One of the favorite parts of my recent vacation, aside from the 47 pounds of chocolate I ate, was watching Louie. I’ve already seen all of them, but my brother-in-law hadn’t, and somehow stumbled upon them on the Roku box. Part of the enjoyment of this was simply that we watched them after everyone else went to bed, and instead of hearing “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” for the 4,000th time like some kind of psyops torture normally reserved for Gitmo detainees, we got to watch an Adult Show. But part of it is that my brother-in-law M is an English professor, and we spent a lot of late night rambling poking at the edges of what the show Louie really meant.
Point one: stand-up comedians have a shelf life. When you hit it big, you have a certain hang time, usually a couple of years, and then you have to either reinvent yourself or do something different or hope for a second wind, or spend the rest of your life scraping together a career out of appearances with your most loyal fans. (I would call that the “CMC syndrome”, after the record label that pulled a bunch of big has-ran bands from the 80s and resurrected their careers in the 90s with records that almost nobody bought and appearances at county fairs, ala Styx, Journey, Loverboy, etc.) If you’re someone like Dane Cook, you have this peak where you’re selling out stadiums, and then when your single male fans get married and have kids, that goes away. And maybe you start doing material about wives and kids, or maybe you do smaller shows, or maybe you get into movies or you get a talk show or a sitcom. And the sitcom is the gold standard; it’s the big go-to for comedians who want to take it to the next level.
What’s interesting about Louie is how it isn’t a formulaic sitcom, because it’s not entirely a grab for career leveling. CK took much more creative control of the show in exchange for much less pay and a spot at a less prestigious network. This may be partially based on his previous experience with HBO’s short-lived Lucky Louie, which was much more of a prototypical sitcom. But it seems to be a move in doing something beyond stand-up and yet not the typical “crazy guy with the too-hot, too-young wife, couple of young kids, and the goofy neighbor” show that pretty much every other stand-up would have churned out.
CK is much more of a comedian’s comedian, the kind of person who does comedy that’s not swinging for the fences of general appeal, but is aimed more at the craft of the art form. It’s like the prose of a Raymond Carver versus the volume sales of an EL James. And the edge of a comedian’s art is always what gets lost in translation to a typical sitcom. If you look at Tim Allen, George Lopez, or even the short-lived Andrew (not-)Dice Clay sitcom, it’s as if the edginess that makes their stand-up shine is what’s trimmed away to make a typical formulaic TV show that appeals to the Nielsen numbers. Part of what Louie‘s charm is, is that he manages to keep the quirkiness of his stand-up in the show, and doesn’t compromise the humor in a need to cookie-cutter the writing for a test audience.
One of the things that M and I discussed is how CK often takes the same tropes that Seinfeld often used to form his episodes, but instead of polishing them into finely structured two-act plus closer, A/B-plot, 23-minute gems, he sometimes goes off into nothingness, not using conventional endings or structures. Although Seinfeld is remembered as a show “about nothing”, look at any of the episodes and they are all highly structured. Louie borrows some of the stock structure, like beginning and ending with a piece of standup in a club, but sometimes there’s not a B story; sometimes there’s no ending. And I think this is very off-putting to some people who expect a specific structure to a TV show. (My wife hates Louie, for example.)
This is analogous to my own inner conflict over plot in fiction. If you go to any genre writing site, they beat to death the need to follow the three acts and 12 steps of the journey and five types of plots and two threads and rising and falling and all of that other shit that’s “required” to make a book work. And a lot of people will freak the fuck out if you write a book that doesn’t do that, and that’s why “plotless” is seen as an insult and not a genre. But take something like Infinite Jest – it breaks so many of the rules that you’d find in a typical Writer’s Digest “how to write a novel” book. I don’t think fiction needs endings or plot structure, just like Louie doesn’t need the same structure as an episode of Matlock. My hope is that the popularity of Louie would primer an audience for cutting-edge prose that also doesn’t need to follow the same convention as the same generic short stories everyone’s been writing for fifty years. I wish I knew exactly what that would be, and that’s my struggle.
My other observation is how Louie seems to relish discomfort, and a theory of mine is that each episode of the show isn’t what is happening to CK, but rather is his inner monologue, or what he wishes was happening to him. This was an observation that Richard Linklater made about his movie Slacker: that the structure allowed each character to essentially externalize their inner monologue, talking aloud about the thoughts that normally they would only think. For example, in episode 7, “Double Date/Mom”, CK has lunch with his mother, and lashes out at her with an extended diatribe about how he doesn’t really love her, and just endures her. Many of us might feel the same way during a parental visit, and would internally fantasize about going on a tear like CK does, but instead just sit silently and endure the visit. And maybe CK would too, but what we see is actually his inner fantasy, of telling his mom what he really feels.
So yeah, Louie. I still haven’t seen season 3. Maybe I need to pull the trigger and spend the $20 to get them on instant. That will have to tide me over until 2014 when season 4 starts.