Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Louie – Season One

Be advised that any links provided should be considered very NSFW

Louis C.K. reminds me of what punk rock bands used to be. Before punk became just another counter-culture movement that the mainstream exploited, it would act as the very representation for the marginalized and disenfranchised; it was more than just a style of music – it was an attitude, an ethos. With the commercialization of punk rock, everything punk represented was now being adopted by the very people it was never intended for. Why bring this up? I feel like Louis C.K. is the type of comedian that still carried the flag for the type of person that feels marginalized and disenfranchised. What sets him apart from the Woody Allen’s and the Larry David’s – other brilliant misanthropes – is that he isn’t whiny (which is not to say that whiny=unfunny); he simply observes and doles out the appropriate, often stinging, observations that come from being an balding, out-of-shape New Yorker (and entertainer). His writing style isn’t always palatable, but it’s honest (and one of the reasons why I think he’s maintained, and gained, such an ardent fanbase), and explicates the dark areas of comedy that nobody else seems to want to touch on. Honesty – especially honesty that gets really dark – is really damn rare in the cookie-cutter world of 21st century standup comedy where the Chelsea Handler’s and Dane Cook’s of the world have confused sophomoric vulgarity for comedy. C.K. seems to be one of the last remaining standups that doesn’t find his shortcomings to be an asset – his self-loathing to be charming – who doesn’t rely on vulgarity for vulgarity sake, and who will allow himself not to come off as the authority on certain issues or topics – but instead as the dude that simply puts up with the crap hands life deals him.

C.K.’s inaugural season producing, writing, directing, editing, and acting for his FX show Louie, is a perfect example of the comic’s brilliance. C.K. was given carte blanche from FX as long as the show maintained its miniscule budget; a great deal, no doubt, in this modern age of television. The results from the first season weren’t always great, but more often than not C.K. created 20 minutes of unpredictability on television that is a breath of fresh air from all of the network sitcoms that try to pass themselves off as comedy.

C.K. took the show to extremes (the opening conversation about homosexuality in “Poker”) and other times played it safe (“Dogpound”) and other times went darkly serious (“Bully”) or experimental for a 20 minute comedy show on cable (“God”) – whatever it was, it had that distinct, “punk” voice of C.K.’s; the distinct voice of a particular group of people (although, I’m almost certain he would hate to be called the voice of anything) that either have had experiences no matter how sitcomy (smoking too much weed and throwing a water jug out of a window and onto a car) or serious they are (dealing with bullies or trying to make sense of a strict Catholic/religious upbringing that focuses primarily on shame). Whatever it is, it seems C.K. has something to say about it and then allows himself to be subjected –good or bad (mostly bad) – to whatever it is he’s dissecting for that 20 minutes. He’s the voice that simply states: here’s how it is, and it doesn’t get any better (he’ll often remind the viewer of the fact that it can’t get any better since he’s in his 40’s). C.K. so rarely – if at all – sets himself up to orate from a soapbox and observe from the high ground; he’s in the shit with the rest of us, and that is precisely what makes him such a hilariously endearing comedian (and probably the main difference between him, and another one of my favorites, Larry David; David’s character on Curb comes from a place of self-assured authority on whatever it is he’s berating society for, whereas C.K.’s character takes no such position).

As I mentioned earlier, some episodes don’t work for me like the one with the weird dentist (which pains me because I love Stephen Root) and the episode “God” (although I did love the honesty – that rare honesty in a comedy show that only C.K. can provide – in which his mother tells his younger self about loving people regardless of whether God exists or doesn’t exist). Even in those episodes that don’t really succeed, there’s at least the undercurrent – always – of unpredictability (helped by the splicing in of standup footage, which is almost always funny, or the fact that C.K. wisely keeps most stories under 10 minutes) that is akin to listening to a great punk album: the music might not always be great, but, man, is it exhilarating listening to something that breaks the rules with such gusto (the same could be said for seeing a punk band live).

In the second-to-last episode, “Gym,” after barely getting his kids to school, C.K. complains about how his day is done now and consists of going home, eating something unhealthy, masturbating, passing out, and then picking up his kids; “the grind” as one of his friends puts it. It’s not just humorous exchanges like that one that make the show so hilarious; it’s the olio of jokes and humor that C.K. can pull off with such ease: he can be misanthropic, broad and vulgar (his check up in "Doctor Ben" with Ricky Gervais as the doctor), sardonic (Ricky Gervais, again, this time in in the episode "The Gym," as his doctor telling a laid-up C.K., “I’ve told you to stop taking care of yourself”), observational (“Travel Day” or his experience in the hipster coffee shop), dark (“Mom”), extremely dark (talking about pedophilia in “The Dentist”, darkly serious (“Bully” and “God”), and physically funny (the workout scene from “The Gym”).


