I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Sa Da Tay! The Short Films of Louis C.K.


by Kollin Holtz
May 10, 2015

Television. The box they buried vaudeville in. It’s an American pastime. There’s a T.V. in every room, especially the dining room if not right on the table. Once, there were only four major networks, and they’d make crap, and we’d watch it because that’s all there was. Since then, television has gotten better and better thanks to a multitude of content hungry cable networks willing to take big risks on original content, and distinct artistic voices in the hopes of a big payoff.

“One of four kids, Louis C.K. was raised by a single mother, and says he felt bad that she 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.’”

Louis kept his dream going. Smash cut to years after the thought, and Mr. C.K. is three Emmy’s deep. One was a writing award from 1999’s “The Chris Rock Show,” and two were earned in 2012 for his FX show “Louie,” and his comedy special “Live at the Beacon Theater.” He has even gone a step further setting up his own online network selling his, and others poignant brand of comedy.

It was, however, a long road to get to where he is today. Louis never attended college, choosing to pursue his comedy career right out of High School. Between anxiety driven jerk off sessions, and a long series of ups and downs, he finally landed a job as a writer on the brand new 1993 late night talk show, “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” He had just auditioned for SNL, and didn’t make the cut, having to watch the majority of his peers leave him behind for the variety show. Late Night came at a time when he was “down and out,” and was considering leaving comedy behind all together. He got the job, thanks in no small part to his short films.

In Louis’s introduction to his short films, he believes them to be a great way to express “…a weird little idea you can just go out and make a short film about.” The show “Louie” takes a page out of the short films book, as most episodes are made up almost entirely of a series of three vignettes. They share many other common roots, like Director of Photography Paul Koestner; comedian and actor Todd Barry; and his use of “Classical Language.”

Louis’s “Ice Cream,” a 13min short, garnered him the most attention having played at Sundance, and winning him the grand prize at the Aspen Short Film Festival. It was also picked up, and syndicated on European television. The film deals with many of the themes present in his work today, such as family, relationships, parent hood, religion, death and absurdum. He cites “Ice Cream” as the movie that got him Conan. His stand up got him through the door, but they wanted writing material. He gave them the short instead, and he was in.

What followed after were a series of shorts, both personal, and made for the show “Howie Mandel’s Sunny Skies.” “Hello There” is, far and away, a personal favorite. It follows a man who uses a tape deck as a voice (now watch it!). Although absurdist, I think it’s worth noting (and probably extremely boring to those of you reading) that all of his shorts seem to be classically shot. That is that his shorts, as well as the majority of his current T.V. show, use what people in the industry refer to as “classical (film) language.” It’s a practice built over decades meant to mimic the way that you and I perceive the world. It’s also worth noting that Louis prefers using “Prime Lenses” over “Zoom Lenses,” which is further evidence of classical language in his films. Though his lens choice is more noticeable in “Louie” given that there is a greater depth of field (the background looks more blurry), I can only infer that he was at least experimenting with lens choice when shooting his 16mm shorts. It won’t be as obvious since lenses on a 16mm camera are so small, which means no matter what you do, lots of things will be in focus, but there are subtle differences at times. It’s another routine that informed his later works.

“Ugly Revenge” and “The Legend of Willy Brown” are spoofs and parodies of old west revenge stories, and music/jazz documentaries respectively. Howie Mandel (Deal or No Deal) produced Willy Brown. He was also executive producer for “The Hijacker,” in which an attempt is made to hijack a Staten Island Ferry to Boliva. He also produced Louis’s “Brunch,” featuring Rick Shapiro (a comedian and actor in nearly all his short films) in drag giving some salty talk to elderly ladies over brunch.

It’s not fair to say “one thing led to another,” because he has clearly put a lot of work into building his career into what it is today. That having been said, Louis made these short films, and scored some writing jobs. One thing led to another, and he made a feature film with a cult following called “Pootie Tang,” and signed two television deals, one with HBO for “Lucky Louis,” and one with FX for his now successful show, “Louie.”

There are many other shorts to be explored on his video channel. Howie produced some, others are from pilot shows that didn’t take off, and others he made to explore online video at the beginning of YouTube. Themes that run through his short films seem to have carried on into his modern day works. The only difference being that, as Louis said in reference to his first show “Lucky Louis”, he’s, “…better than I was before. And hopefully I’ll be better later on too. Hopefully what I’m doing right now will be considered not really that good. Whenever you leave behind failure, that means you’re doing better.” Wadah-tah.

Calvisi, Dan. “Writing Comedy – Interview with Louis C.K.” Act Four Screenplays. July 16th, 2010. Web. April 1st, 2013.

http://actfourscreenplays.com/screenwriting-blog/writing-comedy-interview-with-louis-c-k/

Lloyd, Robert. “Q&A: Louis C.K. on ‘Louie,’ lenses and knowing when you’re lucky.” Los Angeles Times,July 7th, 2011. Web. March 31st, 2013. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/showtracker/2011/07/qa-louis-ck.html

Hagan, Joe. “Can HBO Save the Sitcom? Louis C.K. Says Yes.” The Observer. April 4th, 2005. Online. March 29th, 2013.

http://observer.com/2005/04/can-hbo-save-the-sitcom-louis-ck-says-yes/

Calvado, Marrion. “Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast with Louis CK.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 15thJan. 2013. Web. 31st Mar. 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Gw125AZtDU

PrimetimeEmmeys. “Louis CK: Outstanding Writing in a Variety Special.” Online video. YouTube.YouTube, 23rd, Sep. 2012. Web. 31st Mar. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdpuIfS5L2k&feature=player_detailpage#t=90s

Kollin Holtz is a comedian, writer, and filmmaker living in a closet under the stairs in San Francisco, CA. Check out his website,www.kollinholtz.com for updates on his shows, and his podcast “Closet Talk With Kollin Holtz.” You may also follow him on twitter @KollinHoltz if ya fancy.