And that's just how he likes it. Unfortunately for Louis C.K., he just may be the world's greatest comedian

By Melissa Maerz
July 16, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Louis C.K. wants someone to hit him. Hard.

He’s standing in the U-Save Car and Truck Rental in Queens, shooting a scene for the third season of his semiautobiographical FX comedy, Louie (premiering June 28 at 10:30 p.m.), in which his character flies home to visit his estranged father. In the scene, he’s so nervous, he throws up all over his rental car. The props guy has already prepared the ”vomit” — a special blend of cream of mushroom and chunky vegetable soup — in a blender. But first C.K. needs to look like he’s really sick. So he wolfs down some Popeyes chicken, runs a few laps around the parking lot, and drops onto the gasoline-stained floor of the U-Save for a dozen push-ups. By the time he’s done, he looks like he’s going to have a heart attack. But that’s not enough.

”Can someone please punch me in the stomach?” asks C.K., red-faced and sweaty. A very tall man from his crew steps up. ”How hard?” he asks. ”About 40 percent,” says C.K. The tall man hits him, gently. ”A little harder,” demands C.K. The tall man hits him so hard, there’s an audible Oof! as the 44-year-old doubles over. ”Okay,” C.K. wheezes, the blood draining from his face. ”That’s good.” The tall man starts laughing.

It’s okay to think this is funny. C.K. might be the most respected comedian in America, but he still wants you to laugh at the things that make him feel awful, because they’re probably the same things that make you feel awful. And he knows that his fans always laugh the hardest when he’s getting punched in the gut. The best Louie episodes — the ones that deal with suicide, the war in Afghanistan, and C.K.’s cringe-inducing real-life feud with Dane Cook — are both very funny and very hard to watch. Consider that Louie‘s pilot ended with a monologue about putting his dog to sleep. According to C.K., it was the worst-testing ending in FX’s history, with 100 percent of the audience reporting that it made them depressed. He refused to let anyone change it. ”I’ve always felt compelled to say things that most people don’t want to hear,” he admits, sitting in the diner across the street from the U-Save and eating some cold pasta from the craft-services table. ”They’re either offensive or weird, but my goal has always been that anybody can enjoy them. What’s more fun than taking something that’s really from the depths of you — something that should really be kept private — and making some 54-year-old guy in flip-flops in Kentucky really laugh at it?”

This is C.K.’s gift: The more alienating his comedy becomes, the more people love him. Even in the tight-knit and cutthroat world of stand-up comedy, C.K. is universally adored. Joan Rivers compared him to Steven Spielberg (C.K. not only writes and stars on Louie, he also directs, and he’s a longtime filmmaker; you can watch his early absurdist shorts, starring folks like Amy Poehler and JB Smoove, on YouTube). Jerry Seinfeld, who tapped a young C.K. to tour with him in the late 1980s, will appear on the show this season. Woody Allen wrote him a fan letter, which is framed on his desk. ”I’ve got a Grammy, I’ve got an Emmy, I don’t give a s—. That letter is my prize possession,” says the comedian, who was recently cast in Allen’s next film. Explains Poehler, a longtime friend, ”The secret to being cool is to not care if you are. Being cool is just not important to Louis. He’s a real person, and people are attracted to his realness.”

All of this success makes C.K. just slightly uncomfortable. Right now Louie is drawing less than 2 million viewers each week, and the star believes that’s just where it belongs. The mere idea of approaching prime-time numbers — 6 million, 8 million — feels a little dangerous to him. ”There’s a hazard in getting more famous,” he admits. ”You start reaching people who didn’t ask to see you. And those people are like, I was just flippin’ around the channels, I didn’t expect to f—ing hear something that disgusting! What did he say that for?” For every comedian, he believes, there’s a popularity level that optimizes your survival, and you don’t want to rise too far above it. ”When you get into comedy, you do your thing and people start drawing toward it,” he says. ”It’s like those chemicals that you put in impure water, and the impurities are drawn to that chemical, and then you clear the water, you know? Culture is like that. There’s some level of the water that I should float at. Anywhere beyond that, there’s going to be bacteria that I’m not immune to. And they’ll eat me.”

Louie helps keep keep C.K. humble. Though he stresses that the show is fictional, it is based on his real life — primarily the early years, when his mug wasn’t plastered on billboards and buses. ”The guy on the show is usually four or five years behind where I am now,” he explains. ”Careerwise, I’d sometimes rather be back there. It’s fun to be struggling and not sure where you’re headed. That’s a youthful feeling.”

Raised by a single Irish mother, who met his father at Harvard (the two divorced when he was 10), C.K. grew up in Newton, Mass. There he got by on odd jobs: Instead of going to college, he worked at KFC, fixed cars, ran demolition for carpenters, and toiled away in a video store with a massive porn collection. ”I was a little overexposed to porn when I was a kid,” he confesses. As a teenager, he began working comedy clubs, starting with a more absurdist style, then hit his stride much later with painfully funny observations about his life as the father of two young girls. (He came up with his stage name — a phonetic version of his real one, Szekely — to prevent comedy-club emcees from mispronouncing it.) He wrote late-night sketches for David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, and a few screenplays, including 2001’s blaxploitation spoof Pootie Tang (which he also directed). He won an Emmy for his work on The Chris Rock Show. But it wasn’t until 2006 that he got to develop his own show, the sitcom Lucky Louie for HBO.

