TV Club

Louie recap: Patton Oswalt on the comedy of Louis C.K.

How mermaids swimming in pee-pee explain the comedy of Louis C.K.

Louie C.K.
Louis C.K.

Courtesy FX Network.

“… painted … as mermaids, but instead of being underwater, it’s pee-pee …”

I’m going to keep this simple. I’m going to answer the questions put forth, first by Allison and then Jonah, who have already nailed this episode with so much enthusiasm and eloquence. And then I’ll end with an over-written, gushing take on Louie. This new season lifts Louie above being a great show and into the rare, thin-air realm of necessary show. But I’ll get to that later.

Allison: Louie has not foregone narrative logic; he’s embraced illogic. I’ve known Louis C.K. since 1990 and, like all great comedians and even greater story-tellers, he’s sloppy with the details. And he’s got a filmmaker’s innate sense of visuals over logic. Over and over again, both onstage and in one-on-one conversations, he swears his shaky allegiance to the factual, chronological nuts-and-bolts of the recounting of a story, or even the remembering of a life. There he is in this episode, on the motorcycle from the season premiere—the one he crashed into a truck—which he absolutely should not be riding. Then there was the episode last season where he was checking out the new apartment and his jacket disappeared and reappeared moment to moment. He’s jettisoned daily order for a larger, emotional truth. I know that sounds cheesy, and very new-agey, but it’s an old-fashioned notion, one Louis refuses to let die. Robinson Crusoe strips down naked, swims out to his shipwrecked boat, and then fills his pockets with goods. Ray Davies is purposely oblique about being “glad [he’s] a man / and so is Lola …” Ozu’s domestic interiors have zero spatial congruity from shot to shot. But we recognize the great, human storytelling, and feeling of trust and confessional, in all great works and, guess what, Louie is a sloppy, illogical, great piece of work.

So no, he hasn’t gamed the system. I have the feeling the system might have been gaming him all of these years, both with Lucky Louie and many of his films. He’s finally gained the scar tissue from those battles—some won, some lost—that creates the confidence to turn out something as startling and breathtaking as a 21-minute episode of Louie week to week. Waiting for a laugh in an episode of Louie, like waiting for the shark through the first two acts of Jaws, never feels uncomfortable because you know you’re in the hands of someone who knows where he’s going.

Which brings me back to the “mermaids in pee-pee” line, which might encapsulate the comedy of Louis C.K. better than he’d like to admit. Mermaids—mystical, lyrical, and rare—swimming in the basest of our bodily fluids. Not even cum, which contains the seeds of life. No. Pee-pee. Absolute fucking waste. Flowers growing in shit. Stable marriages built on tension and mutual recrimination. Sexual satisfaction from booze, anger, and loneliness.

Watch the progression of the episode: The late-night talk at Gray’s Papaya about a fellow comedian’s death, tossed off while choking down poisonous junk food. The tension between Louie and Melissa Leo at dinner. The ugly behind-closed-doors fight between the married couple after dinner. The joke-free, laughing conversation in the bar. It’s the shark from Jaws, underneath the dark water: You know something bad (and hilarious) is coming, if only because of all of the buried death, awkwardness, hostility, and desperation in the scenes leading up to that aggressive blow job in Melissa’s pickup. And talk about gender reversal—Louie is basically sodomized in the rolling symbol of frat-boy, redneck sexual aggression: the mythical Pickup Truck.

This is where I so want to talk about Episode 3 … but I won’t. But … ah, fuck it. Fuck it. I can’t. You’ll see.

Jonah: I don’t know if the recounting, more or less verbatim, of an absurd/innocent true story is a joke category, per se. But it’s a gift from the skies if you’re open and receptive to it when it happens. When I saw Dr. Pepper at the Yuk Yuks in Toronto I was lucky enough to realize what was unfolding in front of my eyes. Louis C.K. is even better at it—his kids telling him “jokes” go hand in hand with an amazing story he tells about his daughter innocently asking him about the Holocaust, as well as the story of his younger daughter’s infinite asking of “Why?” Maybe he’s saying that the early absurdity of our own imaginations, especially when it’s embraced and encouraged by a cool adult like Louie better prepares us for the real life absurdities we run into like adults. If Louie were to recount his date with Laurie would it sound any less hilarious, gross, and ultimately delightful than mermaids swimming in pee-pee?

As for the dead comedian conversation—well, yes, that’s a very real fear, for all of us. We’d like to think that our work will be remembered as elevated, substantial, and transcendent. But we have no control over that. We die when we die, and we can’t control what stage of our career we’ll be in when it happens. If Lenny Bruce had croaked when he was a featured sketch player on Buddy Hackett’s TV show, he wouldn’t have made his way into an R.E.M. song.

The scene with Louie and Allan Havey is part of a larger thing I love about Louie, and it will lead to my whole “necessary” critique in a second. The larger thing is this: Louie is one of the best depictions I’ve seen, ever, of how comedians hang out and relate to one another. The subtle jousting, the shorthand code language they share. The fights and almost immediate breakups. Or the long-simmering resentments that are invisible to—and I hate to use this word, but comedians use it all the time when speaking of noncomedians—civilians.

The only other piece of work I’ve seen that comes close to capturing how comedians talk is Steve Coogan’s The Trip. Holy shit—Coogan would be amazing on this show. Actually, anybody would be amazing on this show. That’s what good writing and directing can do for a performer. There’s a female comedian I’ve always been a deep fan of who appears in Episode 4 of this season who gets to show an entirely different side of herself, and it’s the alchemy of her talent and Louie’s writing and direction that makes the collaboration gold. How great was Dane Cook last season? Or Joan Rivers?

And that brings me to “necessary.” I’ve already thanked Louis for this in person, so now I’ll do it here, in the forever of the Internet. What’s necessary about Louie, beyond the hilarity and brilliance and beauty, is that I can point to it when someone doesn’t understand how stand-up comedy, and comedians, “work.” When I’m still asked if I write my own material, or aren’t I just doing comedy because obviously I must be sad and tormented, or don’t all comedians hate each other, I can tell them to watch Louie, and have all of their misconceptions brilliantly explained away and clarified without having to get into a fight. Like any great piece of work—The Wire, or Slap Shot, or Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines—it gives outsiders a clear and affectionate feeling for a world they might not inhabit. Police work, sports, race relations. And now, with Louie, what it is to be a stand-up comedian, to be a comedian who truly wants to be a comedian, despite (and sometimes with the help of) family, emotional wreckage, the assault of living in New York City, competition and aging. All of it. That’s the mantra. Those three words. All of it. To fully grow as an artist in any medium—embrace all of it.