Louie vs. Louis CK: Something Is Wrong (Season 3, Episode 1)

Dear Dear TV,

We left Hannah Horvath eating cake out of tinfoil on a beach in the season finale of Girls just in time to catch Louis CK eating, then gobbling pizza off  a paper plate in the opening title sequence of Louie. Season 3: you’re here.

I’m glad we’re talking about these shows back to back because they share so much despite their obvious differences. Both characters are writers, both writers are characters, and both Louis CK and Lena Dunham are interested in exposing their fictional personae at their ugliest and most appetitive.

I want to flag two important differences, however. The first is structural: Louis CK tends to stitch two different and apparently unrelated stories together through bits of stand-up. It’s not quite right to call them A and B stories (although I’m going to anyway); they’re more like separate vignettes. In the pilot, for example, A is Louie’s field trip with his daughters. The field trip, which is set almost entirely on a school bus, goes wrong and culminates in Louie sending each child home in his or her own limousine. The B story is a disastrous date that begins with Louie knocking too frequently on his date’s door while her neighbor angrily flashes him. It ends with his date literally jumping onto a passing helicopter in order to get away.

The pilot opens with expository stand-up: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore. I know how to take care of a couple of kids.”

In the A story, Louie talks too much. Whether he takes the initiative or it’s thrust upon him is debatable, but the fact is that he gives the bus driver directions, reproaches him for being irresponsible when they get a flat tire, overrides the teacher when she decides they’re going to walk the kids through Harlem to a subway stop, and sends each kid home in a limousine. In the A story, Louie never stops talking. “Do you realize what you’re teaching them?” the teacher says as he greets the long line of limos.

He does. And we know he does thanks to the stand-up that follows this set piece: “I’m white, my kids are white, which means they can’t screw up too badly, because they get a million chances. My life is really evil. There are people starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti.”

This is Louis CK’s method: showing his character in action, then obliquely commenting on it, like a sort of Greek chorus to and on himself. The A story is a monstrous version of the stand-up: Louis CK drives an Infiniti and is white like his daughters, but “Louie” rebukes a black man, then hires two dozen limousines to individually escort his daughter’s classmates home rather than have them walk together through a poor black neighborhood to the subway.

The B story knocks the stuffing out of poor Louie. All the initiative he showed in A in his capacity as a parent vanishes when it comes to B, his romantic life. Here, in a theme that gets picked up again in the first episode of Season 3, he can’t communicate. Unspeakable misunderstandings pile up—her crazy neighbor, his desperate lie that he’s wearing a suit because it’s the anniversary of his father’s funeral—all of which contribute to his date’s incredulity when he claims it wasn’t him knocking on the bathroom door shouting that he has to take a dump. In the dead intervals, he smiles at her in a sickening kind of way, and admits, when she asks him to, that he can’t stop.

These, roughly speaking, are Louie’s three dimensions on the show: overreaching Louie, defined by spurts of arrogance and self-righteousness,  mute and self-loathing Louie, most often seen in scenes with women (the season premiere shines a withering spotlight on mute Louie, in case we missed him earlier), and charismatic Louie, usually in stand-up mode, whose habit of commenting on his own flaws has the effect of attenuating them.

We’ve talked a lot here about the extent to which people’s reactions to Girls  seemed to depend on their perception of the show’s self-awareness. It became clear by the end of the season that the show is extremely self-aware, and that self-awareness goes a long way towards mitigating the characters’ apparent monstrosity, their blind spots and their privilege. We can accept those things provisionally if we know they’re being judged by the universe’s God.

Seen from this point of view, Dunham takes bigger risks than Louis CK. She’s young enough that she can (and is) mistaken for her callow character, and she doesn’t have a stand-up version of herself to comment on the action from the sidelines. I was telling Aaron Bady about the sexual harassment encounter in  Girls (by which he was horrified), and he made the point, which hadn’t occurred to me, that unlike Hannah, who is frequently a terrible person on Girls, Louie, in Louie, is essentially good. Sure, there’s a sort of sad-sack pathos to the character, sure, he makes some mistakes, but he’s wracked with guilt over everything. He’s also by definition obsessed with being a good father which, in this day and age, is  the fast-track to sainthood. There’s never a trace of irony when it comes to Louie as dad: the show starts by announcing fatherhood as Louie’s defining character trait in terms I’m going to repeat here again, because it’s amazing how absolutely they drip with emotional appeal: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore.” Hannah Horvath admits that being a good friend to Marnie isn’t high on her list of priorities. Louie will never, ever, ever, be anything but a dedicated dad. Parenting will partially redeem him from the charges of human selfishness.

