The Monday Morning Quarterback

I Love Louie

Since the 2010 debut of Louie (the third season starts on FX June 28), I’ve been a fan, but it hasn’t been easy.

You see, Louie isn’t for everybody. Louie involves foul language, mature situations, and a lead character with an abiding sadness (the show is written, directed, edited by and stars Louis CK, playing what one can only hope is a hugely distorted version of himself and the world he inhabits) that many viewers find off-putting and some find plainly revolting.

Louie is a direct descendant of the great HBO series The Sopranos, in which the lead character sees the old order crumbling all around, and to his everlasting regret finds himself mostly powerless to do anything about it. Since that halcyon series, others have explored the same theme (among the best have been Six Feet Under, Nurse Jackie and notably, Girls) but none has done it with the style of Louie.

After 20 years in the comedy netherworld, Louis CK first made waves as a writer and contributor to Chris Rock’s HBO series, and was given an HBO half-hour sitcom of his own. That series, a raw misfire that failed to mirror The Honeymooners, would have meant the end to CK’s TV career had he not continued directing short and long films in-between comedy club appearances. Those films encouraged FX Channel executives to offer him a uncompromising deal: a certain amount of money for 13 half-hours, with only a few stipulations. The content had to meet FX’s lax cable standards, and it should be funny. In return, CK got an unheard-of final cut.

I love Louie (as opposed to Louis, who I know little about other than he’s a fierce defender of First Amendment freedoms) because the show isn’t afraid to let the characters do anything, whether it’s awkward, sacrilegious, scatological or just plain stupid, as long as it’s insightful, believable and funny.

The half hours themselves are disjointed in a modern, post-Tarantino sort of way. The first half may be completely different from the second half. Continuity is not king: different actresses have played the role of Louie’s mother. Expecting a resolution? You’re not going to get it here. One episode, in which Louie drove his two daughters to the country, was nothing more than Louie’s extended, joyously lip-synced “Who Are You” to the nonplussed girls. Another episode, which actually guest-starred Dane Cook, dealt with Louis’ real-life contention that real-life comedian Dane Cook stole his material, but offered no real answers.

Remember that Seinfeld episode when they all met Bizarro versions of themselves, living exactly opposite lives and behaving exactly the opposite of what we’d come to expect? Louie is like that. The show is exactly the opposite of every sitcom ever made, and it’s   ten times funnier and a thousand times more resonant. It’s not all about the laughs, though it’s very successful in frequently coaxing a genuinely surprised-I’m-laughing-at-this bark from the viewer. It’s also about the more gentle recognition of common human foibles: jealousy, greed, lust, and plain gotta-change-your-pants fear.

The series’ co-star is the city of New York – not the shiny Times Square shown in Smash, the cushy, colorful coffee shop of Friends or the tree-lined neighborhoods of Sex and the City – in Louie’s  New York City, it’s forever late autumn, with leafless trees and gray  windswept intersections and hunched people purposefully walking home, walking anywhere, just to get away from here. Apartments are cramped, school playgrounds are cold. I like to think it looks the way New York City must be for the people who live there, not the tourists.

And it’s a fearsome place. Everywhere Louie goes, he runs into something that chills him, from a would-be market thief, to a group of young bullies who interrupt his date, to an angry unclothed neighbor daring him not to look at her, even to a visit to Atlantic City and an initially unpleasant confrontation with Joan Rivers herself (in a great guest role where she dispenses comedy wisdom and proves that she’s still one randy lass).

The comedy, like the fear, is always organic, never tacked-on for the sake of a laugh (though one experience, when Louie’s pregnant sister comes for a visit and punctuates a night of terror with a gaseous explosion, comes close). Louie is molested by his dentist, frightened by his doctor, crippled by his workout trainer, and, in a delightfully extended and sometimes terrifying USO visit to Afghanistan, deeply humanized by a little yellow duckling.

If you’re a fan of Louie, all of this is nothing new and you’ll be in front of the TV this Thursday night just like me. But if you haven’t seen an entire episode, start watching, because it’s some of the best TV on TV. Go to it with the knowledge that it’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t need to be. Because right here, right now, Louis CK, a comedian whose humor can be infuriating and crass, has been given the extraordinary opportunity to make a comedy show of his own taste and choosing, and it has, so far, turned out to be something resembling real life. That may not be art, but it’s very close.

~ Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive