Author: evankindley

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?



Risky Business

Jane! Phil! Lili!

It’s been an atypically slow week here at Dear Television, despite the fact that Episode 8 was, for my money, one of the more successful and provocative episodes of Girls to date — probably just a function of how busy we all are.

What I have to contribute today is less an original interpretation than some annotations to Jane’s brilliant reading of the scene between Marnie, Jessa, and Thomas (like Lili, I failed to catch his name and just thought of him, as the girls probably do, as “the venture capitalist”):

Jessa thanks Thomas “for handling the cheque” [Editor’s Note: I love this Canadian spelling] who, as a venture capitalist, knows his share about risky investments. His logic here might not even be entirely unfamiliar: buy two girls some drinks and they’re more likely to come home with you. Open an expensive bottle of wine and, accordingly, they’ll certainly be more likely to sleep with you. Following such investment logic, Thomas translates spilt wine on his $10,000 rug–a rapid escalation in the cost of the night’s events–as meriting some serious sexual payback: “If you’re really sorry you better be planning to make this a very special night for all of us.”

This riff reminded me of something else I read recently: Christian Lorentzen’s great essay in the new Bookforum on finance in twenty-first-century fiction.  Lorentzen quotes a line from Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask which elegantly summarizes the current state of upper-class/middle-class relations: “She was from the people who kept everything.  I was from the people who rented some of everything for brief amounts of time.”  In the erotic scenario Jane sketches above, Thomas is, clearly, the person who pays for — and thus, by rights, keeps — everything; Marnie and Jessa, using the credit line of their sexuality to lease a taste of the good life, are the people who rent.

But, of course, the class dynamics of the scene are a good deal more complicated than this: Thomas reads as, if not exactly working-class, at least a worker (“Do you even know what it’s like to work hard?” he asks), while Jessa and Marnie are children of privilege — “Daddy’s girls.”  To take another example from Lorentzen’s Bookforum article [by the way, I haven’t read any of the novels Christian cites], Thomas’s rant here seems akin to the musings of the banker in Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic on the hypocrisy of twentysomething anti-capitalist hipsters:

He saw these people everywhere now, these aging children who had done nothing, borne no responsibility, who in their bootless, liberal refinement would judge him and all he’d done as the enemy of the good and the just, their high-minded opinions just decoration for a different pattern of consumption: the past marketed as the future to comfort the lost. And who financed it? Who loaned them the money for these lives they couldn’t quite afford with their credit cards and their student loans? Who else but the banks?

This is like an institutional version of Thomas’s “Daddy’s girl” resentment of hipster hotties with trust funds: in this case, “Daddy” is not the girls’ actual fathers but the banking system itself, which puts bankers like Doug (and venture capitalists like Thomas), regardless of their actual age and virility, in the position of lecherous, disapproving senexes.

So Thomas’s frustration is, at least in part, exasperation that these two girls whose lifestyles are, from his point of view, made possible by the kind of work he does — by capitalism, in other words — don’t play by the rules of the game.  They rack up debt — let him buy them drinks, play them mash-ups — and then default on the loans.  Irresponsible!  Reprehensible!  If they’re going to spill wine on a $10,000 rug, and refuse to have sex with its owner, they’d better look a lot sorrier than that.

All of this, obviously, has as much to do with gender as it does with class and money, but, again — as so often in Girls — the stereotype of the oppressive, aggressive, dominating male is troubled, if not quite reversed.  Lorentzen points out that female characters in fiction written by women (like the heroine of Rivka Galchen’s story “Appreciation”) are often trying “to avoid risk, something male characters in fiction written by males seem constantly to be seeking.”  But if that’s the case, what to make of Jessa’s continual courting of sexual risk, an act Marnie unexpectedly gets in on in this episode?    “We’ve all discussed how Dunham’s girls run this world,” Jane writes,

—without consequences or violence; with minimal risk. O’Dowd’s over-the-top character (tipping into caricature) makes him a weirdo, but it doesn’t make him a rapist or an assaulter. He doesn’t scare the viewer, and he certainly doesn’t scare Jessa. How much will this incident come to haunt Marnie really? He never made them pay. And where did I learn to think like this?

A great point — clearly in the scene in Thomas’s apartment, as in the mock-horrific Michigan episode, we’re being set up  for some American Psycho shit that never materializes — but, with all due respect, I don’t think “with minimal risk” isn’t quite on the money: risk — but managed risk; hedged, if you will — appears to be precisely the principle on which Dunham’s girls run their world.  Does that make Marnie and Jessa more like venture capitalists, in their sexual lives, than the hapless Thomas himself (who seems to be the very embodiment of rational homo economicus in his expectation of sexual return on economic investment)?  While one assumes that the allegorical point of the scene is something like “Thomas’s perviness = the logic of capitalism,” O’Dowd’s character is in fact figured less a capitalist oppressor than a sap, a victim of the market’s vagaries: he speculated on Williamsburg hipster chicks, and took a bath.  (Without cupcakes, one assumes.)

As for Jane’s rhetorical question — “How much will this incident come to haunt Marnie really?” — I do wonder if Dunham and the writers intend to bring the character of Thomas back eventually; to be a bit inside-baseball about it, one doesn’t normally cast an actor as sought-after as Chris O’Dowd for a glorified cameo (although maybe you do if Judd Apatow is your executive producer).  I frankly hope he does return, because I think there’s a richness to the class conflict in this scene as written that the scene, as directed, didn’t quite exploit.  (I agree with Jane that O’Dowd’s portrayal of Thomas veers a little too close to caricature; Jessa’s contempt for his turntablist pretensions, for instance, are too closely shared by the camera/implied audience.  This is a problem Girls has been running into again and again: how to depict performance/artistic expression without mocking or minimizing it; cf. Heather and the Twistarounds, Ray and Charlie’s crummy indie band Questionable Goods [whose music is, indeed, questionable].  Maybe Adam’s performance in the theater rehearsal in this same episode comes closest?  But that’s a topic for another post, by someone else.)  There’s more to say here; at least, I hope there is.

