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Louis C.K.'s Diagnosis: 'Masterful'


This is FRESH AIR. Earlier in our show, we were talking with comic Tig Notaro about the now famous set she performed last August at the comedy club, Largo in LA, right after she was diagnosed with cancer in each breast. Part of the reason her set became famous is that comic Louis C.K. was there - he also performed that night - and he got the word out when he tweeted this: In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night. Her set was recorded and he's just released it on his website. We called him to talk about that set. He just won two Emmy Awards for writing, one for his FX comedy series "Louie" and one for is comedy special "Live at the Beacon Theater."

Louis C.K., welcome to FRESH AIR. I know you're on the road now. Thanks for taking some time out with us. First of all, congratulations on your Emmys. That's really wonderful.

LOUIS C.K.: Thank you. That was very fun to get them. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So let's talk about Tig's set.

C.K.: OK.

GROSS: Did you already know that she had cancer before you heard the set?

C.K.: No. I didn't know, well, I knew like - I don't know - 60 seconds before. Tig had been sick before.

GROSS: The C. diff infection - C. difficile infection.

C.K.: That's right. And I knew about that. I hadn't seen her during that but I knew as we have a lot of mutual friends who were taking care of her. And so when I called to ask if I could perform at Largo that night, Flanagan, the guy who runs it, said actually Tig's was sick and she could use the help, like she could use somebody to come in and close out for her. And so I thought geez, she's still sick, you know, but I assumed it was the C. diff thing. So I went in and there was Tig and we're standing in the dark next to the stage and she's getting ready to go on. And I said hey, I heard you're sick. I'm sorry. And she said actually, I have cancer. And I was like what? And she said yeah, it's really bad and it's in my whole chest and it's going to go all the way to my lymph nodes and I'm not going to make it, probably. And she started telling me this stuff and, you know, my eyes filled up, I couldn't believe it. And she said I'm going to go talk about it on stage and she had this handful of papers. And I, it was a lot to learn all at once, you know? And then she went on stage and I stood on the wings of the stage and watched the whole set.

GROSS: OK, so she comes out and she says - and no one in the audience knows about the cancer, and she comes out...

C.K.: No.

GROSS: She comes out and she does the whole, you know, good evening. Thank you. I have cancer. Thank you.

C.K.: Mm-hmm. Yup. And she kept saying, it's OK because everyone was upset, people were gasping and crying. And she said it's OK. It's OK. I have cancer. I've never seen anything like it. She was using I have cancer as a soothing thing to say.


GROSS: Yes. Like she's soothing the audience.


C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: Like and telling this, like, horrible news. So what was your reaction to the audience's reactions? I had asked Tig this question because when she starts doing this whole good evening I have cancer, like some people are just like in shock and they're kind of gasping. But other people like, they're laughing like this is just a regular set. And I know some people are laughing, probably because it's so horrifying they're laughing out of, you know, nervousness and, you know, just not knowing how to respond. But some people, you get the feeling like it's a comedy club. Yeah. Ha.


C.K.: Yes. The most interesting thing was how different reactions were going on in there. There was a woman in the front row who burst into tears, really visibly. And Tig went out into the audience, this is really early in the set.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

C.K.: And she said ma'am, it's OK. It's OK. You're going to be OK. I'm not, but you're going to be OK. And everybody was - it was like somebody had you on the bus and they were jerking the like a joystick forward and back, and side to side, because everybody was doing the same thing. She would say these things and you'd explode in laughter and then you'd realize what it was about and you would gasp and it would choke you back and you'd cry. And I don't think she knew how she was going to do it. She was running by instinct.

GROSS: One of the reasons why this performance got such a huge reaction outside of the people were there was because of your tweet - the tweets where you wrote: In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great masterful standouts sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: From a comic's perspective, what made the set so good?

C.K.: Well, you know, for comedians you see everything. We know all the tricks so it's hard to impress a comedian with comedy. But some people have a sound that's just theirs that's patented. It's kind of like horn players. There's probably times that Charlie Parker would tell John Coltrane, you know, I saw this guy in Chicago you got to hear him. I mean, nobody's doing what this guy is doing. Tig has this really beautiful sound on stage. She has this way of dropping her jokes that are - they're wonderful deadly jokes. And they're about small things usually, like bees and drapes, but they're incredible. So here she is applying it to something really big. It was an incredible example of what comedy is good at, which is taking people to the scary parts of their mind and making them laugh in those scary places. That's a great gift. And some of us do it through calculation or through repetition and, kind of, like, you know, focusing on a bit and refining it. Tig just went up there with her voice and in front of us she processed her own death, her own imminent death, with humor, with comedy, which is this very pure oxygen-rich environment.

