Melancholy and 'Louie’s' Infinite Sadness

FX's Louie finds comedy in the absurdity of sadness and invites viewers to laugh along with the struggle to find balance between happiness and defeat.


Airtime: Tuesdays, 11pm
Cast: Louis C.K.
Network: FX

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.