On his comedy album Hilarious, Louis C.K. describes the time his older daughter was bitten by an Italian pony. "How do you more break a little girl's heart than a pony bite? That's like being raped by Santa Claus." It's a typical C.K. bit: It's raunchy and a little bit sad, and it is fundamentally about his heroic efforts—and failures—to be a great dad.
Fatherhood is also central to his TV show, Louie, which is loosely based on his life as a divorced dad of two little girls. The show is a meandering, sometimes surrealist ride, which doesn't follow the beats of a traditional sitcom. Slate talked to C.K. about the second season of Louie, which premieres on Thursday, June 23 (FX, 10:30 p.m. EST); about how he manages to direct, write, edit, and star in the show while taking care of his kids; and about why he is standing up for Tracy Morgan after the 30 Rock star has been accused of homophobia.
Slate: Your identity—both as a character, a stand-up, and a person—seems to revolve around your being a father. What was the core of your identity before you were a dad? How did you define yourself then?
Louis C.K.: That's a good question. I don't really remember what it was like before. Whatever I had going on, it was bullshit. It wasn't important. It's kind of a nice thing about being a dad. My identity is really about them now, and what I can do for them, so it sort of takes the pressure off of your own life. What am I going to do, who am I? Who cares, you've got to get your kids to school. So I like it that way.
Slate: Are the bits you do about your daughters generally true? Did your daughter actually get bitten by a pony?
Louis C.K.: My daughter really did get bit by a pony, and so that was true, and I felt like a piece of shit, and she really was very positive about it. I do feel a lot of times like I'm out of my league with my kids in terms of what my responsibility is. Those parts are true. As far as when I make them behave badly on stage and in my show, that's all fiction. My kids are really easy. I often worry that they're too easy to deal with. They're really nice people. But that just wouldn't be as entertaining, so I just leave that part out.
Slate: In an episode from the first season of Louie, a single mom your character meets at a PTA meeting tells you, "Just by showing up, you're father of the year." Do you think you have more freedom to talk about being a dad because there are fewer expectations placed on fathers in general?
Louis C.K.: It's funny—in life, those roles have all changed. There's a lot of fathers who take care of their kids, there's a lot of mothers who have careers. But in culture, those roles are still the same. When I take my kids out for dinner or lunch, people smile at us. A waitress said to my kids the other day, "Isn't that nice that you're getting to have a little lunch with your daddy?" And I was insulted by it, because I'm like, I'm fucking taking them to lunch, and then I'm taking them home, and then I'm feeding them and doing their homework with them and putting them to bed. She's like, Oh, this is special time with daddy. Well, no, this is boring time with daddy, the same as everything.
If I do something for my kids, I get a medal, because most fathers don't. If a mother makes a tremendous effort for her kids and does incredible things, no one gives a shit, because she's a mom, and that's what she's supposed to do. It's like giving a bus driver a medal for driving straight ahead. Nobody's interested. And that's really not fair, but it is the way it is.
Slate: You write, produce, direct, edit, and star in Louie, and you also have joint custody of your two daughters, so you're a single dad when you have the kids. What's a typical week like for you?
Louis C.K.: It's pretty crazy. Starting with the first shooting day, I get up at 6 in the morning and go to the set. Shoot from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., get a little bit of time to myself, but not much, then either go out and do a set to keep my chops up onstage, or I go home and edit. If I'm not done writing the series, then I have to do a little writing. I often bring my laptop to work and write and edit during the shooting when I have breaks. So it's a pressing, difficult day until 7 o'clock. I also meet with all the production people and make decisions about future shoots. Then I get home at 9 or 10 and collapse and go to sleep, get up the next morning, same thing, usually three days in a row.
Then on the fourth day, I'll shoot half a day, and then pick up my kids at school. I take them home, do their homework with them, feed them dinner, put them in the tub, get them in bed. Then I'll edit while they're sleeping. Next morning, get up at 6:30, feed them, make them lunches, get them to school. Then usually I'll try to sleep while they're in school. Then I'll either do postproduction, or writing, or logistics with my production people.
Slate: From your stand-up persona, it seems like in your spare moments, you are a pretty dark thinker. Are you happier keeping incredibly busy?
