Louie’s Funny Misery: Best New Comedy on TV Defies All Expectations


Published: August 25, 2010

Each year, while the summer is at its carefree height, television reaches crushing lows filled with reruns and cheap game shows. So it’s a welcomed surprise that “Louie,” a show that got its start on FX at the end of June, is one of the most remarkable comedies in years.

The opening credits of “Louie” conclude with a shot of comedian-actor Louis C.K. descending the stairs of the Comedy Cellar, a popular stand-up comedy club in Greenwich Village. (Matt Surrusco/The Observer)

Veteran comedian Louis C.K. has proven himself as a talented actor in his previous starring role on HBO’s ill-fated sitcom “Lucky Louie” and on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” but suiting a personality born and refined on stage to a medium run by cameras, scriptwriters and Nielsen ratings isn’t always easy. That’s why C.K. passed up lucrative network offers this time, instead negotiating a deal with a small cable network for a tiny paycheck and a license to do whatever he wants. The result: auteur T.V. Even more original than the programs on C.K.’s old home, HBO, “Louie” is uniquely personal entertainment, a triumph of unconventional wit.

In its opening moments, the title sequence depicting C.K.’s nightly ritual distinguishes “Louie” as a gem. C.K. emerges from the W. 4th subway stop and walks around Greenwich Village with a face showing either detached desperation or sheer boredom, all to the tune of a slightly altered “Brother Louie,” in which C.K. is warned first that he will “cry,” then “die.” The 1970s funk hit, doubling here as his inner monologue, continues while he stops to eat a quick slice of generic street corner pizza and then heads down the Comedy Cellar steps on MacDougal Street. From there, seamlessly, you’re in Louie’s world. The footage of C.K.’s stand-up at famed New York City comedy clubs like the Cellar and Caroline’s on Broadway helps to hold the show together and begs for comparison to “Seinfeld,” with the comedy routines in both shows loosely relating to the plot that follows. However, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up was often the low point of his legendary sitcom whereas C.K.’s material is consistently hilarious.

Based on its free-form structure, it seems C.K. doesn’t tack many rules onto his show other than that it be affecting. Each episode is comprised of a few vignettes, scenes inspired by C.K.’s life as a 42-year-old divorcé and father of two young daughters. There are typically no recurring characters, scenes change from depressingly realistic to surreal and slapstick and crude humor is set to an endless soundtrack of highbrow jazz. In the show’s first season, C.K. has gone on failed dates, been laughed at by his doctor during a check-up, had his therapist tell him that he’s fat and watched his agent and his new dog both die in front of him. The prevailing theme of desperation in C.K.’s comedy creates strange tonal shifts between comedy and pathos that might not appeal to everyone, but the awkward mix of laughs and melancholy only make the sporadic “Louie” feel more honest.

Ultimately everything about “Louie,” from C.K.’s crass yet deceptively clever scripts to its no-frills production, is about the depiction of imperfection, of real life, contrary to what television has tried to sell to viewers and advertisers since its inception. And it’s about respect, too—for the audience, for the characters that inhabit the world of the show and for things as they are. Through Louie’s lens, he airs his grievances about men, women, children, the elderly, actors, comedians, rich jerks, poor schleps and himself, all in equal measure. But there’s a sense of community in Louie’s world, camaraderie even. Sure life is tough and sometimes things get ugly, but we’re all in this together. It’s quintessentially New York, not the New York that’s typically sold on television—glittery Manhattan nightlife, airbrushed souls in stilettos and quirky hipster parties—but the real New York: angry, anxious and radically different people trying to get by while living amongst one another. It’s not pretty, but it’s true and oftentimes very funny. When Louie is on a date and things seem like they’re going well, he invites her to his favorite doughnut shop. “It’s just kind of a great old place, you know. Watery coffee. It’s one of the last shitty old places in New York.” Later, while having a cup, she confirms, “You were right. This is like piss.” Ah, the simple things.

The bad behavior of the characters that populate “Louie” feels inevitable. C.K. doesn’t provide answers to his problems or those of anyone else, but everyone is treated equally, with moral ambiguity but with fairness. Comedy is mined from excruciatingly real, often painful situations, yet there is never a bad character and a good character in any scene. For instance, when Louie confronts a heckler while attempting to convince her that she was selfish for interrupting his comedy show, she naïvely blames Louie’s grievances on his supposed jealousy of her beauty, so he decides to end an argument he assumes is pointless. But then, he wonders if he could have hooked up with the woman whose behavior he found so repulsive moments earlier—a shallow, callous thought but one that he doesn’t attempt to hide. He has flaws and, like any great comedian, is unafraid to shine a spotlight on the worst of them. No other show portrays the world with as much confusion and frustration as is granted to us in real life.

Even on the unsentimental “Seinfeld,” while creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were venting their tempers that had been enflamed by years of social quibbles and misunderstandings, they used a group of core characters that they believed to be essentially heartless, childish and selfish. On “Louie,” there are no such assumptions. It would be easy to call C.K. misanthropic, but he just believes in tough love. Like any talented writer or performer, C.K.’s range can only be appreciated if you see enougwh of his work; he surprises with every new episode and within each episode too.

Catch the last episode of “Louie” on Aug. 31 and stay tuned for the recently confirmed second season. By then, I’m sure C.wwK. will have plenty more problems.