Tragedy Plus Time: 'Louie,' 'Maron,' and the Rise of the Honest Sitcom
The stand-up comedy boom of the 1980s led to dozens of sitcoms for the comics who hit at the right moment. Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Tim Allen, and Roseanne were probably the most successful in terms of sheer profile — Seinfeld aired 180 episodes and is regarded as one of the best sitcoms ever made; Everybody Loves Raymond ran 210 episodes and was a powerhouse for CBS; Home Improvement ran 204 episodes and never finished outside the top 10 for any given season; and Roseanne lasted 222 episodes and became a pop culture phenomenon for its darkly comic portrayal of modern American poverty. But there were so many more of varying degrees of success and creativity: long runners like The King of Queens or Grace Under Fire; mid-range offerings like The Hughleys, The Steve Harvey Show, Martin, or The George Lopez Show; blips like Boston Common, The Jeff Foxworthy Show, Mr. Rhodes, and others. In their way, they were following the pattern set by titans like The Cosby Show (eight seasons and 202 episodes) and The Bob Newhart Show (six seasons and 142 episodes). They were all built around stand-up comics, and they used their performers’ acts as general starting points to create a screen persona. It wasn’t uncommon for dialogue to be pulled directly from the comics’ stage material, and most shows went out of their way to give their star a narrative venue to let them hold forth on their opinions. (E.g., Tim Allen’s character has a home repair show where he can directly address the audience the way a comic would.)
Two newer shows, though, are charting a new path: FX’s Louie and IFC’s Maron. Louis C.K. and Marc Maron have been working comics for years — they both started in the 1980s — but they’ve been doing the best comedy of their careers only recently, and only because they’ve worked to shed the personas and defenses they used to have so they can create a comedy that’s built on vulnerability and doubt. C.K.’s earlier comedy was rooted in absurdity, while Maron’s was built on defining his anger. But they’ve both recently matured into comedians who grapple with identity, from C.K.’s discussion of the way he both loves and resents his children, to Maron’s openness about the pointlessness of his earlier anger and politicization. They both used to try and bring the world to themselves; now they offer themselves to the world. Accordingly, their TV shows do the same.
Sitcoms used to be platforms for the comic’s act. Bigger, shinier platforms, and wrapped in layers of light storytelling, but still basically a repeat of the act. Every story and supporting character was designed to feed back into that act, which meant that “Ray” and “Tim” and “Roseanne” and every other central character could never be fully real, even in a sitcom way. They were always protected by the sheen of the persona they’d constructed for the stage, and which was being bolstered by the series. Even Seinfeld existed within that artifice. Although “Jerry” was a stand-up comedian who made wry observations about everyday life, there was no confusing the heightened, surreal world he lived in with the real one that Seinfeld had had to conquer to become one of the best comics of his generation. Even Seinfeld’s delivery on the show is about pretense: his voice raised in pitch, his head snapping back and forth, as different as you could be from humanity.
Louie and Maron, in contrast, are a new wave of sitcom because they don’t use the comics’ material as inspiration for a narrative set-up; they’re about how that material is created in the first place. Louis C.K. and Marc Maron both play versions of themselves much closer to real life than their sitcom forbears, and each series is about a comedian struggling to honor his craft and connect with an audience. C.K. spent years working toward the place he’s at now, tempering his outrage with self-deprecating tangents and a clear sense of a man stubbornly clinging to right and wrong, even if he has to relearn those things every day. Louie is the culmination of the knowledge he’s earned, and it’s about C.K. working clubs and raising his kids and trying to balance artistic integrity with greater successes, shot through with tangents and riffs about mortality and loneliness. Similarly, Maron bounced around the club circuit and flirted with other opportunities (he interviewed for SNL and was a host on Air America for a couple years) before finally, with no other career options, he started a podcast focused on the intersections of comedy, the industry, and his own cluttered life. Maron (only one season old) is about him struggling to get a podcast off the ground when he has no other road to walk, and how it forces him to grow as a writer and performer. These shows include jokes and material related to their stars’ acts, but in the context of actually watching them work through the creative process. It’s sitcom as autobiography, born of men who use comedy as therapy.
There are a few reasons it makes sense for these shows to be here right now. For starters, the growing presence of confessional comedy — on stage, on podcasts, etc. — makes it easier to do a show about the man behind the curtain. This is also a savvier consumer age, and we’re OK watching the sausage get made (or at least watch a story that’s a very close approximation of same). These shows are fictionalized, yes: Maron’s father is not actually Judd Hirsch, and C.K. hasn’t gotten out of a bad date via helicopter. But the fictionalization is a lot thinner that it would’ve been a few years ago, and more importantly, it doesn’t alter the fundamental truths of who these guys are.
Additionally, the single-camera sitcom boom of the 2000s made it a lot easier to make shows like Louie and Maron. The gimmick of many single-camera shows is that they were “real” on some level, with talking head interviews cut into action scenes like a documentary. Even though The Office was the only one to actually follow through on the idea that the characters were being filmed, series like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation used the same concept. Then you had single-camera shows that simply used the format because it allowed for more creative editing and tighter pacing for jokes and dialogue: a small and random sampling would include 30 Rock, New Girl, Enlightened, Happy Endings, Portlandia, Flight of the Conchords, and Scrubs, to name the merest few. Those two things — the popularity of the format and our acceptance of its use to tell documentary-style narratives — made it feasible for Louie and Maron to reach new levels of openness and honesty in their storytelling.
Ultimately, though, it’s because these shows couldn’t be any other way. Louis C.K. and Marc Maron have sharpened so much in recent years because of their relentless focus on staying honest and self-reflective and then folding those processes into their material. Their jokes are about their jokes, in a way. As comedians, they’re more interested than ever in eliminating artifice, and as viewers, we’re with them on that ride. The binary choice isn’t between good or bad, or between snark and sappiness, but between authenticity and deception. That authenticity is on full display in Louie and Maron as the shows’ respective protagonists fight the good fight every day and try to get just a little better at being human. There are no easy lessons here, no 22-minute chapters that tie up nicely before credits and a blooper reel. Just the quest for truth and the openness of a guide leading us on a journey with no end, carrying a lantern in the fog, holding fear at bay with laughter.