NEW YORK – Louis C.K. isn't soured on life. But he seems forever on the verge of turning.
At least that appears to be the case with the character he plays on the eponymous "Louie," his semi-fictional FX comedy making a much-awaited return Monday at 10 p.m. EDT.
Louie, who (like Louis) is a New York comic and a divorced father of two daughters, knows struggle and angst and cloudy wonderment. He views life through eyes with a stricken look, dwelling in a state of comfortable dread.
"What makes you laugh?" someone asks him.
"I can't remember," he replies.
Born Louis Szekely, Louis C.K. is a Mexican-American actor, screenwriter, producer, director and film editor.
The fourth season of "Louie" kicks off with back-to-back half-hours that chart Louie's bumpy daily life, including a rude wake-up call, a visit to the doctor, cooking dinner for his girls, awkward stabs at romance, indignity performing at a Hamptons benefit and brief respite in a comics' poker game.
There are also glimpses of him doing standup in a Greenwich Village club, where he ponders what happens after you die and says, "Actually, a lot of things happen. Just none of them include YOU."
Fans are happy to have him back with these 14 new episodes, especially after such a long absence. Back in fall 2012, Louis had asked FX for some extra time to recharge his batteries.
"Oh, boy, am I glad I did that," he says during a recent phone interview with the Associated Press. "I had way more energy, and I took a lot more time writing than I ever have. So even if it's not better, I certainly tried harder."
No one could dispute that he tries harder. His level of creative control and multihyphenate submersion in "Louie" is unprecedented for a TV auteur. And he is seen as a truth-teller beyond the boundaries of TV comedy, outdistancing Lena Dunham, Tina Fey or Larry David to earn proximity to TV drama's holy trinity of Davids: David ("The Sopranos") Chase, David ("The Wire") Simon and David ("Deadwood") Milch.
With such thunderous acceptance (a current GQ profile calls him "the greatest comic talent of his generation"), is it tough to reinhabit the earlier, not-nearly-so-successful Louis C.K. he portrays on his show?
"The good times that I'm living started about three years ago," the 46-year-old Louis replies with a hollow sound that might be a chuckle. "If you pit those years against 43 years of struggle, you still have plenty to draw from."
Acclaim is nice, he says, "but it's like if you were being called a really good pilot: that doesn't make it easier to fly the plane. The fundamentals of the task are still the same, and hard as ever."
The only time he checks in on his star status: when answering a call of nature.
"While I'm sitting there, that's when I Google myself," he says. "And it makes me kind of nervous. So then I Google somebody else. And then I get on with my day."
The trials and sometime shocking tribulations "Louie" visits on its hero — much of which Louis presumably has withstood in real life — are unforgiving, particularly those falling in the show-business realm. A memorable three-episode arc last season imagined David Letterman announcing his retirement, with Louie vying to be Dave's "Late Show" successor while falling prey to show-biz duplicity.
Is that really the dark view he has of his profession?
"The second you choose show biz as a career," he reasons, "you're almost guaranteed that you're not gonna make it. So all the bad luck coming to you is MEANT to come to you.
"It's not like with a farmer. They're trying to grow food for everybody! They should be rewarded with a decent crop and profit for their family." So when a farmer suffers a mortgage foreclosure or a devastating hailstorm, that's clearly wrong.
"But some idiot decides 'I'm gonna be a comedian' and then goes, 'Aw, I tried to get a job on TV and somebody else got it.' 'Oh, reallllly? Poor baby!'" Louis snorts.
He had long been an aspiring filmmaker when he wrote and directed the 2001 blaxploitation spoof "Pootie Tang," which blew up in his face. The studio demanded changes and, even after he complied, took the film away from him. Then he was critically skewered for the film the studio released in his name.
"Everything I did on 'Pootie Tang' to try to please them that didn't work, I realized I shouldn't have done," he says. "I may as well have made the film I wanted to make."
Five years later, when he created and starred in the HBO comedy series "Lucky Louie," he refrained even from compromises he believes might have won the show a second year.
"I did what I wanted to, creatively," he says. "I'm so glad I did it that way. And now I'm further emboldened with this job."
Of course, this time no one is breathing down his neck, least of all his network (FX boss John Landgraf recently hailed Louis for using his requested break to do "exactly what he said he was going to do" and creating "an amazing season of television").
These days the only pressure on Louis is to keep the good stuff coming.
And the only question aimed at him is: What will be his NEXT authentic, self-determined act? That's a question he refuses to indulge in.
"I have no idea," he says, explaining with cheer that would seem alien to Louie, "I love the curiosity factor. That's what keeps me going. I love wondering what's going to happen next."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.