By Eric Deggans
Times TV/Media Critic
You get the sense, watching some of his interviews, that even Louis C.K. is amazed at how popular he has become.
In the first week of sales, his latest tour sold more than 135,000 tickets through his website, earning more than $4.5 million. He was nominated a record seven times in this year's Emmy awards for his ferociously creative FX show, Louie, which won two.
He was even asked to host the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner this year, before Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren and other critics began asking tough questions about his past comments about conservative pundit/politico Sarah Palin.
And that's where the head scratching begins. Because Louis C.K., 45, is a tame comic-turned-underground favorite-turned-media darling who balances mainstream success with a capacity to say almost anything onstage or off.
He has excoriated Palin on Twitter, tweeting explicitly sexual insults about her — once while drunk on a flight — with surprisingly little public backlash from critics or fellow comics.
"I know it won't last and I don't expect it and I'll be fine when it's gone," Louis C.K., born Louis Szekely, told the New York Times back in July about his impact on pop culture. "It's the kind of thing that's always fleeting."
Still, it begs the question: Beyond being a really funny stand-up comic with a lot of experience and a hot TV show, why is Louis C.K. the comedian of the moment right now?
Here are a few reasons:
1 The media loves him. Time called him "Steven Spielberg without the beard and with humor." Entertainment Weekly named him "The World's Greatest Comedian." In an essay spiked with references to Kierkegaard and Marshall McLuhan, The Atlantic called him "America's unlikely conscience."
"There's a media embracing of him I haven't seen with anybody else," said comic Andy Kindler, another longtime road warrior with stints on Everybody Loves Raymond and Late Show with David Letterman whose State of the Industry rant at this year's Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal included a long section criticizing Louis C.K.
"In the old days, it was hard to get attention for anything that wasn't mainstream," added Kindler, who criticized Louis C.K. for talking too much about all the work he does on his FX show, promoting himself while also appearing to resist promotion. "Are we celebrating the art of things, or are we celebrating that they're successful?"
2 He's successfully taken control of his art, looking out for fans in the process. Louis C.K.'s FX show Louie is as close to a one-man-band as possible, with the comedian writing, directing, casting and even helping create the music for his show, to Emmy-winning results.
Likewise, he sold his last concert, Live at the Beacon, online to fans for $5 a pop, earning more than $1 million in less than two weeks. His tickets for concerts, including tonight's sold-out stand at the Straz Center in Tampa, were sold at $45 each using techniques to cut down on scalping.
A multimillionaire star who is willing to leave concert revenue on the table to thwart scalpers? What fan wouldn't love an artist like that?
3 He's hilariously self-deprecating while shocking the audience in ways they don't expect. Filthy as Louis C.K. can be onstage, nobody gets nailed worse than the man himself, who describes himself as "a bag of leaves nobody tied up."
Critics like Kindler suspect his modesty is just a pose. But comic Gilbert Gottfried, who famously lost a job voicing the duck in commercials for insurance company Aflac after tweeting jokes about the tsunami in Japan, said audiences are often drawn to the kind of edgy, self-effacing material that scares corporations and big institutions.
"People are willing to follow you down some dark places — not corporations, but the people will," he said, laughing. "When that (firing) happened, it became a major news item, it was all over the place, but you realize the public doesn't care. … They get it."
4 His creativity, once unleashed, brings amazing results. Ask how the comic creates such a fitting score for Louie and he reveals the secret: Often the music comes first, before scenes are written.
"We always make music before I start writing," he said. "The first thing I do all season is make two days worth of music. And some of that music helps me write. I listen to it when I'm writing."
Like so much else on the show, the quality comes from Louis C.K. following his instincts wherever they lead.
For fans of great comedy, there really isn't anything more compelling than that.