Master Communicator Landgraf on Stories, Society, and More ‘Louie’

Louis C.K. almost stole the show at the Pierre Hotel Sept. 29, but a potent bit of oratory from the featured guest, FX Networks president/CEO/big thinker John Landgraf, left attendees of the Center for Communication’s annual roast in New York with a few things to think about.

C.K. is all over FX, whether it’s his own Louie or absurdist Baskets or edgy new comedy Better Things with his pal Pamela Adlon. (For what it’s worth, a decade ago, C.K. and Adlon starred in a short lived HBO sitcom called Lucky Louie, whose title sequence song was, yes, “Better Things” by the Kinks.)

Louie said there are few people he cares about more than Landgraf. “My kids…and John,” he said. “One is where I get the money, and the other is where the money goes.”

C.K. did a funny bit in which he said all successful TV pitches boil down to a couple common things: breasts (preferably white) and guns. He gave Landgraf credit for having an open mind about more inventive topics. “Here’s a guy who [looks at] other interesting ways to make television. The other ways take a little more patience to watch sometimes, but they spark your imagination, scare you a little bit, freak you out and leave you with questions,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to say, that’s worth making.”

That Landgraf and FX actually crank out successful shows, C.K. added, benefits everyone working in television.

Next to the podium were Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys of The Americans, before AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan. Sapan told B&C he was in no way going to follow C.K. “It’s in my contract—no hair, no makeup, no following Louis C.K.”

Singling out new comedy Atlanta, Sapan said Landgraf’s impact on television is “elevating” to anyone and everyone working in the biz.

Then it was a pensive Landgraf, given the Frank Stanton award for excellence in communication. The FX chief earned the title “the mayor of TV” not only for his knack for creating buzzy hits, but for his State of the Union-type presentations at TCA and other industry events. In August 2015, Landgraf famously said, “There is simply too much television.” A year later, also at TCA, he said, “I continue to believe that there a greater supply of U.S. television than can be produced profitably given the demand.”

He also voiced concern during that summer session about digital platforms and their massive programming budgets monopolizing creative content. “I just think that it’s something we as a society ought to be paying attention to,” he said. “It’s particularly bad for our culture when someone seizes 40-50% of market share within storytelling.”

Back to New York in late September. Landgraf told Louis C.K. he’s eagerly awaiting a new season of Louie. “I’m still waiting on the pitch for season six—please, pretty please,” he said. “Though I’ll cut you some slack for producing some of the best comedies on TV.”

As he had in Beverly Hills in August, Landgraf then turned philosophical about storytelling, recommending the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and speaking of the vital role stories play in society—in imagining and constructing cities, religions and empires.

“It’s the stories that unite us, and the stories that bring forth the technology, and bring forth New York City and the Pierre Hotel and this room we’re in,” said Landgraf. “It’s not the other way around.”  

Landgraf’s speech to a rapt room seemed to touch on the current political landscape as he spoke of those who spin yarns for ill gains. “Others use stories as a path to power by offering reassuringly simple answers to salve our deepest fears,” he said.

Artists, Landgraf said, brave their fears in search of truth, while tyrants “want to build moats and walls of delusional safety.”

“There’s never been a tyrant in the history of human society,” he added, “who didn't gain power through a seductive set of lies.”

Turning back to TV, Landgraf singled out early FX series like The Shield and Nip/Tuck for paving the path and future ones Legion, Taboo and Feud for furthering the FX legacy. “When the business of storytelling thrives,” he summed up, “so does our culture, and so do we.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.