“I was in class at school,” he told me during Just for Laughs in Montréal last week, “and they were talking about the parts of the skull. They asked the class to name them, and I said ‘noggin’.”
All his friends doubled up, he remembers, and since then he has been refining the art of making people guffaw.
“I know how I sort of do it now,” he said. “I generate material from whatever thoughts are burning in my brain. I used to ignore that.”
That has led to an emotional honesty in his work that has earned him comparisons to Richard Pryor, another comedian who pushed the boundaries of cathartic comedy. Whether he is talking about Sarah Palin, changing his daughter’s diaper or his hatred of deer, the material is intensely personal and, one gets the sense, therapeutic. But it doesn’t come easily.
Every year the comic abandons his entire act and starts over. A recent GQ profile noted he is “taking stuff that other comics only dream of and throwing it away.”
“The way to improve is to reject everything you’re doing,” he told me. “You have to create a void by destroying everything. You have to kill it. Otherwise you’ll just say the same jokes every night for years and years.”
The process is the same every 365 days. Material that has been buffed to a high polish is discarded, replaced by new untried jokes.
“Ever year I’m an open mic-er again,” he says. “It’s really good pressure. I like pressure. It’s enabling.”
He’s one of the hottest comedian in the world—the Deadspin blog calls him “the flat-out best comedian alive on Earth right now”—with sold out live shows and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (“I don’t deserve an Emmy Award,” he says) for Louie, his semi-autobiographical show (Thursday nights on FX) but he’s philosophical about his success.
“You don’t sell tickets forever,” he says. “I know it’ll go down from where it is now.”
But for now there are moments to savor. Recently his kids stood backstage while he appeared on the Letterman show. Afterwards his daughter said, “I felt like you were falling and falling and every joke was like a plane that took you and brought you back up.”
“And now that’s a memory she has,” he says. “That meant a lot.”