In 1994, Louis C.K. was a 26-year-old Late Night with Conan O’Brien writer suffering from a bad case of burnout. As he detailed on Tuesday while accepting an award at the Moth Ball, his response to that situation was an impromptu excursion to a newly independent Russia—a trip that, predictably, was not quite the soothing mental balm he sought.
Strung out over a glorious 10 minutes, C.K.’s story touches on everything from the cavernous subways of Moscow to the rough-edged children that inhabit them, but he ends by noting that his lonely vacation had a purpose after all: “to find out how bad life gets, and that when it’s this bad, it’s still fucking funny.”
Courtesy of Vulture, here’s a full transcript of the tale:
Thank you, I really appreciate that. I mean I really like people. And I even think I’m pretty cool sometimes. I’m very pleased to be here today. I love “The Moth.” I listen on the radio all the time, and it kills me every time. It’s nice to know that you can reliably cry by listening to something, you know. Always makes me cry. I want to thank the people who told their stories, the kids and all these people, because I think stories [are] the only thing you have that’s really only yours. A lot of people have money and other possessions or ideas, but your stories are the only things that you’re the only one that has them and then just by telling them, then everybody else has them, so that’s why I think stories are great. So they asked me to tell a story, and I told a few to my daughter, and this one she just said, “Yeah, tell that one.” And I think it’s mostly ‘cause she wanted me to stop. It was the last one, she was like, “Yeah, just tell that one, can I go back to what I was doing?”
But anyway, I went to Russia in 19— , no, 20— no, when the fuck was it? — yes, 1994. I went to Russia. It has just become Russia again. It was the Soviet Union until really that year, everything started to crash down. At the time I was a writer for the Conan O’Brien show and I had written there for two years and I was burnt out and I didn’t want to do it anymore, so I went to the head writer and I said, “I have to quit because I think I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown.” And he said, “Take two weeks off. And we’ll pay you for the two weeks.” I said “Okay, I’ll do that.”
So I had nowhere to go and I thought, Maybe I’ll go to Russia. I really don’t know why, I can’t really explain any of the decisions I made then, because I have children now. You don’t have to search when you have children. You’re not like, “What could I do to enhance my life?” You’re just sort of compelled to do whatever comes at you at a certain age in life. But I was in my 20s, I had no wife, I had no girlfriend even, I was just this guy, and I had money from a TV job. So I decided to go to Russia ‘cause when I was a kid I used to read Russian novels and I loved them and I would open all the windows so I would be cold, I wanted to be cold like they were. So I just decided, and also, someone told me that the wall had just come down in the Soviet Union, that Russia was a really crazy place at the time. So I said, “I’m gonna go there.” I speak no Russian. I can’t even look at the alphabet and understand what I’m looking at. There’s no place more foreign to me than Russia.
So I went. I went to Moscow, which, you land in Moscow, and it’s just forest, and there’s a city in the middle of this forest. It’s terrifying. And as the plane goes there, you’re like, “No, no, no, I didn’t want to really do this.” And the whole time there I couldn’t fend for myself. It was already a country that was just broken in pieces, and the weirdest things happened to me there, it just became normal after a while. Like I was in a restaurant and a waiter came up to me, not my waiter, he said, “Coca-Cola?” And I said, “Uh-huh.” He said, “Coca-Cola!” and I said, “Sure.” I don’t drink Coca-Cola, but I had learned at that point, don’t, just do what they’re asking you to do. So he went to the kitchen and he got a Coke in a can, he handed it to me, and he said, “Five dollars.” Because only dollars were worth anything there. And I said, “Okay, on my bill.” And he said, “No, five dollars, me, now.” So I gave him five dollars, and he put on his coat and he left. He just sold me a Coke on the side and then quit his job. So those are the kinds of confusing moments I was having there. And I couldn’t talk to anybody, and I was so lonely. It’s difficult, you know, I was alone, and I’d just sit in the room and go, “Okay, that was a really fucked-up day, I hated that day.” And I tried to watch television and the TV was American shows like Dynasty, and the way they translated, they didn’t have, what they did was the sound was a little down and there’s just one man saying all the dialogue: [imitates Russian dialogue] over the whole show. I was there for two weeks, and it just was crushingly — I made no contact with anyone.
