Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012 6:49 PM UTC

Did “Louie” kill the sitcom?

By rejecting the rigid structure of realist comedy, the burly stand-up captures something infinitely more profound

LOUIE: Louis C.K. stars in LOUIE on FX.

Louie (Louis C.K.) doesn't go looking for trouble, but it always finds him.

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Louis C.K. emerges from the subway station: sullen, sweating. His balding crown of carrot colored hair is slightly brighter than his ruddy, freckled skin. The man is overweight but solid, like a fullback long past glory, in love with French fries, who still hits the gym. He’s got broad shoulders, thick arms, A-cup man breasts, and a sizable gut that hangs over his beltline. His black t-shirt is half a size too small, constricting his movements, and adding to the general impression of physical discomfort.

Los
Angeles Review of Books C.K. makes it up the subway steps and arrives at street level, exhaling as if he’s crested some unprecedented summit. He marches into a pizza joint, scarfs most of a giant slice in three bites, then disgusted, throws what remains in the garbage. To watch him eat is akin to watching a junkie shoot heroin; one can trace the convergence of shame and sublimity. All the while there’s music playing, the syncopated up beat of seventies funk. The singer repeats: “Louie, Louie, you’re gonna die.” The camera cuts to another set of stairs, this time a declension, C.K. hustling down to a door marked “Comedy Cellar.” The juxtaposition is stark: here lies humor, at the intersection of pathos and indigestion. We must armor ourselves with laughter.

So begins each episode of Louie, C.K.’s brainchild, currently in its third season on the cable channel FX. Cicero said that to be a philosopher is to learn how to die. Flaubert thought an artist must have a religion of despair. Accordingly, C.K. may be television’s true first in both categories.

If all this sounds too morbid and unsettling for primetime, well, it is. Louie, which airs on Thursdays at 10:30 p.m., represents a new epoch in cable programming. It’s been decades since The Cosby Show cast its wide net, tugging families from kitchens to living rooms for inclusive doses of post-dinner entertainment. In the 1990s, demographic fragmentation became a byproduct of both the growing ubiquity of cable, and a sharp rise in the number of TV sets per household. The kids could watch TGIF in the basement while mom and dad caught the late movie in the living room and, upstairs, grandpa let the History Channel wash over him in a wave of World War II nostalgia.

These days it’s different. The young — and the young at heart — bundle into beds, laptops and tablets propped inches from faces. They are snug in these cocoons, sequestered from all stimuli but those they source from screen and headphones. People watch alone now or in pairs, at odd hours, either streamed, downloaded, or on DVD, sometimes months or years after the shows have originally aired. Low budget shows on small market basic cable channels like FX don’t have to be populist, because they don’t have to pull in big advertisers in order to survive. These shows make money through licensing contracts with companies like Netflix and Hulu, through DVD sales, and through digital download sales via iTunes and Amazon.

The last few years have witnessed the emergence of exciting original content from small market cable channels. AMC gave us Mad Men and Breaking Bad; TBS tried (and failed) to bring Conan O’Brien to basic cable; and TNT had a breakout hit with The Closer. FX, too, has had its share of successful shows, including the multi-award winning courtroom procedural, Damages, and the critically acclaimed Rescue Me.

But even among its peers, Louie is an outlier. It is a show that, more than any other, both caters to this new kind of audience — the Laptop Loners — and has, as its creator, a member of the club. C.K. doesn’t just star in Louie, he also writes every episode, directs, produces, and oversees the music. Until recently, he even edited the show on his personal laptop. What’s more, C.K. is his own subject, a single father whose particular brand of post-millennial loneliness feels of a piece with Louie’s auteur production style and the solitudinous way in which we currently watch television.

If the 1980s was the Me generation — marked by consumerism and an obsession with personal needs (Give me hair gel! Give me cocaine!) — then we are living in theiGeneration, in which the self is projected back toward the world via social mediaBut whereas many Americans weave their public personas from curated chains of cultural signifiers — think of the popular web platform tumblr, where users “express themselves” by posting digital reproductions of existing images — C.K. aims for something more penetrating, a filmic representation of his own psyche. Louie is fascinatingly insular; it reads like a direct transmission, a strange and lovely Athena, birthed whole from the head of a brilliant, balding Zeus.

