Dear Dear TV,
God, I loved these two episodes. Loved ‘em for the thrills, the gossipy content (Late Night wars!), but also, and mainly, because of their weird chains of causality. Tom Cruise doesn’t like surprises, so Louie goes on The Tonight Show. The maid refuses to Not Disturb, and it’s thanks to her that he gets up, checks his phone, and makes it to his meeting with the head of CBS. These are chains of causality we know: a crazy person explains to you that a remote control is counterintuitive, then murder suicides his whole family. This, in some deep, deep way, is the world we live in.
It’s not like surrealism is new to Season 3 of Louie, but sometimes (for me, anyway) Louie’s been hitting his uncanny baseballs out of the park. It’s a home run, sure, but I’d rather see the ball, catch it, take it home. If I had to group the show’s balls (So To Speak) into two camps, then Uncle X and Bizarro-Louie are In, and so is everything up to and including the window breaking in Dad, but the runaway scene is Out. Never-the-kid shitting in the tub is in—so’s throwing the rug out the window. Never causing traffic accidents and eating raw meat is out. Parker Posey’s in, Chloe Sevigny’s out. Ramón and all of Miami is in, along with Maria Bamford, Mark Maron, crabs, and even the crazy pharmacist grilling the lady on her bowel movements. When the surrealism gets too broad, it starts to get too dream-sequencey. If you’ve ever taught creative writing, then you know how legendary the And Then I Woke Up ending is, and by legendary I mean universal and lame.
Louis CK’s at his best when he’s showing us the inside of Louie’s head while showing us the outside world too in a way that shows the angle of distortion. The distinction I’m asking for is exactly the one he makes in Late Night: Part 2, when the show cuts between Louie watching Jackie Doll on the monitor with the music-glory vs. Jackie in “real life”.
Speaking of surrealism going outside the stadium, I watched all of Twin Peaks this last spring. When it ended I understood how everyone who watched Lost and complained about it endlessly truly felt. It’s a THERE IS NO GOD feeling. It stinks, because you’ve invested so much energy and thought in a show, trying to work out its premises, how it’s coding its mysteries, and then it turns out it was all just sort of slapped together with no real plan. Crazy lady with an eye patch! Ha, she’s strong! Um, cousin who looks exactly like Laura! Evil owls! A fake diary and a real diary! Dwarf! Giant! Billy Zane!
Not that I don’t like Twin Peaks—I have real affection for it in retrospect and I think parts of it are amazing mood pieces, but that doesn’t change the Disappointment With Dave. He’s SO the Wizard of Oz after Dorothy’s gone behind the curtain.
And that’s what Louis CK keeps offering us—here! He keeps saying. I’m drawing the curtain back! Here’s comedian world. Here’s single fatherhood. Here’s what late-show negotiations are like. And that’s what differentiates Louis CK from Lynch: where Lynch withholds information and turns plot points into shallow riddles, Louis just keeps giving you all the answers.
“Five years ago you probably peaked,” says the CBS guy, one of many Men Behind the Curtain in the Late Night series. “You do standup. You make 80,000 a year on your club dates. You don’t think you can do it. You think it’s over and you’re afraid to try. … I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it turn around.”
CBS knows EVERYTHING. But it won’t lie about the future. The CBS guy is part Wizard and part Sphinx, just as powerful, just as vast in its perspective, and just as honest about how the world works:
“If the test is good, I’ll put you on the air. And then, if you’re a hit, everyone will think I’m a genius, and I’ll have saved the network about 12 million. If America hates you, no one’s gonna blame me. … But you’ll take the heat on all that. You’re gonna crack your head on the ceiling and you’re gonna go down, probably for good. “
Do you have chills? Because that’s a novel right there. Who puts that idea—that crazy enormous modern-day Rise of Silas Lapham of an idea—into the mouth of a CBS executive? HOLY COW. This is Satanic temptation meets genie meets, I don’t know, Indecent Proposal.
And there’s more!
“Look Louie, we’re talking about the big game here, so forgive me if I use big terms. Here’s the reality. In ten years you’re gonna be teaching comedy at a community college to support your kids, and falling asleep to the Late Show with Jerry Seinfeld. You’re circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit. … But it’s in your power to change that.”
And this is where Part 1 ends—beautifully, because it could so easily have made the point of the episode Louie’s Yes or Louie’s No. Instead, it leaves the viewer with the agonizing question in the air. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Let’s just pause for a minute and think about how much less interesting this scene would have been if we were seeing it only through Louie’s anxious eyes. Say the CBS exec started getting bigger and bigger in the room while Louie got younger and younger. It would have been SO stupid, right, because that’s what’s happening anyway. The next episode is all about Louie being surrounded by Dads.
