Louis CK has an unpretentious and likeable vibe about him, and so it’s no surprise that his new show opens in a similarly unhurried, not-trying-too-hard-to-please style. Clad in a black t-shirt and jeans, he trots up from the Washington Square subway station and hits the streets of New York City. He walks through the neighborhood, popping into a local pizza joint to scarf a slice — while standing — before heading down to a subterranean comedy club to perform a set. The music that plays during this introductory exposition is the 1973 hit “Brother Louie,” an oldie that recalls an era of K-Tel albums and Six Million Dollar Man lunch boxes.
It’s probable that CK, who is in his 40s, wanted to brand his show with a kind of melancholic nostalgia, for it’s very much a program about middle age and the attendant weariness that inhabits those who think that their best years are behind them. Titled “Louie,” this FX series is created by and stars CK, who plays himself — a freshly divorced 42-year-old stand-up comic and father of two living in New York.
Shot in an artless, documentary style and set to a jazzy Bebop-inflected score, “Louie” has a loose, improvisational feel. Springing out of the stand-up that serves as the spine of the program are little vignettes that serve as illustrations of the material that informs the act. If that sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is, as it’s the same sort of narrative frame that “Seinfeld” employed, and then abandoned, in its rush to television history.
But the similarities stop there. Louie is profane, even eccentric, and instead of the campy, if brilliant, pathologies of Larry David we get something — although still wickedly funny — with a little more philosophical heft. CK’s standup is always penetrating and intelligent, and the narrative sketches that cluster around it are like variations on a theme. Elliptical, almost spontaneous, they scramble the old-fashioned plotting of sitcoms, stressing mood rather than direction, if that makes any sense.
Sometimes, as a kind of connective tissue spreading through each episode, a little domestic scene will pop up for no evident reason. After feeding his two young daughters breakfast and listening to them talk about all the things their mother does better than him, we watch Louie walk his girls to school. Preoccupied, his face seems weighted by both love and sadness.
In “Louie,” the contours of modern life are difficult to navigate.
In one stand-up bit he talks about the car he drives, an Infiniti. He contrasts the simple-minded pleasure he gets from driving this thing around town with the stone cold fact that people all over the world have shitty lives, having little more opportunity than to starve to death. CK points out that he could easily trade in his luxury behemoth, get another highly functional vehicle and have enough money left to save 100 people from dying, but each day he chooses not to do this because he loves his ride. This might sound like a buzz kill, but it wasn’t. It was really, really funny, but at the end of the bit, as the audience and CK laughed, you saw a look on his face that for just a second let us know that it really wasn’t a laughing matter.
In another passage the newly single Louie heads off on a first date. They get off on the wrong foot. Awkward and impatient, they’re a portrait of frustration and diminished expectations. An irritated tension develops, and on the subway the woman hisses at the too-eager CK, “please stop smiling the exact same way every time I look at you.” It was hard not to sympathize with her, or with Louie, and the stillborn encounter ended with the woman bolting from the date, giving him the Up-Yours gesture, and then escaping into a helicopter.
There’s actually a kind of arty feel to the show, and it’s happy to indulge in a few absurdist flourishes, but there’s also a persistent poignancy to the proceedings, and if CK is a clown, well, he’s a sad, smart clown.
In one episode, feeling forlorn about his romantic prospects, CK finds himself gorging on ice cream and flipping through a box of old keepsakes. It’s funny the things that we carry with us over the years. It could be an insult, a compliment, or a love never realized, but over time we weight it with a significance it likely doesn’t deserve, and so Louie finds an old crush, and seized with the passion he felt as a boy, arranges (through stalking-enabling Facebook!) to meet her.
This entire passage takes place with a minimum of dialogue, recalling silent films, and when Louie actually meets her, the encounter is clumsy and prosaic. Heavy now, with a hard-bitten edge, she doesn’t even remember Louie, and although they have no desire for one another, they do share a mutual thirst for desire, to return to a time when optimism was a cheerful default setting, and not a conscious decision to think positively in spite of everything. It was funny, the way it was done, but it was also painful, and this is the trick that the show manages to pull off again and again.
For all its scatology and blunt, masculine comedy, the show is intelligent. At one point Louie is playing poker with his buddies, many of them comics. The banter is dirty, relaxed, and hilarious, and the game looks like a hell of a lot of fun. One guy, a sort of yappy, Good Fella’ caricature, asks the one gay man at the table about anal sex. Everybody pitches in, asking questions about gay clubs and gay sex, and the guy, who defies all the typical gay stereotypes we’re accustomed to seeing in mainstream sitcoms, answers patiently and seriously.
It was intelligent discourse, and it wasn’t funny because of the content of what was being discussed, but the wit and responsiveness of the participants. As the conversation evolves, he points out that he talks more about gay sex with his straight friends than his gay ones. It’s clear that he’s making a good point, and CK, interested and sincere, wants to know if his use of the word “faggot” on stage is problematic.
It’s a good question, and it’s answered with honestly, tact and grace. Unexpectedly, the scene, which began as homophobic comedic banter, became an educational and touching lesson in the etymology of the expression “flaming faggot.”
“Louie” rarely overplays things. The heavy stuff is always offset by the star’s comedic genius, but the show maintains a realism that you simply can’t shake. You don’t laugh at the characters in the show, you laugh with them, and maybe, amidst all the anxieties and dissonances that anybody who is paying attention must labor through each day, those connections are all that Louis CK hopes for.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.