You know, she did something about looking at a picture of herself when she was five and saying to this cute little picture, you're going to get cancer. And we're all going, oh my god. And I never - for me, I kept - I was crying and laughing the whole time and hearing the audience lurching back and forth, exploding, then hushed - totally hushed - and then exploding again. It's like I never saw anything like it, the way that she controlled it.

GROSS: So I love your description of her set and what comedy at its best can do. I just want to say for anybody tuning in now that Tig is actually not dying, that she's had a double mastectomy, and they think they got all the cancer and they told her there's - the doctors told her there's only a 7 percent chance of recurrence. So she's actually - considering what's happened to her, she's in a good place right now.

C.K.: That's right.

GROSS: So I just want to make that clear to anybody just tuning in. So did you ever see a set that tried to do something similar to what Tig did? In other words, tried to take something very personal, very confessional and very frightening and bomb, you know? And so instead of it being this kind of like miraculous set where, like, people are experiencing, like, laughter and grief at the same time and are processing what's being said on a very deep level, it's just, like, not working at all, even though the comic's just, like, bleeding on stage.


C.K.: Well, sometimes comics will go to dark areas, and they'll either go there by stripping away the real sentiment and just playing with the really refined darkness of the situation, and they'll purposely edit out any emotion about it. And that's something you can do to get laughs about a dark thing. Other people will really delve into the pathos of something, and then the crowd just goes quiet.

I've never seen somebody try it for a whole set. That would be hard. But I've seen people go to - stray into, you know, sad, dark territory where it gets quiet and it stops being comedy for a minute. And some people do that, and it's OK. I saw a guy once have sort of - reenact a nervous breakdown onstage to show everybody what it was like, and it was just - it was very hard to watch, and it didn't connect for the audience.

The thing that Tig was doing was something I haven't seen, which is telling you what it feels like to just have learned this, and she's not complaining. She's just observing. You know, it's like that thing Jodie Foster says in "Contact." She says they should've sent a poet. Like, they sent - somebody sent Tig as a great comic poet to this place, to this precipice of life and death, and she reported beautifully what it feels like in a way that was so selfless and so grateful for life that it was funny, that it wasn't just pathetic or sad. You know, some people go up there and they complain about just the way they're treated by customer service and they sound like they're complaining more than she did. You know?



C.K.: It's, like, I called American Airlines today, and here's what happened. And they'll complain, and they don't sound the way Tig did. So, you know, I was proud of the way she was processing her tough news, and I was also proud of the way she was giving it to people, something they're going to get from it and that audience got, especially, and I got, which is if you have this funny explosion of laughter in the scariest, scariest depths of your fears, next time you see that fear again, you're going to remember the laugh. It's going to be there for you.

GROSS: Did you ever have - did you ever do a set yourself that was similar to what she did in the sense of breaking really bad news before you'd even told it to many friends, bad news that you had just gotten?

C.K.: You know, I feel like I have. I'm trying to remember. Because I always found the audience in stand-up to be a great friend. I always feel strong on stage, and I feel supported and I feel happy on stage. So when I was going through some things in my life, like divorce, I found being on stage and being able to say just what was on my mind was a huge help. And the audience - as long as they were laughing. I never would've stood there and just made them listen to some misery.

But I do think it developed the way I did during some tough transitions in my life. I talked about it on the stage, and that kind of got me to where I am with the way I talk on stage now, because I'm able to go back and forth.

GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. We've been talking about Tig Notaro's comedy set about being diagnosed with cancer. He's just released a recording of it on his website. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is comic Louis C.K. He's on the road performing his latest stand-up show.

You're kind of branching out on your site. Like, you're on the road now. You're on a comedy tour.

C.K.: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you're selling tickets to your shows exclusively on your site, and you give two reasons for it. One is to avoid the added-on fees that are charged by ticket-selling places - ticket agents is, I guess, the expression. And the other...

C.K.: Yeah.

GROSS: to prevent scalping.

C.K.: Right.

GROSS: Just talk a little bit about the fees, like, how big they are and why you want to avoid them.

C.K.: OK. Well, comedy tickets roughly run from, like, you know, $25 to - depending on the comedian. Some comedians, it's like 25 to $45 a ticket, and some comedians are like 45 to $100. The fees, I don't know how they concoct them, but they're extremely high. There are some tickets where the fees are like $18 for, like, a, I don't know, a $60 ticket. That's, like, a third of the price.

I saw a $25 comedian ticket where the fee was $12. That's 50 percent. It's enormous. You know, congratulations to the people that are able to charge it and they're getting it. But what it creates is a possibility that, jeez, I bet folks would like to pay less. I decided in 2008 to start dropping my ticket prices instead of going up. The natural thing is to keep going up, but I reached this critical mass place where I realized I'm making enough money doing stand-up.

So if I drop tickets down a little bit - a recession just happened. I don't want people to be in pain to come see me. I want it to be an easy thing for them. So I'll drop ticket prices. And what happened when I dropped the ticket prices was first it didn't make much impact because the fees were so high, and, second, the scalping became more prevalent for my tickets because they were cheap to buy for scalpers.

