The Brilliance of Louis C.K.'s Emails: He Writes Like a Politician

Where campaign strategy and comedy marketing collide

Louis C.K.'s regular-guy shtick permeates everything about his image: the plain black T-shirts, the self-deprecating humor, his Twitter bio ("I am a comedian and a person and a guy who is sitting here"), even his mass-emailing strategy. 

Louie—and it feels right to call him "Louie" precisely because of this guy-who-is-sitting-here image he's so expertly cultivated—is, of course, not an ordinary guy. He's a wildly successful comic, a "comedy god" even, and his decision to directly distribute his own material has changed the way all kinds of entertainers look at the economics of selling albums and going on tour.

Yet Louie manages to write to his fans in a way that seems far more personal than the marketing messages that promote other entertainers in his class. The genius of his approach is that he's using email the way a politician does—a mock-personalized approach to reach and influence a huge mass audience—only he does it with a level of credibility and authenticity that politicians never quite capture.

Louie's emails appear in your inbox with "Louis CK" as the sender—just as you might receive an email that appears to be from "Barack Obama"—and each message is crafted so that it seems like it was written just for you. Only, when Louie writes, he lampoons the improbability of such an exchange. Here's a snippet from one of his early emails, dated Dec. 15, 2011: 

Hi.  This is LOuie.  It seriously is me. Im even going to leave the O stuipdly capatalized because who would pay an intern to do that?? Okay so you bought the thing with my fat face on it and you clicked the button that said i could email you. And i know that now you are thinking "aw shit. Why'd i let this guy into my life this way?". Well dont worry. Because i really swear it that i wont bug you. I will not abuse this privalage of having your email. You wont hear from me again... Probably, unless i have something new to offer you.

Jokey, typo-ridden—but always making promises. And those promises can feel downright politician-like. Louie often echoes political-speak in structure and in language, and he acknowledges as much in that same 2011 email: "Also, some of you may know, i recently made a statement (that sounds so dumb. Like i'm the president or something) about how the video has been doing online."

Another one of Louie's classic politician moves: Referencing his humble roots, which he did when he noted how he makes "a whole lot more than my grandfather who taught math and raised chickens in Michigan." 

Plus, he began a mass email in May with "Hello friend," which is how just about any political message begins when it's coming from a campaign that has your email address but not your first name. (Though an earlier email of Louie's began, "Dear haver of the eyes that are reading this.")

I used a document analysis tool from the Overview Project to analyze 16 Louis C.K. emails dating back to 2011. Overview was designed to help people comb through massive sets of data—thousands of pages of government documents obtained in open-records requests, for instance. So, while it was perhaps unusual software to apply to Louie’s email corpus, it found the common thread in an instant: According to Overview, his messages are overwhelmingly characterized by promotional language. Key words that come up again and again are: special, tonight, tomorrow, tickets, ticket, buy, price, sorry, and oops.

All of these terms perfectly encapsulate Louie's simultaneously apologetic and persuasive tone, the same tone he adopts onstage, and in his self-titled FX show and, yes, in his mass emails. All this is revealing not because he's using email to promote himself—of course he emails his fans because he wants them to buy stuff—but because Louie is so much better at this approach than the average politician. He uses the same communications vehicle as a person mass-emailing for donations and for votes, but Louie makes the genre work. 

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Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications.

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