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.
This 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?