Inviting The Awful. What I Have Learned From Louis CK
Louis CK has been a comedian for nearly 30 years by my count. Not yet 50 but after starting stand up in his late teens he has been plugging away at his craft to get better for a very long time.
I, like a lot of his current fans discovered Louis relatively recently (about 5 years ago) and after pouring over just about every piece of his back catalogue as possible I have begun to admire the man as much as the comedian.
Louis CK has had a lot more traditional failures than successes. He worked as a writer on a number of late night shows, and even when offered promotions often turned them down as it would encroach on his ability to get better at his craft for himself.
Louis once was part of a comedians showcase at a comedy club where Saturday Night Live execs were in the audience. At that time making the SNL roster was the be all and end all for a comedian.
Every single person on the showcase was hired…except for him. He said this was the one and only real time he considered giving comedy away but realised there was nothing else he could do after spending the bulk of his 20’s being a stand up and having never been to college ended up resolving to…just get better at his craft. As fate would have it he soon received a call to be part of a new late night show with a host no one had heard of called Conan O’Brien
The twists and turns his career have taken since then have led him to be the pre-eminent stand up of his day and the lessons learned about persistence, self marketing and most importantly getting better at your craft are highlighted below.
Here are 7 things he taught me including, inviting the awful
1. Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.
I know nothing about ice hockey, but I know Wayne Gretzky. This is also one of my favourite quotes. Louis CK has embodied this by opening new markets and avenues of distribution by ignoring the traditional methods of distribution for his material.
His stand up special “Hilarious” was originally intended to be a concert movie to be distributed in theatres, but after limited interest he decided to sell it directly to his fans via his website for $5. No one of his standing had really attempted this before, and his special went on to make $1 million in its first few days.
He had inadvertently defined a new distribution channel for his content whilst keeping creative control and “cutting out the middle man” He has since released many more hours of content via this method and is seen as a pioneer in this way.
He has recently created a web only series called Horace and Pete which has been critically acclaimed and taken content creation and distribution to new levels again in 2016.
This has taught me that consistent innovation and not being afraid of doing what no one has done before can reap huge rewards
2. Failure is one step closer to success.
As mentioned earlier, Louis CK’s traditional failures are many but he has used those failures to learn and experiment with how to get better at his craft. Here are just a few examples of his showbiz failures.
- He was the only comedian not picked by SNL from the comedians showcase
- St Louis Tv series never got past a pilot
- Lucky Louis Tv Series 1 season and slated by critics
- Pootie Tang – Wrote and directed a movie with Chris Rock that although it has become a cult classic was hammered by critics and was told he’d never work in showbiz again
- His contemporaries became stars whilst he was still grinding away in clubs
These are just some of the traditional failures he has had but he has spoken about without these failures he wouldn’t of had the opportunity to learn from them and be in the position he is in now.
He has come to realise that… failure is the cornerstone for future success purely by being in the game to begin with.
3. Taking Chances.
After working on Conan O’Brien’s original late show staff as a writer for a few years an opportunity came up for him to take on the executive producer and head writer role. After years of toiling away in clubs and not making a lot of money, here was a gilt edged opportunity for him to finally take on a high paying job.
Louis CK told Howard Stern he would have been earning $10,000 a week working for Conan (great money for anyone, especially in the mid 90’s) but had decided to walk away from not only the job, but the Conan show altogether. He wasn’t sure why, but Conan told him why he thought he was willing to take such a big risk.
Conan told him that he was a chance taker, and that he wouldn’t be personally or professionally fulfilled unless he took a chance on himself and his first love, stand up, and the only way he could get to the levels he wanted was to fully commit to it. If he stayed on the show he could see his future all the way to the grave, and that was not the reason he was in this business in the first place but to be the best stand up he could be.
4. How to master your craft, thanks to Chris Rock.
Louis CK has said that Chris Rock taught him a very important lesson about mastering your craft. After 10 years or so of being a stand up himself he had lost a certain amount of drive to improve. One night at a comedy club with some friends, Chris Rock was headlining. Rock had been away from the mainstream for a while after leaving SNL himself but what Louis saw on stage that night transformed him.
He told Bill Simmonds… “I watched this guy and he was incredible. He had left SNL after not being overly successful there and instead of sulking he went to work, working in clubs across the country honing his craft. I realised this meant something, this had value, so rather than just do my set, hang out and go home, if I really wanted to get better I actually have to try, and really hard.”
5. Learn How To Say “No.”
No is one of the hardest words to say. To loved ones, colleagues and business partners. Louis CK taught me the value of saying no when it came to his most popular show, Louis.
After growing more and more popular with his stand up specials in the mid 2000’s, Louis once again started to be approached by tv networks pitching him shows and Louis CK vehicles. He wasn’t interested to say the least.
Finally the tv network FX , approached Louis. They wanted him to make another show. He said, “I’ll do it, on one condition.”
“What’s that?” they said.
“I don’t want to tell you what the show’s going to be about. Just give me the money and I’ll make the show.”
They said, “We cant do that !”
He said “Ok, no problem, So let’s not do the show.”
He was doing stand-up on the road and loving it. He had truly begun to master his craft and the work was paying off after years of toil. He wasn’t really interested in making another show. So he had all the confidence in the world to say “no.”
Eventually, FX agreed to his terms and gave Louis complete control over the show. He tells FX what the episode is going to be about only hours before it goes on the air. They don’t even know who’s going to be in it.
Sometimes we think we have to say yes to everything, to be liked, to not offend, to get things done. I know I have done this myself a number of times in business and relationships. I never really understood the power of no. We live in a culture where we think we have to say yes to everything. Sometimes, things turn into magic when you say “no.”
6. Be persistent.
Louis says, “It takes about 20 years to make a good comedian. The first 10 years is just you bombing and learning how to tell jokes. The next 10 are you honing your craft.”
Many people quit as soon as things get tough. They quit writing when no one’s reading right away. They quit painting when no one’s buying them right away. We quit when others tell us we are not good enough…right now.
If persistence is a virtue and consistency is key the way forward is to keep moving forward.
What is it that you want to accomplish? Just show up.
7. He Nearly gave up…but didn’t – Inviting the awful
This part of Louis CK’s career is quite well known and has been written about extensively, but it is the thing that resonates most with me. He had been performing the same material for over 10 years. He had just been doing the same set over and over. He career had stalled and was thinking about how to change it. He sat in his car depressed after a show and was listening to George Carlin on the radio.
George Carlin said he threw out his old material at the end of every year and started from scratch the next.
“When you find something that works, it’s hard to chuck it and start fresh,” Louis said.
C.K. was incredulous. It had taken him years to build his current material. When he thought on it further he realised something profound – Carlin’s sets got better each year. Writing material from scratch was beyond terrifying for a comedian, or anyone but a brutally effective form of deliberate practice. It is that process that makes you a better comedian and C. K. had been avoiding it.
Feeling desperate, he adopted Carlin’s strategy, threw out his material and started afresh – a process which he latter dubbed – “invite the awful.”
The results speak for themselves. Within four years of applying “invite the awful,” Comedy Central named him one of the 100 funniest stand-ups of all time and a slew of awards, new shows and content followed.
He is now considered one of the most prolific content creators in showbiz, whilst keeping the level of work exceptionally high.
Great things can happen if you invite the awful. Sometimes the greatest successes happen when you paint yourself into a corner and then look for a way out. It promotes a whole new way of thinking.