One of the main criticisms of subpar movies and television shows is that they feel like an adaptation of a bad stand up comedy act, that they traffic in same trite observations and cornball jokes as a middling comic. That’s a criticism that would seem to apply very directly to Louie, since the show is very overtly based on its star’s stand-up act and stand-up serves as a bridge between each episode's two short films. But C.K is the furthest thing from a hacky stand-up and so far his show has felt gloriously cinematic and wildly unpredictable. It’s like a short film festival where every film is by C.K.
Tonight, however, was the first episode that felt like an extension of a stand-up comedy routine. That’s not inherently a bad thing, though heaven knows there are few stand-up topics less fresh than the irritations and annoyances of air travel. So while tonight’s episode trafficked in a lot of rather familiar observations and well-worn jokes, it was done with subtle understatement and a fair level of artistry.
The muted shenanigans began with C.K complaining about people’s unwillingness to accept even the most minor disappointment as anything less than affront from a malevolent deity. C.K then embarked on a trip down South for a stand-up gig that doubled as a never-ending parade of low-level disappointments and aggravations.
At the ticket counter, he had to deal with an apoplectic man who didn’t take too kindly to C.K snickering ever so slightly at his over-the-top rage. It was a very subtle bit rendered even more subdued by the fact that the humor was reliant less on jokes or gags than subtle shifts in perspective and, if I remember my completely wasted Communication Arts education correctly, wrack focus.
We then shifted from the mundane to the tragic when C.K’s flight is cancelled after the flight before it crashed. The comedy came less from dialogue than from the superb deadpan under-reaction of the actress playing the airline employee as she responded to even the most horrifying news—like, you know, the violent death of an airplane full of suffering souls—with only the faintest shrug of disappointment.
Onboard the plane C.K is crowded out by a morbidly obese seatmate and served a thimble-sized cup of water. It was an illustration of one of the tried and true laws of comedy—comically oversized and comically under-sized are always funny. But the worst was yet to come, as the plane just barely made it to its destination, but not before experiencing violent turbulence that bonded the morbidly obese with the merely overweight.
In the second short film, C.K endured a surreal stand-up jaunt down South. At a restaurant after the show, the brother of a female C.K obsessive pulls a gun on C.K when he’s not sufficiently excited by his sister’s fandom. C.K’s protector proves just as loopy, however, when the police officer who apprehends the gun-toting lunatic asks C.K for a kiss on the lips, but not in a gay way or anything.
I’ve come to expect great things from Louie so I was a little disappointed when tonight’s episode proved to be merely moderately amusing. It was artfully restrained but I expect more from C.K than straight-faced absurdity smartly and subtly executed.
About halfway through my girlfriend, who was watching it for the first time, proclaimed, "Oh, it's sort of like "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Tonight's episode certainly was, but usually it's much too ambitious to fall into such a tidy little characterization.
—If you enjoy me gushing about the genius of "Louie" I will be doing just that on an upcoming episode of Jesse Thorn's fine PRI radio program "The Sound of Young America." Check your local listings for times and dates.