Ah, Atlantic City: A town where addicts and geriatrics stagger in tandem; where surly pigeons will rough you up for a few spare nubs of funnel cake; and where yours truly was assaulted in the early nineties, for reasons still unknown, while waiting to ride a boardwalk Ferris wheel. A.C.’s a tough racket, as we find out in “Joan,” the most (relatively) straightforward episode of Louie’s second season, and one of the most frustrating.
But before we head off to that dilapidated gem of the Eastern seaboard, we find Louie still in a New York groove, riffing from the bowels of a comedy club: “I’m always within a 48-hour window of diarrhea,” he says. “Either I had it, or I’ll be having it, within 48 hours of any given moment.” It’s disgusting, but as with much of Louis C.K.’s below-the-beltline humor, the bit’s layered with so much pathos and real-talk specificity that you wind up feeling sorry for the guy. So far this summer, he’s grappled with sibling drama, financial drama, and homeless-guy-getting-decapitated drama; now even his poops are backfiring on him (not literally, of course).
We then find Louie in his apartment, ordering groceries by phone, an endeavor that finds him pushing up against language barriers (“six bananas” somehow translates as “sixty bananas”). He’s suddenly interrupted by a call from Carleen, his presumably sloshed sister, who tearfully apologizes for not being a better big sis. After reluctantly indulging her for a few seconds, a clearly worn-down Louie hangs up and pours himself a stiff one, as we wonder just how many more heretofore unmentioned sisters we can take before this starts feeling like a more existentially troubled Hogan Family.
Next stop: Atlantic City, where Louie finds himself playing to a lounge full of apathetic, down-on-their-luck gamblers. “Is anybody listening to my voice right now?” he asks, growing more frustrated as people get up and leave. “You came here on a shitty bus to give Donald Trump your 75 cents … well, fuck you people.” Afterward, he heads to the casino kitchen, where a nattily attired manager reads him the riot act; apparently, it’s against policy to ridicule and demean the Donald in public (of course, if this rule were true, Donald would have been forced to fire himself around 1985). Louie, unwilling to play ball, decides to quit.
“I don’t know why you can’t just keep your mouth shut and keep the money,” the manager says. “I don’t know why, either,” Louie says, setting off to wander the casino floor, eventually stumbling into the venue’s headlining theatre, where Joan Rivers is painting the room blue (sample one-liner: “Men’s bodies drop. You see a man over 50 on the toilet, it looks like he’s making a cup of tea.”) Watching her work, Louie seems to be in awe — not only can she fill such a big room, she has filthier (and more anatomically detailed) dick jokes than most of his male cohorts. When he goes backstage to pay his respects, Joan invites him up to her suite, to talk shop and shoot the shit.
Inside a luxury suite that’s adorned with flowers and stocked with booze — imagine Celine Dion’s panic room, but with fewer Anne Geddes calendars — Louie describes his problems with the casino, hoping to find a sympathetic ear. But Joan, who herself was playing smaller rooms just a few years back, won’t hear of it: “Nobody quits,” she says. “Are you crazy? … this is not an easy business. You wanna try my life sometimes? I work in Arizona.” She then asks him to estimate how many blow jobs she’s had to give just to succeed. His guess? Forty, which turns out to be off by about, uh, 40. “I don’t do blow jobs!” she says, smacking Louie around. “Smell my breath!”
As fun as it is to watch Joan harangue Louie, there’s a general ho-humness to the wisdom being imparted here. This season of Louie is about a man facing up to some harsh truths, whether they’re about his own social failings, his ability to provide, or even his own mortality. At this point, a lesson on the ups and downs of showbiz — a reminder to remember the little people — seems a bit trite. And it runs counter to what we know about Louie, a guy who puts up with the vagaries of his job (hecklers, weird fans) with either aggro confidence or what-the-hell acceptance, not whininess.
At the end of their tête-à-tête, an aroused Louie makes a play for Joan. She bats him away at first, but then thinks better of it, perhaps figuring his ball-sagging days are still ahead of him. “Don’t you dare tell anybody,” she says. “It’s for your sake, not mine. Nobody likes a necrophiliac.”
The next morning, we watch Louie return to the casino kitchen, apologizing for his behavior and asking for his job back. It’s filmed from a distance, the music blotting out the actual dialogue, and concludes with a silent handshake. Clearly, Louie’s learned his lesson — but for a show that’s so frequently enlightening, it doesn’t feel like a very big one.