Jokes of Innocence and Jokes of Experience, or Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

Dear Lili, Jane, and Phil,

“I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years. I know every joke,” Louis C.K. proclaims at the start of Episode 2 of the third season of Louie. “Even if I haven’t heard it, you start telling me a joke, I know how it’s going to work.” If you’ve ever spent any time with professional comedians, you’ll have noted how infrequently they laugh or smile: prolonged exposure to the mechanics and the business of joke-telling, and the experience of hundreds if not thousands of easy, lazy, or overfamiliar jokes have taken their toll. This joyless, jaded, seen-it-all affect is something that Louie has captured perfectly from its very first episode: not just Louie, but pretty much all his comedian friends (all of them, naturally, played by real-life comedians) display it.

ImageThis episode gives us an idea of what it takes to make Louie laugh. In “Telling Jokes/Set-Up” — a title that both follows the utilitarian naming formula previous episodes of Louie have established and performs a telling (ahem) play on words — we first see Louie eating dinner with his daughters, telling knock-knock jokes. The jokes start out relatively simple (“Who’s there?” “Moo.” “Moo who?” “I didn’t know you were crying, cow”) and quickly, as often with small kids, get very convoluted and silly (“The painter who painted both of you as mermaids, but instead of being underwater, it’s pee pee”). The pleasure of the scene is less in the girls’ performances than in Louis’ utterly convincing delight in their innocent amateur attempts at something he does for a living. (In case we didn’t get it, the stand-up segment immediately following this scene underlines the point.)

In the second, much longer story, which stretches across three segments, we follow Louie as he is set up by his comedian friend Allan Havey with a woman named Laurie (played by the Oscar-winning Melissa Leo). At first Louie and Laurie display little interest in one another, but they bond over their mutual distaste for their married friends. (“Married people. They just love spreading their shit on everyone.”) The two go off to a bar together, get drunk, and end up in the front of Laurie’s truck negotiating an awkward sexual encounter. (Is there any other kind, in Louie-world?) Laurie gladly fellates Louie, but when she requests reciprocation, he refuses, claiming that the act is too intimate for him. (There may be some truth to this assertion, but I think we’re supposed to think, as Laurie does, that he’s just lazy.) Finally, through a combination of humiliation and physical violence (she punches him in the face, knocking his head into the passenger-side window and cracking the glass), Laurie persuades forces Louie to go down on her. She also wins $1,000, having bet him a few minutes ago that he would end the night by “licking her pussy and asshole.” He doesn’t have the money on him, but they both agree that he can pay her next time they see each other; it’s obvious to both of them that they’re going to be going out again. This final twist has the feeling of a punchline to a long, sick shaggy-dog story like “The Aristocrats”: what impresses isn’t where we finally arrive but the unlikely, explicit, disturbing elements touched on along the way.

Plenty of previous episodes have contrasted scenes of Louie and his children — scenes which, as Lili points out, function as a guarantee of his essential decency — with something darker and more sordid. (Very occasionally, the two worlds overlap, as in last season’s “Halloween/Ellie.”) Here, though, the two worlds are linked by something more than ironic juxtaposition. They offer two opposed ways of crafting a surprising comic situation, one that can arouse the attention of even the ultra-jaded Louie. The juvenile surprise offered by the total innocence of Jane’s joke — which surprises via its combination of absurdity and prosaic, logical development — and the grown-up depravity of the Louie/Laurie story have something in common: it’s a story to jolt awake the sensibilities of professional comics deadened by decades of predictable set-ups and punchlines. (Note, again, that the Leo segment is titled “Set-Up.”)

This brings us back to the extended comparisons between Louie and Girls that both Lili and Jane have been pursuing: for me, it’s less that Hannah Horvath is (secretly) horrible and Louie is (secretly) good than that Hannah is too young to realize that her mistakes will count against her, while Louie is too old to believe that even his good deeds will amount to enough to redeem him. The difference between them lies not in their ethical behavior — both have their good and bad moments — or their degrees of privilege — which are comparably high (Hannah might get some points by virtue of being female, but Louie seems to come from a working-class background; I’d call it a stalemate). It’s in their degrees of experience and knowledge, including self-knowledge. One of the reasons Louie has to be so extreme — and, at the same time, so subtle — is that it’s meant to register on the cognitive radar screens of people who have burned themselves out on the usual forms of humor, who don’t just roll their eyes at a corny, overused joke (a “clam,” in comedy writer parlance) but almost physically can’t experience it anymore. The apparently off-handed, casual nature of the show, with no two episodes following exactly the same formal structure, is in fact very highly calculated to stimulate the brains of people who are inured to certain kinds of formal structure. (If you want to see what real off-handed casualness looks like, leave the TV on after Louie and watch Russell Brand’s new, bizarrely under-produced BrandX.)

