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Why Is Louie Such a Remarkable TV Show? Because It Makes Stand-up Comedy Cinematic

LOUIE: Louis C.K. stars in LOUIE on FX.
LOUIE: Louis C.K. stars in LOUIE on FX. Photo: FX

Why is Louie such a remarkable show? I don’t think it’s the content, which is alternately funny, sweet, and mortifying, sometimes all three. It’s the form, which is revolutionary.

TV history is filled with sitcoms driven by stand-up comics who have creative control, but without exception, they’ve all chosen a particular format and tone, and more or less stuck with them over the long haul. The Bob Newhart Show, The Cosby Show, and Everybody Loves Raymond, to name three durable sitcoms, were pretty much the same at the end as they were at the start. Others — such as Roseanne and Seinfeld — evolved, becoming faster or slower, or more or less farcical, but without losing touch with their essence. You might look, for example, at a late-season Seinfeld episode and think, This feels different than season two or three or I liked the show better when it was slower and subtler, but there’s virtually no chance that you’d think, This feels like the same actors in a different show.

Louie is an altogether different animal. It’s not enough to say that it takes its cues from the short story or anthology show or personal blog, though all three assertions are true. Saying the series takes place inside the mind of creator-star Louis C.K. doesn’t help, either, because it’s self-evident. In some sense, every creative work takes place inside the mind of whoever drives it. That’s why a work can be said to have a personality, a worldview — and in works that are perhaps more figurative than “realistic,” this comes through most strongly. You know when you’re watching How I Met Your Mother or Californication or Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 or Curb Your Enthusiasm that you aren’t seeing reality, but somebody’s subjectively warped version of reality. All comedy, indeed all art, is subjective. What sitcom isn’t a projection of the inside of someone’s mind?

No, Louie is unique for one reason, and it has to do with the execution of a vision — i.e., with style. The show makes stand-up comedy cinematic. That’s a specific skill set that I don’t think any other sitcom has demonstrated before — certainly not on this scale, and with this level of confidence and control. And it could not have happened without Louis C.K., who is as assured a filmmaker as he is a comedian.

C.K., who writes, directs, stars in, and often edits each episode of Louie, has figured out how to translate the imaginative impact of stand-up into a visual medium. Most episodes start with Louie performing onstage, and then the episode segues into the cinematic portion of the episode, with fictional characters speaking scripted lines. But you’re still watching a stand-up routine. The scripted portions are the continuation of stand-up by other means. 

The segmented nature of the series — disconnected tales, anecdotes, moments, and reveries, some of them just a few minutes long — evokes the stop-and-start rhythms of a stand-up routine, an art form in which it’s perfectly acceptable to pivot from one subject to the next with a blunt transition: “Women.”  “Football fans are the worst.” “Now I’m gonna talk about things that you can do to keep people on their toes.” He’s talking to you directly, in the way that a stand-up comic would talk to you from the stage at a club, but he’s doing it through the language of film — a translation that’s not as simple as it sounds, given that stand-up is pure performance, just words and gestures. Theater.

The results are hit and miss, just as stand-up routines are hit and miss, because at heart, it’s all an extended riff. Sometimes he’s reflecting on ethics or politics or teaching a moral lesson. Sometimes he’s telling you about a dream or fantasy he had, or an encounter that became fodder for a fantasy: See season two’s “Subway,” for instance, a short piece that starts with Louie encountering a homeless man washing himself on a subway platform and ends with Louie fantasizing himself as a hero to subway riders, doffing his shirt to mop up a mysterious spill on a seat. Other times the star-filmmaker is mining experiences from his own life (or experiences so raw that they might as well have actually happened to him) to get at basic truths about friendship and romance. An example is season two’s “Pamela,” wherein Louie made a heartrending confession of love to his female friend and was gently rebuffed.