Looking back, C.K. views Lucky Louie as a lesson in how not to make a TV show. Shot before a live studio audience and billed as ”the end of the sitcom — as you know it,” the series attempted to deconstruct the classic multicamera comedy by using a traditional premise — working-class dad (C.K.) gets bossed around by his daughter, Lucy (Kelly Gould), and his breadwinner wife, Kim (Pamela Adlon, who has since turned up as C.K.’s crush on Louie) — to explore TV-taboo topics. In one episode, Kim catches Louie masturbating to a photo of Jessica Simpson; in another, his daughter pesters him with never-ending questions until he finally responds, ”Because God is dead and we’re alone.”

Obviously it was a tough sell for a sitcom. But C.K. balked at HBO’s attempts to make it more appealing to viewers. After one executive asked why there was no nudity on the show (it was pay cable, after all), it was Louie, not his hot wife, who got naked on screen. Lucky Louie was canceled after one season. ”You learn that when you take your voice and try to add all these things to make it acceptable, it’s a dead end,” C.K. says of the experience. ”You make those compromises, and then you get to the end, and you’re like, ‘No one even likes it? Then what did I do that for?’ It’s just better not to do the show.”

When C.K. came to FX, network president John Landgraf made it clear that he wouldn’t have to compromise. The comedian had originally pitched an idea for a more conventional sitcom loosely based on his life as a divorced dad, but Landgraf persuaded him to follow a format better suited to his talents. ”I was really more interested in this basic question: How would Louis make a show that encompassed everything he does as a writer, as a comedian, as an actor, as a producer, as a filmmaker?” explains the exec. ”And what if you let him work in a free modality? It turned out that when you didn’t put a box around what that guy could do, he could do virtually everything.”

Although Louie is shot in a consciously DIY style that makes it seem like it’s off-the-cuff, everything is actually hyper-controlled by C.K., who directs, writes, stars in, chooses the music for, and until recently, edited every episode. (For this season, he hired Susan E. Morse, who’s cut many of Woody Allen’s films.) Before the show began, Landgraf asked C.K. to give FX casting approval, but he refused. (He’s always been solely responsible for casting, and regularly messes with narrative consistency: This season, the actress who plays the mother of his blond-haired, fair-skinned daughters is African-American.) And when Landgraf told C.K. that he could only bump up the show’s budget from $200,000 to $300,000 per episode if he’d agree to take notes from the network, C.K. declined, keeping the budget at $200,000. (The average sitcom episode can cost anywhere from $1 million to $2 million.) Operating on the cheap has bought C.K. a great deal of freedom. ”If you demand a s—load of money, you’re forcing the network to need that kind of scrutiny,” he explains. ”But throwing away $200,000 is nothing to [FX].”

Having secured total creative control, C.K. has perfected the art of the feel-bad comedy, mixing paralyzing fear and self-loathing with moments of surprising tenderness and a real sense of wonder about the world. The most profane episodes — just Google ”Louis C.K.” and a certain homophobic slur — take morality very seriously. He jokes that his kids are a–holes, but his riffs on fatherhood prove he’s put way more thought into parenting than most dads you know. In season 2, he staged one of the sickest and most hilarious masturbation fantasies ever seen on television, but it was framed as a way to prevent TV Louis from foisting himself on a nice Christian girl, which, if you think about it, is kind of sweet.

Heading into its third season, Louie still feels like an experiment, in all the best ways. C.K. doesn’t write a lot of hard jokes, opting instead for moments that sometimes feel as unstaged and unfinished as real life. Much of the season focuses on Louie getting back into dating, postdivorce. (In real life, he shares custody of his two daughters with his ex-wife, the painter Alix Bailey, and is now single after breaking off a long-term, long-distance relationship.) The comedian is vehemently anti-spoiler, but it won’t ruin anything to reveal that one of the best new episodes involves him going on a date with a very complicated woman, and it ends on a note that’s either ultra-romantic or crushingly depressing — and deliberately incomplete. Three Oscar-winning actors will also guest-star this season, along with one Oscar-winning director (could it be his new fan Woody Allen?), but C.K. says he paid them the same rate as regular working actors. Although he’s written roles for well-known comedians (this season alone will see Marc Maron, Artie Lange, and Maria Bamford), he regularly turns down A-list celebrities who want to appear on the show if they would seem out of place in Louie‘s Greenwich Village backdrop. ”It’s never gonna be like, ‘Oh, look, there’s George Clooney in a coffee shop!”’ he explains. ”I’ll never run out of New York actors who’d work really hard to play that part.”

