Louis C.K. is an interesting fellow. A balding, stocky, middle-aged man with the aesthetic charisma of one of our middling presidents (say Chester A. Arthur), if you passed him on the street, it’s unlikely you would pay him any notice. Basically, he’s a ginger-fied version of Charlie Brown, the prototypical middle-aged schlub. This goes beyond mere appearances though, as he carries himself appropriately (the down-on-his-luck blockhead who can’t catch a break) and has the biography to match.
A 43-year old lifelong struggling standup comedian and a divorced father of two girls, he’s about as far from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood as you can get. Despite the lack of polish on the exterior (or more precisely because of this), on the inside, Louis C.K. is one of the most brilliant men working in entertainment (comedy or drama).
Many “thought provoking” artists are only so in the most token manner, simply retracing well-worn paths deemed “edgy” by the country club intelligentsia that only seem daring when compared with the commoditized slop we are commonly fed from the trough of the studio system, but this is not so with Louis C.K. What you get with Louie is a man not preoccupied with “rebellion” and all the style points that come with it, but a man looking for the dirty ugly truth. Great Pumpkin, your search for sincerity has finally come to an end, the man you want is Louis C.K.
Louie is essentially a stylized autobiographical look at the life of Louis C.K. Playing himself, we watch Louie as he navigates his way through raising two young daughters in New York City, attempts to find meaningful connections with women, builds a fledgling career while staying true to himself, and tries to make some sense of the crazy home/prison we call life.
For those used to the tried-and-true formula of the continuative sitcom narrative, the loose structural cohesion of the show might be a bit off-putting. Each episode is a vignette (often two), giving us a small glimpse into some compelling event in Louie’s life, but rarely relating to one another from week to week. The show often plays like a collection of personal essays and poems, or entries from a private diary, giving the show a unique charm that is incomparable to anything else on television. This innovative intimate design, while part of the genius of the show, is most certainly a deal-breaker for the unadventurous, likely forever relegating Louie to cult status.
The humor in Louie, like much of the great comedy of our times, mostly derives from awkward, uncomfortable situations. No matter how much Louie tries to avoid it (although occasionally he seeks it out), he seems to constantly come in conflict with an assortment of oddball characters that take up residence in Manhattan. What elevates Louie to a level above the usual social faux pas humor though is that Louie doesn’t merely exploit thorny situations for their comedic gold, he delves deep into the psychosis behind them.
In the sixth episode, entitled “Heckler/Cop Movie”, while in the middle of one of his standup routines, he gets into a nasty argument with an attractive young woman in the audience who insists on making herself part of the show. After politely telling the woman to shut up, she only pauses momentarily before continuing to loudly talk with her friends at her table, which sends Louie over the edge, going off against the women in an angry diatribe that includes multiple uses of the “c-word”.
For most television shows and movies, that’s where it would have ended. We saw the big conflict, Louie got to curse the woman out and make fun of her in front of a large audience, what else could be gained from taking the story any further, right? That’s not how Louie looks at it though. Louie needs to explore the motivations behind the women’s actions further, leading to a brilliantly written scene where after the show, she confronts him. The two have what is possibly the most interesting conversation to ever appear on a fictional TV show, where, as Louie tries to explain the life of a comedian to the woman, we see what drastically different planes these human beings operate on, making it impossible for them to come to any understanding.
In scenes such as these, as well as the snippets of his stand-up routine that are intermixed into the show, Louie unveils the motivating factor behind his comedy. Louis seems almost obsessively determined to strip away the self-delusional pretensions of human kind, blowing past the bullshit and deconstructing social artifice to find some primal truth, warts and all. Especially in his stand-up segments, where if you did a tally of the words spoken, “basically” would surely be in the top 5, we see Louie’s incessant need to find some greater truth. Whether the subject is love, marriage, sex, fatherhood, or the growing sense of entitlement, Louie commonly boils things down to their most elemental, evolutionary purposes. If you took away the crude language and comedic presentation, the routines would make for a compelling philosophical or sociological treatise, which while stylistically very different, is thematically reminiscent to the comedy of Woody Allen.
The show also has an interesting surrealist and dramatic bent to it. In the pilot episode, Louie goes out on a date that gets progressively worse. The woman, finally able to take no more, is rescued from her nightmarish hell when a helicopter, appearing out of nowhere, comes to her aid and carries her off, saving her from the awful beast of a date that is Louie C.K. Unexplained, other-worldly surreal moments such as this are a common occurrence in Louie (yet another welcomed differentiation between this show and any other).
In another episode, simply entitled “God”, the laughs are few and far between, opting instead for almost straight drama. In flashbacks, we see Louie as a young adolescent attending a private Catholic school. After the kids in class make light of Jesus’ crucifixion, the nun brings in Doctor Haveford (Tom Noonan, in an incredibly creepy performance) to relate the horrific nature of the crucifixion in a more personal manner.
The Doctor’s demonstration, which is more effective at making you sympathize with the pain of Jesus’ crucifixion than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, along with his assertion that the children’s sins are to blame for the immense suffering Jesus was made to endure, overwhelm the young Louie with unbearable guilt, but eventually lead to his atheistic outlook after a heart-to-heart talk with his mother. Even though it’s not really humorous, it’s probably my favorite episode of the season, and the fact that Louis C.K. is able to execute heavy religious material as easily as lighter comedic fare, goes to prove his genius all the more.
The Blu-ray is not stuffed to the brim with special features, but typical of Louie, what’s there is meticulously put together. There’s a handful of deleted and extended scenes, but unlike most collections of deleted scenes you’re use to, this is not just some sloppily thrown together menagerie put on the disk just in order to check off another “extra” on a mandatory features list. Each deleted scene is preceded by a fascinating introduction from Louie C.K. himself, explaining the inspiration behind scene, stories from the actual shoot, and why he ended up scrapping it from the show. These introductions really give the scenes the proper context they deserve, and in all the standup routines and interviews I’ve seen with Louie C.K., I’ve never seen him speak with as much candor as he does in these intros. It’s really a treat to listen to Louie “the artist” talk about his craft, and for anyone interested in the creative process behind film or television, this is a must. Plus the scenes themselves are hilarious.
There is also a short featurette of an FX spot in which Louie discusses his thoughts behind the show, including who he considers his inspirations and why he prefers the medium of television over feature films. It’s another intriguing look into the mind of Louie C.K., but it’s all too brief. A more in depth interview with Louie delving even further into his views on the show and comedy in general would have made for a nice bow ribbon to round out the special features package, but a short interview is better than none at all.
Finally, for those so inclined, every episode comes with a commentary track by Louie C.K. Other than Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s short “mini-commentaries” for the DVD releases of South Park, I’ve never been into commentary tracks myself, if just for the sheer amount of time involved with watching everything over for a second time, but if you’re going to spend your time rewatching something, you could definitely make worse choices than Louie.
I hate to indulge in hyperbole, but I really can’t say enough good things about Louie. It’s brilliantly written, directed and acted, and in my book, it’s first season alone is enough to declare it one of the all-time greatest TV comedies. As a human being who is constantly astonished that we live in a world where a film like Zookeeper can coexist in the same universe as a television show like Louie, I plead with you to make a difference and watch Louie. You’ll be improving the world around you, and with great guest appearances from the likes of Ricky Gervais, Matthew Broderick, and Stephen Root, along with the consistently humorous performance from Louie himself, you’ll have a lot of great laughs too.