TV's best new taboo-busting comedy

FX presents Louis C.K.'s "Louie," a portrait of the world's most pessimistic comedian as a middle-aged man

Published June 26, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

It takes a long, long time to grow up. Just when you start to sort things out and make some progress toward maturity, inevitably someone wanders up and offers you a jello shot or a sexy control freak of a boyfriend or a couch to nap on, and before you know it you're back at square one.

Eventually, though, these people die or go to rehab, leaving you all alone to figure some things out, write a check to the landlord, take a shower, etc. Finally, you feel calm and satisfied and secure -- maybe for the first time in your whole life. You've done it! You're a mature, responsible adult!

That's when you notice that you're really fucking old.

How did you get old? You were the one person on the face of the earth who was never going to age. How is it possible that you're not "just a kid" like you used to be? No one calls you a kid anymore. Instead, they look at you with pity in their eyes. Why? Because you're so goddamn old, that's why.

And how will you handle old age? You'll whine about it like a big baby for the rest of your life. Yes, that's right: You got to feel mature and satisfied for a total of about three minutes there.

Fortunately, though, Louis C.K. is also struggling with how old he is, and he's channeling all of his angst into his brand-new comedy, "Louie" (premieres 11 p.m. Tuesday, June 29, on FX). "I'm 42, so I'm really on the decline," he tells us in a stand-up segment from the second episode. "There's never going to be another year of my life that was better than the year before it. That's never going to happen again. I've seen my best years."

If that sounds a little negative to you, watch out, because it only spirals into darkness from there, from a gloomy conversation about divorce with Louie's brother ("What's sad is that you're too old to get anybody else," he tells Louie) to a torturous school trip with Louie's kid that ends when the bus breaks down in Harlem. Each episode has a loose theme (or two seemingly unrelated themes), but there's no larger narrative arc or resolution or moral or anything remotely resembling a cohesive, linear story. Instead, we're treated to an odd assortment of snippets from his stand-up routines, conversations between the comedian and one other person, and weird little stories that appear to be impressionistic reenactments of things that actually happened. Just for example, the second episode starts with a conversation between the comedian and his poker buddies about gay sex. Next, there's a stand-up bit about divorce ("Getting divorced is like stepping out of a time machine ... the kind of time machine it takes the real amount of time to take you to the future"). The episode ends with -- yes, of course! – some jokes about bestiality ("If no one ever said you should not have sex with animals, I would totally have sex with animals all of the time," Louis tells his somewhat nervous audience).

In another episode, Louie befriends a similarly nihilistic single mom (played by Pamela Adlon, a producer on the show who also played Louis C.K.'s wife on his short-lived HBO sitcom "Lucky Louie"). The woman comes over to Louie's apartment, drinks too much wine, confesses to sometimes wanting to sock her kid in the face for being unbearably boring, and then scrambles out the door in shame. Sadly, this is all that most of us crusty old parents can hope for when our kids are young: a few split seconds of communing with a kindred spirit before the daily grind kicks in again.

Yes, yes, children are a blessing. Of course most parents agree, but that doesn't mean we don't need to gripe about them occasionally. This is what "Louie" offers: an antidote to a culture that insists that we greet the inconveniences of parenting and the humiliations of aging with pat optimism and pithy words of gratitude.

A divorced dad of two young daughters, Louis C.K. is an absolute connoisseur of his own unhappiness. He takes his lowest moments, his worst defeats, and transforms them into these sad vignettes. In one scene, he examines his gut in the mirror, cringes, tries another angle, and finally gives himself the finger for being so lumpy. In another scene, he eats a pint of Häagen-Dazs while sorting through some old mementos from high school. Flipping through his yearbook, he remembers a humiliating exchange with a girl he had a crush on when he was younger. He contacts her through Facebook and then visits her house, where they have a bizarre, stilted interaction that defies description. The whole thing is terrible and creepy and depressing and also totally hilarious, like a David Sedaris story that came to life, bit you on the ass, and gave you rabies.

"I have the body that I want," Louie announces triumphantly in one episode. "That's a thing people really covet, and it's a hard thing to achieve and I did. I'm going to tell you how to have the body that you want. You just have to want a shitty body. That's all it is. You have to want your own shitty, ugly, disgusting body."

According to an article in the New York Times, FX gave Louis C.K. creative control over "Louie," which may explain why it's so unhinged and nonlinear. As funny as he is, it's clear that Louis C.K. doesn't just want to tell jokes. He wants to present the full force of his terrible brain, the ways that he eats himself alive day after day. He wants to confess his most unlovable, uncomfortable, embarrassing secrets, maybe as a means of feeling less alone in the world.

But even though Louis C.K. is obviously attracted to anything that's taboo, whether it's great big taboos like bestiality or mundane taboos like mentioning to another parent that sometimes your kid bores the crap out of you, "Louie" never feels sensationalistic or cheap. Not only is Louis C.K.'s comic timing perfect, not only is his comedic tone just awkward enough to highlight its neurotic undercurrents, but there's often an unexpected twist to these stories. The discussion about gay sex, for example, goes from snickering "Beavis and Butthead" quips to a heartbreaking moment when the one gay poker player explains how the word "faggot" sounds to a gay man. Somehow, thanks to the odd mix of over-the-top jokes and melancholy here, thanks to scenes so absurd that you know they were pulled straight from real life, "Louie" feels less like a comedian-led half-hour comedy and more like an avant-garde portrait of a slightly depressed guy in the midst of a midlife crisis.

Whether or not "Louie" gains the popularity of a far less original show like "Entourage" (which premieres on Sunday night), its jumbled narrative structure and absurdist flights of fancy capture something essential about the alienation of modern life. Which is nice, because most of us are too old to be amused by empty jokes and simple narrative arcs where the guy gets the girl and everything turns out just fine in the end. We know now that that's just the beginning of the story. "Louie" is the beginning of the end -- or, as the theme song puts it, "Louie, Louie, you're gonna die!"

Sure, most of us try to be optimistic. But every now and then, nothing is more soothing than the most pessimistic outlook on the face of the planet. God bless you, Louis C.K.!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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