C.K. was born Louis Szekely (pronounced See-Kay), to a half-Hungarian, half-Mexican father, and an Irish-American mother. He spent his childhood in Mexico — Spanish is his first language — before moving to the Massachusetts suburbs with his mom when he was seven. After high school, he tried standup, doing open mikes at night while working days as an auto mechanic. There’s evidence on YouTube: a skinny young guy with full-bodied hair and the slightly bro-ish trace of a Boston accent. He moved to New York in his twenties, doing standup while writing for Late Night with Conan O’BrienThe Dana Carvey Show, and The Chris Rock Show. He wrote and directed the feature film, Pootie Tang, a gonzo satire of black exploitation movies that grew out of a Chris Rock sketch. Roger Ebert described it as, “like one of those lab experiments where the room smells like swamp gas and all the mice are dead.”

C.K. hit a comedic stride when he had kids. He cut a lot of schtick from his standup act — zany impressions, oddball conceptual humor — in favor of discussing his quotidian existence, waxing on subjects as diverse as the agonies and ecstasies of Cinnabun, and what it means to “eat a bag of dicks.” Audiences connected. An HBO special, Shameless, cultivated a growing and fanatical fan base, and eventually led C.K. to his own HBO series.

Lucky Louie detailed the late stages of a failing marriage that echoed the decline of C.K.’s own. HBO canceled it after a single season, and a real-life divorce followed shortly after. C.K. had such a bad experience working with HBO on Lucky Louie that he almost didn’t ink the FX deal. He held out for full creative control, which he got in exchange for a miniscule budget and an off-season, off-hours time slot. Before the start of season three, FX offered C.K. a bigger budget and asked him to move up to the nine p.m. slot. C.K. refused, citing added pressure from primetime advertisers that he felt would compromise the show’s autonomy.

Louie is based on C.K.’s life as a divorced father of two, and a standup comedian whose career success can’t counterbalance the glib state of his personal life or the rebellions of his rapidly middle-aging body. Louie the character’s biographical cloth is woven from the same torn rags of C.K. the standup: Catholic school education, ex-wife, backlog of bungled relationships, and the charge of two young daughters. The fictional scrim is thin.

And yet, for all its adherence to autobiographical detail, Louie bears little resemblance to reality TV. C.K. neither attempts to present life as it actually is or to woo viewers with an upgraded, escapist approximation of it. Louie’s New York can be both mimetic — the apartments are all appropriately small — and utterly fantastical: a severed head rolls down the street; a doctor tells you you’re too out of shape to exercise; Matthew Broderick directs an all-Jewish remake of the Godfather. It’s the New York of C.K.’s imagination, the city inside his brain. Like Joyce’s Dublin, it’s sign-posted with recognizable locations, but sense-warped by its auteur’s myopic subjectivity. And like a Bergman dream space, or the literal limitlessness of cyberspace, C.K.’s nebulous New York is in a state of constant flux, blessed by FX with the freedom to be inconsistent even with itself.

Every show has its own internal logic, a set of self-imposed rules that govern format and pacing — imagine a Law and Order episode that doesn’t begin with the discovery of the body — but also things like register, tone, and cinematic style. Louie’s goal is contrarian — the show’s self-imposed rules accommodate an in internal logic that changes from episode to episode, sometimes from scene to scene. C.K. wants to deconstruct the sitcom, to defamiliarize viewers in a way that is exciting, but this can also be alienating when it doesn’t work. For starters, Louie is without regular characters, save for Louie and his two daughters. A woman named Pamela (played brilliantly by Pamela Adlon) — Louie’s friend and unrequited love — appears in some, but not all episodes. Louie has a brother in the first season, but a sister in the second. Two different actresses have played Louie’s mother. In season three, an African-American actress who bears no resemblance to the white girls who play her daughters plays Louie’s ex-wife. This may be a case of colorblind casting, but more likely it’s another example of Louie’s interest in the uncanny and inexplicable. On an airplane, Louie receives a glass of water the size of a thimble. While under anesthetic, Louie wakes from a hallucination about Osama bin Laden to find he is being mouth-raped by his dentist. These are exaggerated realities, representations of how the real world sometimes feels, not how it looks.

