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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Louie: “Telling Jokes/Set Up”

Illustration for article titled Louie: “Telling Jokes/Set Up”
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One of the great things about Louie is how it deals with the various pitfalls involved in trying to be a generally progressive-minded, nice guy, white male in the 21st century. You’re always acutely aware of the built-in benefits you have from your position, but you’re always somewhat sensitive about them as well. You’ve got all those usual straight-guy concerns—heaven forbid anybody ever imply you’re gay—but you’re also aware how ridiculous they are. In some ways, Louie functions as a guide to being an urban-dwelling guy in the modern age. You can’t change who you were born as, nor would you want to, but you can always try to navigate the various minefields out there with a little more grace than your ancestors did.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re doing. In any given situation, there’s the possibility for connection, but there’s also the possibility for everything to fall utterly apart (usually in hilarious fashion). If this show has a “message,” it’s that: People have basically the same drives and motivations, but they’re also wildly different from each other. Every encounter has the potential to spin wildly out of control or result in a moment of grace and understated profundity. At its best, Louie throws its protagonist into weird, wild situations, then watches as he tries to squirm his way out. That he’s successful so rarely is what makes the show a comedy. That he sometimes does succeed is what makes it one of TV’s best series.

“Telling Jokes/Set Up” wouldn’t work without Melissa Leo in its central guest role, and she gives the kind of performance that would deserve guest Emmy awards if I thought the Emmys would notice the show at all in that category. The Academy Award winner plays a woman who’s set up on a blind date with Louie by the wife of one of his comedian friends, Allan Havey, and both of them find the situation about as awkward as it could possibly be. It’s obvious what happened here: Havey and his wife were talking about how one of their mutual friends was so funny, and she’d be a perfect match for their comedian friend. At one point, as Louie sits with Leo outside the house to share a smoke (well, Louie sits and watches her smoke), they commiserate about how the people inside the house—who are arguing about how awkward the whole thing was—just want everybody else to be trapped inside the same shared dance of misery and joy that is marriage in the show’s universe.

Leo’s character, Laurie, is a salt-of-the-earth type who owns her own business. The dinner she and Louie are trapped at is miserable (and I love how the sound of the silverware scraping against the plates is over-amplified in the sound mix,to make it even more miserable), but once they light out to get a drink, the evening takes a turn for the better. The time they spend at the bar is more successful, and they’re soon bonding over those drinks, before she gives him a ride back to his bike. (I love that the motorcycle he bought last week has apparently become a thing.) She parks her truck, and initiates a kind of sexual negotiation. She tosses out the notion of giving him a blow job, and, what, is he going to say no? But once she’s done, and she asks him to return the favor, he blanches. That wasn’t what he agreed to at all, and he should have known he would have to reciprocate before she gave him a blow job. She thinks that’s a dick move. He says it’s only fair. She eventually agrees, but then says she’ll get him to “strap on the feedbag” anyway. And then she calls him gay, and, well, he has to reciprocate, especially when she all but forces him to.

This is the scene that makes the whole episode. It’s alternately funny and just a bit terrifying. (At one point, Laurie shatters one of the truck’s windows with Louie’s head, and acts like it’s great fun.) It’s one of those great Louie scenes, where funny things are happening, but you’re not entirely sure where it’s all headed, so your mouth is hanging open in surprise as much as you’re laughing. TV comedy relies, to some degree, on familiarity, but Louie does its best to remove anything familiar that might happen. You know Louie is going to perform stand-up at some point, and you know that he’ll probably have some sort of weird encounter in New York. But that’s about it. That lack of safety net creates a situation where the show is wry and thoughtful almost as much as it’s gut-bustingly hilarious, but it also allows for scenes like this one, that start out in one place, then wander off the map entirely.

What makes the scene work so well is where it ends. Laurie asks if Louie wants to do this again sometime, and he readily agrees. After the way she all but bullied him into eating her out, this isn’t what you’d expect, but it makes sense given the way both characters have been set up. Both are tired of the bullshit that comes with dating and marriage, and having somebody who’s equally ready to just cut through it and get to the heart of the matter must be incredibly appealing to the both of them. They realize this relationship likely won’t lead to marriage—and we do, too, because Leo’s a highly in-demand actress, and we know Louie well enough to know the day its titular character settles down is probably the day the series is over. But they’ve had a lot of fun, and, hey, what’s to say more fun won’t be had at some point in the unspecified future? But the scene also plays into how the series navigates those minefields of masculinity. Just what is Louie supposed to do in this situation? What’s his obligation? And how is it so easy to get his goat by telling him he’s gay? Where in last week’s episode the guy was unable to tell his girlfriend what he really wanted and broke up with her through inaction, in this week’s episode, he’s very direct and still ends up doing something he says he doesn’t want to do. He’s trying to be a good guy, but he’s also trying to just come out and say what he wants. Sometimes, the two just don’t mix.


Stray observations:

  • The episode is bookended by an absolutely delightful pair of scenes involving Louie and his daughters telling jokes—hence the first half of the title. These play into the sense the show gives that you don’t know where things are going to go at any given time. Louie says in his stand-up act that the jokes his younger daughter tells are jokes he simply can’t predict, and the one he offers as an example—about a gorilla who can’t go to the ballet—is hysterical because of its weird matter-of-factness. But that childish form of joke telling is going to wear away, in time. His older daughter also tells jokes, but they’re obviously ones she’s heard somewhere, jokes she’s striving to get “right.” It’s an interesting dynamic, and almost a small commentary on how humor develops as we age.
  • One minor quibble I had with this one: Havey’s wife looking out of the window as Louie and Laurie wander off into the night is just a touch too broad for my tastes.
  • As I’m sure you’ve noted, I’m not Nathan, who’s off on his honeymoon right now and apparently decided that was more important than writing reviews of television episodes (I know?!). He’ll be back for episode four, but you’ll have me again next week.
  • The only episode of the first five I liked better than this one was the fifth. Make of that what you will.