Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Portrait of the Comedian as a Middle-Aged Man: The Painful Pleasures of FX’s Louie

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 30, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


Ever wondered what it would look like if you mixed television comedy with indie filmmaking budget and sensibilities? Now that Louis C.K.’s darkly funny series Louie has returned for a second season, you can wonder no more.  Loosely based on his real life (as a 40-something, recently divorced comedian with joint custody of his two young daughters), Louis C.K. has been given unprecedented control over the content and direction of the series. With a promise to FX to keep the budget to shoestring levels, the network has agreed to stay out of his way, leaving C.K. to star, write, direct, edit, produce, and even cast every episode. Gleefully mixing gross-out comedy with existential anxiety, a single episode can casually touch on themes of post-divorce loneliness, the joys and traumas of parenthood, the aging male body, and even mortality itself. Last week’s episode (the second season premiere) may have hinged on an epic bout of flatulence, but it was also one of the most poignantly painful stories Louie has ever told. I’m not sure if Louie is the saddest comedy in the history of television or its funniest tragedy. Either way, it is one of the most original shows on TV today.

Louie and his daughter Lilly (Hadley Delaney)
Melancholic, balding and slightly overweight, Louie’s on-screen persona has the undeniable charm of a good man who has reached middle-age and knows precisely who and what he is (and is not). Louie is a good father who wishes he could be a better one. He loves his daughters, and, without sinking into sentimentality, gives the viewer a chance to observe the sheer pleasure he finds in the fact of his fatherhood – whatever the terrors and anxiety that accompany it. But middle-age has left him with little patience or energy to dissemble, and Louie greets most every situation with an awkward stare which silently communicates humanity, intelligence, and resignation – a signature brand of empathic disdain that rarely approaches judgment.

The show’s lo-fi credit sequence, set to a slightly altered version of the 70s groove classic “Brother Louie” (made famous in the U.S. by The Stories and here sung again by Stories front man Ian Lloyd himself), follows C.K. as he walks the streets of New York City, setting the pace and tone of the series perfectly. The New York City of Louie is like an extension of the main character himself, a life-size manifestation of his unconscious; every donut shop, subway car, and taxicab is another venue for his deepest fears and desires to play out before our eyes with a mixture of absurdity and stunning realism.  

Louis C.K. behinds the scenes on the set of Louie
Most of the episodes of the first season were comprised of loosely connected segments, essentially scripted short films of varying lengths knit together with scenes of Louie’s stand-up act. This internally episodic structure means that C.K. can tell the stories he wants to tell without concern for length. If he’s got a seven minute story, he takes seven minutes; if he’s got a twenty-two minute story to tell, he’ll use the whole episode. And whether it’s Louie being bluntly honest to a disruptive audience member or falling into a nitrous oxide-induced dream state and telling off Osama bin Laden (“I guess what I’m saying is, and maybe I’m oversimplifying things, but I think that 9/11 was a bullshit move. I don’t mean to offend you, but I think you’re an asshole.”) the series overflows with brilliant, stand alone sequences.  At the beginning of the season, there were often several of these sequences in a single episode. As the season progressed, however, the show got progressively more introspective, and more single story episodes began to appear. If last week’s episode is any indication, C.K.’s narrative ambitions have been ramped up even more in this new season. 

One sequence in particular, a brief conversation across a poker table that opens the series’ second episode, deserves special mention since it demonstrates the intricacy of writing and direction that makes the show great. Like a one-act play, it moves effortlessly from unbridled vulgarity to a solemn and profoundly effective conclusion. The scene almost defies description, so I’ve included a link to the clip here. (Warning: the scene contains offensive and extremely sexual language.)

Unlike Seinfeld and other recent trends in cringe comedy (see Curb Your Enthusiasm, or, for a more extreme example, FX’s own It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), this isn’t a show which finds its humour in the excruciating awkwardness of social situations. Louie's pain isn't principally played for laughs, nervous or otherwise; his pain is painful, and his anguish is real. Unlike most any comedy currently on the air, this show dares, for long stretches, to not be funny at all. Louie is, in that way, often reminiscent of the transcendent heights of Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s The Aristocrats (2005), where profanity at its most extreme pushes through into the most human parts of ourselves, indirectly exposing the inner life of the comedian, which is often anything but funny. And yet, Louie is, even in its darkest moments, always about comedy, a story about the many paths that lead to and from that small stage.

'Louie' on stage
The way the episodes intersperse examples of Louie’s stand-up routines with its narrative sequences may superficially remind us of the early seasons of Seinfeld, but that is the extent of the similarity between the two shows. As pointedly funny as Louie's stand-up segments are are, they are anything but disposable. They are the rare instances when the character seems even remotely comfortable in his own skin. And over the course of the first season, it becomes clearer and clearer how much of himself (the on-screen) Louie puts into his act, and how much he needs those 5-minute sets to stay grounded and sane.

Louie is often hilarious and frequently scatological, but it is also intense and intimate without ever feeling self-indulgent, brutally honest and sincere in ways that even the best dramas rarely dare. The show bluntly flouts most of the most basic rules of narrative and on-screen continuity: actress Amy Landecker, who plays Louie’s ill-fated date in one episode, shows up as the younger version of his mother just two episodes later, and the brother introduced last season has been unceremoniously replaced by a sister in this new season. But none of this matters. Louie is telling a different kind of story, a single, heart-breaking vision spread across 13-episode seasons.

Louie’s first season was released last week on DVD, and the second episode of its sophomore season airs tonight on FX. Go and watch it.