Speculating wildly,


P.S. Apropos Jane’s evocation of Norman Bates: do you think Marnie is named after the Hitchcock character?  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that movie all the way through, but according to this synopsis, she has some ambivalence about her relationship, too.

Bushwick Bildungsroman

Dear Jane, Lili, and Phil,

Thanks, first of all, to Phil for getting us started this week.  For some reason, this was a difficult episode to get a handle on, and thus to blog about: I thoroughly enjoyed it as I was watching it, but was swayed enough by the (largely negative) reactions of the friends who watched it with me to doubt my initial reaction.  I then watched it again, and started to agree with my friends: it was funny, but a bit awkward and forced in places.  But now Phil’s post has me reconsidering all over again…  Let’s see if I can work through this ambivalence here, before your very eyes!

I agree with Phil that the episode, like “The Return” before it, felt once again off-model, though in fact we are returning to the locale (New York City) and the supporting characters (Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna, Adam, Charlie, etc.) whose absence accounted for the “offness” last week.  Yes, Bushwick definitely functioned (as it does actually function for New York’s middle-class twentysomethings, or at least did when I lived there in the mid-2000s) as a sort of hipster hinterland, a place just far enough removed from the normal run of things and the rule of law that Anything Can Happen.  For those who may not be familiar, Bushwick is a fairly desolate area of northern Brooklyn with a high crime rate and a lot of abandoned warehouses, many of which have been taken over (legally or illegally) by enterprising hipsters for parties/concerts/gallery shows etc.  Marnie’s cry of exasperation — “I’m never going to Bushwick again!” — is something I can easily imagine one of my friends saying after a particularly hair-raising (or just subway-intensive) night out.  It’s a symbolic space of both possibility and abjection.  We get some of both in this episode.

Another key difference, as Richard Brody points out in his blog post on the episode, is that the director on “Welcome to Bushwick” is not Lena Dunham but her go-to DP Jody Lee Lipes, who evidently has a distinctive visual style all his own.  Brody mentions Lev Kuleshov, whose work I don’t know; the density of detail in the crowd scenes put me in mind of Stanley Kubrick and Peter Greenaway.  After six straight episodes of fairly small-scale gatherings, it’s kind of overwhelming to be confronted with so many other people: this episode is lousy with extras, and they frequently threaten to crowd out the regulars.  While this was certainly jarring, I actually think I like the technique: it reminds us that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna are, in fact, part of a much larger crowd of people very much like them, a sociological reality that’s easy to lose sight of when we’re focusing so closely on their individual dramas.

Still, as Phil so nicely points out, there’s more than ethnography going on here: the party didn’t, to me, feel exactly accurate (the “vibe,” as Jeff would put it, was a lot more Burning Mannish than I remember the average Bushwick rager being, though maybe things have tilted in that direction since I left New York three years ago), but it did conjure up its own sense of space in a way that, say, the benefit for Carrie in the previous episode didn’t.  To invoke Kubrick again, it was sort of like the masquerade in Eyes Wide Shut: a little bit laughable from one perspective, but haunting and nightmarishly right from another.

The most bizarre subplot in “Welcome to Bushwick” is Shoshanna’s “crackcident,” which I think was perhaps played a bit too much for laughs — exploring Shoshanna’s genuine terror over having accidentally lowered herself in the social pecking order (and the eyes of her mom) by doing a ghetto drug would have been a more emotionally rich way to go, I think.  I’m also not quite sure where they’re going, if anywhere, with the relationship between Shoshanna and Ray: was this all just a contrived way to have them meet-cute?  I am impressed by Zosia Mamet, though, who really nails a certain kind of high-strung obliviousness; I also think it’s funny how, when she smokes crack, she starts talking like a typical David Mamet character, all fast and stuttery and defensive.

The surprise for me, though, is how resonant I found the Jessa storyline.  As I said last week, I still struggle a bit to care about the three protagonists other than Hannah, and up to this point Jessa’s easily been my least favorite character.  But I thought the way her flirtation with Jeff was developed in this episode opened up some interesting new possibilities.   Like Adam, Jeff is another guy that’s been characterized, but that we don’t really know: the discovery in this episode is that he’s not “a good guy,” as Jessa thinks, but kind of a creep, especially when he reminds Jessa at the end of the episode that she’s his employee, not his friend.  For a show that’s been (rightly) praised for its emphasis on female friendship and subjectivity, it’s interesting to see the way Girls is handling its boys: manipulating us into thinking we know who they are, and then surprising us.  (Something similar happens, maybe less convincingly, with Charlie in this episode: like Marnie, we expected him to be hung up on their relationship for at least the rest of the season, but he’s bounced back almost immediately with “a tiny Navajo” named Audrey.)

Oh, Dear Television!  I don’t know what to think.  This felt like a pivotal episode, and not only because it’s The One Where Hannah and Adam Finally Get Together; among other things, it’s a test case for whether the show can really handle sensibilities and aesthetics other than Dunham’s.  (Hannah was a pretty muted presence in this show, in stark contrast to her total domination of “The Return.”)  I think it’ll be a challenge: Dunham’s made such a virtue out of intense self-scrutiny, and is so out-of-the-gate good at it, that the attempt to fold in other people and their concerns is, at times, a noticeable strain.  But I’m glad she’s taking the risk; if she pulls it off, the show — and her subsequent work — will be all the better for it.

Blowing my anonymousness,