end of that."
Saint Louie (2004 CBS pilot)
After two well-received performances at the Montreal and Aspen Comedy Festivals, Louis C.K. found his career gaining momentum, and he signed a deal with CBS to create another show. He wrote Saint Louie with sitcom veteran Bruce Helford – the producer/creator of The Drew Carey Show and George Lopez and a guy that C.K. has called “a fuckin’ hit-maker.” Unlike C.K.’s previous pilots, this one was actually filmed. It starred C.K., Cynthia Watros (Titus, Drew Carey) and Evan Handler (Sex and the City, Californication), and the show was well-liked by both C.K. and the network. Saint Louie didn’t make CBS’s fall schedule, but it was a strong contender for midseason before the network ultimately passed.
HBO Sketch Show Pilot (2007)
After C.K.’s HBO sitcom Lucky Louie was canceled, the network execs there wanted to keep working with him, so they inked a deal for him to create and star in his own sketch show. HBO ultimately passed on what C.K. made, but several clips from it have ended up online. I collected these clips in a piece earlier this year, The Short Films of Louis C.K.
Untitled C.K. and Adlon Project (2008 CBS pilot)
While Lucky Louie didn’t quite work as a series, the chemistry being Louis C.K. and the actress who played his wife, Pamela Adlon, was still pretty strong. C.K. and Adlon (who has gone on to produce and write for C.K.’s current show Louie and also plays his love interest Pamela sporadically on the show) teamed up to create a show in which they’d play “a married couple who have been together too long and have too many children.” CBS passed on the show.
Boomtown (2012 CBS pilot)
After passing on Spike Feresten and Louis C.K.’s pilot Boomtown in 1999, CBS dusted off that old script this past development season, 13 years later, in the wake of Feresten and C.K. becoming much more successful. Since the show was about a bunch of twentysomethings, C.K. would obviously no longer be starring in the project. A pilot was filmed, with a new cast that featured Party Down’s Ryan Hansen, Cougar Town’s Dan Byrd, and, um, High School Musical’s Ashley Tisdale. Unfortunately, CBS passed on the show this second time around too, but maybe they’ll pick it back up again in 2024.
Making a third movie
Louis C.K.’s first two movies, Tomorrow Night and Pootie Tang, each experienced turbulent productions, and failed to make a big splash upon their respective releases (Tomorrow Night wasn’t even released outside of festivals). Still, C.K. has proven he’s an incredibly talented filmmaker on Louie, and it’s only a matter of time until he has an opportunity to make a third film. He commented on the situation when asked if he would direct another movie during a Reddit IamA session last year:
"I would love yo [sic] make more movies. That is a FUCKING HARD JOB though, dude. Just to get it made. You can't even do anything else while you're tyring [sic] to get it made and then you probably won't. It's heart breaking. Then it takes a good 2 years to make and finish the movie then it maybe won't come out and then maybe it gets changed and worse than the movie not getting made, you made it, then it got changed into something you hated and then came out.
yeah. that's hard. if i can get a deal to make a movie the way I do my show, i'll do it. Otherwise… no.
I have a dream, though. You want to hear it? Yeah? Well, okay.
I thought about what if I make another special like this one and i put it up for 5 bucks again and it goes gangbusters. It makes, say, 8 million bucks. I don't know that that is even possible. I'm trying to find out what the potential is with this one.
But so if I make 8 million, which all goes through paypal right into Pig Newton, my company that makes my show and made the special. Well I would leave the money in there and make a fucking movie.
This special, if it explosed [sic], cause really it's only been up for 2 days, more like a pre-sale. If it really tears an asshole into the money monster who then shits dollars into my mouth (oh my god what's wrong with me) then I will use that money to buy a home and get some security which i NEVER have had in my life and have certainly not gotten from my low budget show.
So it would have to be special number 2 that would keep the money in the company and make a movie. I have always put cash back into the work. The profit I made on last years [sic] season of louie went to buying a new RED EPIC camera which now sits here next to me and a modest but impressive collection of lenses from germany and england, which now belong to Pig Newton and will be used to shoot said 8 million dollar movie.
I wrote way too much here that I should keep to myself but fuck it i'm pressing send."
Thanks to Matt Belknap, of A Special Thing and Never Not Funny fame, for conducting an amazing, in-depth 2006 interview with Louis C.K., from which I pulled most of the C.K. quotes used in this piece. It’s well worth the (long) read and a revealing look at Louis C.K.’s career.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.