Louis C.K. is so good at his job that it seems almost impossible to imagine a time where he struggled in comedy. However, his early days navigating stand-up comedy were rocky.
During an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Louis C.K. about his painful first two comedy experiences.
The first time he ever told jokes onstage was at an open mic in Boston (C.K. grew up in nearby Newton).
“It was horrible.” C.K. told Terry Gross. “My whole throat constricted and my…I heard this roaring in my ears. My eyes were watering. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t control myself.”
After that nerve-wracking first experience, C.K. didn’t go to another mic for two years until Kevin Meany, a fixture of the Boston comedy scene at the time, walked into the video store that C.K. worked at and offered him a spot on his show.
While some comedians say their first experience doing stand-up was always the worst, the second time for C.K. was no better.
“People’s mouths were open. Shocked at how bad I was. Just shocked.” C.K. recalled. “And I got onstage and Kevin wouldn’t look me in the eye and nobody would. And it was just the most pulverizing humiliation.”
The reason it was much worse the second time around is because C.K. was performing at a professional comedy show. Meanwhile, his first outing was an open mic where “the premise of the show is that most of us don’t know what we’re doing.”
However, C.K. doesn’t regret the experience at all.
“It was a formative experience. Sitting here now, I’m very glad I had it. It gave me a really realistic, shocking picture of what I was facing,” he said.
C.K. has always had a dark side to his comedy, and he seems to embrace failure. In fact, he believes the comedians who start out the strongest are usually not the best ones.
“Actually, it’s usually the comedians that start awkwardly and badly who end up being interesting.” C.K. said “From my experience, when I’ve seen people show up and from the first day onstage they’re just easy, like, really amiable comics who just know how to talk to people, they don’t usually end up being that special. They get some quick success but they don’t turn into something like really unusual and great.”
He might as well be referring to himself.
C.K. took a long time to hone his voice as a comedian. In the interview, he discussed how much he enjoyed telling “weird, offbeat jokes.” That eventually earned him a lot of laughs. C.K. spent most of the ’90s and early 2000s telling a lot of very surreal jokes. It wasn’t until he started telling intensely personal stories about his family in his specials “Shameless” (2007) and “Chewed Up” (2008) that people started calling him the best comic alive. Today, he is one of the top-earning comedians in the world.
But the real reason for his success could probably be boiled down to this one quote from him about his first open mic:
“And I just felt like a pile of garbage. And then I kept doing it.”
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