I was genuinely confused by this show for a couple of weeks. I think I may have figured it out, and it might be one of the bravest comedy choices to make it to TV in a long time.
Louie, which made its premiere on FX a few weeks ago, is the brainchild of Louis C.K., long-time television writer for Saturday Night Live, Letterman, Conan, and Chris Rock, as well as a respected stand-up comedian. The show consists of moments ostensibly taken from Louis’ actual life which are preceded by short bits of his stand-up routine, usually providing some frame for the narrative. These moments are calculatedly uncomfortable and usually revolve around the failings of Louis’ life: divorce, relationships, his body, and his rotten, rotten soul.
Louie says and does things that nobody could ever be proud of and almost everybody can relate to, if not in reality than at least in thought. There is not a racist, sexist, or misanthropic depth that goes unplumbed. And while the exploration doesn’t flinch, it’s certainly not a celebration of the depths. In fact, there isn’t much about Louie that feels celebratory. It’s a show rooted in some really deep shame.
What I do not understand about the show are reviews like this. As much as I love Ken Tucker’s work and generally trust his opinion, I have to respectfully disagree with this one-line quote. Louie is a much more melancholic and pathos-drenched piece that it is a laugh-out-loud comedy. Maybe it’s more a commentary on my own life than is prudent, but suffice it to say that these moments have such a ring of truth at the core of them that it gets in the way of the laughs.
Which isn’t to say that I haven’t laughed. Once or twice an episode, a truly bizarre and usually rather outrageous string of jokes has me in stitches. That’s a pretty low laugh-per-minute count, which usually spells disaster for a modern television series. As much as I hope this show finds an audience, the cynic in me thinks that it’s probably a rough sell to most viewers.
Eventually I began, sometime after watching the third episode, to wonder if the raw emotion that makes up the meat of Louie isn’t somehow the elaborate set up for the actual laughs. All of the pain could be the way that the viewer is invited to feel along with Louie’s life, thus providing either complicity with or a plausible excuse for the truly awful, hilarious things that he sometimes says. If so, it’s a pretty remarkable length to go to recruit a viewer. One can imagine it backfiring in situations where the offense being taken turns into resentment for feeling a part of something this transgressive.
It’s also quite a length to go to sell a joke. That combination of humor without borders and what feels like honest soul baring makes for a show that inspires winces, some laughs, and is really compelling as a glimpse into the inner life of a professional performer. So, if you have ever taken offense to any joke in your life, skip Louie. Otherwise, it’s worth your time to come suffer and occasionally laugh. Somewhere in the catharsis is a really interesting show that has me hooked.