Louis C.K.: Oh, definitely. I like being active, it keeps my brain going. And it's all worthwhile stuff. I love working on the show, even though the pressure is enormous and it's very exhausting. And the kids put a lot of pressure [on you], and they're hard to care for sometimes. It's all positive, it's just too much. The only thing that gets me down is failing at it. When it gets quiet, I get a little empty.
Louis C.K.: I learned that those things aren't so bad. I learned that the benefit of the education is worth the trouble. It goes away. You take a few days off, and let yourself wallow, and then you get a little tired of hearing it from yourself, and then you get interested in something else. It would be like if you could go to hell, for a visit, before you die, and you found out it wasn't so bad. If damnation is actually kind of comfortable, the place they put you up is kind of nice, and the people are cool. And then you go back to your life and say, Fuck this, man. I'm doing whatever I want.
Having a movie go down in flames and having a series canceled, and the cancelation cheered by the fucking TV intelligentsia, those are the two hells of putting yourself out there and trying to make a show. I've lived them both, and it wasn't so bad. I still had wind in my sails, so now I'm not afraid to do that anymore.
Slate: You were defending Tracy Morgan on Twitter this week for some controversial jokes he made at a show in Nashville. [Morgan said that homosexuality is a choice, and that if he had a gay son he would stab him to death.] Why did you think it was clear that he was "fucking around"?
Louis C.K.: Well I've said a lot of things that were worse than what he said. I have my things that make it OK for people when I say them. I have my irony and different levels that I'm working at, so that makes it OK for people around me, for people that come to my shows. And people heard this Tracy shit mostly third-hand. He didn't stand on a public stage and say this stuff. He didn't make these announcements: "Here, America, are my views." Where you say something makes a huge difference about what you say and what it means and what you let yourself say.
There's a lot of times when I let myself channel bad ideas as a way to do comedy. I think it's something that's a healthy thing to do, honestly. And I think the person who really fucked people up and hurt people with Tracy's words was whoever took it out of that Nashville club and put it on the national stage—whoever called Huffington Post or whoever started this shit, and said, "Guess what Tracy Morgan said," and announced it to the rest of the world. He wasn't trying to say it to the rest of the world. So when I read stuff like, How are gay people going to feel when they read this? Well they didn't have to read it! They weren't part of that show. Maybe there were gay people there who were laughing. You don't fucking know. Nobody gets to say that they represent anybody and they're offended on behalf of the whole world.
You can see this shit really bothers me. I didn't carefully inspect what he said. I heard some of it, and it made me laugh. I didn't get the context, but I have to defend it, because if I was in his role, if I was in his situation, which I might be someday—which I already am for having said something on his behalf—I would want someone to step forward and say something. This is a freedom that I live off of. I think, whatever, if Tracy made a mistake, he certainly didn't deserve all of this. And I don't know him well, but he's a good guy. So I'm using that judgment, of just, hey, I met him and he's a good guy. And I get a sense of him as a father, and there's no way he would stab his kid.
It's a dumb thing to take at face value. You'd have to be a moron. And if you do, you are not allowed to laugh at any more jokes. You are not allowed to laugh at any jokes that have any violence or negative feelings attached to them, ironically or otherwise. I think there's a lot of hypocrisy in that. If anybody thinks that what he said is true and there's no comedy in it, don't come to my shows. I've said to many audiences that I think you shouldn't rape someone unless you have a good reason, like you want to fuck them and they won't let you. That's worse than what he said! And I didn't wink and say, just kidding. I just said it.
Slate: But you first told that joke a while ago, right? I wonder if you had initially told that joke today, with the Internet what it is now, if it would have become more of a firestorm.
Louis C.K.: That's absolutely true, and it's dangerous. Of course I wouldn't fucking rape anybody. Of course it's not OK. It's stupid to even have to say that out loud, but that's where all this is headed, and that's why I said something. That's why I got into this dirty mess, and I know it is dirty, and I know that there's a lot of people who are going to say, "Oh, I must not really care about gay people's problems." Of course I do! I've devoted several chunky bits to telling people to leave gay people alone. I'm out there saying it 50 ways to Sunday. It's not about that. But this shit really bothers me, it really does.
Slate: Finally, what's the best thing you saw on the Internet this week?
Louis C.K.: Jeez, I don't know. I don't see a lot of stuff on the Internet, where I go, "Oh, awesome." You know what? I watched Family Guy on Netflix and I laughed really hard. It was something to do with that fucking dog. I think that's what it was.
This interview has been condensed and edited.