The new season of Mad Men is underway, the Breaking Bad premiere date is set, so as soon as the new season of Louie gets going, our summer viewing needs will be all taken care — oh hell, that’s right, Louie won’t be back until next spring. His new special has already aired, his promo tour for it is over; how the hell do you get your Louis C.K. fix these days? From YouTube, of course. Strangely, not many people are aware that Louie worked his way up to writing, directing, editing, and starring in Louie with two decades of short and indie film work; a quick tour of his early films offers a tantalizing glimpse at the development of his considerable talent.
Ice Cream (1993)
Louie’s first directorial credit on IMDb is for a 1990 short film called Caesar’s Salad, and though he’s uploaded most of his shorts to YouTube, this one is absent — which certainly wouldn’t make him the first filmmaker to bury his early work. At any rate, the earliest readily available C.K. film is this 1992 short, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival and helped get Louie his writing job on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Funny, moody, and deeply absurd, you can already see his storytelling style at work (the first date dialogue could be from a scene on Louie), while the black-and-white photography is admirably ambitious for a comic short; the cinematographer is Paul Koestner, who has shot consistently for Louie in the years since (up to and including the series and his recent specials). Bonus: look out for Louie’s cameo as a flower vendor.
Hello There (1995)
Many of Louie’s early shorts were created for Howie Mandel’s Sunny Skies, a short-lived Showtime sketch comedy series hosted by the onetime plastic glove inflater and future golden briefcase distributor. “It was a horrible sketch show,” Louie later said, but he wasn’t really a part of it — he served a purpose similar to that of Albert Brooks in the first season of Saturday Night Live, creating standalone shorts basically autonomously. “He read the scripts before I made them but he didn’t care what I did,” Louie recalled, “they just gave me a set amount of money and I made six short films with no strings attached.” Here’s the first, a very funny surrealist nightmare starring (and co-written by) Ron Lynch; Louie’s Hitchcockian cameo comes just over a minute in (though that sounds an awful lot like him on the tape).
The Letter V (1995)
Another Sunny Skies piece, this one co-starring fellow Late Night and Dana Carvey Show writer, Punch Drunk Love and This Is 40 co-star, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog voice Robert Smigel. This one plays more like a traditional sketch, less conventional narrative than straight-to-camera goofiness (with a pretty great payoff) — in color!
Stand-up buddies Rick Shapiro (a regular on Lucky Louie) and Todd Barry (a frequent presence on Louie) appear in this action movie spoof about a spectacularly incompetent boat hijacker. It’s a one-joke premise, but watch how Louie and cinematographer Koestner ape the stylistic tropes of the genre (particularly the “intense” action movie shaky-cam).
Shapiro returns to co-write another Sunny Skies short, which Louie gives this description on YouTube: “ladies have brunch.” It’s an oddity, and the laughs are cheap, but it somehow works; there’s also something endearing about the exhausted tone of Louie’s off-screen “Cut!” at the end.
The Legend of Willie Brown (1995)
One last Sunny Skies short. Louie has often been compared to early Woody Allen films, and if that’s the case, The Legend of Willie Brown is his Sweet and Lowdown: the dramatization of a jazz legend’s life, augmented by the talking-head interviews of a documentary. You can kind of see the joke coming, but it’s still well delivered, and Koestner’s moody photography is (again) spot on.
Ugly Revenge (date unknown)
Parks and Rec pre-union alert! Amy Poehler co-stars in this Western parody, along with Hello There’s Ron Lynch and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove, who would later appear in Louie’s feature directorial debut, Pootie Tang. This one’s funny but a little thin, the striking black-and-white cinematography offset a bit by the noticeably poor post-production dialogue looping. (Nice Morricone drop at the end, though.)
Tomorrow Night (1998)
Louie directed his first feature film during the hiatus between seasons of The Chris Rock Show, where he was a member of the writing staff. He and Koestner used the model of their early shorts to make the low-budget, black and white feature; he did the initial financing himself before reaching out to several of his comedian friends (including Rock, Jon Stewart, David Cross, and Denis Leary), who kicked in post-production costs. The film was accepted into Sundance, and Rock got HBO to kick in the $50,000 to make a print to screen there. “So I just finished the film and took it to Sundance,” he recalled, “and there were about eight people in the audience. It just got no attention there, so it just died. Never got anywhere.” Amazingly, it remains unreleased (during a Q&A break while shooting the club scenes for the pilot of Louie, he told the audience that the print was currently under his bed), in spite of his subsequent fame and a cast that includes Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, J.B. Smoove, Wanda Sykes, Matt Walsh, Todd Barry, and Conan O’Brien as himself. The very strange trailer is on YouTube, however, and in May 2012 (fresh off the online sale success of his Live at the Beacon Theater special), he wrote this on his website: “Also later, actually soon, I’ll be putting my first feature film ‘Tomorrow Night’ up for sale on the site. And also other things. Soon. For now.” That was almost a year ago. Tick tock!
Another Parks & Rec pre-union! Unlike the other films here, Louie co-starred in but didn’t write or direct this hour-long comedy; it was written by Adam DeCoster (who recently uploaded it to YouTube), and directed by Bob Byington, who helmed the recent, terrific Somebody Up There Likes Me . That film’s star, Nick Offerman, stars here as well (clean-shaven, even), along with Kevin Corrigan, David Krumholtz, Jon Glaser, and a four-year-old Angus T. Jones (Two and a Half Men). The videography hasn’t aged so well, but it’s a blast to see our favorite comic actors so young, and the film’s wry sense of humor isn’t far removed from Louie’s.
Jimmy Carter Builds a House (2006)
Louie went on a bit of a filmmaking hiatus after 2001’s Pootie Tang, in his own words, “bit the dust.” But when YouTube launched in 2005, he saw an opportunity to knock out some funny shorts.. The first was this 2006 bit, in which he plays (without much effort, it must be said) former President Jimmy Carter — who shows you how to cut down a tree, and then shows you his ass.
Special thanks to Splitsider for pointing us towards so many of these shorts.