By Daniel Pasenelli
In one episode of comedian Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie, he is filming a sitcom called “Oh, Louie” in front of a studio audience, an obvious nod to C.K.’s time on the HBO program Lucky Louis. He expresses discomfort at the unrealistic portrayal of marriage, saying “I thought we were gonna do a show about marriage, like a really honest, real show.” He is adamant that “we can’t have a show where everybody just says whatever because it’s cute.” That is the essence of Louie. Louie is C.K.’s response to the failure of Lucky Louis. Louie is his “really honest, real show,” a show that doesn’t sugar-coat important subjects.
It may be too early to deem Louis C.K. one of the all-time greats, but he’s getting there. Unafraid to tell it like it is, C.K. calls ‘em like he sees ‘em while getting loud and sweaty and angry. His comedic style is a blend of socio-political rants and criticism of American culture and behavior, like his influences George Carlin and Bill Hicks. But there’s another key ingredient to this formula: his willingness to criticize even himself for succumbing to the pitfalls of American society. For example, in his stand-up special Chewed Up, while musing on the unfairness of white privilege, he says, “[With a time machine], I could go to any time… In the past. I don’t wanna go to the future and find out what happens to white people, because we’re gonna pay hard for this shit.”¹ Perhaps this is why he has seen so much success recently. He’s fully aware of the mechanisms of society and his own place within it.
In 2009, due to the success of his stand-up career, C.K. was given an unprecedented offer: to produce, direct, write, edit, and star in his own FX comedy series. He has complete creative control over the content of each episode. He uses the show, Louie, to take the reflexivity of his stand-up material even further.
The show strays from traditional sitcom structure, and is instead presented as a series of vignettes. This gives C.K. the freedom to write any scene or scenario he wants. One would expect a comedian-vehicle sitcom to be populated by goofy, lighthearted antics, but that’s not his style. Louie does something I’ve never witnessed another sitcom do. Much of the time it completely abandons the notion of going for laughs. Like C.K.’s live material, social consciousness and self-awareness are the primary goals. The show, in my opinion, is hilarious, but in many instances Louie isn’t trying to be funny. Let me explain:
In the episode, “Poker/Divorce,” Louie (C.K.’s fictionalized version of himself) and his fellow comedy buds play poker and share idle conversation, until the guys start prodding Rick, a gay man, about his lifestyle. Louie, who uses the word “faggot” in his stand-up routine, asks Rick whether he thinks Louie should cut it out of his act. Rick says, “I think you should use whatever word you want. […] I can see it’s funny, and I don’t care. But are you interested to know what it might mean to gay men?” Rick explains the origin of the term and why it’s offensive.
In writing a scene like this, C.K. isn’t trying to be funny; he’s trying to make a point. As Rick points out, jokes have real-world implications; they have actual power to affect people. C.K. has received criticism over the use of words like “faggot” in his stand-up material. In an interview on Reddit.com, C.K. states, “I did those bits as a kind of analysis of the words and what feelings they bring and how they’re used. […] I think that the discussion of the word faggot that I did in the poker scene was a bit of an evolution.”² Rather than try to justify his use of the word or defend himself, C.K. uses the episode as a tool to further reflect on the impact that he and his words have on other people. He’s aware of that.
And that may be C.K.’s greatest strength: his awareness. He’s aware of society, of the culture that surrounds him, and most importantly, of his own impact on that society.
The second part of “Oh, Louie/Tickets” tackles a controversy that occurred between C.K. and fellow comedian Dane Cook. In 2007, Cook was accused by Radar magazine of plagiarizing other comedians’ material, including bits from C.K.³ In the episode, the two comics attempt to reconcile their grievances when Louie must ask Cook for a favor.
Cook says, “You never said [I stole your material], but you let other people say it… You let your name be used to hurt me.” Louie defends his actions, but takes part of the blame for letting the controversy escalate. In reality, the situation damaged Cook’s career, so was it the right decision for C.K not to intervene in the controversy? The scene paints a picture of ambiguous morals. Neither man is in the right nor the wrong; they’re both at fault. C.K. is not using the scripted nature of his show to make himself look like the victim. Like the Poker episode, C.K. wants to come to terms with the effect that his jokes, and his extra-comedic actions, have on the world around him.
But what happens when his words aren’t powerful enough? Perhaps the most jarring episode of the series, “Eddie,” concerns an old stand-up buddy of Louie’s confessing he wants to kill himself. “Look me in the eye,” he tells Louie, “and tell me I have one good reason to live.” Louie says he’s not going to play that game, that Eddie is selfish for wasting something given to him. Eddie deconstructs Louie’s false heroism by accusing him of trying to give the big speech and “feel better about [himself].” His powerlessness, his inability to save his friend, once again conjures a moral gray area around Louie. He wants to stop Eddie because it’s the right thing to do, but he realizes that just saying “don’t kill yourself” isn’t good enough.
It’s heartbreaking watching Louie struggle to rebut Eddie’s claims that he has nothing to live for. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, C.K. recounts writing the episode about friends who don’t take care of themselves.4 He worries about them incessantly, but he says that “there’s something narcissistic in my fear.” It’s selfish and condescending for him to think they’re oblivious to the effects of their own choices. Thus, C.K. wrote the episode specifically for Eddie to tell Louie he’s “full of crap.” C.K. explains the message himself: “For me to be the guy who gives him the reason to live is so self-serving.”
The subject matter in Louie runs the gamut of tough topics. Divorce, Catholic guilt, masturbation, war, death; nothing is off-limits. But C.K. does not exploit the taboo for sensationalist effect. He’s making honest critical commentary on modern American behavior. The greatest comedians are those that make us reflect on ourselves, that don’t shy away from difficult topics. Louis C.K. may not be one of the greats quite yet, but through his stand-up material and TV series, he’s had an ultimately profound effect on his audience.
¹Louis C.K: Chewed Up. Film. Directed by Louis C.K. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 2008
³Getlen, Larry. “Take the Funny and Run.” Radar Magazine, February 14, 2007.
4″Louis C.K. Reflects On ‘Louie,’ Loss, Love And Life.” Fresh Air. NPR. Radio. December 13, 2011.