“…But you do it. And you do it because we love it more than anything else.”
[Note: I also published this on Medium! Feedback welcome.]
They say that all comedy comes from a dark place.
I’m a big fan of Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. It’s a hugely entertaining interview show where Maron monologues, is incredibly self-referential (and self-critical), and interviews people from all walks of life. Usually he interviews comics. Sometimes it’s big star comics like Chris Rock or Michael Keaton. Other times it’s musicians. More than anything, it’s a show about the craft - it’s about the hard work, it’s about the sacrifice, and it’s about being put on the planet to do one thing - the thing that you’re good at, either because you’re good at it or you feel compelled to do it or both.
And it’s about the darkness that comes from your craft.
So it’s with a lot of excitement that I’m writing this review of “Louie” the show. Louis C.K., the titular character of his self-produced and self-written show, is not a comic that I’m familiar with. He’s been positively received by people from all walks of life. He’s also got a lot of positive press recently for eschewing the evil Ticketmaster for his shows’ ticket distribution.
They say that like attracts like, and that the ones you admire tend to like the same things you do. So that’s why, after all the accolades from my comedy heroes Maron and Conan O’Brien, I decided to give “Louie” a spin. The final straw was when I listened to a Slate review of Maron’s new show where the consensus was “‘Maron’ is fine, but ‘Louie’ and ‘Curb’ did it better.” The few clips I saw of the show, coupled with C.K.’s reputation as a blue collar worker in the comedy community, compelled me to start watching.
I’m glad I did. This is a stellar series.
A friend warned me that “Louie” would be a series of moments, some taking longer to build up than others. It would be sketch comedy, but in a show format. I trust his taste - he did introduce me to the excellent “Arrested Development,” after all. So I had my reservations about “Louie” going in.
After watching a full season of the show, I’d have to respectfully disagree with his sentiment. Because each episode is so lean - clocking in at less than 30 minutes - there is no repercussion associated with hour long shows. Build-ups are usually paid off, and each episode has a clear theme. Moreover, the monologues shot in the comedy clubs, interspersed between scenes in each episode, really give an idea as to C.K.’s formidable standup skills. More importantly, they provide the necessary tie-in between his life and his craft.
Many subjects are covered here. Fatherhood, dating, Catholic guilt, manhood, family, homosexuality, the meaning of life - C.K. alternates between heart-felt topics and dirty, raunchy comedy. And he does it in a hardworking, earnest fashion that demonstrates his dedication to his craft.
Although the plot of the show is loosely autobiographical, it often borders on the absurd. I don’t know how, but C.K. pulls off the right balance of the realistic and the whimsical. And by golly, it’s really dark when it works.
I’m inclined to believe that comedy is what happens when you can’t help but laugh at the absurdities of life. “Louie” is not just for the comedy intelligentsia, but it’s not stupid either. It’s not high brow comedy, but you have to work a little to “get” it.
Since we are describing the nature of his comedy, I do feel compelled to comment on some of the borderline offensive jokes that C.K. performs in the standup segments. I am fine with it because I don’t feel that it’s coming from a place of malice. The politically incorrect material doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
Even in an episode where C.K. “attacks” a heckler who can’t stop talking during his show, you understand why the attack is happening. C.K. goes to great depths to explain why he is doing it in a post-show scene. Some may view the construction of this episode as disingenuous, but I think it sheds a bit of light on what it means to be an insecure comic.
More than anything, the show’s tightly-constructed-yet-willing-to-go-places narrative shows the level of excruciating effort that goes into making each episode. Louis C.K. has said that the reason for his success was that he worked harder than just about anybody else and that he paid his dues. I can believe it.
Let’s talk about two episodes that stood out for me.
The Catholic episode. As someone raised Catholic, I understand a bit about C.K.’s childhood and where he’s coming from. There are a few scenes where the fear of God is used as a force to keep the children in line. The ol’ “scare-em-so-they-respect-authority” tactic.
The lesson that is taught to C.K. and his classmates is outrageous. My emotional reaction transitioned from laughter to disgust to “WTF” and back to hope. I was impressed that the scene, with its sinister buildup and soft landing, made me feel all these emotions. Heady stuff indeed.
The aftermath scene, where Louie’s mom gives him the Religion Talk, is great. It’s one of those poignant moments where as a parent, you just talk to your child straight-up, with no pretense, because you love them.
The “party” episode. The episode where C.K. is “forced” to go into the night and party. To break out of his shell and to go into a hyper-real, funny yet sad place all at the same time.
There are some great sequences shot in a night club where the show becomes a silent film, because C.K. chooses not to reveal the dialogue and you just read off the body language of the club goers. The show deliberately forgoes the dialogue to show the energy of the scene and how distant we, as a proxy for C.K.’s character, are from the action. There is a sense that he is lost; that things are murky and unclear.
At the end of the night, C.K. decides to visit a club for a quick standup session. He starts off tentative, but quickly gains steam and the inattentive crowd begins to laugh at his jokes. As he talks about the two things he’s good at - fatherhood and masturbation - you understand that this is a man who enjoys his craft because it’s something that compels him. He feels a need to stand in front of strangers and spills his beans - and he’d rather do that than try to get laid or pretend he’s somebody else. He does it because it’s all he’s good at. And that’s beautiful.
As an introvert, I can identify with the “I’ve got nowhere to go and I just want to stay home” mentality. It’s also an interesting character development episode because you realize how comfortable C.K. is in his own skin. At 42 years of age he accepts who he is.
Not to mention - the hyper-manic babysitter in the episode was great. Not sure if that says something about babysiters in general, or just the difficulty of finding quality babysitters in NYC at 2 in the morning.
The effect of this show is that it’s making me more eager to see Louis C.K. live someday. And that’s the power of social media - allowing someone like me, who knew nothing of this man, to become a fan.
Here’s to the craft of comedy, to hard work and doing something that affects people around the world.
Here’s to the joy and laughter. Here’s to the darkness.