For a writer-director-actor-comedian with such a strong personality, Louis C.K’s best-known projects are awfully eclectic. C.K is a comic auteur in the truest sense but it can be hard to find a thread connecting C.K’s Norman Lear-style working-class sitcom Lucky Louie, his surreal, almost avant-garde action-comedy/crazy mindfuck Pootie Tang and now Louie, his new FX comedy.
C.K was given almost unprecedented creative freedom by FX to write, direct, star and edit his own show and the result looks and feels like nothing else on television. It’s a single-camera comedy all right, but since the cast, location and tone shift radically from episode to episode it can’t really be called a sitcom. It feels more like a pair of mostly brilliant short films tied together with snippets of C.K’s raw, hilarious stand-up comedy.
Louie had me from its opening credits, a glorious throwback to the grungy rebel cinema of the 1970s that features C.K walking down the street looking glum while a wonderful Philly Soul-style theme song croons Louie’s name over and over again before warning, half-ominously, half-playfully, “You’re going to die.” The funky blaxploitation font of the opening credits is the icing on the cake.
I’d initially pegged Louie as Seinfeld meets Curb Your Enthusiasm but it’s actually much deeper and more daring than that reductive description suggests. Sure, Louie revolves around wry comic vignettes rooted in C.K’s stand-up and scenes of C.K unconsciously alienating everyone around him but the second, third and fourth episodes defy that kind of easy categorization. C.K is doing something new and exhilarating and fearless.
Most pilots pander for the audience’s love and affection but C.K seemingly goes out of his way to alienate potential viewers. It’s hard to imagine another television comedy that would kick off with an episode that includes a father discussing his pre-pubescent daughter’s infected vagina and ends with its star riffing on putting his dog to sleep and having nightmares of the dog rising from his mass grave so he’ll have to be put down all over again. This is strong stuff. It’s a good thing FX seems more interested in challenging viewers than mollycoddling them.
Louie begins with C.K performing stand-up at the Comedy Cellar about the perils of single parenthood. That’s generally a recipe for naked sentimentality but C.K hasn’t let fatherhood dull his satirical edge. We then segue to our anti-hero taking his daughter’s class on a field trip that goes horribly awry when C.K has the bus driver take the highway and the bus gets a flat tire, leaving C.K and a gaggle of strangely exhilarated young people stranded in Harlem.
Louie is casually daring in its depiction of race. The perfectly dyspeptic, pissed-off black bus driver abandons his charges both because he’s sick of dealing with C.K and because he lives four blocks away from where the bus breaks down. Even more boldly/offensively, C.K suggests sticking black kids in the window seats to detract attention from locals curious as to how so many adorable white moppets ended up in their neighborhood. In a resolution that borders on absurdism, C.K resolves the crisis by having every child ride home in their very own rented limousine. As C.K acknowledges, life can be pretty damn easy for well-off, well-fed white people in God’s United States.
In the episode’s second short film, C.K endures the worst first date this side of After Hours. The trouble begins when he pounds on his date’s door and is confronted by a naked old woman across the hall who complains that she really doesn’t appreciate the pounding, on account of her being naked and vulnerable and in her own home and all. Most shows would make this a throwaway gag, but Louie lets it linger on and on, until it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable and brutally funny in equal measures.
This ushers in a cavalcade of life-sized horrors. Leaving the building, C.K swoops in for a clammy, wholly unmerited kiss before irritating his date with his formal garb (he’s just come from a memorial for his dead father) and discussion of his daughter’s infected vagina. What follows would feel more at home at Sundance than on network television, and that’s part of the glory of Louie. Rather than be boxed in by the strictures and demands of sitcoms, C.K has reinvented the television comedy in his own idiosyncratic image. C.K plays to his strengths, turning the half-hour comedy into a forum for short filmmaking and incisive stand-up comedy.
C.K is rightly and understandably best known as a writer and stand-up comedian but he’s a natural actor with a wonderfully expressive face full of sadness, melancholy and squirmy humanity. Louie’s tagline pitches the show as a “very original original comedy”. They weren’t lying.