The fact that Louie gets away with this defiant looseness is a testament to C.K.’s rare ability to articulate the confounding illogic of his own headspace in a way that is, for the most part, entertaining. But there’s also a cultural imperative at work. Sitcoms, historically, have upheld old-fashioned ideas about the American family. Even a show like Full House — in which three men raised a set of young daughters — reinforced the status quo while pretending to explode it. Full House was about a new kind of family doing its best to imitate the old kind. Louieon the other hand, is a single father living in a culture where the rules, roles, and expectations aren’t clearly laid out or established. To build a truly new model, one must burn what came before; this applies to families and sitcoms alike.

You can see a similar restlessness in the range of C.K.’s influences. Some episodes ape Fellini or Allen, while others have traces of Lynch or Truffaut or web series’ like Funny Or Die. Indie film pioneer John Cassavettes may be another tutelary spirit. Like Cassavettes, C.K. shuns cinematic convention, and has no hesitation in biting the hand of the Hollywood machine that feeds him — C.K. recently pissed off all sorts of people in suits by releasing his latest standup film as a five dollar download on his website, and by selling tickets to his current comedy tour on his personal website rather than through Ticketmaster. And as in Cassevettes’s best films like A Woman Under the Influence andHusbandsLouie can somehow move fluidly between docu-realism and heightened surrealism without sacrificing continuity.

Overall, Louie feels less like a TV series than a gathering of tangentially related short films, each unlike the others in style and tone, but linked by a consistent worldview — a sort of jovial sadness — and a consistent effort to derail our expectations as viewers. The thematic obsessions — death, child rearing, and masturbation — don’t change, and what carries is their creator’s constant, futile grappling with the same unanswerable questions: What do we do when our bodies betray us? How do we raise children in this soul-mined America? Can you bring lube on an airplane? He attacks these questions from a variety of angles, hammering at them with force and renewable vigor.

Interestingly, Lucky Louie took on much of the same thematic material as Louie has, but with an almost diametrically oppositional methodology. Lucky Louie was meant to be a throwback, an old-style sitcom shot in front of a live studio audience, in the vein of The Honeymooners and All in the Family. The idea was to work within the conventions of the genre, and for the genre’s technical constraints to trigger innovation. Lucky Louie would redefine the sitcom by following its rules. At least, this was HBO’s marketing spiel, an impossible promise on which C.K. never had a chance to make do.

The format of the American sitcom held steady for almost 40 years. The most noteworthy innovation was a negation; in the early nineties, HBO comedies like the short-lived Dream On ditched the pervasive canned laugh track, paving the way for the so-called cringe comedy of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. On Curb, the absence of a laugh track makes it difficult for viewers to know when to laugh. We cringe because we’re holding in laughter, waiting for a cue that it’s okay to release. But there is always a breaking point, an explosion into an absurdity so deep — Larry rushing into the water to “save” a baptismal candidate from drowning, for example — that the tension is relieved, and the laughter is released.

Louie both reacts to the failure of Lucky Louie and advances on Curb’s cringe comedy by creating something tenser, more tonally ambiguous. Louie’s singularity lies in its ability to further confound viewers by setting up jokes, and then providing pathos instead of punch lines. Not only does Louie’s audience not know when to laugh, they don’t even know if what they’re watching is supposed to be funny. For the Laptop Loner, this ambiguity is made all the more palpable by the absence of viewing partners; we use other people’s reactions to gauge the correctness of our own. But it also makes the ambiguity less assaulting. Alone, we can be comfortable in our discomfort.

Take “Bully,” from season one, in which a group of high school jocks wreak havoc on Louie’s blind date. The lead bully threatens to rough up our hero unless he makes a “sincere” request for amnesty. Louie reluctantly complies. The trained TV viewer anticipates what surely must come next: Louie’s date will appreciate his maturity; she’ll be impressed by his pacifism.

