We all have dark spots in our brains. Dimly lit corners out of which the nastiest, most unseemly, deplorable thoughts emerge. Like vermin, they scuttle back to darkness the second we shine light on them. We prefer them that way. Few of us have the courage to go in after them, even fewer have the courage to invite them into the light.
Louis C.K. has such courage.
At forty-three, Louis C.K. (née Szekely) has lived a more thorough life than most of us ever will. He’s written for The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Dana Carvey Show, won an Emmy in 1999 for his work on The Chris Rock Show, written several screenplays, created a sitcom on HBO, starred in several comedy specials including the Emmy-nominated Chewed Up.
Why call C.K.’s life ‘thorough’? He’s also gotten married, gotten divorced, and shares custody of his two daughters with his ex-wife. He’s been through enough crap to know that every bright sun comes with its own dirty gray lining, and he’s unafraid to share that truth with his audience.
You’d know all this if you watched his FX show Louie, for which C.K. recently received Emmy nominations in acting and writing.
Louie, like so many stand-up-centered sitcoms before it, shows C.K. playing a fictionalized version of himself. He walks the streets of New York, cares for his daughters half of every week, and works on new stand-up material in basement clubs for small audiences. Newly-divorced (he and his real-world wife divorced in 2008), he struggles to meet and date women, finding his age, his career, his body, and his children to be major roadblocks.
In between scenes, C.K. performs in the Comedy Cellar, delivering jokes only tangentially related to the episode’s narrative. These aren’t the thematic bookends or jumping-off points of early Seinfeld. They are parallel thought processes drawn unfiltered from the leaky tap that is C.K.’s mind.
The stark negativity and despair that comprises much of C.K.’s worldview is accompanied by so much humor it’s hard not to find it somewhat comforting. His pessimism and acknowledgement of everything frustrating and degrading is so extreme that it makes our own foul thoughts so much kinder by comparison.
C.K.’s particular brand of observational comedy will often veer suddenly into taboo, and C.K.’s earnest desire for explanations of all things awful and hush-hush undersells the shock value. In a stand-up segement from Season One’s “Dentist/Tarese”, Louie, with bemused sincerity, posits, “If we minded child molesting less fewer kids would die.” He logically defends the statement, daring us to stay with him and laugh instead of booing him outright for having the gall say anything remotely so offensive. He knows it’s wrong. We know it’s wrong. And yet, people are laughing. By telling the joke, he’s asking why.
Written, directed, and edited by C.K., Louie provides no cushion between its subject matter and the audience. The viewer’s completely at the mercy of C.K., as is the character Louie. C.K. employs slanted camera angles and disorienting jump cuts when other sitcoms would merely have Louie generically “freak out”. He channels the crucifixion sequence from The Last Temptation of Christ, only it’s elementary schoolers performing the event under the disdainful eye of an old man who represents the two millennia’s worth of Catholic guilt. He kills a hobo, raises our hopes that Louie might actually connect with someone, then uses the hobo’s death to ruin everything.
Not all of C.K.’s fanciful flights click, but his short film/sitcom/sketch comedy structure’s pliant enough to absorb the occasional misstep. The aforementioned episode “Dentist/Tarese” from the first season features a dentist’s chair dream sequence involving Osama Bin Laden, terrorism, and banana fellatio that I didn’t particularly care for. But it rebounds with a (wholly unrelated) poignant and amusing story wherein Louie courts an uninterested grocery store clerk, pushing and pushing until he winds up dangerously close to stalker territory.
Louie’s loose structure could be a deterrent for those weaned on more conventional comedies. Not every plot gets closure. Characters disappear and reappear with abandon. There’s little explanation or context for the stand-up sections, but we should be used to that by now: characters on Modern Family and The Office talk to the camera without the faintest justification. C.K.’s likened the show to visual stand-up, a coalescing of quick punch lines and short films.
In more cohesive episodes, absurdities give way to grounded, truthful moments and vice versa. The second season opens with Louie’s pregnant sister Gretchen visiting. She goes into labor and the scene descends into chaos. His neighbors arrive, offering to watch his daughters and accompany Louie and Gretchen to the hospital. Louie’s forced to trust complete strangers in an emergency, only to be humiliated when the labor turns out to be a mortifying false alarm. We’re welcome to laugh at the high-stakes hilarity; we’re also asked to bear witness to a man learning a lesson about humility and generosity.
Louie is ultimately about a man discovering what type of man he’s become and how much room for change he has left. Louis C.K.’s turned an incredibly honest, unflattering mirror on himself. He’s a father who’s still figuring out what realities that job entails. He’s a comedian who uses humor to shock, to probe, to guard, and to (often unsuccessfully) woo. He’s an inquisitive misanthrope who would love to look on the bright side of things but just can’t, with good conscience, ignore the bad.
All this considered, the Emmy nominations should be no surprise: he’s also an artist of great courage and talent who makes light of his own darkness.