I would add, parenthetically, that Louis CK as stand-up also redeems the sad-sack Louie we see in the show. It’s easy to buy into Louie’s account of himself as pathetic, cringing, weak, passive, repulsive, and awkward. It’s astonishing, when you stop think about it, that he pulls this off while telling us about it onstage as a stand-up whose onstage presence is unfailingly assertive, self-assured, charismatic and appealing. We’ve asked whether Hannah Horvath is any good as a writer and talked about the pitfalls of showing artistic characters doing their art; Louie sidesteps this by making Louie a successful comedian whose personality onstage differs substantially from his personality off it. The one exception to this I can think of offhand is Episode 6 of Season 1, “Heckler/Cop Movie,” when Louie tells off an attractive heckler.

The other important structural difference between Louie and Girls are Louis CK’s experiments with sporadic continuity. He often has the same apartment, for example, but in some episodes he has a brother, in another two sisters. His mother, a lesbian in one storyline, is played by the same actress who played his date in another. Young Louie is played by a wide range of redheads. Even his daughters are sometimes played by different actresses. It’s a fascinating choice, and it produces a surreal quality that nevertheless feels anchored by the opening credits, which unfailingly show Louie eating pizza and descending into the underworld of the comedy club.  The comedy club is exempt from this constant shuffling of characters: Louie’s stand-up is consistent, his daughters are the only family members ever mentioned in it, and he never stops being exactly what he says he is: the white father of two white girls.

Which brings us to Season 3, which for the first time violates Louie-the-stand-up’s version of things. We see Louie’s ex-wife for the first time, and she gets a name and a race. Janet is black. That means Louie’s children are mixed race. That’s not a trivial change that contributes to the overall surrealism of the show. It’s a big deal, even if his ex-wife is white or Asian in the next episode. It’s the first time I can think of in which the show explicitly contradicts “stand-up Louie,” whose anchoring function as narrator and truth-teller is important. It means the terms he set in the pilot I’ve quoted above, terms to which he frequently returns—the problem of being a white father raising two white daughters in a way that won’t make them assholes, the problem of privilege, in fact—are suddenly inapplicable.

This matters because Louie’s fatherhood, its loneliness and its obstacles, constitutes the show’s backbone. In Season 2 there’s an episode in which Louie  takes his daughters to visit an elderly relative who turns out to be incredibly racist. That scene would scan very differently if his daughters are mixed race. This is less a matter of doing race badly than it is a matter of violating the rules of the show’s universe.  In general, Louis CK is pretty adept at taking on sensitive topics and doing them raunchy justice. Still, I don’t think the show, as it’s existed up to this point, can get away with this. (Nor, strictly speaking, did it try—that his ex-wife is black is a detail, not mentioned in the episode. There is, however, a longish bit of stand-up on replacing or adding on to a used-up dick by getting a transplant, preferably from a brown athlete.)

It’s possible that Louis CK as writer might be trying to create some distance between himself and Louie the stand-up, who has been drifting closer and closer to Louis CK since the show began.  What better way to break up with his narrator than by smashing his stupid car with a bulldozer? (Was it the Infiniti? I hope so, but I couldn’t tell.) Louis CK is big on this kind of spectacle. He’s said in interviews that his biggest expenses, when shooting the pilot, were the limousine scene and the helicopter scene. He talked about the difficulty of even finding that many limousines in New York, and bartering with the helicopter pilot for a rate he could actually afford. Transportation as spectacle—transportation as punchline, transportation as a means of annihilating sympathy—these all date back to the pilot, and it’s interesting to see that theme revived in Episode 1.

I haven’t said anything about the break-up scene and its follow-up scene in Louie’s apartment. Both were astoundingly good. April could have deciphered those cryptic parking signs in a second, that’s how good she is at reading conflicting messages that add up to No. It was so good that I, like Louie, find myself assenting, and with nothing to say.