Hannah may seem self-conscious — and she is — but she’s still innocent enough to expect that her life will take the form of a story, whereas Louie seems to be as disgusted with narrative continuity as he is with traditional humor. Just as Louie (the character) knows that even his moments of grace or good luck are flashes in the pan — after all, life is “shitty 90% of the time,” as he and Laurie agree — so Louie the show knows that surprise is the only formal structure it can trust. And this means that, paradoxically. Louie is a harder character for the audience to know than Hannah, precisely because he knows himself better than she does, and can steer any given situation away from what Louie would usually do. (Another, shorter way to put all this, of course, would just be to say he’s going through a mid-life crisis.)

I think it’s about time to bring this post to a close, but, before I sign off, one final question:

Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?

Evan

8 responses to “Jokes of Innocence and Jokes of Experience, or Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

  1. Matthew McGrath

    I love — love — watching people tip-toe around the rape in this episode. “All but forces” went one reviewer at the AVClub, and here you say “Persuades [persuades!] through physical violence…”

    I’m not arguing if you can/can’t mine rape for comedy. I’m also not arguing from a “oh no misandry” or “males need an empowerment movement” bullshit angle.

    However, its very disturbing that a rape, fictional or otherwise, can be categorized as “persuasion”.

    • Thanks for commenting, Matthew. After thinking about it for a little while, I agree with you that “persuades” is the wrong word; I was intending to use it with some irony, but having read around a bit more in the debate about the episode, I agree with you that it’s better to be clear about exactly what happens. I’ve changed it to “Laurie forces Louie to go down on her.”

      I’m curious, though: do you think Louis C.K. is intending to make some kind of larger point about rape, or gender double standards, with this scene? My reading is still that the scene is played primarily for shock value rather than social commentary (whether pro-feminist or anti-misandrist or whatever). I’ll be interested to see whether the rape has any repercussions in future episodes (Louie traumatized from the experience, Louie and Laurie entering into a sadomasochistic relationship, etc.); though that would definitely be interesting, I suspect it won’t. Like most things that happen on the show, it feels like a self-contained anecdote, with the implied moral, “People are crazy, and you can never tell what they’re going to do.”

      • Matthew McGrath

        First, I apologize for being so presumptuous in my original comment.

        Given the dialog leading up to this particular moment, I do agree that there is a larger point being made about gender double standards.

        With that in mind, its clear that the scene was meant to run the entire gamut, from implicit assault (I don’t want to, but I’m socially pressured to do so) to explicit assault (I don’t want to, but this person is going to hurt/kill me if I don’t).

        I think, then, that there is also a larger point about rape here. When you hear the tired arguments of “Well, why didn’t she [run, fight back, yell, not get drunk, stay out of that area]“, I think (hopefully) that most people will yell down those arguments as complete bullshit.

        However, those same people who think “Why didn’t she…” is nonsense will say “Well, if there wasn’t any physical intimidation, then what’s the big deal? Of course she could have said no…”

        And the argument, I assume, is “Why aren’t you just as disgusted with someone sucking dick when they didn’t want to, regardless of the reason why they feel they are forced to?”

        Does that make sense?

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  3. It does make sense; if I understand you correctly, you’re saying we’re supposed to see sexual pressure as a continuum, with rape at one extreme and the automatic expectation of reciprocity at the other. But I think the episode is trying to do more than catch us out on sexual hypocrisy. Let me try to think this through…

    To stick with my idea about the way “Louie” consistently defies narrative expectations, I almost feel as if the episode is a double set-up: first, we’re encouraged to like Laurie, and to side with her against Louie in their argument about male hypocrisy and sexual reciprocity (as critics like Willa Paskin and Alyssa Rosenberg have). There have been lots of other episodes where smart, principled women berate Louie for some character flaw or other (the break-up scene in the last episode, for instance), and this scene seems to fit neatly into that category. Louie, in addition to all of his other failings, is also a selfish closet sexist.

