C.K. was born on September 12, 1967, in Washington, D.C., the son of Mary Louise Székely (née Davis), a software engineer, and Luis Székely, an economist. C.K.'s parents met at Harvard University, where his mother was completing her degree in a summer-school program. They were married at St. Francis Church in Traverse City, Michigan. C.K. has three sisters.
C.K.'s paternal grandfather, Dr. Géza Székely Schweiger, was a surgeon. Székely Schweiger was a Hungarian Jew whose family immigrated to Mexico, where he met C.K.'s paternal grandmother, Rosario Sánchez Morales. Sánchez Morales was a Catholic Mexican. C.K.'s grandfather agreed to have his children raised Catholic, but was (according to C.K.) "quietly Jewish". C.K.'s mother, an American with Irish ancestry, grew up on a farm in Michigan. She graduated from Owosso High School in Owosso, Michigan. She attended University of Michigan and graduated from Ohio State University Phi Beta Kappa. C.K.'s maternal grandparents were M. Louise Davis and Alfred C. Davis.
When C.K. was a year old, his family moved to his father's home country of Mexico, from where his father had earned a degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico prior to graduating from Harvard. C.K.'s first language was Spanish; it was not until after the move back to the U.S. that he began to learn English. He claims he has since forgotten much of his Spanish, however, he still carries a Mexican passport along with his American one. At age seven, C.K. left Mexico with his family to move back to the United States and settle in Boston. Upon moving from Mexico to suburban Boston, C.K. wanted to become a writer and comedian, citing Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and George Carlin as some of his influences. When he was 10, his parents divorced. C.K. said that his father was around but he did not see him much and when he remarried, C.K.'s father converted to Orthodox Judaism, the faith of his new wife. C.K. and his three sisters were raised by their single mother in Newton, Massachusetts. The fact that his mother had only "bad" TV shows to view upon returning home from work inspired him to work on television. C.K.'s mother raised her children as Catholic, wanting them to have a religious framework and understanding, and they attended after-school Catholic class until they completed communion. C.K. has said that his father's whole family still lives in Mexico. C.K.'s paternal uncle Dr. Francisco Székely is an academic and an international consultant on environmental affairs who served as Mexico's Deputy Minister of Environment (2000–2003).
C.K. attended Newton North High School, and graduated in 1985. He graduated with future Friends star Matt LeBlanc. After graduation C.K. worked as an auto mechanic and at a public access TV cable station in Boston. According to C.K., working in public access TV gave him the tools and technical knowledge to make his short films and later his television shows. "Learning is my favorite thing", he said. He also worked for a time as a cook and in a video store.
Louis C.K. performing in Kuwait, December 2008
C.K.'s first attempt at stand-up was in 1985 at an open mic night at a comedy club in Boston, Massachusetts, during the apex of the comedy boom. He was given five minutes of time, but had only two minutes of material. He was so discouraged by the experience that he did not perform again for two years. He and Marc Maron later reminisced about their early careers and friendship on Maron's WTF Podcast. As Boston's comedy scene grew, C.K. gradually achieved success, performing alongside acts such as Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke, and eventually he moved up to paid gigs, opening for Jerry Seinfeld and hosting comedy clubs until he moved to Manhattan in 1989. He performed his act on many televised programs, including Evening at the Improv and Star Search. In 1993, he unsuccessfully auditioned for Saturday Night Live, and most of the comedy clubs in New York City closed. In 1996 HBO released his first half-hour comedy special.
C.K. has performed his stand-up frequently on shows such as Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Lopez Tonight, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!. In August 2005, C.K. starred in a half-hour HBO special as part of the stand-up series One Night Stand. Inspired by the work ethic of fellow comedian George Carlin, who had committed to dropping all of his existing material and starting over every year, C.K. launched his first hour-long special, Shameless, in 2007, which aired on HBO and was later released on DVD. In March 2008, he recorded a second hour-long special, Chewed Up, which premiered on Showtime Network on October 4, 2008, and went on to be nominated for an Emmy for "Outstanding Writing in a Comedy or Variety Special". C.K. has said that "failure is the road to becoming a great comedian."
On April 18, 2009, C.K. recorded a concert film titled Hilarious. Unlike his previous specials—which had all been produced for television networks—Hilarious was produced independently, directed by C.K. himself, and sold to Epix and Comedy Central after it was complete. As a result, it was not released until late 2010. It was published on DVD and CD in 2011. It is the first stand-up comedy film to be accepted into Sundance. In a 2010 interview, C.K. talked about how, after his divorce, he thought, "well, there goes my act." He alluded to the way that his marriage had been central to his act and his life, and he said that it took him approximately a year to realize "I'm accumulating stories here that are worth telling." One element in his preparation for stand-up was training in the boxing gym, including with Lowell, Massachusetts fighter Micky Ward, trying to "learn how to … do the grunt work and the boring, constant training so that you'll be fit enough to take the beating."