Louis CK downplays his smarts, which makes him better than Lynch in the sense that he’s (supposedly) keeping our expectations low. See his explanation of how he hired the actress who plays Janet for an example of this Oh, I Just Decided And Fuck It Everyone Will Be Fine With It sort of attitude. But let’s face it: dude’s a genius, and it would su-u-u-ck if he wasn’t putting serious thought into this stuff, which he obviously is. It’s no coincidence that the index cards in the background of wherever Jay Leno’s calling from say “Adam Smith,” “Products For A Better You,” and “Halloween Products.” There it all is: cutthroat competition, Louie’s self-improvement program, and Jay’s scare tactics.
But anyway, back to the chain of causality. Things in Late Show: Parts I and II are good and bad in pretty stupid ways in the moment (damn the maid! She woke me up!), but those outcomes are actually just steps toward some bigger, blustery whole. (Shot at the Late Show! Thank the maid!) Nothing in the world really connects to anything else the way it’s supposed to: that you were flown into LA for The Tonight Show in no way guarantees that you are going to perform on The Tonight Show. But there’s slant continuity, to use Jane’s coinage: you’ll always get either much more or much less than you want. Having planned 4.5 minutes for late-night television, you’re either going to get bumped or else you’ll just stay, pointing finger-guns at the audience, forever.
The trouble is that there’s no right vantage-point from which to look at the future. The end of Late Night: Part 1 is a true cliff-hanger, and the head of CBS is every inch the Satanic tempter as the music plays mournfully behind him.
What surrealism there is (how many different phones were ringing in Louie’s hotel room by the time he picked up?), it all feels extremely real. The baseball is within the stadium. Take these old men asking you to do truly odd things, then blaming you a little for not getting it right. They blow past your faults too, that’s how little you matter. “You don’t need to tell ‘em your name, son.” And yet, if you’re Louie, you have all these new dads who keep throwing you in the water, giving you black eyes.
And oh, what a precious kind of surrealism that is, because it’s damn close to how different generations see each other anyway. The Old Men in the business of show communicate telegraphically, so accustomed are they to being read correctly and to having their frame of reference be the only frame. “Carnegie Deli,” says the head of CBS after calling the lawyer in, and we waffle off-balance, like Louie, trying to figure out what to do with those words. Is Carnegie Deli the lawyer’s name? Is it a part of speech? There’s no context for what those two words mean, but they’re hovering in the air, awaiting a response. By the time we’ve recognized the phrase, it’s too late—the conversation has moved on. “Timing is everything,” says David Lynch, after Louie fails to perform an activity that Jackie Doll seems to think is Telling A Joke.
Do Not Turn This Off, says the index card in Jackie Doll’s booth, Just Turn The Intensity Down.
I do want to register a minor complaint re: Janet’s conversation with Louie, and it’s that their talk felt too rational. These people are divorced. They coparent, certainly, but there’s a painful past locked up there. Aaron Bady, with whom I was watching this episode, observed that when Louie tells Janet his news and she immediately says, “Cuz you’re cheap,” there should have been a moment of annoyance. I felt that when she says, “You’d have a job” and he says “I have a job,” his annoyance, his sip of water, the bad silence that follows–it all suggests something bigger than what comes next. Their body language is great. It’s uncomfortable, and bitter. That sounds like an old fight, and no such fight gets sipped away. If you’re Janet in that fight, if you spent years being mad because Louie’s job wasn’t reliable (and it sounds like it was an issue, even though she says she appreciated him supporting them), you push that harder, you don’t just zoom out into a reflection on his career arc and say, in a moment of generosity: this is what it’s all been building up to. “If you don’t do this, what was it all for. … What did I put my nine [years] in for?”
But that’s beside the point. The real object of that conversation (besides reestablishing Louie’s passivity and need to have every woman with whom he comes in contact explain him to himself) is to redefine the Right Thing To Do. We’ve talked a lot here at Dear TV about how central Louie’s fatherhood is to the show, so for Janet to redefine what being a good father means for Louie is a big deal. “You’ve been a fine father, but nobody needs a father that much,” she says. YOWCH. His job isn’t to be there for the kids, she says, reestablishing a definition of masculinity and fatherhood that’s as old as the Reagan and Nixon jokes. His job is to make it.
And that achieves something remarkably interesting: it means that Louie, in order to be a good father, has to submit to this old crop of show-business fathers at the very moment he’s losing his brother Chris Rock, who shaved and ditched the collar and donned the infamous late-night suit. I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes.
No today jokes yet. You’re not ready.