Not so. “You’re a great guy,” she says. “But my chemistry is telling me that you’re a loser.” Is this funny or just depressing?

One can imagine how this scene would play out on Curb. Larry, dismayed, would hold his date in his trademark, squint-eyed stare. He would be indignant to be so unfairly judged. In Curb, what often allows the audience to laugh is the reassuring knowledge that, despite Larry’s humiliations, he’s still Larry David: superior, smug, self-satisfied. Larry doesn’t feel shame, only annoyance and self-righteousness. He’ll laugh last while drinking champagne in his mansion.

Louie gives no such reassurance. One gets the sense that humiliations stay with him, that he carries them like blooming tumors in the pockets of his swollen belly. Both Louie and Larry are bourgeois white American men, but only Larry’s feel like first world problems. In part, this is because bodily despair transcends race and class. Louie’s misery seems inevitable, irreparable, real in the sense that it extends beyond the boundaries of the show’s fictional sphere and into C.K’s actual life. We surmise that it’s not just the character that’s overweight and out of breath, but also the actor who plays him.

The waning state of C.K.’s fleshly self is a major source for Louie’s particular amalgamation of humor and woe. Louie’s doctor tells him he has “the worst penis I’ve ever seen.” A young woman wants him to describe — mid-coitus — his body’s degeneration. Again, we’re privy to C.K.’s subjective reality, his glass half empty interpretations. It’s the nightmarish solipsism of he who thinks the world was built to hurt him, the literalization of a misanthrope’s imagination. A real doctor would never say that, but he’s probably thinking it. With a woman half your age, one might imagine her eyes on you, scrupulously assessing.

Short clips from C.K.’s standup are intercut with these vignettes: C.K. describing his life as a “48 hour cycle of diarrhea,” or the way he “rain[s] sweat” on women during sex, or the woman who committed suicide two years after performing oral sex on him because “that’s the gestation period of suicidal shame that comes from having had my penis in your mouth.” The current season opened with a monologue on needing reading glasses in order to masturbate. If you can stomach the scatology, you’ll see that these jokes are meant to make you laugh, but more so to open a candid investigation into corporeality; into what it’s like to live in a body that disobeys, decays, and will one day cease to exist.

For comedians, a healthy dose of fatalism is a job requirement. In one of his funniest standup routines, C.K. complains that even the most ideal life will end in the deaths of you and those you love. But Louie’s fatalism is balanced out by an occasional idealism that’s almost shocking in its earnestness. Louie isn’t jaded. When he asks the annoying stoner who lives across the hall to “just be a neighbor, a human being,” it feels as if he’s addressing the world writ large, that basic human decency is something he believes in. We get the sense that he actually cares about other people.

Despite the humiliations, or perhaps in spite of them, there’s an admirable dignity in the way that Louie lumbers through life: dragging his own heft, but always pushing on; with caustic wit and cautious love; with an eye for small moments of beauty. The latter isn’t a euphemism for lame sentimentality. It’s not the kind of show where a father hugs his daughter as an indie crooner sings over acoustic guitar. C.K. knows better than to play his daughters for redemptive sympathy. He is at once too cynical, too sincere, and too weird for schmaltz.

One episode begins with a Felliniesque vignette in which we see Louie close to tears as he watches a tuxedoed violinist perform on a subway platform. As the music reaches its crescendo, a vagrant arrives and proceeds to strip down and bathe with a bottle of water. New York’s omnipresent filth and uncanny beauty coalesce. By the end of the scene the bather scrubs in rhythm with the violin; it all feels oddly joyous. As in the films of Cassavetes, Louie is interested in the intersection of suffering and catharsis, the way extreme emotions mirror one another. As Joni Mitchell pointed out a long time ago, laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.

Later in “Bully,” Louie follows the bully to his parents’ house in Staten Island. Louie rings the bell and confronts the bully’s father. In lieu of a punch line, there’s an actual punch: the father smacks his son. Louie is appalled. He mentions the cyclical nature of violence, only to be called a faggot by the bully’s mother and thrown out of the house. It doesn’t end there. The father steps outside and apologizes to Louie. That’s the way he’s learned to parent even though he knows it’s wrong. They both light cigarettes and smoke in silence. It’s a scene from a Raymond Carver story, a moment of queasy grace.