GROSS: Yeah. How does scalping work nowadays?

C.K.: I don't know everything about it, but here's what I know. There's people who have a setup. They have, like - you know, some ticket companies say you can only buy a certain amount of tickets. So they have, like, you know, a thousand credit cards and they have either highly manned or automated systems where they're sitting there with their credit cards ready because they know the tickets are going on sale at 10 AM...

GROSS: I see.

C.K.: ...exactly whatever it is. August 4th, 10 AM, tickets to this show are going on sale. The guy's sitting there with, like, 50 people on phones, and they immediately start buying...

GROSS: I see.

C.K.: ...or on the Internet. And then they have those tickets. That's their currency. And they sit there - it's like a commodity. They mark it up and up and up as the show gets closer. And all we did was not tell anybody when it was going on sale. We also - we hired two people who used to be scalpers...


C.K.: ...who figured out credit card patterns, and whenever we find a ticket that was bought by a scalper, we contact them and we tell them this ticket has been moved to Will Call, which means you have to show up in person as the ticket buyer with the credit card to pick up the ticket. You can't print it at home. And so that ruins that person's ability to sell it.

So every time we've done that, the scalper starts yelling and cursing at us, and they say scalping's not illegal, man. And we go, well, I know. We're just beating you because it's fun and we like to get our - that ticket now gets to go to a fan for $45. You know, we just saved somebody $200. So it's fun. I like doing this.

And also, when I first announced the tour in the press, I told people you shouldn't buy scalper tickets, because they may be deactivated by the time you get to the show because we have the power to do that. And that really hurt the scalper market a lot, just the perception that our tickets are not - may not be good.

GROSS: All right. Louis C.K. fights back.


C.K.: You know, it's worth it. They can make tickets on Garth Brooks or whatever it is. They can make money on plenty of people. They don't need my fans' money to live.

GROSS: So I want to get back to your tweet about Tig Notaro.

C.K.: Yes.

GROSS: When you said, you know, I've seen a handful of truly great masterful stand-up sets, one was Tig Notaro.

C.K.: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So what were some of the others?

C.K.: Bill Cosby in Montreal 2010, I think, not that long ago. It was a two-hour show, which is - I can't do two hours. He told four stories that just ripped your guts out with laughter and were easy to get through. And then he said to the guy in the front row, what time is it? And the guy said nine o'clock. It was a seven o'clock show. And everybody realized, jeez, it's been two hours. He did two hours. It was nothing.

And then he told his dentist story and went home. That was it. I'd never seen anything like it. He had 500 ways to get a laugh, and he also was elegant and gentle with his age, you know, and that was probably the best set I've seen overall, two hours of just mastery. I saw George Carlin at the Comedy Store in L.A. getting ready for a set. That was pretty amazing.

I used to open for Jerry Seinfeld when I was, like, 19, 20 years old, and I used to stand on the wings of the stage and watch him do concerts. This is before he had a show, but he already was a concert comedian. The way Jerry runs a theater show is unbelievable. If you ever get a chance to see Jerry Seinfeld in a theater, you have to do it. It's a thing that no one else can do like him. The consistency of his ability on the stage is really stunning.

Chris Rock at Caroline's in New York when he had done "Saturday Night Live," kind of bottomed out of it and disappeared for two years. Nobody knew where Chris Rock was for, like, two years. Where he was was on the road doing hard, hard shows, getting back his stand-up mojo and growing up into a man.

And then he came back to New York, and we all went to see him. This is when he was doing his specials like "Bring the Pain" and stuff. Right before those came out, I saw Chris showcase that material at Caroline's, and he did a set that ran a chill through my body. It made me almost quit stand-up comedy.

GROSS: Wow. Some people say when they heard Charlie Parker, they're giving up.


C.K.: Yeah. That's what - at the end of Chris' set, the audience was standing and applauding. And there was one bankhead of seats of comedians that were sitting with our elbows on our knees and our heads in our hands. All of us, like, six of us, just going oh, God.


C.K.: Like you thought you were good. It's like we were all running the 400 at, like, you know, a minute, and we all thought we are the fastest people alive. And then this guy shows up and does it in 20 seconds. And you're, like, I didn't even know a human being could do that. It's not fair.

GROSS: Well, Louis C.K., thanks so much for talking with us.

C.K.: Thank you.

GROSS: And congratulations again on those Emmys. I wish you a good tour.

C.K.: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Louis C.K. spoke to us from the road. He's on tour with his latest stand-up show. Earlier, we heard from comic Tig Notaro. Louis C.K. released a recording of her stand-up set about getting diagnosed with cancer on his website. You can find a link to another Tig Notaro performance, the one she gave last May on "This American Life," on our Tumbler: I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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