And then one day I went into the subway, and if you’ve never been to Moscow, the one thing I learned there was that, well, the streets are very — I can’t gesture [while holding this award], it’s beautiful, but I can’t keep punching you in the face with a big white fist. Okay — the streets of Moscow during the Cold War, they were made wider so they could have missiles going down the middle of the street for the parades. If you go there, you find out, if you go behind the big buildings, they actually tore buildings off their foundation and dragged them back and a lot of the bigger buildings in Moscow in the back, they’re being held up by bricks, it’s really unnerving how unsafe the whole city is. So the streets are very wide and you can’t cross the street on a green light, you’ll never make it. So they made tunnels so you can go under, and those are connected to the subway. And the subway in Moscow, you go down on the escalator and you keep going until you think, like this, it just keeps going. This is so deep, this is like really upsetting. Anyway, everybody hangs out in these tunnels. I went in the middle of December. I went to Russia in the middle of December, alone. And I’m standing on the subway, and I’m watching a violin player. One thing about Russia, still today I think, is that no one has any money, so when you see a guy playing the violin in the subway, he’s like the first-chair violin for like the Russian symphony orchestra, ‘cause that doesn’t pay shit. And at least he gets a few kopecks in the subway. So I’m watching him and everybody, these other people were sitting on the floor, and we’re crying, everybody’s crying, everybody. It’s just normal. People are just watching, just wiping away tears.
And there’s a young fellow sitting here and he looked my age, I was 25 at the time and he looked about 25, he was tattered, he just watched this violin player. And then this group of kids walked by, about eight children ranging from 5 to 10 years old, and their faces were dirty, like you know like in Oliver Twist, like they were in a play, like they rubbed dirt on their face. And they’re all wearing men’s coats that they’re wearing as — like from the neck down to the floor — none of them have sleeves, their hands in their sleeves, their sleeves were just flopping. They were like street-urchin kids and the coats just looked like these men’s coats, and you kinda knew all the men who owned those coats were dead, and at least one of these kids killed those guys. Like I swear I looked at an 8-year-old’s face and thought, He has murdered. And that’s what they looked like, just tough little kids. I’d seen them before in Moscow. They work in groups. The guy sitting below me that I identified with called out to the head kid in the front. I don’t speak Russian so I just knew he was just going [imitates Russian]. He was appealing to him. [More fake Russian.] He needed something. And the kid with his hands in his sleeve looked at him, suspicious, and said, [imitates Russian]. Like, “What the fuck, why, you want something from me?” And the guy went [imitates Russian], explaining himself, and he showed him his shoe had come apart, and he showed that his shoe was like flat. He showed the kid. [Imitates Russian.] And he showed him his shoe, and the kid shrugged, [fake Russian], like okay. And the kid’s hand appeared from out of the sleeve and there was a tube of shoe glue in his hand. He didn’t rummage for it, it was already there. And he handed it to the guy, and the guy fixed his shoe with the glue. Gave it back, and [imitates Russian], then the kid, his other hand had a paper bag, he put the glue in and he [huffing sound] huffed it, and his eyes rolled back, and he got high, and then the group kept going. And I couldn’t believe what I just saw. That the misery in this country at that time was so calculable and so predictable, this guy thought, My shoe’s broken. Oh, there’s a child. He’s sure to have some glue in his hand, because the state of our nation is so wretched. And he looked at me, and I was startled — he laughed, and I laughed. And he was the only person I had any contact with in the whole Soviet Union. And I realized, this is why I came here: to find out how bad life gets, and that when it’s this bad, it’s still fucking funny.
That’s all I got. Thank you.