[1 September 2010]
I like FX’s Louie. The trouble is in explaining why. I’ve tried writing about Louis C.K’s new comedy several times since the show debuted on 29 June, but each time I failed because I couldn’t pin down what I wanted to say about the show in general, let alone come up with an explanation about why I like a crass, absurd, but often funny comedy about an aging divorced man that seems to be at least loosely inspired by Louis C.K.’s own experiences.
One of the reasons I’ve puzzled over what to write is that Louie isn’t like anything else on television. Generically, it’s a comedy, and the show never really violates the conventions of the half-hour comedy to depart for genre-unspecific waters. So, it’s easy to know what Louie is, but in watching the show it becomes apparent that there’s something new here, a different kind of television show. One that maybe pushes into darker territory (on a number of levels), but one that is actively attempting to take on the half-hour comedy differently.
Louie owes a lot to its comedic predecessors, especially to cringe comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm (and also shares the convention of blurring the line between reality and fiction) and shows that focus on and show stand-up comedians at work and life like Seinfeld. Louis C.K.’s version of comedy wouldn’t even make it on the air were he not tapping into general trends in humor, comedy, and what we want to see on smart TV comedies. Still, until recently, I couldn’t pinpoint what made Louie different and why, despite the show’s general unevenness, it’s been worthwhile viewing.
I posed this problem to a friend who also watches the show and she suggested that maybe I like Louie for the same reasons she does: because it’s smart and sad and smart about being sad. My friend’s husband has quit watching Louie because he finds the sadness overwhelming, but her appreciation for the show had a lot to do with the way that sadness was moderated and played for humor.
Seeing her point, I agreed and added my own theory: Louie and Louis C.K.’s character on the show are sad, but they’re trying not to be. The show is really articulate about sadness, happiness, and what makes people sad and happy. That, above all else, is what makes Louie and Louis different: the trying and the understanding that trying might not be enough.
It’s the balancing act between these elements – the sadness and the trying not to be dragged down by it – that makes Louie work. While the format is certainly unusual and can be somewhat flawed and lead to the aforementioned criticisms of “unevenness” (the show uses segments of Louis C. K.’s stand-up bracketing related sketches of Louis and company in “life”), everything is shot through with the idea that Louis is kind of having a hard time. He’d like to think that there’s a silver lining out there somewhere, even if he can’t (and probably won’t) see it. Hope and sadness compete in every episode, and while sadness typically wins, Louis understands hope and fights for it as best he can.
Take, for example, the episode titled “Dogpound”. Louis is bummed because his daughters are spending the week with their mother. This is not the first time he’s had to give his daughters up for a week, but he dreads it because he knows that he’s going to go into a weeklong funk. During his stand-up and in conversation with his brother, Louis talks about how he gets depressed when his kids leave, and is encouraged by everyone not to fall into the same trap he always does when the girls are away.
So, he tries to enjoy himself. This attempt at “fun” ends with Louis trapped underneath his coffee table after having gone on a several days-long pizza and ice cream bender. Fun quickly turns into laughs at the unfun and the futile pursuit of trying to have a good time despite one’s inclinations and mood. The episode isn’t finished with the exploration of the sadness of being away from one’s kids and trying to fill the time with forced moments of enjoying oneself. In fact, things have only just begun.
After dislodging himself from the coffee table and getting stoned at his neighbor’s apartment, Louis decides to rescue a dog. The stoner neighbor and Louis think a dog might help fill some of the space in Louis’ life. At the shelter, openly (and visibly) lonely Louis falls for the charms of the young woman who works there and, in sympathy with the old dogs no one wants, Louis adopts a dog named Bear.
Louis loves Bear right up until Bear drops dead 30 seconds after being brought home. We get a shot of Louis’ excitement at introducing his new dog to his home, getting water ready, and thinking how much the girls will like their new pet. While we never see Bear die, the thud as he keels over at the height of both his and Louis’ new beginning tells us all we need to know.
Suddenly, as though it never happened, the dog and remnants of all that Louis used to try and feel better disappear right as his daughters come home, setting the world aright. Animal control pulls away from the curb with the recently deceased new pet just as Louis’ daughters bound out of the taxi delivering them home. We know that for a little while, this thing will be okay.
However, during that week-long interlude, we get a glimpse of a man struggling with sadness, attempting to throw off the balance in an attempt to be happy, and ultimately feeling a sense of relief when normalcy returns. We also know that this will all happen again sometime soon. In fact, it happens every episode, whether Louis is shutting down a heckler, heading to the doctor, talking to a high school bully’s dad about childrearing over cigarettes, or playing poker with his friends.
This sadness and the way Louie handles the general sadness of Louis’ life are what generate the show’s comedy. It’s not that we get laugh-out-loud moments of humor from the realization that Louis is just trying to keep his head above water. Rather, the show invites us to his viewpoint, makes us comfortable with the parts of our lives that are bummers, and asks us to laugh along at the absurdity of it all while trying to make the best of things.