In the wonderful Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking, the writer and bon vivant Fran Lebowitz talks about how AIDS robbed us of multiple generations of great artists but it also robbed us of a great audience, an audience that was open-minded and well-read and witty and loyal and devoted. In other words, AIDS killed Lebowitz’s ideal audience, an audience that got her intuitively and both challenged and rewarded her.
Watching “Joan”, the latest episode of the now Emmy-nominated Louie (woo hoo! Can we get a best comedy and some more writing nods next time?), I thought a lot about Lebowitz’s comments about losing a great audience. Artists don’t pick their audiences: audiences pick artists. And sometimes casinos engineer shotgun marriages between audiences and artists that fuck over both parties.
That is the case in “Joan.” The episode finds Louie dying a very public death at the hands of audience apathy and the infernal ringing of slot machines while performing a disastrous set at a room in a Donald Trump-owned casino. Dead-eyed, sad-faced drones glare at him from the audience. An open door to the casino provides a constant reminder that C.K is there in the service of commerce and nothing more.
C.K is dying because he’s playing for the wrong audience. Instead of a comedy geek audience or an audience of fellow comedians, he’s playing for gamblers who could give a fuck about C.K and his issues and came to the show simply because the tickets were free.
When he can’t turn around the set either by getting the offending door shut or self-deprecatingly referring to himself not being funny (a comment that earns a round of mocking, sarcastic laughter from the sneering crowd) he turns on the crowd and begins heckling them for giving their hard-earned money to a billionaire who could care less whether they live or die.
In another context, C.K’s turn might come off as righteous or cathartic; here, it registers as an act of desperation from a drowning man behaving in a flagrantly unprofessional fashion. After the show finishes, the manager diligently rattles off every provision in C.K’s contract he violated with his foul-mouthed rant against Trump.
I love the way this scene was handled. The manager didn’t blow up at C.K. He wasn’t apoplectic. He didn’t view C.K’s act as an unforgivable affront. He’s just a stand-up guy doing a job who understandably expects C.K to do the job he is being paid handsomely to do. The man who reads Louie his contract provisions is one of the show’s great finds, a guy who has really lived and invests each line with authenticity and conviction. His chemistry with C.K is terrific. Though he’s only onscreen for about a minute, we feel like we know this guy, that we can imagine his house and the pictures of his grandchildren on his mantle place.
To its credit, Louie understands that its protagonist is not Lenny Bruce. He is not speaking truth to power. Heck, the episode opens with an extended bit about having terrible diarrhea so C.K can’t claim the moral high ground in his passive-aggressive, one-sided war with the minions of Donald Trump.
In a funk, C.K wanders over to the big room, where a rejuvenated Joan Rivers is absolutely killing with routines about the geriatric, elephant-skin like nature of her genitalia. In a move both corny and endearing, “Joan” flashes several times deliberately to C.K laughing at Rivers’ act. It’s not particularly necessary but it is a nice show of respect from one generation to another.
After the show, C.K and Rivers drink vodka and talk shop. C.K was just nominated for an Emmy for Best Actor but “Joan” contains some of his least convincing acting. C.K is terrific on Louie because he makes things easy for himself by giving the lion’s share of the dialogue to other actors and by reacting more than acting. But when he’s called upon to express disgust in a line like “Sometimes I get tired of the bullshit” he comes up a little short.
Rivers’ current renaissance is a testament to the enduring wisdom of not quitting. That’s also Rivers’ message for C.K: do your fucking job. Don’t whine like a little bitch. Don’t complain about the guy signing your check or indifferent audiences. Just get onstage and make people laugh and think because that’s what you were put on Earth to do. Be a professional.
I am not afraid to admit I choked up a little—aw, who am I kidding, I cried like a little bitch—when Rivers tells C.K in regards to their shared trade, “You do it because we love it more than anything else. That’s why you’re doing it. If you want a real job there are a million things you can do. What we do is not a job. It sounds so stupid. What we do is a calling, my dear. We make people happy. It’s a calling.”
At this point, I found myself thinking, “Wow, Joan Rivers looks disconcertingly hot. That Barbra Streisand/Barbra Walters Vaseline-smeared lens really does wonders for her.” Perhaps not coincidentally, in this moment C.K does what he does whenever he’s confused and overwhelmed by a situation: he makes an awkward sexual pass that is at first rejected, then reluctantly accepted along with a long list of caveats. Rivers admonishes him not to tell anyone because, “nobody likes necrophiliacs.”
I found a “Joan” funny and deeply moving exploration of the existential dilemma of the stand-up comic and a valentine to the artform even if it occasionally felt a little stilted and hit notes a little too hard. It’s a ballsy move to begin an episode with a diahrrea joke and end it with the protagonist fucking a 78-year-old woman but that’s just the kind of ballsiness the Emmy folks accidentally honored when they gave Louie two richly deserved nods.
—I loved that the final scene was filmed in a long shot without natural sound. A great way to underplay the scene
—I similarly loved Rivers’ little lecture about remembering the names of everyone on the way up so that you can call on them on the way down and just about all of Rivers’ advice for that matter
—“His name is Sam and he is a person.” Great line, great sentiment
—Assuming he continues until he’s in his seventies, C.K is really only in the halfway point of his career. That’s pretty exciting. He’s operating at the peak of his faculties and he’s hopefully got decades to go.