Growing up with his single mother and three sisters in Massachusetts, Louis Szekely—better known to most as Louis C.K.—had his sights set on revolutionizing the entertainment industry ever since he was a young child.
At age 10, C.K. recalls feeling horrible that his mother would come home from a long day’s work only to be greeted by awful television programming. To the young comedian, there weren’t any good shows on the air.
“I remember thinking in fifth grade, ‘I have to get inside that box and make this shit better,’” C.K. told the New York Observer a decade ago. “Because she deserves this. It made me mad that the shows were so bad.”
Now 47, having gotten inside that box, C.K. seems to be at the center of attention in the comedic world.
When he’s not busy with his award-winning FX series Louie, he’s organizing nationwide comedy tours without the help of ticketing services, shooting self-funded specials and releasing them directly to fans at minimal cost or taking on minor acting roles. Oh yeah, and he has a separate new FX series with Zach Galifianakis in the works, too.
But C.K., who now lives in Manhattan, wasn’t always a king of the comedy. He did it the hard way, building his empire slowly over the course of nearly three decades.
“There’s people that say: ‘It’s not fair. You have all that stuff,’” C.K. says. “I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life.”
Though known for his sharp wit and ability to get away with saying whatever he wants, C.K. also has a rather sagacious side to him. Like any really resonant comedian, there’s a lot of truth in his humor. And we’d all be wise to learn from his approach to work and life.
Lesson 1: You’re capable of doing more than you think—so do it.
When Louis C.K. took to the stage to perform in front of an audience for the first time in 1984, he was given five minutes. Unfortunately, he only had about two minutes worth of material, so the experience turned out to be pretty terrifying. He wouldn’t return to the stage for two more years.
Back then, would anyone have thought the 17-year-old, red-headed failure of a comedian would establish himself as one of the industry’s best three decades later? Probably not. But through hard work and determination, C.K. not only survived, he prevailed.
But C.K.’s talents aren’t confined solely to the stage. Believe it or not, the guy not only created Louie, he stars in, directs, edits and writes the series. On the stage, C.K. decided long ago he too would create an hour of new standup material each year, just like George Carlin. (With numerous comedy specials to his name and a fresh three-night sellout run at Madison Square Garden under his belt, it appears these tactics have paid off.)
For C.K., the world’s too big a place to ever let yourself feel bored. So the comedian fills in more of his free time by picking up some acting work, too. He recently appeared in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
Most people are okay with having one gig—it’s apparent the comedian is not one of them.
How much time do you have on your hands? Chances are you could probably stand to take on a little more.
Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to defy traditional logic.
Rather than incurring the overhead costs associated with partnering with traditional ticketing services and media companies, Louis C.K. figured that trading freedom for a contracted payday wasn’t a worthwhile deal.
Defying the norm, he made the decision to cut out the proverbial ticketing middle man when he performs live, offering tickets to his shows directly to fans.
“My goal here is that people coming to see my shows are able to pay a fair price and that they will be paying just for a ticket. Not also paying an exorbitant fee for the privilege of buying a ticket,” C.K. wrote on his blog when he announced a tour in 2012. “By selling the tickets exclusively on my site, I’ve cut the ticket charges way down and absorbed them into the ticket price.”
The comedian has adopted a similar approach to the standup specials he now produces in-house. Instead of selling them through traditional channels, C.K. releases unrestricted content directly to fans through his website at the beyond reasonable price of $5.
Sometimes you can go it on your own.
Lesson 3: In order to succeed, you need to fail.
If you’ve ever been to a comedy show, you know that from time to time, even the funniest performers on the planet are capable of cracking jokes that just don’t work.
For C.K., in order to reach your full potential, it is essential that you fail.
“The only road to good shows is bad ones,” C.K. opines. “Just go start having a bad time, and if you don’t give up, you will get better.”
Think about standing on stage with a rapt audience waiting for you to deliver the punchline of a joke. And when you finally do: silence. It’s safe to say that kind of experience would likely motivate determined comedians—like C.K.—to write even better jokes, if for no other reason than to skirt rejection.
So don’t be afraid of your failures; turn them into opportunities for growth.
Was a client unhappy with the last project you completed? Try harder and do better next time. Aim to improve a little bit each day.