An overwhelming sense of loneliness pervades Louie. There’s sometimes hard-won camaraderie — with other parents, other comedians — but no one quite manages to connect. When they do, the connections are fleeting; by the next episode Louie’s new friends are gone and he’s returned to the awful state of his unchecked subjectivity.

In a hilarious but strangely heartbreaking season three episode, Louie makes a new male friend on a trip to Miami. The friend — a lifeguard — is of the Baywatch variety: tan and muscly, cheekbones to die for. Neither Louie nor lifeguard can quite determine the other’s intentions, or even his own. Are they gay for each other, or what? When the subject comes up, the conversation gets so vague and awkward — neither man will say the word “gay” — that the friendship has no choice but to dissolve. The scene illustrates the dilemma of the new American man, confused about current social codes and the appropriate attitude toward one’s own masculinity.

But Louie’s loneliness also stems from being a single father, one whose fears are left to flourish without a wife to share and tame them. Just as the Laptop Loner is confounded by the absence of laugh cues, the single father has no barometer for his behavior as a parent. Louie is a loving father, one who clearly means it when he says he reserves all his wishes for his kids, and who is shattered when his daughter tells him she loves momma more than daddy. It is through this lens of unconditional love that one begins to understand his most charged and difficult material.

There’s a controversial routine from C.K.’s standup — excerpted during season two of Louie — in which he explains that the problem with a society that condemns child molestation is that, because of the strength of our recoil, child molesters are more likely to murder their victims after raping them. “I can’t help thinking that if we take down a few notches the hatred for [child molesters] […] at least you’d get the kid back. Guy could call you, ‘Hey I just fucked your kid. Do you want me to bring him to soccer or drop him at your house?’”

It’s an impossible observation to unpack, made more so by how sickening it sounds when spoken out loud. But it works because its core is one of deep parental concern. C.K.’s not an apologist for molestation, but a father working out his midnight dread. What he’s taking on is the irrational logic of parenting, the valuation of your child’s life above all else, including, paradoxically, your child’s safety. “I have two children. My biggest fear is that they will disappear.” C.K. explains. “Why do kids disappear? Because people have sex with them and then toss them.” A married man wouldn’t make this joke; his wife would neither let him tell it or believe it.

Louie’s post-modernity, it’s worth noting, has been rejected once already. The sixties and seventies saw the mainstream popularity of authors like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, and filmmakers like Bergman and Lynch, who shattered established notions of character and reality in the same way that C.K. has. Later, Lynch’s Twin Peaks upended all our expectations as to what a TV drama could be. But the trend didn’t continue, and the backlash was tidal. Now we’ve got Jonathan Franzen and Aaron Sorkin on one side, and Suzanne Collins and Spiderman on the other. Realism is back in style, its popularity matched only by the equally traditionalist cult of sci-fi/fantasy. Perhaps, as in the 1930s, financial crisis demands either macho realism or extraplanetery allegory.

In this climate, television may have the most potential as a growing medium. Demographic fragmentation has insured the demolition of a targeted mainstream, and perhaps even our new way of watching — alone, quarantined by our screens — encourages the kind of departures from convention that Louie gets away with. When you’re not surrounded by family and friends, it’s easier to give yourself over to strangeness, to follow the associative narrative of unmediated consciousness. As anyone whose ever seen a planetarium’s Pink Floyd laser light show knows, the collective dream is a harder thing to achieve, especially without hallucinogens.

Louie, clearly, is not for everyone. But it’s C.K.’s fearless embrace of the unsettling, the complex, and the potentially unmarketable that makes it an exciting show to watch. Louie is an ever-evolving creation, a no bullshit attempt to make something honest and challenging in a medium that’s inherent nature stands in stark opposition to these very goals. This is a brave thing to do, braver even than broadcasting one’s deep-seated fears and self-loathing for laughs. In one standup routine, C.K. claims that he has, “only the courage for a perfect life” — a life without adversity. It’s a rare moment of dishonesty from television’s most honest man.

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