Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Louie — "Pilot" & "Poker/Divorce"

Recently, I considered starting a series in which I highlight various artists that I love, to primarily focus outside of film (and likely television) since I spend so much time on that subject. I might revisit this idea in the future, but all I could come up with were musicians -- in which case I could simply review their albums -- and stand-up comics.

First on the list was Louis C.K., quite possibly the funniest man on the planet, or at least the English-speaking world. C.K.'s brand of humor deals largely with the same minutiae that fuels hundreds of comics: marriage (and divorce), parenthood, getting older and various quirky observations that by now have been dissected by dozens of hacks. But C.K. is different. He tackles something as banal as the difference between men and women in such a way that you feel as if you've never heard it before, combining the lovable sternness of Bill Cosby with the darker elements of the hyper-blue alt.comedy scene without giving into either Cosby's softness on T.V. or the "shocks for shock's sake" that defines the material of so many "edgy" comics.

Thus, when one compares Louie, C.K.'s new show on F/X, to its clearest antecedent, Seinfeld, one must immediately start throwing out points of contention. The format is similar: episodes broken up by stand-up routines at least tangentially related to the plot as the protagonist deals with issues far, far removed from social import. Yet C.K. brings his real underground ties to the fore where Jerry, funny as he was, always looked as if he was slumming it somewhat to avoid season upon season of Rich People Problems. Seinfeld got to perform in front of a brightly lit red brick wall in an established comedy club; Louis' brick walls are dull, poorly lit, and in a cellar (literally). Replacing the three-camera setup of Seinfeld -- something C.K. already tried with the short-lived Lucky Louie, the most daring sitcom in the traditional format since Trey Parker and Matt Stone had to can That's My Bush! following September 11 -- with the modern one-camera style, Louie feels real, even when scenarios have clearly been written. That changes the ethos of the show: if you asked Jerry Seinfeld what his show was about, he'd reply, "Nothing." If you asked Louis the same question, he'd say, "Fuck off! Can't you see I'm eating?"

Louie, like Louis, is a 40-something coming off a divorce that gives him shared custody of his two young daughters. Faced with the prospect of fulfilling the responsibilities of his old life while seeking a new life with other people, Louie doesn't exactly jump back into the dating pool with relish. "I know too much about life to have any optimism," he says on-stage, flashing an incongruously innocent smile that sums up C.K.'s appeal. Removing the filter of the Norman Lear-esque sitcom that informed the similarly confrontational Lucky Louie, Louie presents divorced life with the severity of an Oscar-bait movie; his world is drab, quiet and moves at a glacial pace.

So intense is the feeling of lethargy and depression conjured up by the first few shots of the pilot that the moments of comedic license, such as a date ending with the woman fleeing by helicopter, get away with shattering the atmosphere by giving us a chance to breathe. C.K.'s brand of observational humor works because he grounds it in a blunt honesty that doesn't pander to anyone. Here is a show about a divorced, 42-year-old dad whose lead is...a divorced, 42-year-old dad. There's no attempt to win a younger demographic with a hipper character, just C.K. deadpanning through a life of constant doctor visits, never-satisfied children, and an awkwardness of dating that almost approaches teenage levels given how out of practice he is.

C.K. divides the pilot into two fairly innocuous events: Louie must help out on a field trip for his daughter's class, and then he tries his hand at dating now that he's single. In both cases, the situation goes horribly wrong, but not in the way you expect of a sitcom. Instead of building to madcap insanity, Louie taps the same vein of the original Office (Ricky Gervais is incidentally set to appear as a guest star in a future episode) by simply letting discomfort build to a high comic payoff without overselling it.

For instance, the date plays out as uncomfortably as anything David Brent ever did. C.K. displays terrific acting chops, giving Louie a series of nervous tics -- overdressing to impress, smiling the same put-on smile whenever his date looks at him -- that put the woman at unease from the start. Until the lady finally breaks for that chopper, the sequence plays out with devastating, small comedy as the poor man just makes the wrong decision at every turn, from miscalculating a cheek kiss to heading to a packed restaurant when the woman just wants some food. He can't even score points with his kids, electing in his uncertainty to tell this stranger about his 4-year-old's "infected vagina."

That type of humor allows C.K. to draw humor even when he's being earnest, such as the thudding finality of signing his divorce papers. He even uses the show to explore facets of his stand-up by actually putting them to practice; the opening 10 minutes of the second episode, concerning a poker game with C.K. and some of his comedian friends, broaches the subject of C.K.'s routine use of the word "faggot" in his act. (His 2008 special, "Chewed Up," even featured a lengthy spiel wherein the comedian defended the usage of the word as a synonym for "annoying" instead of as a slur.) But C.K. brilliantly stages which comedians he invited to this poker game, placing his alternately spelled avatar, a liberal like the real C.K., at one end of the discussion and Nick DiPaolo, a conservative, at the other with openly gay comic Rick Crom in the middle. The scene starts off with typically fratty discussion among the men with freely thrown homophobic language, DiPaolo even mentioning that "it's a free country" but expressing his disgust with imagining gay sex. Louie, however, is more inquisitive, and brings the moment down when he asks Rick if his own use of the word 'faggot' affects him. Rick then goes into an incredible monologue in which he does not condemn the word or Louie for using it -- though he does make a key distinction between C.K.'s usage and DiPaolo's because Nick "means it" -- opting instead to explain what the word means to gay men who've been attacked and even exploring the horrific roots of the word that link its current definition with its original one, "a bundle of sticks." Rick's off-the-cuff, non-preachy speech stuns the comics normally known for their shock antics, and even when DiPaolo throws in another casually homophobic remark to lighten the mood, some of what Crom said clearly stuck in their minds.

The first two episodes of Louie are as fresh as television comedy gets, and the show's ties to Seinfeld and The Office do not inform the ultimate spirit of the show. That belongs to Louis and Louis alone, and he's never had such a ripe opportunity to prove his incredible talent, able to use some swears but censored just enough to prove to lazy doubters that he's about more than pure raunch. His viciously unsentimental stand-up always had a picturesque quality to it, describing life in such direct terms that an audience could easily visualize his material, and Louie sometimes looks as if it were simply filmed inside C.K.'s head. It will be interesting to see where C.K. takes it, and how long he'll keep it on the air, but I for one can't wait for more people to expose themselves to "the finest comic mind of the last 25 years" (Chris Rock's words), even if some people cannot yet seem to figure out that the real C.K.'s name isn't spelled "Louie."

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