Can HBO Save the Sitcom? Louis C.K. Says Yes

“The show we’re doing has no precedent in American television history,” declared Louis C.K., the 37-year-old standup comic.

He wasn’t joking. But he did add a caveat: “I can’t speak for British TV.”

In fact, Mr. C.K.’s HBO pilot is based squarely on precedent: It will be a half-hour situation comedy, complete with a kitchen-table-and-chairs set, multiple cameras and a live studio audience.

But Mr. C.K.-a balding, affable guy with a fringe of red hair, a goatee and a perpetually stifled smirk-seems to have faith that the it’s-not-TV-it’s-HBO ethos can redeem even TV’s most flagging, formula-choked genre. As the writer, director and star of the cable network’s first attempt at the form, Mr. C.K. said he saw the potential to finally get the sitcom right.

“No commercials,” he explained. “That’s a seismic difference. We have no limits and we have no markets. It’s unbelievable.”

If Mr. C.K. (whose last name is the phonetic approximation of his actual name, Szekely) sounded enthusiastic-even manic-he had reason: His television pilot wraps on Wednesday, April 13. Five days after that, his wife is due to deliver his second child. Three days after that, he’ll record a half-hour standup show as part of HBO’s One Night Stand comedy series. After 20 years working as a comic, the former comedy writer for Conan O’Brien and Chris Rock appeared to be on the edge of a professional breakthrough.

The model for Mr. C.K.’s not-yet-titled sitcom-which centers on a lower-middle-class muffler repairman named Louis, his nurse wife and their 4-year-old daughter-was Norman Lear’s All in the Family, which ran on CBS starting in 1971. The aim was to recapture the spirit of Mr. Lear’s comedies, stage plays that tried to address hard truths about family life in changing times.

“In some ways, we’re going back to Norman Lear,” Mr. C.K. said, “in the way we’re going to be able to open up these issues and let characters be flawed and really show true circumstances, and do it from a sincere, romantic angle instead of a pomo, fake, anti-comedy angle.

“That’s a step back in a good way,” he continued, “and then a step forward is an incredible shaking up of the story structure through HBO that’s never, ever been done, language-wise and story-wise.”

As far as CBS was concerned, the format could stay in the Carter administration. The Tiffany network declined to pick up Saint Louie, Mr. C.K.’s first attempt at a network version of his sitcom project.

As it stands, HBO hasn’t officially picked the show up either. But the program’s chances are considerably better given that it has no other pilots against which to compete. It will be a purely qualitative judgment on HBO’s part.

“It’s getting back to writing human beings,” said Tracy Katsky, the head of HBO Independent Productions, who gave Mr. C.K. his shot.

Mr. C.K. was one of the original writers on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where he came up with such bits as the staring contest. In 1999, he won an Emmy for his work on The Chris Rock Show, which led to an unusual reputation as the black man’s white comedian. He wrote, directed and produced the cult blaxploitation flick Pootie Tang, which starred actor Lance Crouther speaking a fake jive language that Mr. C.K. made up. (Example: “Baby, I’m gonna sine your pitty on the runny kine.”)

When Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, announced plans to start programming half-hour blocks, Mr. C.K. decided he wanted to be first. His bold idea was to make it an experiment in non-experimentation.

“I don’t want to have alternate realities and weird HBO stuff to improve it,” he said. “I just want to do a good sitcom.”

For Mr. C.K., that meant using a tiny, simple apartment set modeled on the one in The Honeymooners, rather than the large-scale, throw-pillow-strewn pad used on a show like Friends. He said it focused the drama and made the audience laughter louder and more overwhelming.

He was also shooting it on traditional videotape instead of film.

“It’s going to have this familiar look,” he said. “‘Oh! I might be watching Roseanne or even Saved by the Bell.’ It’s like you’re watching Saved by the Bell and all of a sudden somebody says, ‘God is dead,’ and you say, ‘What the fuck is going on here?'”

Without advertisements, Mr. C.K. said, the show could escape network narrative structures. In a traditional network sitcom, he said, “you have to have a premise that within the first 10 seconds you say, ‘How are we going to do a surprise birthday party?’ ‘Well, you just pretend that blah blah blah.’ And then you have to get to the act break …. And the act break is: ‘Oh, no, he thinks it’s not a birthday party-he thinks we’re having an affair.’ And that will get you through the longest act of the night.

“It just doesn’t exist with us; we get to just tell stories,” he continued.

The result, in essence, is the White Stripes formula for rock ‘n’ roll put to sitcom-making: strip down, simplify and voilà, everything old is new again. Mr. C.K. may be the first of his type-the Lenny Bruce–inspired alt-comics who came out of the late 1980’s Boston standup scene-to gravitate to mainstream material. Unlike other veterans of that period, Janeane Garofalo or David Cross, Mr. C.K. eventually pushed his standup material to the standard-issue sitcom subjects, from child-rearing to bill-paying.