That “Pamela” was contained in the same half-hour block as “Subway” illustrates what I’m getting at. We never trouble ourselves with consistency when a stand-up segues from describing a dream and the event that inspired it to telling us a more subdued, melancholy, everyday story about the time that he decided to confess his love to a female friend. No sitcom has dared to hold such dissimilar modes within the same episode before, but here’s Louie doing it whenever it feels the urge, and doing it so proficiently that the pieces fit together more easily than you might expect.

Such extreme juxtapositions happen over the course of whole seasons as well. Season three started out with a series of personal, professional, and even sexual humiliations for Louie — some hugely exaggerated, even ridiculous, such as the bit where Louie’s car gets gratuitously destroyed, and others wry and “realistic,” such as the episode in which Louis develops a man-crush on a hotel employee in Miami — and then built to a surprisingly intense dramatic peak in episodes four and five, which starred Parker Posey as a dark free spirit who forced Louie to confront his depression and suicidal urges. Soon after that, Louie aired a segment in which the hero had to babysit a horrible brat who only eats raw meat, pushes baby carriages into traffic, hurls rugs from apartment windows, and evacuates his bowels in the bathtub, just because.

Neither the boy nor his even more loathsome mother were “realistic”; they were the sorts of absurd caricatures who would appear in a stand-up routine by a comic who had just been through a rotten experience and needed to vent. Yet this story — as well as last week’s “Dad,” which climaxed with Louie racing through Boston on foot and on a stolen motorcycle and speedboat — all existed within the same fictional framework, one in which anything is possible.

The only transitions between these stories are the commercial breaks between acts, or the seven days separating one full episode from another. This temporal black space is the equivalent of a stand-up saying, “Can we talk about Obama for a second?” or “It is so friggin’ hot right now!” Every such transition means the same thing: “Now I’m going to talk about something else, and hopefully I’ll be interesting enough that you’ll keep listening and not heckle me.” Richard Pryor could do routines in which his dog or his pipe talked to him, then ramp down into more personal stories. Eddie Murphy could do a filthy routine about Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton as gay lovers and a childhood reverie about kids and ice cream within the same performance. George Carlin could mix wordplay, social satire, religious and political commentary, personal memories, and even an extended fantasy about the destruction of the world and somehow make it all seem to fit. And if you didn’t like one or another of these bits, all you had to do was wait a few minutes, and the comic would be on to something else.

There is, of course, a sense in which the amazing freedom Louis C.K. enjoys could also be construed as a cop-out. If there is no established tone to the series — if indeed it is all a subjective projection of the interior of one comic’s mind — then it becomes harder to complain that Louis C.K. is painting himself as too much of a sad sack to gain sympathy, or that some of the portrayals of female sexuality have a touch of angry white guy misogyny, or that a lot of the episodes just flat-out don’t work (all of which I’ve heard from other viewers, and in some cases argued myself). The easiest response to this is: “It’s all happening in Louie’s mind; it’s just one guy’s perception of reality; it’s not meant to be real.” Is that necessarily a valid response, though? Might Louie be a greater series if it weren’t such a grab bag — if the creator decided to stick with one mode or tone for a while longer and develop his character and other characters more meticulously, instead of jumping to another thing as a stand-up comic might?

Maybe, but what’s on-screen is so original, and so consistently impressive even when particular episodes just don’t do it for you, that it seems churlish to try to imagine a different Louie. The one we’ve got is consistently fascinating and aesthetically revolutionary (for American television). And viewer response to whatever C.K. does can be as entertaining and enlightening as the episode themselves; to declare allegiance to one episode or segment over another is to admit who you are and what you find funny and interesting. A couple days ago, I raved about last week’s episode on Twitter — the surreal “Dad” — and somebody wrote back to say he thought it stunk, and that it was warmed-over Woody Allen. He countered with a list of episodes he thought were superior, and they were episodes I didn’t like nearly as well as “Dad.” A fellow TV critic told me today that he thought tonight’s episode, which he previewed, was “the first real disappointment of the season.” That probably means I’ll love it.

Why Is Louie Such a Remarkable TV Show?