*Louie* and experimental sitcom form

I’ve become sort of obsessed with Louie, the sitcom starring comedian Louis C.K.  Someone I know who’s in the comedy biz raved about him a while ago which finally prompted me to check out the show (which is on FX — I think the second season is currently going?  I have it set to “record all” so I’ve been watching a lot of shows from earlier this year, I think.  Season one is on DVD.)

It’s pretty brilliant!  Probably the best new comedy show I’ve seen since Curb Your Enthusiasm, with which it has some things in common.  The structure is basically like Seinfeld: Louis C.K. is playing some version of himself, a (now) recently-divorced father of two girls, 5 & 9, and a somewhat successful standup comic, although the t.v. Louie is somewhat less successful than the real Louis.  Every episode includes some of the Louie’s (or is it Louis’s?) standup routine, which usually relates in some way to what it going on in the show… although it doesn’t always.  In fact part of what I find striking about the show is its embrace of discontinuity, loose ends, and incoherence.  Sometimes there’s just an element of sloppy production, but it also seems intentional, part of an purposefully loose-ended aesthetic strategy.  Louie himself is a a schlub, overweight, balding, with money issues since the divorce, lonely and depressed.  42 years old (maybe that’s one element in my bonding with the show; the show is about what it feels like to be 42 in various ways… from a certain perspective anyway).  He has an expressively dour face which often falls into a look of suppressed desperation.  Louie’s experiences as a (divorced) father play a major role, and the show is hilarious and unusually honest/realistic about parenting & kids.  (Someone told me that his kids remind her a bit of our daughters, which I can kind of see!)

So, there’s some Seinfeld, some Curb Your Enthusiasm (often wince-inducing, feels improvised), and some influence from Taxi or other 1970s shows.  Louie has a blue collar vibe, presents himself as a regular, beaten-down NYC guy (although he grew up in Boston, Newton specifically).  In the opening credits, which show Louie lumbering up the stairs from the subway, eating a slice of pizza and then heading into the basement comedy club, the lettering is very retro 1970s, a lot like Taxi specifically I think; I heard Louis C.K. on Fresh Air mention his admiration for The French Connection so perhaps there’s a more general 1970s media influence.

The show’s theme song, playing as Louie eats his pizza etc., is a new version of that early 1970s song (about an inter-racial relationship, interestingly) “Brother Louie:” “Louie Louie Louie Loo-ee, Louie Louie Louie Loo-ayy, Louie Louie Louie Loo-ee, Louie you’re going to cry,” although cry is changed to “die” in this version.  Super grim.  Gee, you can really see why the producers would think that would be an irresistibly catchy theme.

The show has occasionally made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes… Although lately I’ve been laughing out loud less often, more often admiring it and sometimes being rather amazed at the very dark, sad, or ambiguous places it goes.

The best example of that (the dark places) might be an episode I just saw.  The show begins with Louie’s routine; as he heads backstage he finds what appears to be an old friend he has not seen for years.  This guy is also a comic, someone who started out with Louie when they were in their early 20s.  It becomes clear the guy is pretty depressed and not doing that well.  He explains that he’s on the way to Maine for a gig in Bangor and just stopped to try to say hello to Louie, whom he convinces to drive around with him.  First they go to a liquor store, where the friend buys a big bottle of vodka which he starts drinking in the store.  When the guy at the counter tells him not to do that, the friend rails against him with racist insults (“curry jockey” or something — the guy’s South Indian).  Louie is disturbed, but gets back in the car.

They end up hanging out in a parking lot in Brooklyn drinking vodka.  The guy is bitter, sarcastic and obviously jealous of Louie’s success.  Louie obtusely does not get it for a while, but finally the penny drops that when his friend talks about “stopping,” “ending it,” he is not talking about his career in standup, but his life: the plan is to do the final show in Bangor and then take some deadly pills a doctor prescribed to him for some reason.

Louie is stunned, but tries to argue with him; his friend cuts him off, mocking him for his big life-affirming speech.  Then he relents and says more kindly, “I just wanted to say goodbye.”  Finally Louie says something like, “OK.  I guess there’s not much I can tell you.  I found reasons to keep living, I can’t find those for you.  I really hope you don’t kill yourself.  I need to go, I have to take my kids to school tomorrow morning.”  They embrace, and Louie heads towards the subway.

End of episode!!!!!   This one did not really have a single laugh in it (well, maybe a few very uncomfortable ones).  Pretty radical.  Oh, I forgot one key element: a few times the show cuts to a black-and-white flashback featuring two actors portraying Louie and the guy twenty years ago.  It’s very stylized, almost in a 1940s movie mode or something — like we’re seeing the gangster and the priest when they were kids, before their lives diverged, or something — and these younger actors don’t look much at all like the two guys.  As far as I could tell, there is no subsequent reference to the suicidal buddy (although I may be watching all out of order so maybe I did miss something).

Ever since Seinfeld it’s been axiomatic that a smart sitcom must at all costs avoid the “very special episode” trap: the occasional “serious” episode that aims to tug the heartstrings.  This has been a good discipline for many shows, but I think Louie shows how much is left out if a comedy can’t also try to tackle more emotionally powerful material as we’d expect a novel or movie to do.

Another strange episode, this one also very funny.  In the hall at the elementary school, another parent, a mother, asks Louie if he would be willing to sign on to a petition to protest a new flat-screen t.v. that’s going to replace the message board at the school entrance.  This woman thinks it sounds “propagandistic” in aim.  Louie admits he has not thought about it and does not really have an opinion, which the woman characterizes as a sellout position.  She starts to leave, but then returns and asks if Louie might be interested in going out some time.  Before he can say much, she cuts him off and explains that she has no interest whatsoever in a relationship, she just hasn’t had sex for a very long time, “and you seem safe and discreet.”  He agrees to come over that night.

Once he arrives (and finds her in a dowdy nightgown), she asks if he brought condoms.  When he shows them to her, she makes a face and instructs him to go to the deli downstairs to different non-Latex ones, along with some Monistat (or something for some vaginal ailment) and blueberries.  She hands him a twenty dollar bill and when he says he can cover it, she says “oh no, I’m not going down that road!” and forces the twenty into his hands. (The actress is hilarious.)  He buys the condoms and the medicine and has to go to another store for the blueberries.

Once in bed, all she wants to do is to have him spank her; he hesitantly does so, which prompts her to start crying and calling out, “daddy, daddy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ve been so bad.”  The episode ends at the kitchen table where the woman repeatedly takes a little mouthful of whipped cream from the canister and then a small spoonful of blueberries, while Louie looks on in stunned silence.  She says to him, “so, have you begun thinking about middle schools yet?”

End of episode.  Really more like a Mary Gaitskill story than a sitcom.

Although Louis’s standup mode is on the crude and direct side, there’s something very artful and even experimental about the show, which seems interested in playing with the (under-explored) possibilities for innovation within the rigid sitcom form [as our friend Josh observed, I should have credited him].