December 2012 – January 2013

Arts & Letters

A Modern Mensch

By Elmo Keep


With his cult comedy series, Louie, the American comic Louis CK, last name Szekely (si-kei), of Mexico City, has enjoyed the rarest kind of success: critical and commercial acclaim and almost unimaginable levels of financial gain while maintaining fidelity to a vision – without selling out.

Rounding out a year in which he landed the coveted hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, won two Emmy awards and became a self-made multimillionaire thanks to low-cost, direct-to-fan sales over the internet, CK told an interviewer that he would be taking a year’s sabbatical from the show. Rather than push through to an already commissioned fourth season, he said he would allow time for it “to be something that comes from somewhere important and stays funny”.

Louie follows, in cinema-vérité style, the days of its protagonist’s life. Louie, a New Yorker in his mid 40s, is a divorced single parent to two young daughters who arranges a moderately successful career as a stand-up comedian around his custody days. Louie is also a very thinly fictionalised version of the show’s creator, writer, director, producer and star. The real Louis is a peer-revered veteran of more than two decades on the stand-up circuit and has written for David Letterman’s Late Show, as well as for comedians Conan O’Brien and Chris Rock. The Louie on screen is not quite that accomplished.

The show was born of crushing failure. Lucky Louie, its predecessor, was a single-season order from the prestigious HBO channel for a comedy series that deconstructed the traditional Everybody Loves Raymond–style sitcom through meta-commentary on the limitations of that format. The idea did not translate well onscreen and the show was not given a second season. Louis CK had blown his shot at premium-cable glory.

Casting around for someone to pick up Louie and then signing with FX was like going from Broadway to off-Broadway on a Tuesday afternoon. Though FX offered little in the way of a production budget, the trade-off was that CK, whose first vocation was experimental short-filmmaking, would have complete and unfettered creative control.

As a result, Louie peddles a brand of comedy unconcerned with pandering to traditional comedic beats for laughs. Whole scenes and even episodes pass without anything close to a joke to break the tension. The show’s rhythms more closely resemble those of the jazz that scores it: jumping around tonally between surreal vignettes, slapstick, Bill Hicksian skewerings of our worst consumerist excesses and deeply transgressive, outré takes that leave almost no taboo unsmashed, all of which are more often played for pathos than humour.

Uniting the series is Louie’s unwavering world view. As a comic, what Louis CK prizes isn’t so much the ability to be funny as the artist’s duty to be original. In his stand-up career, CK throws out and rewrites all his material from scratch every year; on Louie no convention exists to be repeated.

Much like with HBO’s Girls, men and women watching Louie may see two different shows. For men, Louie presents a scenario of middle age in which youthful aspirations rub up hard against the realities of divorce, hair loss and weight gain. But for female viewers, far from depicting a loser wading through a mid-life crisis, Louie gives insights into parts of men’s lives previously hidden, especially on screen. Lena Dunham has applied this same discomforting examination to certain sorts of young women in Girls. The result in both shows is that the viewer feels at times as though they are spying on an autopsy.

Louie reveals one man’s vulnerabilities pertaining to everything from the fraught terrain of new male friendship to sexual dysfunction in all its guises, to anxieties about psychologically ruining his children, to how to apologise without reserve, all while trying to live on his own terms without acting like an arsehole. In Louie’s world there is no sin lower than that, despite everyone around him practically begging him to punch them in the neck. That Louie is not always above acting like one himself is grist for his occasionally self-loathing mill, as well as the overarching narrative theme of the series.

But the laughs are there, and they are brutal. Louie is possibly the single most profane television series in an era with several vying for that title, and there’s a surfeit of scatological humour and masturbation jokes. Yet while Louie doesn’t shrink from extremes like putting the word “nigger” into the mouth of a racist white grandmother, it also gives its audience a model for how to live an honourable, authentic life. Louis CK is in this way a moralist in outrageous clothing, a kind of 21st-century mensch.

For Louie, the only true measure of his worth lies in being a good father to his two young daughters. When in the third season the slim possibility of his taking over from David Letterman as host of the Late Show presents itself, Louie is more concerned about the effect it might have on his girls than his ability to shoulder the pressure.

His anxieties about setting a good example for his daughters are at the fore of the recently aired third-season finale. His youngest daughter opens a Christmas gift to reveal a copy of the children’s book The Story About Ping. Louie is careful to emphasise that it isn’t from Santa Claus but from him, and reads it to her. The story sees a young duckling called Ping get lost, into strife and almost eaten on the banks of the Yangtze River, in a parable that is ultimately about obedience to one’s parents.

As the episode progresses, Louie is caught in a series of soul-crushing and surreal events that leave him alone on New Year’s Eve. He decides on a whim to fly to China and retrace Ping’s steps along the Yangtze, which, he eventually finds, is little more than a trickling brook. In this very foreign place, Louie communes with the people he meets in a small mountain village, and shares a simple meal. That this is the same show in which a woman once put Louie’s head through a car window for his ungentlemanly refusal to reciprocate oral sex on the first date (What an arsehole!) indicates the vast emotional terrain it is able to cross, often within a single episode.

Louie’s comedy has at its heart the opposite of the nihilism that fuels Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, both of which it’s indebted to, the latter for its vérité style, and in cribbing Seinfeld’s stand-up sequences. Seinfeld’s rule of thumb for its writers (from co-creator Larry David, also writer and star of Curb) was: “Nobody learns, nobody hugs”, a limitation that forever trapped the characters as solipsists who, though hilarious, you were ultimately glad not to have as friends. Louie is constantly dealing with those same people who never learnt, and his struggle is to never, ever become one of them. The pursuit of truth is paramount, even when it leads to excruciating places.

One of the meta-jokes in the series is the casting of David Lynch, perhaps cinema’s foremost nonconformist, as a mercurial network executive charged with trying to school Louie – who is essentially comedy’s David Lynch – in being a square. This includes getting Louie, who is highly resistant even to wearing a suit, into shape to audition for Letterman’s job on the Late Show. In an effort to shed the kilos, he jogs heavily through New York’s broiling summer streets, trailed by his daughters on bicycles. Panting hard, he tells them, “If you want to get a big thing in life you make a big effort. You got to try hard and do things you’re not used to doing.”

“But, Daddy,” replies his six-year-old daughter, functioning as the show’s unfiltered id, “you’re a fat daddy. I don’t want you to change.”

In a denouement befitting his annus mirabilis, CK confirmed a new stand-up special will air next year on HBO (the DVD will be sold direct to fans through his website). FX had offered CK a prime-time slot and more money to produce the show in its third season. He refused both. More money might have meant more pressure to conform and, as he has shown, the ultimate measure of success isn’t money, or even hosting the Late Show. It’s the freedom to do exactly what you want without being an arsehole.

Elmo Keep

Elmo Keep is a broadcaster and writer. Her first book of nonfiction, I Went Where I’ve Been, is forthcoming with Scribe. 


Cover: December 2012 – January 2013
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