Right Before the Sainting of Louis C.K., There Was ‘Lucky Louie’

Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.

We all have our favorite alternate history scenarios: What if Columbus wasn’t bad at his job and didn’t accidentally discover America? What if Kennedy invaded Cuba? What if Lucky Louie wasn’t canceled after thirteen episodes?

That last one might not seem to be as historically important as the others, but consider the repercussions of what a renewal to Lucky Louie would have brought: Louis C.K. said unequivocally on WTF with Marc Maron that had his show been brought back for a second season, he would have quit stand-up comedy and supported himself and his family starring in and co-executive producing the HBO series, under the belief that had it been renewed once, it would have lasted ten seasons (tell that to Mike White and Laura Dern.) While waiting for the show to premiere after all of the episodes were taped in the spring of 2006, C.K. went on tour to build his hour for Shameless, which we now know was the beginning of C.K.’s ascent to achieving comedy deity status. Instead, had Lucky Louie not received mixed reviews from critics and retrieved some more eyeballs, Shameless would have served as a really funny hour long commercial on HBO for season 2. C.K. would have hung up the mic unknowingly at the start of his creative apex. Even if the show didn’t last beyond 2007, the momentum that was built from living and breathing stand-up comedy would have been derailed, and it’s unlikely Chewed Up, Hilarious, Live at the Beacon Theater, WORD - Live at Carnegie Hall, this Saturday’s Oh My God, and the historic television series Louie — which was created and funded off of all of the stand-up success — would have ever existed. (We would still be speaking English, but presumably a less funny English.)

This raises another question: What exactly was Lucky Louie, besides an unknowing Lee Harvey Oswald?

Some of you already know that it was Louis C.K.’s reaction to what he felt was the unacceptable direction that sitcoms took beginning in the 1980s, when they became more elaborate, phony, and hollow. But instead of shooting a single camera comedy without a studio audience, which was well on its way to becoming the “right” way to do things in the mid 2000s, Lucky Louie was a multi-cam that went out of its way to make the sets as unadorned as possible, keeping all of the audience reactions, for better or worse: if there was an extended applause break because C.K. fired off a particularly inspired one liner, the cast had to wait a few extra beats. If Laura Kightlinger mused that “She’s a teenager, not a person” and there was dead silence where it is very likely the writers believed a decent sized laugh would appear, the cast just kept on going.

C.K. had The Honeymooners (with a lot more profanity) in mind, but because the pilot episode dealt with socioeconomic and race issues, the comparisons to All in the Family and Roseanne cropped up, muddling the conceit a little bit for critics. Coincidentally, the pilot episode was really, really good, and really funny. The very first scene was basically C.K.’s first memorable stand-up bit: “Why?” — which was from Louis’s HBO One Night Stand half-hour the year before. On Lucky Louie, it gave the audience the background information on the characters of Louie and his wife Kim without them being aware of the exposition being exposition even before the title credits.

Louie, a part-time mechanic, and his wife Kim (Pamela Adlon), a nurse, had trouble making ends meet just to raise one daughter, Lucy, but it is revealed that the only reason why Kim suddenly wanted to have sex with her hubby is because she wanted another child. Even though sex with Kim is so rare that Louie doesn’t really think twice to trying to masturbate in the closet a minute after Lucy’s birthday party concluded, he understandably didn’t want to be raising two children on the street. The jokes were all there, and the audience was very receptive, particularly to the lines C.K. lifted from his tested and refined One Night Stand and future Shameless specials. Meanwhile, Louie and his family kept accidentally insulting their new black neighbors. First, Lucy openly hated a Barbie doll she received because it was black. Then Louie was caught by Walter (Jerry Minor) trying to throw out the black doll (the white doll was also in the trash bin), and later he completely forgot that he had invited Walter and his family to dinner. Walter eventually confronted Louie about his motivations behind trying so hard to just make a black friend. Little Lucy had first seen a black man working on a refrigerator, and the next time she saw one she pointed and said “refrigerator” — Louie just wanted Lucy to have an African-American around so she wouldn’t do that anymore. It was Classic C.K.: touching and weird.

After that, virtually all of the episodes focused primarily on the volatile marriage between Louie and Kim. While their standing in the upper lower class/lower middle class remained somewhat a part of the narrative and was the underlying cause for a few of their problems, race did not seem to be. Instead, Louie and Walter gradually developed a friendship and a two-person ad hoc think tank determining how exactly to deal with their annoyed wives, which is touching and kind of depressing.