Such creative choices have earned him big points from people like Poehler, who’s known C.K. since the ’90s, when they were both regulars at an alternative-comedy showcase at New York’s now-defunct Luna Lounge, alongside Janeane Garofalo, Maron, and various members of MTV’s sketch-comedy show The State. She earned one of her first IMDb credits playing ”Woman Sprayed with Hose” in C.K.’s now-hard-to-find 1998 indie film Tomorrow Night, and three years ago brought C.K. onto Parks and Recreation to play Leslie Knope’s awkward boyfriend Dave. ”Back in the ’90s, there was a feeling that we were all doing our work for each other, in front of each other, and everyone was experimenting,” she says. ”Louie has always maintained that spirit. Creatively, he takes risks. He’s not afraid of change. He’s kept that sense of adventure that you have inherently when you’re young but you have to hold on to when you get older.”

One of the ways C.K. keeps himself from getting too comfortable is through stand-up. He tosses out his jokes and writes new ones every time he goes on tour, and still pops into tiny comedy clubs to do gigs for crowds who probably don’t know who he is. ”Stand-up has always saved my life, because you don’t need show-business heat to work as a comedian, you just need a good track record on the road,” says C.K., who will launch another national tour in the fall. ”Brad Pitt could work the Punchline in St. Louis for three nights, and people would stop coming, because he would stink — I don’t care how many people want his autograph.”

Still, he has to admit that Louie has boosted his audience for live shows. In November, he taped the comedy special Live at the Beacon with no studio backing and no promoter, and then sold it himself on for $5. While he told fans, ”I can’t stop you from torrenting,” he ended up making more than a million dollars. (Fellow comics Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan have since adopted the same do-it-yourself business model.) On Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, C.K. revealed that he used $250,000 of the profits to reimburse his company for production costs, gave $250,000 in bonuses to the people who work for him, and donated $280,000 to charity. When Fallon asked what he was going to do with the rest, C.K. quipped that he was planning to buy a new penis. ”I’m leaving the old one…I’m gonna have an old one and a new one, right there. It’s gonna be nice.”

President Obama must not have heard that joke, because four months after Beacon hit the Web, the White House came calling, inviting C.K. to headline the Radio & Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner. To use C.K.’s analogy, this is exactly the point at which his celebrity water level rose too high and the flesh-eating bacteria swooped in. Not long after the announcement was made, Fox News correspondent Greta Van Susteren demanded a media boycott of the event, calling C.K. a ”pig” who ”denigrates all women.” (As evidence, she cited his use of the C-word in a 2010 Twitter rant against Sarah Palin, which he’d admitted to composing on an airplane while drunk on rum and Cokes.) Because Van Susteren launched her attack while pundits were still debating Rush Limbaugh’s sexist comments about birth-control advocate Sandra Fluke, C.K. found himself getting dragged into a much larger political debate than he was prepared for. It was 9 o’clock on a Thursday morning, and he was talking on the phone with his mother when he saw the news pop up on Google.

”I just smelled a truckload of s— on its way to me,” he remembers. ”So I said, ‘What do I do now, Mom?’ And she said, ‘Politics is really brutal. There’s no comedy involved in it. They’ll hurt you. You should’ve never taken that job.”’ The gig wasn’t scheduled until June, but C.K. knew he had to get out right now, before he got fired. ”I was thinking about Sun Tzu’s The Art of War,” he says. ”I thought, What if I get out before they even sharpen their blades, and they’re like, ‘Where did he go?’ So I called my manager and said as little as possible: ‘Don’t want to do it.’ That’s it.”

Leaning back in his seat, he lets out a long, hard breath, as if he’s been holding the air in this whole time. ”I would love to wear a suit and meet the president,” he says, somewhat apologetically. ”But that’s not the road I took in my life. I’m just a citizen. A really dirty one. I say horrible things. And I want the freedom to do that.”

A Little Louis

A taste of C.K.’s stand-up from over the years

”9/11” C.K. poses the ethical question ”How long was it after 9/11 till you masturbated again?” For him, he says, ”it was between the two buildings going down.” The justification? ”I had to do it. I had to. Otherwise they win.”

”Clifford the Big Red Dog” C.K. rants about how much he hates to read the Clifford books with his daughters. ”There’s seven books about Narnia that cover the birth and death of a nation, and mice with swords and a lion who’s a god. They did it in seven books! There’s 50 books about Clifford the Big Red Dog and they all tell the same story: Look how big this dog is.”

”Candy Wrapper” After getting chastised for throwing a candy wrapper on the ground, C.K. argues that in New York, where the world is your garbage bag, it’s more environmentally sound to throw trash on the street. ”If you put it in a receptacle, then it…gets dumped into the ocean and some dolphin wears it as a hat on its face. For 10 years.”

”Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” C.K. marvels at how the 21st century is wasting all the good technology on the worst generation, who always complain that their phones are too slow. ”Give it a second!” he gasps. ”It’s going to space!… Is the speed of light too slow for you?”