Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Louis C.K.'s Life on Television Sucks

I just finished watching the last two episodes of Louie C.K.’s show Louie on Hulu, and I’m no longer sure that the best show on television is on AMC. Louie isn’t the funniest thing I’ve had the privilege to watch on my laptop, but it might be the most ambitious comedy program since—what? I’m trying to think here. Since Freaks and Geeks, at least, and Louie is funnier than Freaks and Geeks.

(Some spoilers in the next paragraph, if you care about that stuff. Go watch the show now!)

Louie is a hard show to describe. It’s probably doomed to unpopularity, thanks to it’s odd format—rather than having the recurring characters and 22-minute story arcs of traditional sitcoms, each episode is composed of two or three vignettes, often unrelated to one another. Or not. Some episodes are one long story. Some episodes feature Louie C.K. as a kid for nearly the entire time. Some episodes feature long stretches of Louie’s stand up, which is usually hilarious. Ricky Gervais appears in a couple of episodes, as Louie’s asshole doctor (“I wouldn’t give your face to a burn victim,” he tells Louie as the comedian lies in a hospital). Various comedians appear as themselves, and one long scene of them playing poker and discussing the use of and origin of the word “faggot” veers from obscenity to honest emotion in the space of a minute. These tonal shifts are common in Louie. In one episode he gets bullied by a violence-obsessed 18-year-old, then follows the kid home, where he discovers that the kid’s father beats him. “Don’t do that,” Louie tells the dad, only to be chased out of the house by the mother—then, in an odd turn typical of the show, the dad comes out and shares a cigarette with Louie, and the two men talk about the difficulties of parenting. In another episode, a terrifying doctor convinces a child version of Louie that he is responsible for Jesus’ death. Louie’s brother breaks down in tears at a restaurant because his mother refuses to tell him she loves him. Louie imitates a monkey having an orgasm on a comedy club stage. Louie gets alarmingly stoned, decides to buy a dog, and the dog collapses and dies as soon as he brings it home. As the van carrying the dead dog in a garbage bag pulls away, Louie’s two adorable daughters pull up in a taxi with their mother for a weekend at their dad’s.

Louie is sometimes surreal, sometimes cruelly realistic, but always concerned with the big, big issues: love, loneliness, abandonment, religion, family, and most of all impending death and how to live with it. (The opening credits have Louie walking around while an unseen chorus sings, “You’re gonna die!”) I don’t know what to compare it to in terms of depth and ambition—maybe Annie Hall?—but it’s worth looking at the comparison between Louie and another show centered around the life of a standup comic, the infinitely more commercially successful Seinfeld.

Both shows portray ordinary mundane life in exact detail. Seinfeld centers around trifles and tiny bits of social interaction that spiral out of control into bizarre webs of lies and recrimination, while Louie concerns itself with Louie’s attempts to live his day-to-day life in a worthwhile manner before he inevitably dies. The contrast between the shows is apparent most of all in the title characters’ on-stage comedy routines. Jerry Seinfeld is seemingly pretty well-adjusted, except for his fixation on the insignificant little foibles of modern life. His offstage life is equally inconsequential—he floats along, dating a string of models he would never consider marrying, let alone procreating with, and trying to avoid embarrassment more than anything. If the character of Seinfeld ever thinks about the purpose of life, he hides it well.

Louie’s standup is different. He asks questions about morality, he worries over his daughters, he talks about God and the Bible, he notes the slow decay of his body in exacting detail. In his life on the show, Louie is trying to find something to care about, and mostly finds it in his daughters, in the passing along of genetic information, life, and knowledge. Seinfeld—his character on the show, at least, and also the character of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm—never seems to care about anything, and is satisfied with that. You’re born, you grow up, you make enough money to eat out at a diner all the time, you argue with your friends about re-gifting and the placement of buttons on a shirt, you date gorgeous women, then you die, simply and without fanfare. Isn’t that a good enough summary of existence?

It isn’t for Louie, and that’s why his character is so miserable. Seinfeld was born without a soul and is fine with that, but Louie isn’t sure whether he has a soul, whether souls exist in the first place, and what you should do if you have a soul. More importantly, the answers to those questions matter to Louie, as they do to a lot of people—which is why we’ll never be as happy-go-lucky as the people on Seinfeld, or any traditional sitcom.

Intelligent people with even an ounce of self-awareness ask themselves at one time or another, “What is the purpose of my life?” On Seinfeld, a “show about nothing” the answer is: “There is no purpose, duh.” On Friends, to bring another sitcom into the mix, the answer is, “Find your soulmate in the most complicated manner possible, at which point you will be happy forever.” (This is also the message of every romantic comedy ever churned out.)

Louie, like nearly every work of art worth discussing, offers no answer, except maybe “Keep looking, there must be a purpose, because otherwise life would be awful and unbearable.” One feature of the show that slips by almost unnoticed is that religion—specifically Christianity—appears more often, and is taken more seriously, than any mainstream show since Andy Griffith. Louie is a character with not only an interior life, but a spiritual one as well. That’s not a common thing these days, and it’s nice to know that a show like Louie can exist on television.

I worry that I’ve made the show sound more serious than it actually is. Here’s the poker scene I mentioned above:

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