Here’s a rundown of what I think are the highlights of season one:

Episode 2: "Poker"  the aforementioned opening discussion on homosexuality; it's frank and honest and vulgar and, like almost everything on Louie, turns from bawdy guy-talk (I love that C.K. takes one of the most "manly" pastimes, and turns it into a discussion about homophobia and the use of the word "faggot") to genuine and insightful conversation (and inquiry) about the history of the word "faggot." It's more than just bullet points being checked off for quick laughs, and it's appropriately placed at the beginning of the season as it acts as a great precursor to just how unpredictable and different Louie is from everything else on television. 

Episode 3: “Dr. Ben” – the doctor’s office scene is probably – along with the weed humor of "Dogpound" – some of the broadest humor C.K. did on the show. Still, it's really funny (thanks to the utter glee Gervais displays in playing such an ass). One thing I love about C.K.: he’s always willing to make fun himself and put his body out there for everyone to see.

Episode 4: “So Old/Playdate” – the highlight of the episode is this hilarious sex scene, from "So Old," where for once Louie's age is an asset. Two of my favorite lines of the episode, "I remember when going to the movies cost three dollars" and "I'm older than any baseball player except for Jamie Moyer; I think he still plays for the Phillies" never cease to make me laugh whenever they just randomly pop into my head. "Playdate" has that kind of plural discussion between two parents that C.K. is good at. As C.K. decides he needs to get more involved in his kids school activities by attending his first PTA meeting, he meets a fellow single parent whose kid is friends with Louie's kid. As their kids play, they have a discussion about their kids that is both brutally honest and hilariously dark. It's another example of the kind of plurality that makes the show so great and unpredictable: this isn't some cheesy, tug-on-the-hear-strings moment between two parents that we usually see on sitcoms; no, this really seems (I can only suppose since I am not a parent) like an honest and uncomfortable, yet humorously dark, insight into being a parent. 

Episode 5: “Travel Day/South” – the airport scene in "Travel Day" is great; from how frank he is about what he’s using the lube for to the classic super-serious, dead-pan way C.K. observes the usual goings-on at the airport and being on a small plane (I really hate flying, so I could relate to this one). Also, I loved his voiceover as the pilot who so nonchalantly describes all the things that are wrong with the plane and the bad weather they’re going to be flying into.The second story, "South," doesn't necessarily work all that well (mostly because unlike the majority of episodes, we kind of see where it's going), but when Louie meets an adoring fan, the episode takes on an appropriately outré tone. 

Episode 6: “The Heckler/Cop Movie” – the opening to the "The Heckler" is one of the most hilariously uncomfortable scenes I’ve ever seen on a TV show; C.K. just obliterates this woman in the front row going so far that even the comedy club audience's laughter and admiration (and the viewer at home) at the way C.K. abases the heckler wanes as he goes beyond even what the king of misanthropes, Larry David, would say to someone. It works on multiple levels: it's funny and then it has the tone of wanting to be the kind of friend that taps your drunk buddy on the shoulder and says, "enough is enough; let's go." As I mentioned earlier, C.K. is different than my other favorite cable misanthrope Larry David, as much as I because he's not simply being put-off and annoyed by society, his safety and profession (his livelihood) is, according to C.K. as he explains in a great follow up scene where the heckler confronts him outside of the club, being threatened.

C.K. will never allow himself to be holier-than-thou, though, so even though he feels superior to the heckler (despite, deep down, trying to hook up with her by making her feel bad, so his convictions are suspect; I love that punchline), he won’t allow himself to come out of it looking 100% clean as is seen with the second half of the episode, "Cop Movie." C.K.'s agent gets him assigned to a movie being directed by Matthew Broderick. However, C.K. is horrible at acting and at times even seems to be purposely messing around and ruining takes because the whole acting thing is just not for him. When Broderick confronts him about his not liking to act, he says, “you may not like acting, fine, but respect other people’s work and start acting like you give a shit.” The circular message of the episode is brilliant as C.K. – who so obviously got one over on that heckler – isn't seen as someone who is always in the right. His win at the comedy club is only a win because that's his home field. By episodes end, he's just as rude and obnoxious on the film set – causing all kinds of breaks in the momentum of the shooting of the film in the same way the momentum of his set was being stunted by the heckler – as the heckler was interrupting his standup. 