Walter would eventually get the last laugh. In the final episode to air, “Kim Moves Out,” Jerry Minor’s character and his wife Ellen (Kim Hawthorne) argue over something seemingly minor but really very important: Walter thinks his Bill Cosby impression is spot-on and worthy to be exhibited at social gatherings; Ellen believes the exact opposite. This was first revealed at a building party, when Ellen openly forbade Walter to do it. With the rest of the episode having to do with Kim moving out, Walter and Ellen supplied the hilarious B story with three scenes on their own, interspersed throughout the half hour. In the first scene, the two are in bed when they continue to fight about it. Ellen earnestly believed that if he had done the Cosby impression they would lose all respect from the neighbors for life. The second time, Walter stole a moment alone to contort his face like Cosby in front of a mirror, before Ellen called for him from the other room. In the post-credits scene, after the heavy A-story had concluded, in the final scene from the series, we finally witnessed and heard Minor’s impression (good, but not ground-breaking.) Of course, Ellen caught him, but Walter, in a rare and possibly only moment of triumph, told her to kiss his ass in the Cosby voice. We never find out if he ended up killed by his wife’s hand moments later, but it is obvious that Kim Hawthorne found it difficult to hide a smile.

I wrote final episode “to air” because of the existence of “Clowntime is Over,” a never broadcast installment that is available on the DVD (and YouTube.) The only reason why HBO chose not to air it was probably due to it being kind of wildly out of tone from the rest of the series. For one thing, Louie at one point in “Clowntime is Over” admitted to being happy. For another, it is very weird, the only time in Lucky Louie’s history that C.K.’s surrealist and silly comedic tendencies from his short films and early stand-up broke free from his old man bitterness: when the clown hired for Lucy doesn’t show, Kim dressed Louie up with materials found in the apartment, giving birth to Mr. Pizza Box Man.

There was even a dance, not similar but not completely different from Britta Perry’s classic pizza dance five years later (how nobody ever gif’d C.K.’s dance I have no idea. Bad internet.) Mr. Pizza Box Man was a hit, and C.K. started to earn money from making appearances. But then he tried to perform his weak shtick on some teenagers and lost all confidence. The story resolved itself when a frustrated Louie got in a brawl with two guys who made fun of him while waiting for a bus. In the B-story, Kim and Ellen’s frustration over a ballet teacher not giving their kids any real ballet time without the offer in a refund resolved itself by — the two repeatedly shoving her. The last scene was simply Louie and Kim looking at each other and seeing that they were both beaten. The entire episode clocked in at twenty one minutes and thirty seconds, the shortest in the series.

As we know, the show Louie isn’t afraid to be silly, so long as it’s under some sort of dark cloud, and along with that sensibility Louis brought along some of the cast from Lucky Louie to his critically acclaimed FX series. Pamela Adlon — who I am always surprised to find was the voice of Bobby Hill no matter how many times I read it — played Pamela, the woman Louis eventually fell for in season two (spoiler: it didn’t work out.) Nick DiPaolo, who appeared in two episodes as the building superintendent (his solution to changing a door lock was to switch it with the neighbor’s door) occasionally pops up to bust Louis and some poker players’ balls. Todd Barry showed up as a sarcastic (shocking) comic book store owner in “Long Weekend.” (Barry’s role of insulting Louis to no end was played on Lucky Louie by Jim Norton, who on the series always seemed to look like he had just walked out of a mental ward: when he graduated to jorts late in the series run, it was a marked sartorial improvement.) C.K. has yet to get Emma Stone on Louie — she is a lot busier than she was seven years ago when she was 17 years old, playing Laura Kightlinger’s bratty daughter that had a tendency to sleep with middle-aged men from Freaks and Geeks and offered oral pleasure to C.K.’s character just for being nice.

C.K. is infamously a one-man writing staff on Louie, but had he not disliked the entire normal process of producing a comedy it is likely he would have retained some of the talent he had working for him: Mike Royce, former executive producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, had the same title on Lucky Louie, and penned the aforementioned Emma Stone episode “Get Out”; Dino Stamatopoulos was an original writer along with C.K. on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, wrote on Mr. Show, played Starburns and wrote on Community, and wrote the particularly funny episode “Control”; comedian Greg Fitzsimmons was a staff writer, as was Dan Mintz, who currently voices the great Tina Belcher on Bob’s Burgers.

Ultimately, Lucky Louie was good, not great, and when you consider all of the things that took place as a result of it being cancelled, everything worked out pretty well for most everyone involved. The show probably deserves a little better than being known as a historical curiosity; instead it should get credit for its attempt at being something different, for being honest, for being honest to goodness funny (most important of all), and for not committing the sin most sitcoms it was commenting on while simultaneously celebrating it of making continuity errors. In fact, a few running gags that emerged throughout the series were surprising and pleasurable, even if they weren’t necessarily on purpose — when food is thrown away, Louie always tried to eat it anyway; Rick Shapiro’s breaking down a two word phrase shtick was treated a little differently all three times he did it, to increasingly humorous results; and my favorite, which was most likely an accident but added an unexpected level of nuance to the Louie character, Louie masturbating to Jessica Simpson and saying he wasn’t “jerking off to her music,” then in a later episode singing along to her sister Ashlee’s “Boyfriend” to drown out his daughter’s screaming. This intelligent treatment of a just-about-dead multicam sitcom format made the surprising news of C.K. attempting to develop a network sitcom starring Ashley Tisdale last year all the more intriguing, but ultimately CBS passed. Leave it to television to keep Louis C.K. humble.

Right Before the Sainting of Louis C.K., There Was […]