Sometimes opportunity knocks, and sometimes, despite that DO NOT DISTURB sign you hung on your doorknob, it calls you earlier in the morning than you’d like, ripping you from a deep, dark, African sleep afloat in a river of warm chocolate, where you receive fellatio from an ancient whore with 20 tongues who feeds syrupy heroin into your dick. That’s the incredible, indelible image of narcotic, self-obliterating slumber Louis C.K. painted onstage a couple years ago, and that’s the kind of sleep Louie seemed to be enjoying in tonight’s episode when housekeeping woke him up to ask when he’d like his room cleaned. Precisely speaking, Louie’s seemingly prepubescent manager, Doug, was the one ringing with an opportunity, but both calls were, on thematically complementary levels, about Louie getting on his feet and getting his shit in order.
Before this season began, C.K. told me that the onscreen Louie is lazier than the real one, and about three years or so behind him, career-wise. That three-year lag tracks with the events of this episode. These days, Louis C.K. makes a million dollars in an hour selling tour tickets. But three years ago, in 2009, C.K. wasn’t nearly as well known when he went on Conan O’Brien’s show and told a joke about modern technology and modern unhappiness. The bit, nicknamed “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy,” has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube, and is regarded, symbolically at least, as the tipping point in C.K.’s stand-up career, the moment he really broke big. In “Late Show Pt. 1,” Louie, who makes in the neighborhood of $80,000 a year at best, went on Jay Leno and told a different joke about modern technology and modern unhappiness—this time about too-small remote-control buttons—and video of the bit notched a million views overnight, as Doug informs him. What’s more: CBS, impressed, has summoned him in for a meeting.
The foil of Louie’s Tonight Show joke—at least the part of it that he previewed for us at the Improv the night before, in the segment that opened the episode—was what people on Twitter mockingly call “first-world problems.” The stakes are lower here than they are in, say, Afghanistan, but can prove fatal all the same: Over there, children see their uncles’ heads blown open by artillery; over here, soul-sucked consumers kill their families and themselves after posting Blu-ray player reviews online. The episode ended with a call for Louie, “circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit,” in the words of Garry Marshall’s CBS chairman, to rise off his haunches, shed some weight, and take a potentially life-changing professional risk.
Risk-taking is emerging as one of this season’s big uniting motifs, and it can’t be a coincidence that images of Liz, who also challenged Louie to be more adventurous, arose him from his slumber last week just as housekeeping and CBS did tonight. The question he’s facing at the end of the episode is whether he can manage the leap from who he is to who he could be—a transformation as seemingly improbable as that of the woman in Leno’s “Before and After” gag.
The writer Matt Shafeek wrote an interesting article at Splitsider yesterday about Louis C.K. and “the power of slow comedy,” noting, as we all have in different ways, that on Louie laughs can take a backseat to “real, grounded characters that are vulnerable and affected by the world around them.” This episode had its laughs, for sure—Louie muttering, “Ah, shit—bitch,” at the sight of some brilliant California sunlight; that unresponsive secretary at CBS; Marshall sitting on poor Doug’s armrest and shutting him out of the grown folks’ business—but each of these grew out of, and reinforced, the episode’s dramatic material: namely, the plight of a comedian in a seeming make-or-break moment of career stagnation. There are two episodes left in this three-part, season-closing arc. Tonight ended on a cliffhanger—what will Louie say to Marshall’s proposal?—and it’s a testament to this show’s sublime unpredictability that I have no idea how it might play out.
One other thing. When Patton Oswalt joined us a few weeks back, he praised Louie for its portrayal of the working comic’s life. There was so much detail tonight along those lines: Doug asking Ross Mark—a real-life Tonight Show big—if Louie would get to be “on panel” at the show; Improv founder Budd Friedman gliding past them and quickly complimenting Louie on his set, and the humbled face Louie makes in response; the fact that, in what seems to have been an actual Tonight Show dressing room, you could glimpse a piece of paper on the wall informing visitors of the name and password of NBC’s “Leno-Guest” wireless internet network. Now that’s grain!
You ever flown on an airplane? You got airplane stories?