Aaron Yap celebrates the reckless abandon of Louis C.K.’s Louie, a surreal comedy-drama that consistently transcends the boundaries of both genre and reality.
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of genres operating beyond their foundations. How far can you stretch the boundaries of a genre before it becomes something else? Is a comedy a comedy if it doesn’t make you laugh?
With something like horror, the distinction comes easy for me: I don’t measure the effectiveness of a horror work by the number of times it scares me. The horror genre has the ability to conjure up a spectrum of tonalities that naturally lends itself to be reshaped and revised. It can be poetic, it can be gory, it can be dreamy – sometimes all at once.
It’s harder to imagine the same level of tonal leeway for comedy. Admittedly, I may be the worst audience for comedy. It’s a genre I rarely rush to and have the patience for. If a show or movie doesn’t make me laugh out loud, I’ll be quick to knock it down. Hence I have a greater appreciation for that rare comedy that can actually floor me with laughter.
Over the years, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Party Down and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have done so – probably because I’m partial to cringe-humour – and more recently, Broad City and Silicon Valley. Which brings me to FX’s Louie, a “sitcom” that continues to defy expectations with clockwork regularity.
Fashioned as the fictional alter-ego of its stand-up comic star Louis C.K., the show has much in common with the middle-aged white-dude misanthropic worldviews of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Maron. But where the latter two can be exhausting and unchecked in their cynicism, there’s a distinct strain of humanism in Louie’s humour that sets him apart. I wouldn’t go so far to call it uplifting, but rather than leave the viewer floundering helplessly in the wreckage of everyday existence, he’s adroit at finding nuances in its peculiarities and contradictions.
Now in its fifth season, Louie remains as fresh and unpredictable as ever. Though thrillingly unburdened by the demands of continuity, it hasn’t completely abandoned serialised elements. A roster of recurring faces – including his two daughters, Jane (Ursula Parker) and Lilly (Hadley Delaney), and on-and-off fuck-buddy/best friend Pamela (Pamela Adlon) – ensure we’re watching the same show since episode one (to boot, considerable swathes of season four followed concentrated arcs).
But one of its greatest strengths lies in the unfettered creativity afforded by such narrative liberation. By now, Louis C.K. – a true multi-hyphenate who juggles acting, editing, writing and directing – can do whatever he hell he wants in a manner that few can get away with on TV. Actors can reappear as different characters; arcs can be discarded, never to be seen again.
Less reliant now on those racy stand-up comedy portions that break up its stories, the show is comfortable with a kind of meandering, liquid reality. This allows Louie to suddenly wind up in Afghanistan or China, revisit to his childhood, or dabble in David Lynch-like surrealism – even starring Lynch himself.
Altogether more consistently funny than the last, season five of Louie still delights in upending the conventions of a “comedy”. Those avant-garde proclivities are never more apparent that in episode five, the wonderfully deranged “Untitled”. It’s surely a contender for one of the best episodes of Louie ever.
It begins normally enough, with scenes that wouldn’t be out of place on any other episode. His usual stand-up gig at the Comedy Cellar. A visit to the doctor (Charles Grodin) to examine Jane’s rash. Picking up Lilly from a sleepover. But each of these moments is punctuated by something a little bit “off”.
After the gig, Louie is approached by fellow comic Jon Glaser, who’s enormously appreciative of Louie’s terrible bee-keeping joke but fumbles the details when he re-tells it to another guy. At the doc’s, Jane launches into a cosmic, existential monologue about her weird eyes, electrons and vanishing. Later Lilly’s single-mom babysitter breaks down when Louie refuses to help her move a fish tank. It’s a typically awkward and cringey Louie encounter, capped with a gut-busting punchline where, in a sheepish attempt to console her, he drapes a blanket over her head and quietly sneaks away.
It’s only partway through the episode that things get truly weird and twisted. Louie is plagued by a sustained series of nightmares, many of them featuring a creepy muscle-bound fellow with black-dot eyes. The first appearance of this being/creature/whatever-the-heck-it-is might be the most terrifying shit I’ve seen all year. The segment continues with plenty of darkly amusing scenes, including Louie discovering he has no penis but a blobby corkscrew mass, watching Jon Glaser steal his bee routine, going up on stage but unable to speak into the mic properly, and humping a man with a rabbit head. Dream analysts should have a field day.
Not that Louie has never dealt with dreams before – the show’s always been marked by a slippery, oneiric subjectivity. But this is the first time it’s plunged into the subconscious with such balls-out abandon as to bleed into the realm of pure hallucinatory horror. For ten minutes or so, you watch, somewhat stunned, convincing yourself, yes this is still Louie. Of course, the whole episode ends, appropriately, with an insane (and insanely catchy) song about dead babies and diarrhea.
Whether Louie is funny or dramatic, or a mix of both, need not really matter anymore. As long as C.K. can churn out fearless, go-for-broke, gob-smacking television like “Untitled”, I’m more than happy to tag along whatever tangent he’s heading down. Louie feels like a genre unto itself, and that’s kind of amazing.
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