One of Mr. C.K.’s best bits has been about going broke after his bank charged him a fee for not having enough money in the bank-a theme he explores ad absurdum.

“You ever have negative money?” he asked at a standup gig in Kansas City recently. “Negative $10. That means I don’t even have no money now. I wish I did! I wish I didn’t have anything. I wish I just had nothing, but I have less than that. I don’t have none. I have not-10. If it’s free, I can’t fucking afford it! Somebody comes up to me, ‘Take this, it’s free.’ ‘Fuck, that costs nothing, I can’t afford that-it’s more than I have.’ I’ve got to raise 10 bucks to be broke. That’s not good. That’s bad.”

In another rapid-fire bit he performed on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2004, Mr. C.K. tells a cautionary tale of why it’s O.K. not to answer your small child’s every question about life. He starts off trying to respond to his daughter’s question “Why is it hot?”, followed by dozens of more whys. When he can’t summon the hard science of why, he has to tell her, “Well, I just didn’t pay attention when they taught me this stuff in school. I really didn’t listen-I didn’t think it was important. ‘Why?’ Because I smoked a lot of pot and I just didn’t really have any values. ‘Why?’ Because my parents didn’t raise me very well. They just didn’t pay attention to me. ‘Why?’ Because they just had sex in a car and here I am and they resent me for taking their youth. ‘Why?’ Because they had bad parents and they had no moral compass and it just keeps going like that. ‘Why?’

“Because there’s no God and we’re alone and there’s no point to anything!” he finally yells.

Mr. C.K.’s sitcom lifts from his routine, which is about his own life. When he pitched his idea to network executives, he said awful things about his family.

“I was being pretty harsh in the room meeting with these networks, saying, ‘My baby’s a fucking asshole and won’t let me have sex with my wife,'” he said. “They loved it.”

In the HBO sitcom, the family lives with crushing debt and the prickly, unhappy realities of child-rearing on a low income. It’s not exactly how he lives as a comic in Los Angeles, but it’s based loosely on his early life as a would-be auto mechanic, and it’s set in a town near where he grew up in Newton, Mass. Mr. C.K. was raised by a single mother, as one of four kids, and he said he felt bad that his mother had to watch bad television when she got home from work.

“I remember thinking in fifth grade, ‘I have to get inside that box and make this shit better,'” he said. “Because she deserves this. It made me mad that the shows were so bad. People have a right to relax and watch theater about themselves that makes them reflect and feel and have a good time doing it.”

Mr. C.K.’s attention to detail made it sound like the script was lifted not only from his own life, but from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.

“We’ve done research on this stuff,” he said. “I make about $118 a week, she makes $1,200, and because of the crushing, cold-assed, careless debt of American corporations, we always have to pay our bills at the check-cashing place … but we’re not trying to get rich quick and we’re not complaining about it, we’re just living with it. And we’re surrounded by fast food and beer, and we’re trying to be healthy and keep our daughter out of it.”

None of which meant that Mr. C.K. was interested in hashing over partisan politics per se. He just wanted a character like Doug Heffernan in CBS’s The King of Queens to be more like a real bus driver. He said the lesson he drew from pitching his own version of reality to networks was that they weren’t interested in anything real.

“When you pitch to networks and you say, ‘The guy’s a bus driver,’ they say, ‘He’s not a loser though, right? What are his dreams? Is he a writer on the side?’ ‘No.’ ‘He’s just a fucking bus driver? But is he the best bus driver?’ ‘Not really.’ ‘Did they win the lottery?’ ‘No!’

“They don’t like to feel the discomfort of life, and they think that that’s what people don’t want to see,” he said.

What It’s Really Like

If you can’t express issues on the television screen, then you can always throw a wing-ding in Washington, D.C.

Actress Patricia Heaton, who plays Debra Barone, wife of Raymond on CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond, was scheduled to host a $250-a-ticket event on Tuesday, April 12, to support her favorite cause: opposition to abortion.

According to an invitation obtained by The Observer, Ms. Heaton, the honorary chair for a group called Feminists for Life, will rub elbows with Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback and a slew of Republican Congressmen to push messages like “Refuse to Choose” and “Women Deserve Better,” both trademarked expressions of the organization.

“Pro-life in Hollywood,” the invite reads. “What It’s Really Like.”

A spokeswoman for the group said Ms. Heaton didn’t want to comment on the event, but she hasn’t been shy about pushing her pro-life views in more noble venues-like Entertainment Tonight. On March 23, she opined on the Terri Schiavo case, telling host Mark Steines, “As an actor, I visualize these situations when I’m doing a role.”

Ms. Heaton’s visualizations appeared to affirm her views.

“If my kid was in this position, I would never pull his feeding tube,” she said. “I would never starve my son. I would never dehydrate my son. Never.”

That’s … entertainment!