Feel that dry heat in the air? Alt comedians are having a moment with Bakersfield, California. Situated midway between L.A. and the Bay Area, the inland desert region is the setting for Rick Alverson's Entertainment, a horrifying feature that follows an obnoxious comic as he performs his gimmicky stand-up act to indifferent crowds. (I liked it, but it isn't an easy sit.) Now the new FX series Baskets charts a similar character — a pretentious aspiring clown who takes a job entertaining indifferent crowds at the local rodeo. Not since Five Easy Pieces has Bakersfield enjoyed this much national attention for being the place where joy and hope go to die.
Baskets was co-created by Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis, who stars as the titular clown, and it has the clear inflections of both names. The show's entire premise even seems like it came from C.K.'s mouth during an early episode of Louie, in which he pitches an idea for a show about a guy whose life goes from bad to worse with no relief. Fun, right?
Happily, the show is fun, kinda. For Galifianakis, it's a return to the "bearded, antisocial weirdo" persona he perfected in his stand-up acts and Funny or Die videos, away from the Hangover movies and conventional studio fare that turns him into another Hollywood oaf. And for C.K., it's a chance to add his flavor to a more conventional TV comedy, one whose humor comes from reality rather than Louie's flights of surrealist fancy. The comic beats are sharper, and the deliberately drab-looking visual style plays a more subtle role than Louie's front-and-center auteurism. It's also got several belly laughs (most courtesy of comedian Louie Anderson) and more than a few uncomfortable squirms — so, a better laugh-to-squirm ratio than watching an actual clown.
The suffering artist trapped in a hell of his own making is the dynamic at play in the show's promising pilot, "Renoir," co-written by C.K. and Galifianakis and directed by Portlandia veteran Jonathan Krisel. (Krisel is also a co-creator of the show.) We see Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) in Paris, looking deeply out of place as he flunks his way through "Académie de Clown Français," a gilded institution where rooms full of intense students scrutinize pratfalls like they're the pinnacles of Western art. Chip doesn't speak a word of French, so his choice of school isn't the wisest decision. (The preening instructor, perhaps the only person on Earth who takes clowns more seriously than Chip, summarizes his performance as "Ro-nald Mc-Do-nald" — no language barrier there.) When Chip runs out of money, he returns home to Bakersfield with his French wife, Penelope (an ice-cold Sabina Sciubba), who makes clear that she has no feelings for him, is only using him to get into the U.S., and will leave him for another man at her earliest opportunity. What do we think? Could these crazy kids make it work?
Despite having the perfect last name for a clown, Baskets wants to perform in a rodeo with his chosen French name, Renoir. (Take a wild guess if Bakersfield rodeo attendees give two hoots about French culture.) A joke like that is the guiding principle for Baskets, which juxtaposes its hero's inflated ego and aloofness with the arid, cruel desert world he can't escape and probably deserves. When Chip wrecks his Vespa, he hitches a ride from a strange, friendly insurance agent, Martha (Martha Kelly, doing some amazing straight work), but he quickly abuses her kindness by directing her on petty errands and drink orders until she becomes his personal chauffeur.
Chip's getting the short end of the stick, too: From his callous wife, lounging poolside in a (relatively) fancy apartment complex, who sends him off on a pathetic quest for $40 so she can watch HBO; from his twin brother, Dale (Galifianakis again, preening as he did in The Campaign), the dean, student, and janitor of a local career college; and from his deal-hunting Reaganite mother, played amazingly by Anderson. There's a cycle of emotional abuse in Baskets, which makes it much more interesting than typical shows about troubled men.
Whether you find Baskets funny depends largely on your opinion of Galifianakis's sense of humor. His worldview is plastered all over the pilot's comic centerpiece, in which a frustrated Chip attempts to order a series of esoteric soft-drinks from the drive-through (does Tab have a large following in France?) and winds up screaming, "Schweppes! Schweppes!" at the call box in defeat. I guffawed at the scene, which is as much an encapsulation of Chip's desire to culturally alienate himself as it is a series of ridiculous drink orders. Ditto for the climax, in which Chip's planned grand exit from the clown world — a tragic performance where he tries to go the full Pagliacci — ends with him getting knocked on his ass by a bull.
That, in turn, translates into new life for his career: Caught red-handed aspiring toward greatness, this clown instead finds redemption crawling through Bakersfield dirt. It's a hook as dry as the setting — and, hopefully, a bit more intriguing.
- I keep accidentally referring to this show as Ballers when describing it to friends. A sign the title is too generic, or a secret plea to see the Rock in clown makeup? You decide.
- Entertainment also has a clown, a red-nosed mimic played by Tye Sheridan, who gets laughs by pantomiming disgusting things. I saw Alverson introduce the film at a festival, and he referred to the character as (I'm paraphrasing here) the decline of Western civilization. Dude does not mess around with his comedy metaphors.
- Speaking of, I may refer back to Entertainment throughout the season as the material demands. If you're jumping aboard the Baskets train, I recommend seeking it out. The film and the show are in conversation with each other in fascinating ways.
- Chip's other go-to drinks: Tangerine Fanta, Pepsi Lime (soon to be relaunched as Pepsi Limón, by the way), "anything from the Slice family," "anything that has any kind of Baja Blast in it."
- If clowning or Arby's don't work out for Chip, he could always pick up a few certificates from Baskets Career College, which offers degrees in Flip-Phone Repair, Cooking & Cleaning, Dijon Deconstruction, and five programs specifically catered to ice-cream trucks.
- "Here's a picture of Ronald Reagan, next to a picture of me." Give all the awards to the "other" Louie, channeling Divine and Harvey Fierstein from Hairspray as the garrulous Mama Baskets. More Mama Baskets, please!
- Chip is living in a motel, but don't worry: "It's only permanent."
- I'm desperately hoping Martha doesn't become the "Meg" of this show, in Family Guy parlance. The pilot's running gag of other characters ignoring or insulting her grows old quickly, and feels like a played-out, early 2000s brand of "arch" humor. (The one exception? When Chip chucks a cup of water at her car, a ludicrous reaction Galifianakis that sells with his over-the-top physical performance.)
- Hypothesis: The era of amusing clowns has long passed. If you put them in a movie or TV show, you're trying to scare us. And if you put Galifianakis in clown makeup, you're a sadist.
- Any Bakersfield residents out there care to comment on the city's continued use as a metaphor for the collapse of society?