Before and after midnight,



18 thoughts on “Louie vs. Louis CK: Something Is Wrong (Season 3, Episode 1)

  1. Such a generous and helpful reading on so many levels. To pick only one, the connection between who Louie’s children are and who he is — i.e., the fact that being the white father of two white children is radically different (in the terms through which the comedian-Louie narrates his moral universe) than being the white father of mixed race children — is really important, especially given that Louie-comedian both condemns himself for his whiteness (driving the infiniti instead of taking up the white man’s burden, essentially) and then redeems himself from that condemnation by self congratulating for being a good (white) father to his two (white) children. Or, to put it another way, he makes up for his failings as a white person of privilege (the fact that he does not extend his white privilege outward to those who do not share it), by being a good white dad to white kids, which is to say, sharing his white privilege with his white children. To put it another way, again: instead of attempting to act on his indefensible privilege, he acts within its bounds; this is, as some people have pointed out, the trap of Louie’s self-critique, the way it so often refolds into passive acceptance and continuation of the thing it also gets credit for criticizing. Cake and eat it, too, etc.

    What you nicely demonstrate is the kind of conceptual monkey-wrench that it throws into the gears of the show to have kids who are not so simply and problem-disavowingly white. The show doesn’t know what to do with it, necessarily; it seems important that, as you say, the show does it without commenting, but the fact that Louie can no longer position race as something “out there,” external to his family, makes his passive inaction a kind of complicity, perhaps? When the family unit is all white, race privilege might be something you can feel guilty about, but doing nothing won’t call into question the character’s saving grace, his good father-ness. Once his children are mixed race, that’s no longer possible; it can’t be positioned as “out there” anymore, off in Africa or wherever it is in myth-fantasy-land that Louie could save people from starving. And I actually think that impossibility of inaction nicely dovetails with the B story, the way Louie cannot not break up with his girlfriend by simply not saying anything. In a really unsettling move, inaction proves to be destructive? Just as leaving your car in the wrong place will cause it do be destroyed?

    1. “In a really unsettling move, inaction proves to be destructive?” This seems right–it’s a kind of destructiveness that simultaneously absolves him of guilt. It’s interesting to think about what would have happened with racist great-aunt Ellen if the girls had been mixed-race. “Whatever happens, I need you to roll with it,” Louie says to the girls before they go inside. Ellen says Louie can’t raise two young girls in the city because of all the n****** there. There’s no way for that scene to happen the way it did if the girls are mixed race. The stakes of inaction are much higher, and passivity becomes harder to forgive. (As a side-note, the stand-up that follows this scene is about Louis CK trying to read Huck Finn to his girls and not being able to because of Twain’s constant use of the word. So he opts for Tom Sawyer instead, because that deals less with race, so the word doesn’t crop up as much. I don’t know what to make of that.)

  2. It also makes rewatching the “Dentist/Tarese” and “Night Out” episodes a very different experience. Nothing actually contradicts itself between these episodes. It’s coherent. It’s just coherent under much more complicated terms.

    1. Is it? (If I recall correctly, it emerges that one of his reasons for pursuing Tarese is that he’s never been with a woman of color?)

      1. Yes.
        I think what Tim was trying to say is that now it looks like it plays with the notion than a black woman like the ex-wife character is sometimes considered not “really” black culturally.

  3. Am I the only one that expects she’ll have a completely different actress if/when she appears next?

  4. that was fun to read, thanks for writing it. That wasn’t a bulldozer, though, that smashed his car. It was an excavator, I’m pretty sure. A bulldozer would have bulldozed his car.

    I’m also happy to seek out various forums where I can be publicly amazed at the show Girls, and how much I liked it by the end, after how viciously I hated it in the beginning.

  5. We see Louie’s ex-wife for the first time, and she gets a name and a race. Janet is black. That means Louie’s children are mixed race. That’s not a trivial change that contributes to the overall surrealism of the show. It’s a big deal…In Season 2 there’s an episode in which Louie takes his daughters to visit an elderly relative who turns out to be incredibly racist. That scene would scan very differently if his daughters are mixed race.

    It is worth noting that in the first episode of Season 2, we see Louie’s pregnant sister visit him. She proceeds to congratulate him on taking his role as a father seriously. Then she rants about his ex-wife and makes it clear that she never liked her, saying “that pasty, big-titted, black-eyed, guinea bitch can suck my…”

    My naive understanding of the etymology of the slur guinea is that it implies mixed-race (that is, mixed with African). Is this the case? If it isn’t and it implies strictly Italian descent then that’s a major inconsistency in Louie CK’s depiction of his ex-wife.

  6. Nicholas! I just found this comment stuck in moderation–so sorry. That’s a fascinating point that had completely escaped me. I honestly don’t know which definition of “guinea” CK was working with there. Your reading is completely plausible, although I think inconsistency is equally likely. (It’s been pointed out by others that he looks at a photo of his ex-wife in an episode of Season 2 (I think) and she’s Caucasian in that incarnation.)

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