One of the best moments at last week’s Academy Awards was seeing Louis C.K. make an unexpected appearance as the presenter for Best Documentary Short Film. While only there briefly he wound up being one of the highlights of the evening, with an introduction that simultaneously honored and poked fun at the nominees (“This Oscar is going to be the nicest thing they own in their life!”) and a well-timed joke about Mad Max: Fury Road taking yet another trophy. It’s a testament to how endearing and welcome a presence he’s become over the last few years, the fact that seeing him for one minute on an awards show can be as welcome as the sudden reveal of his experimental web series about an Irish bar.
It should come as no surprise then that when I received my season six Portlandia press material, I was very excited to see Louis’s name pop up in the list of guest stars. While I’ve voiced some dissatisfaction in the past with how the show’s treated its guest stars—seriously, you could have made far better use of Greta Gerwig, guys—Louis is both a comedic genius and a winning presence, so it seemed like his appearance would be hard to screw up. And thankfully that feeling turned out to be correct, as “Family Emergency” is a welcome rebound from last week’s disappointing outing, one that uses both Louis and his Horace And Pete costar Steve Buscemi to great effect.
In a smart decision, the Portlandia writing team doesn’t try to make him play a character, recognizing from Louie that he’s at his best when he’s playing a version of himself. Louis C.K.’s come to Portland to put on a show, a prospect greeted with great enthusiasm by Fred and Carrie until the show is canceled due to a “family emergency.” The two are of course bummed out to miss it, until the next day when they glimpse him at a coffee shop not looking at all like a man who’s spent time at a hospital or a funeral home. Louis CK’s uneasy prevarication is right in his comfort zone, as is the weariness with which he greets how Fred and Carrie trade their silence for a dinner date. “I’m gonna be honest, I don’t wanna hang out with you, it’s kind of like a chore for me,” in particular is a prime weary delivery.
The description of this makes it sound like a Louie/Portlandia crossover, and while it doesn’t go to the extremes of pathos or awkwardness either show is capable of, the dinner between the three definitely feels like their respective comedic styles are meshing. Fred is in prime insufferable mode, convinced that at every moment he needs to be throwing out a routine, riffing on waiters and watches and constantly looking for reactions, and Carrie is more muted but still intently waiting for Louis’s responses. Louis, on the other hand, is torn between offering legitimate advice and trying to make actual conversations, and by extension “connections as human beings.” (An observation Fred and Carrie applaud as if it it were a bit.) The comedy of unawareness is in the same room as the comedy of hyper-awareness, and it’s fascinating, uncomfortable, and very funny to witness.
It would be easy to see the episode working if it spent the entire time focused on the three of them, but “Family Emergency” is structured more interestingly than that. The episode’s structure spins like a DNA double helix, Fred and Carrie’s hijacking of Louis running in parallel to a typical Portlandia small business plot about the opening of a vape shop. This story brings back Phil and Gigi of Bad Art, Good Walls to advise on the shitty storefront the shop is located in, as well as semi-regular players Ebbe Rowe Smith and Kristine Levine as the business’s investors. Phil and Gigi are always good for a laugh with their total businesslike commitment to making things terrible, chopping out everything that would make people want to spend more than 30 seconds in the shop (“Think of hanging out inside a vending machine”), while Smith and Levine continue to bring something different than the usual vibe of Armisen/Brownstein in the pleasant, slightly-off way they respond to what’s happening around them.
The two stories wind up connected when Smith and Levine invite the others to the shop’s opening. Fred and Carrie volunteer to judge a plume contest—or Fred volunteers them both—and they realize blackmailing Louis is getting in the way of these plans. From there Fred and Carrie realize decide that if an excuse is good enough for Louis it’s good enough for them, and they throw it back at the other couple and receive some well-wishes in return. (“And now their prayers will go into our nice night!” Fred says, helping him in his trek to peak insufferability.) It makes for an amusing bit of hypocrisy out of two characters going the distance to be the worst this week, as well as giving the feeling of a larger world that their decisions exist in.
What connects the two stories so well is the influence of Buscemi, who’s both behind the camera directing and in front of it as Fred and Carrie’s weird landlord Milton. It’s a much better use of Buscemi since his appearance last season in “House For Sale,” both because the tighter narrative focus plays into his directing strengths and how they’ve clearly figured out how to write the Milton character since his introduction. He was an overtly pathetic figure at the start, and now they’re leaning less into his pathetic nature and more into inherent weirdness of the sort that served him well as Jack Donaghy’s PI on 30 Rock. He’s essentially a low-budget trickster figure in this story, explaining the truth of the “family emergency” excuse in a way that pushes Fred and Carrie down a darker path, inadvertently pushes them to the coffee shop where Louis is by breaking their toilet, and spilling the beans when he finds himself a new customer of Vape My Day. And his structural work is bracketed with some bits of wonderful absurdity, between offering his prized list of coffee shop bathroom key codes and engaging in serious discussion over “potty” trading.
The episode also has one of the best closes of any recent Portlandia, tying together in a neatly satisfying fashion. Louis goes to pick up the camera that he won on eBay—the bidding of which is the reason he missed the show in the first—and it turns out he’s buying it from Smith. It results in a marvelous bit of schadenfreude as Fred and Carrie first get asked some very pointed questions about their own family emergency, and then are denied a second time when Louis agrees to do a set and they’re not allowed in. (Milton offers a consolation prize of 7-11 bathroom codes.) Louis comes out on top, a fitting end for his visit to the city.
- This Week In Portland: Yelp gives you approximately 105 results for vape shops in Portland, so Andy’s so-called untapped market is more than a little tapped out. (A true “Planet of the Vapes” as the Searches to see if anyone has in fact made a rye bread vape oil were fruitless. Also, Symposium Coffee is located just south of Portland in Tigard, so Milton’s casting a pretty wide bathroom net.
- Two new characters get introduced in morning radio shock jocks Ziggy and Fizzy. They’re largely stock characters, although the punchline of removing the obnoxious sound effects right after Ziggy admits his struggle with alcoholism elicits the first big laugh of the episode.
- Features of Cheap And Shitty Storefront Design’s office: Cards of “Painful Paint Jobs” and “Icky Carpets.”
- Rejected names for Vape My Day include The Vaped Crusader and Statutory Vape.
- Everything Milton does with the toilet is hysterical. On the house’s old plumbing: “It’s turn of the century, really not made for the super-poops of today. Back then everybody ate flapjacks and radishes.”
- “Have you ever huffed an Air Wick?”
- “Do that joke again. What is the joke you did we just heard?”
- “I’m just trying to ask you a question.” “What’s usually the punchline?” “The punchline is you tell me where you’re from.” “Oh, and then you riff on it!”
- “Is it healthier?” “We really have no idea.”