Cause Trouble and Sell Tickets: Louis CK on the Radio, 2004-2014
Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.
Guys I don’t know if you’ve heard, but technology is really changing the world. It’s making it easier to connect, and it even makes our lives easier in ways we’d never expect! For example, poor farmers in third world countries no longer have to walk all the way into town to see what the grain prices are when they can just text and see if they want to buy any grain.
Similarly, I think this theory can eliminate a lot of unnecessary confusion that leads to interviews like the recent New York Magazine one with Louis CK. What does he think of politics? What does he think of Trump? Oh my gosh, what does he think about race?? All very promising and titillating questions. But this is predicated on this idea that, in the words of the AV Club, “CK isn’t an enigmatic riddle of a man, but he’s also not really an open book.”
I agree, yes, from all of this he seems like a very not-open book. But have you tried opening the book? You lift the cover gently up and to the left until you can see the interior pages, and then continue in this manner until you find pages with words on them?
In CK’s case, one of the things you will find is a gigantic archive of audio from his appearances on radio shows from 2004-present. Some brave entertainment blogs have even covered some recent Stern interviews promoting Horace and Pete but I guess never thought to click the related videos. The large bulk of this #content, as I have surely noted in related articles, was created after Lucky Louie was cancelled and CK was trying to build an audience for road gigs. And the concrete result of this today — possibly best thought of as a massive YouTube rabbit hole — is the series of 40-50 videos that listeners have collected and arranged online into an unofficial (and official) “Louis CK on O&A” playlist. It’s over 100 (one hundred) hours long.
It’s not that hard to navigate. Each title has the number of appearance, e.g. “Louis CK on O&A #7” and then a subtitle, usually a phrase that was the “line of the day” (an old radio bit) from that day’s show. And now conveniently, instead of reading some magazine article theorizing what CK might think about Donald Trump or Atlantic City, you can save time and listen to this story about being in an elevator alone with Trump in Atlantic City:
Just to be clear: The Opie & Anthony Show is incredibly, indefensibly problematic a lot of the time. But it’s silly to pretend this doesn’t exist. You wouldn’t want to read a book about Nixon that pretended the Nixon Tapes didn’t exist, would you? And if it makes you feel any better, CK’s sensibility dominates these conversations and drowns out most of the more harsh problematic stuff.
For example, the above clip is from the show in February 2011 where CK asked Donald Rumsfeld if he is a lizard from Mars. The lead-up to that phone interview, however, was an hour-long sequence in which CK forcefully inveighs (the think piece word for “rants”) against the corporatization of America. They are only talking about Atlantic City because CK started the show by plugging his upcoming shows at the Borgata in Atlantic City, which leads to talking about Atlantic City in general and eventually they’ve got this huge head of steam that sets the stage for the Rumsfeld phoner.
Here is the full show. The hour I just described starts at the beginning:
Of course, this was all intentional. On the next (or one of his next) appearances, CK explains that he had convinced the Borgata to book him prematurely, on the promise that he had a plan to sell the tickets. And then that plan was to go on the radio and be really crazy and get on the news. “I came in the studio that day for two reasons: to cause trouble and sell tickets.” Apparently it worked and he made enough extra money to buy a car.
So by now you will have noticed that that’s the 39th episode of this playlist, and a little over two hours of the 100 hours total of Louie causing trouble on the radio. “What are some of the other topics he addresses?” you may ask.
Well to continue with the trend of topical themes, here is the show from the day after O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It came out:
The conversation in this case turns on the question (proposed by CK) of whether O.J. Simpson is a good enough writer to invent the whole, pretty artfully realized, “hypothetical” story in which he killed Nicole and Ron Goldman. The description of taking the knife out the bag, for example, is “written way too descriptively — only someone who has actually done this would think to put in these details…”
And here is a show from the week of the Virginia Tech shooting, in which they dissect the motives behind those type of tragedies:
Full disclosure: I happen to have been a senior at Virginia Tech at that time. I’m not really sure if that makes a difference for this article, but felt like I should include it. There is definitely some graphic imagery in this episode, but it’s all in service of the case that guys that do these things genuinely are pathetic, uninteresting losers. CK focuses the conversation on things like how the gunman made his big “manifesto” video and had to delete it and restart it a bunch of times because he flubbed his lines, or it didn’t sound “scary” enough. Reducing the whole thing down to just this guy alone in a room talking to his shitty laptop camera, which is what it is. “And these guys think they’re so edgy and interesting. If this guy came back to life tomorrow and wanted to talk to me, I’d be like [dismissively] ‘uh hey, how ya doin…I’m gonna go over here now.’”
It’s also worth noting the audience here, because in all of these the audience is the whole point (“sell tickets”). The audience for this show is almost entirely young men, i.e. the exact demographic that would be easiest to pander to in this situation (Oohh those Tsarnaev brothers, someone should blow them up with a bomb!) and the exact demographic who needs to hear it talked about openly and honestly.
In another episode, which I am now realizing would take forever to find so you’ll just have to take my word for it, CK tells O&A, “You guys are just like NPR, except they talk about this stuff in these serious, hushed tones. You guys just come out and say the thing.”
To be sure, in the time since these shows aired we’ve realized that that’s usually not such a great idea. And as you’ll see, there are dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of specific instances throughout these videos where that very proposition goes wrong. So the degree of difficulty is very high — too high, I want to be clear, for amateurs to attempt online — but when CK’s sensibility (around that time) was mixed with the more bro-y nihilist vibe of O&A (around that time), it was just on a whole other level altogether. They perfectly balance each other out, get the other off his normal footing, and together just embody the main virtue of live talk radio, which is its complete unpredictability.
The best illustration of this is the time Louie guested on a show with Dennis Hof, owner of the infamous Bunny Ranch, who brought one of his employees to do some classic shock jock radio. This consists, as you may know, of showing breasts, throwing whipped cream, playing with dildos, etc.
Only this time Louie’s there and he just can’t get into this manufactured excitement. You forget he’s there, really. The main hosts go through the motions of saying how crazy the bunny ranch must be and how lurid it is to have a naked woman in studio. And then to contrast that, they do the next break about Stalker Patti, a sweet 50+ year-old friend of the show who is known for being uptight and shy and never having had sex.
CK ends up making the point (which of course everyone in the studio agrees with because he’s Louis CK) that just talking to Patti as a human is much more engaging than the previous segment, “Throwing sex around like a bunch of prisoners in a prison cafeteria.”
Well maybe it’s just me, but sometimes these polished magazine interviews with comedy people feel like a bunch of prisoners throwing fluff at each other in a prison cafeteria. Isn’t this more interesting?