Episode 8: “Dogpound” – The aforementioned hipster coffee shop scene was brilliant and a high point (for those that have seen the episode: no pun intended) in an otherwise pretty blah episode. 

Episode 9: “Bully” – the best episode of the season. One of the rare one-story, 20 minute episodes, "Bully" is also probably the darkest (and, from what I've heard, most similar in tone to the second season). With the exception of the episode’s bookends, this is a dark, dark episode that shows C.K. being completely abased by a teenage while on a first date. After the date falls apart, C.K. takes things to a somewhat weird level by following the kid all the way to a ferry and onto Staten Island where he eventually follows the kid to his house. The astute viewer can guess reasonably well where this all going; however, like most of Louie, C.K. decides to take things in a different direction. The tone had a weird revenge film vibe to it, and I love that camera follows just behind C.K. who is in pursuit of the kid; it adds to the tension as if we're in pursuit, too. The whole time we’re right there in spirit with C.K.– in understanding the motivation –  in the sense that, yeah, we too are frustrated and would probably want to follow through on the fantasy of following the kid to his house and meting out the appropriate amount of punishment and embarrassment. But we are also right there with him when he actually gets to the door and is asked inside the house by the parents and then has this look on his face that just says: what am I going to say to this kid or his parents.

And from there the scene devolves into a pretty dramatic moment where C.K. tells the parents what happened, and the parents yell and hit their kid. C.K. yells at the parents for hitting their kid and that they shouldn’t act surprised that he’s a total dick bully and beats people up. This sets off the mother who begins to slap at C.K. and yell at him for having the nerve to tell her how to raise her son (an astute criticism, if you ask me, about parents with out-of-control kids that love to spew hate towards people who call them out on their shitty parenting, instead of actually listening). And then, in keeping with the unpredictability of the first season, C.K. takes it a step further by having the father meet him outside – no, not to fight which is what the conventional television show would waste time building false tension towards – to simply talk about how in over his head he is raising his kid. This leads to not just a nice moment between the two fathers – as they share a smoke and shoot the shit (and even elicits a chuckle out of the father when he says he’s a comedian) – but a really damn poignant one that reminded me of the Philip Larkin poem "This Be the Verse" (which has an appropriate ending that feels very much like something that could have influenced C.K.especially the final lines that are both poignant, "man hands on misery to man/it deepens like a coastal shelf," and sardonic, "so get out while you can/and don't have any kids yourself"). You just don’t expect this types of moments on television comedies, yet C.K. peppers astute, sobering observations such as this (which, by the way, says more in the brief 20 minutes than any kind of false, “gritty” documentary about bullying could) throughout the first season constantly keeping the viewer on their toes

Episode 12/13: “Gym/Night Out” – I loved the aforementioned workout session that goes horribly wrong and the conversation that precedes it about C.K.'s daily routine in "Gym", and I really liked the club scene (with a great use of drowining out the dialogue which added to the sadness/humor) in the finale, "Night Out," where C.K. desperately tries to fit in with some black comedians (who claim they want to get him a woman, but in typical Louie fashion, only wanted to see how badly he would humiliate himself). But what I love most about about the finale was the sweet coda (and that beautiful shot of the dawn-lined New York skyline) of him eating pancakes at 5am with his daughters at a diner. After a horrible night out, something as banal as breakfast stands as a beautiful and poignant way to end such a bleak, darkly sardonic season of television by allowing the lasting image to be one that reminds the viewer that his daughters may be the only thing in his life that make him happy, but at least he does have something that makes him happy.


Whether it’s the show’s vulgarity, uncomfortable misanthropy, observational humor, or darkly dramatic (and sometimes comic) moments like the ones found in “Bully,” Louie is always something different. Certainly the rhythm of the show is similar in many episodes, but I appreciate how C.K. sometimes uses a cold open and sometimes just starts with the credits; and sometimes he uses two stories with stand-up as bookends, and sometimes he tells one story for the entire 20 minutes – whatever the style C.K. chooses for the episode, one thing is for certain: Louie is a breath of fresh air; a television show that actually aspires to be something that can’t be branded in an era of perpetually feckless, homogenized  entertainment passing itself off as television comedy.