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.

How? Because he acknowledges plainly what he's doing. In other words, he's in on the joke.

When public officials try to sound personal, they often come off as creepy or just fake. I don't actually believe Michelle Obama emailed me to ask, “Do you want to meet Barack, Adrienne?” or that Congressman Paul Ryan wants to know if I'm “Ready for lunch?”—both recent subject lines from messages in my inbox.

But Louie makes it clear that he knows you know what he's doing—like when he signs off “your annoying person,” or writes something like “For any of you that didn't go to buy it and this is just a tedious, worthless email for you, I am truly, honestly, kind of, not really sorry at all.” He tells you he hopes you're having a great day, then immediately reminds you he's writing to a sprawling and anonymous audience of people, as he did in January 2013:

Seeing as this email goes out to about a quarter of a million people, the odds that all of them are having a terrific day are very low. I would say at least thirty two thousand four hundred and sixty two of you are just having the worst day ever. The kind of day where, when someone smiles at you, you really want to punch them right in their stupid mouth.  And here now youre getting an annoying email from that comedian you used to like, but enough already with that guy anyway. Well, in any case.... Hello.  To all of you.

So his emails feel honest in a way that political emails don't. Even when he gets sappy—or maybe especially then—Louie is able to strike a balance that most politicians aren't: He's wealthy and successful, but he's that guy who wears T-shirts, and maybe didn't comb his hair, and spells parentheses as “parentesies.”

Louie's whole persona is about this tension between being success and failure, the cross section of sincerity and sarcasm, and those contradictions are what makes his emails feel authentic—because they seem like exactly the kinds of emails you'd expect from Louis C.K., who, by the way, wants you to know that his real name is Louis Szekely and that he shortened his last name so it would sound snazzier even though he knows, okay, “it’s not that snazzy.” Louie is exceptional but he wants you to know that this feels strange to him. And it seems clear that when people start to doubt his image, they stop liking him so much.

So Louie gives fans the sense that they're being let in on the process, while also carefully guarding your sense of what he's like. He acknowledges the theater of what he does for a living, the absurdity of trying to communicate with hundreds of thousands of people all at once, and the privilege of his position—all within the framework of the “guy who is sitting here.” The message he ends up sending is that Louie may not be the underdog anymore but he's clearly rooting for the underdog, and maybe that means he's rooting for you.

Louie's mass emails come across as mostly dashed off, sometimes heartfelt, and, of course, funny. But considering the meticulousness with which he approaches his comedy writing process—“always question why you say the things you say,” he told Reddit two years ago—one wonders whether each typo isn't painstakingly placed. Other email hawkers who want something from you—politicians, your alma mater, your local public radio station—don't do any of that so effectively. No other campaign email really feels like it was written just for you. But they all still pretend to be.

Meanwhile, here’s good ol’ Louie, back in January: “Thank you for receiving this email.  If you hated it, or you hate me, feel free to unsubscribe.  Keep in mind that I am personally informed whenever anyone unsubscribes and I cry very hard every time it happens.”