On December 10, 2011, C.K. released his fourth full-length special, Live at the Beacon Theater. Like Hilarious, it was produced independently and directed by C.K. However, unlike his earlier work, it was distributed digitally on the comedian's website, foregoing both physical and broadcast media. C.K. released the special for $5.00 and without DRM, hoping that these factors and the direct relationship between the artist and consumer would effectively deter piracy. At the end of the special, the release of a new album, recorded at Carnegie Hall the previous year, is mentioned. As of December 21, 2011, the sales of the special from C.K.'s website have earned him over $1 million.
The success of the special prompted other comedians, including Jim Gaffigan, Joe Rogan, and Aziz Ansari, to release their own specials with a similar business model. On May 11, 2012, C.K. additionally made two audio-only downloads available for $5.00 each: WORD – Live at Carnegie Hall (and the audio version of his first HBO stand-up special, Shameless), as well as an audio-only version of Live at the Beacon Theater. C.K.'s fifth one-hour special, Oh My God, was recorded at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona, and premiered on HBO April 13, 2013. It is also sold and distributed using the same model as C.K. used for Live at the Beacon Theater. C.K. released his sixth one hour special Live at The Comedy Store recorded, unlike his past few specials, at a club, The Comedy Store in West Hollywood. C.K. mentioned the material was intended to be an exercise in creating an act which hearkened back to his early days of working in comedy clubs. The special premiered exclusively on FX on May 28, 2015.
C.K. became the first comedian to sell out Madison Square Garden three times in a single tour in 2015. Audio from the tour was released by C.K. on his website as Louis C.K.: Live at Madison Square Garden through the pay what you want model. His stand-up special 2017 was filmed in Washington, D.C. and released on April 4, 2017, through the streaming service Netflix. C.K.'s next stand-up special is slated for similar distribution.
Acting, writing, and directing
Louis C.K. speaking in Montreal, July 29, 2011
In 1984, when C.K. was 17, he directed the comedic short film Trash Day. The New York University Tisch School of the Arts showed an interest in him as a filmmaker, but he instead decided to pursue a career in stand-up comedy.
C.K.'s early writing jobs included the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Dana Carvey Show, and The Chris Rock Show. He has been quoted as describing his approach to writing as a "deconstruction" that is both painful and frightening. His work for The Chris Rock Show was nominated for an Emmy Award for writing three times, winning "Best Writing in a Variety or Comedy Series" in 1999. He was also nominated for an Emmy Award for his work writing for Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
In 1998, C.K. wrote and directed the independent black-and-white film Tomorrow Night, which premiered at Sundance, marking his feature film directorial debut after making several shorter films, including six short films for the sketch comedy show Howie Mandel's Sunny Skies (1995) on the Showtime cable network. C.K. self-released Tomorrow Night in 2014. He had an early acting role in the independent comedy Tuna, alongside Nick Offerman, in 2000. C.K. wrote and directed the feature film Pootie Tang, which was adapted from a sketch that was featured on The Chris Rock Show and featured Chris Rock in a supporting role. The film received largely negative reviews from critics, but has become a cult classic. Though C.K. is credited as the director, he was fired at the end of filming with the film being re-edited by the studio. C.K. has co-written two screenplays with Rock: Down to Earth (2001) and I Think I Love My Wife (2007).
In June 2006, C.K. starred in and wrote Lucky Louie, a sitcom he created. The series premiered on HBO and was videotaped in front of a studio audience; it was HBO's first series in that format. Lucky Louie is described as a bluntly realistic portrayal of family life. HBO canceled the series after its first season. He appeared in three films in 2008: Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Diminished Capacity, and Role Models. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for writing on his 2008 special, Chewed Up. From 2009 to 2012, C.K. played Dave Sanderson, a police officer and ex-boyfriend of Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) in the sitcom Parks and Recreation. He also co-starred in the romantic comedy fantasy film The Invention of Lying, directed by and starring Ricky Gervais, in 2009.
In August 2009, FX picked up his new series, Louie, which C.K. stars in, writes, directs, and edits. The show features his stand-up routines blended with segments which are based to some extent on his offstage experiences. The show premiered on June 29, 2010. The show addresses life as a divorced, aging father. In season three, episodes dealt respectively with a date with an unstable bookshop clerk (played by Parker Posey); a doomed attempt to replace a retiring David Letterman; an aborted visit to C.K.'s father; and a dream-reality New Year's Eve episode in which C.K. ends up in China. These episodes were ranked in critic Matt Zoller Seitz's favorite 25 comedy episodes of 2012. Seitz called the episode "New Year's Eve" "truly audacious". C.K. has been nominated five times for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015) for his work in Louie and won two Emmys in 2011 for the Louie episode "Pregnant" and for his special Live at the Beacon Theater.
The show was renewed for a fourth season; with a 19-month hiatus after season 3 to accommodate C.K.'s roles in David O. Russell's American Hustle and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine in 2013. During the 2014 Television Critics Association presentations, FX Networks' John Landgraf reported that Louie would return in spring 2015 for a shortened fifth season of seven episodes—compared to the 13 episodes of prior seasons. The fifth season premiered in April 2015 and the possibility of a sixth season remains unknown, as it was announced that the series would be taking an "extended hiatus" in August 2015; C.K. stated in January 2016 that he "just doesn't know" whether it will return or not.
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