I am well able to separate artists from their art. In the entertainment world you have to, otherwise you’d deny yourself some quality product pumped out of the liberal asylum. And so I must exercise this discipline with one of my favorite television shows. Although I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with Louis C.K. and his vile statements about Sarah Palin via Twitter (assuming they are indeed his), I nonetheless have been a big fan of his stand-up comedy for many years (with one complaint: an obsession with the “f-bomb” diminishes his act). As such, I was disappointed back in 2006 when HBO cancelled his sitcom Lucky Louie after airing only twelve episodes. Now the irreverent comedian is back, this time on the FX channel, starring in the eponymous Louie.
The last time C.K. was on the air his life was decidedly different as reflected by both the premise and format of the short-lived Lucky Louie. His first show centered around Louie as a late-thirties, solidly middle-class husband and father of a little girl, whose wife was the primary breadwinner. HBO presented a classic three-camera sitcom in the style of Norman Lear and MTM, complete with a studio audience, and tried to take the format to more daring levels in content and subject matter. But it still tackled that oft-lampooned place in most marriages where the day-to-day hassles of life and familial responsibility have tempered the bliss of love and promise once shared at the altar; yet there still remains a partnership of soul-mates who grapple with issues together. Lucky Louie, for all its cable-liberating blue language, bluntly realistic portrayal of married life, and sometimes seedy topics, was nevertheless generally upbeat.
Since 2006, much has changed in Louis C.K.’s personal life and this spills into his new show simply called Louie ( no”Lucky” this time around). The comedian is now a recently divorced father of two with whom he shares joint custody with his ex-wife. Louie in turn follows the rather glum life of a recently divorced middle-aged (he is 42) father trying to pick up the pieces and live on his own again in a hostile and gritty New York City. He’s alone in a town of millions. But fear not as this show is not a downer. Interspersed are snippets of his outstanding comedy routines which often break up the moroseness of his day-to-day life through which the camera follows him around like a voyeur. It is, in fact, difficult to tell where the character of “Louie” ends, and the real man who created him begins… if there is a dividing line at all.
If Lucky Louie was a fun comedy, Louie is great television. Clearly Louis C.K. who is the creator, writer, editor, director (maybe even the grip and coffee guy, for all I know) is a true talent and the depth of his intellect reveals itself in his show. It makes sense that a comic who uses no props on stage, just him and the mic, would approach this therapeutic endeavor with the same self-confidence. He will let Louie sink or swim based solely on the merits of the material he offers. There’s no laugh track, no studio audience, no fancy camera work or color-wheel-on-acid sets to distract the viewer from the essence of his message which seems to be this: that the life he chose as a comedian has been both a blessing and a curse. One cannot help but sense an overarching theme of resignation to his decisions, mingling with a poignant sense that the best of his days may be behind him. But he surely understands that comedy and misfortune have always been the most intimate of bedfellows. As Hyman Roth would have said, this is the life he’s chosen.
In one episode, “The Heckler,” he takes issue with a woman talking during his act. So from the stage he all but vaporizes the platinum blonde with words that most women would find outrageously offensive… even as the audience howls in approving laughter. In his conversational delivery, he goes on to describe “the worst things that ever happened in America,” labeling her as number one, followed by slavery as number two, and then Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined as three. After the show she confronts him outside the club in front of his loitering comedian buddies, insisting he had no right to speak to her in such a crude manner. And here is where the mood changes, his smile fades, and he offers us a glimpse of his life while ostensibly speaking on behalf of his fellow comics… many of whom do spend lonely times on the road, often battling various addictions, and are far from financially secure in the most fickle of professions.
Louie: Do you like your life?
Heckler: Yes, so?
L: No.no. I’m sure you do. You’re a student, you’re happy, you have good days and you have full and fun nights, right?
H: Yes, I’m not a loser like you.
L: Yeah, see that’s the whole point. You have a good life and it’s just the way you want it to be. These guys. These comedians…me…these guys don’t have a life. This is all they have. Their days are shit. They don’t have many friends, they don’t have families, they have this. The only good part of their lives is the fifteen minutes that they get to be on stage. Maybe once a week. Sometimes once a month. And, and you took that fifteen minutes, the one — just picture this, the one fifteen minutes that they would have enjoyed maybe for a long time, and you ruined it. You took that away from them. I know you think it’s cute but it’s not. It’s really…it’s a rotten thing to do. And I don’t know how you can think you’re a good person if you do things like that…
H: …I did nothing tonight and you were just gross and insulting. You’re just one of those unattractive people who are totally bitter against people like me.
L: That’s right. You’re right… That’s exactly what happened. Thank you very much. G’night. G’night…
What was the band of fellow comics’ take on the whole dialogue? Typical: he could have had her, man! Until the last line, she was his. He blew it!
There are many such scenes throughout Louie, but this is illustrative of how effortlessly this comedy shifts from making one laugh out loud to feeling pangs of sadness — moving from one plane to the other and back again like a champion swimmer alternating seamlessly between freestyle to back stroke while gliding through the surf.
However you wish to describe Louie, you certainly shouldn’t miss it. Those who grumble that there’s nothing good on the tube just don’t know where to look. Tucked away at 11pm each Tuesday on FX is a show about a scruffy, balding, and slightly out of shape everyman who’s recently taken some knocks in his life but, as his stand-up act shows, still sees the funny side of it all…
And that is the character’s saving grace.