    But then the surprise is, once we’ve accepted the notion of an unfair sexual double standard (and aligned ourselves with Laurie against Louie), we’re challenged by yet another sexual double standard: if a man acted toward a woman the way Laurie acts toward Louie, intimidating her into oral sex, we would have no hesitation in declaring it date rape. So why do so many viewers — including me, as you’ve quite rightly pointed out — resist making the same call when the gender roles are reversed?

    One reading of the scene, then, is that if Laurie’s behavior toward Louie *is* rape, then she’s invalidated her own implicit double-standard argument by allowing herself to engage in behavior that, if the genders were switched, she would think was immoral. (This is assuming that Laurie doesn’t think of her own act as rape, which is probably the case.) The hypocrisy is not Louie’s — for receiving oral sex but refusing to reciprocate — but Laurie’s, for calling him out on immoral behavior while allowing herself to suspend the rules of sexual morality simply because she’s a woman.

    The trouble with this, though, is that Laurie herself doesn’t make a feminist argument: she never accuses Louie’s actions of representing masculine privilege or entitlement. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those guys who doesn’t eat pussy”; in fact the closest she comes to making any kind of political argument at all is an obliquely anti-progressive one: “Where are the gentlemen? What is wrong with this country … Obama.” She’s just accusing him of being selfish, and of not playing by the rules; her sense of the ethics of the situation is closer to that governing a market transaction, a simple reciprocal exchange — “I did you, you’re not doing me? That’s not fair” — than it is of the more complex sexual politics that critics like Paskin are bringing to bear on the episode. (“This isn’t about values; I just sucked your dick, you’re going to eat my pussy.”) She then proceeds to turn the exchange into an actual financial transaction by making the bet; and she goes on to win that bet by any means necessary.

    Is it possible, then, that the real target of the critique advanced by “Set-Up” is the introduction of market relations into sexual ones, and that we’re ultimately supposed to end up on Louie’s side after all? That is, once we’ve accepted that we *have* to do something as the result of a transaction, we’ve already acceded to a logic that, in its extreme form, legitimates violence? This would be the anarchist, as opposed to the liberal feminist, interpretation of the scene, I guess.

    All that said, I’m still not convinced that C.K. is doing anything more than fucking with our expectations…

  4. Matthew McGrath

    And yet we don’t know her sense of morality; her character could indeed find physical intimidation to be less immoral than not reciprocating oral sex. Neither character seemed to be phased by her physical and mental intimidation, and I don’t think the show wants you to believe that Louie was even remotely traumatized by the experience.

    That said, you are right about the complete fuck of expectations: you go from “Yeah!” to “Oh, no, did she just call him gay?”

    I also have the tendency to over-analyze everything, so this may have just been a shock-you-into-laughter scene that had no deeper implications for Louis C.K. I don’t think the writers of Saved By The Bell intended for Screech’s character to have Asperger Syndrome, but sure enough…

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  6. Very much enjoying your discussion. I will have to check out “Girls.”

    I was going to write that Laurie’s notion of “reciprocation” is in fact bogus as she freely offered oral sex as a gift. But then I began thinking about Louie’s role. Should he have accepted that gift from someone to whom he himself wouldn’t be comfortable returning the favor?

    As always, it’s possible to overanalyze. A lot of men will accept a BJ freely offered without thinking through where it might lead. Louie has a weak, promiscuous side we’ve seen before.

    On the other hand, I got the sense Louie was being totally honest; for him (and most men, I suspect), getting oral is much less intimate than giving it. Given the difference between external and internal, I wouldn’t ascribe Louie’s unwillingness to reciprocate to either sexism or selfishness.

    As far as notions of rape, my take on the scene is he notices she’s crazy (after she smacks his head into the window) but at no time does he actually fear for his safety. The closest analogue I’d accept is the so-called “coercion rape,” by which analysis Louie decides it’s easier to just go down on her than to continue to have to work to extricate himself from this uncomfortable situation. From earlier episodes, we know he’s a physical coward but, more importantly, an emotional one as well.

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