Or, why Louie makes you so uncomfortable.
Lots of people have called Louis C.K. a TV auteur. (It’s also common to hear the term used to describe Tina Fey [30 Rock] and Lena Dunham [Girls].) Often, it seems, the auteur title means that the person wears many hats (he or she writes, directs, stars, produces, sometimes edits) and fixates on some particular content. But what about form (or style, if you’d rather use that word)? Andrew Sarris, the American movie critic who willed auteur theory into the critical imagination, talked about the stylistic consistencies across various disparate, content-wise, projects. What’s the form of Louis-C.K.-as-TV-auteur feel like?
If you answered bad, or uncomfortable, you’ve seen his FX show Louie at least once. Discomfort is the dominant force driving Louie’s portrayal of New York and, on occasion, the rest of the world. (He’s found discomfort in Afghanistan and China.) Formally, discomfort looks like some combination of duration and extremely discursive storytelling.
Take the first episode of last night’s back-to-back premiere, entitled “Back.” As per usual, Louis C.K. wrote, starred, directed, and edited. But a long list of titles doesn't make an auteur. It’s what he does—consistently—within those positions that counts.
The first minute is stand-up, with Louie talking about getting old. Like anybody worth your time, he’s laying out a theme in the dialogue (aging) that he’ll further develop via the show’s style (duration, often in the form of long takes, and discursive storytelling). This is what it means to say form is content.
After the stand-up, the garbage. Taking the clanking disruption of an early morning trash pick-up to absurd heights, Louie awakes to the sounds of the NYC Department of Sanitation. Only he's being visited by a band of merry prankster garbage men on animal steroids. The scene lasts nearly two and a half minutes (though isn't a single take), with the joke escalating the entire time, plotting a progression from "Yeah, I hate it when the garbage men wake me up" to "Holy christ, those garbage men are storming his bedroom like a raid in Fallujah." The camera holds on the final shot of one collector bouncing on the bed, the camera fixed to where the headboard would be, creating a calm center around the frenzied and gleeful destruction. It holds without cutting for almost 10 seconds, one of the longer takes in the sequence.
Your typically grating New York day, Louie can't get out of his apartment without more grief. Outside his door, on the way to the elevator, he's stopped by the building's handyman. He's got a joke. The show empties the humor from the explicit joke about puppets and cunnilingus, and the actual laughs (and discomfort) come from the clutter around it: the too-loud cackling, the sense of time passing without a single cut (a minute and a half—a long time for a 22-minute sitcom), the moment when Louie moves to correct the joke, ensuring that we’ll spend more time with the janitor when we all want is to escape.
You’ve heard someone mangle a joke before, yeah? It usually happens when they lose the strand of the narrative, and can’t guide you smoothly from set-up to punchline. They leave out an important detail and have to double-back to the start. Or they bungle the phrasing of the punchline. Generally speaking, then, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that jokes rely on precision.
Louie works for and against this, creating a peculiar tension between careful planning and what can appear to be sloppy storytelling. “Back” is all about this tension. (“Why do you have to clutter it up?" the handyman tells Louie.) It isn’t until nearly 15 minutes into the episode that the title becomes anything other than a droll announcement that the show has returned for a new season: Louie injures his back. Get it? Ha ha. There’s a better joke nested within this back situation that's slow to reveal itself, and it has to do with the long poker sequence that is the center of the episode. The reason Louie gets to try a vibrator during masturbation—the subject of the poker sequence—is because he injures his back. And what’s more, the doctor’s description of life in relation to back pain—“Every second spent without back pain is a lucky second. String enough of those lucky seconds together, you have a lucky minute.”—describes perfectly the first 14 minutes of the show. They're Louie’s lucky minutes. Only, it’s Louie, and so "lucky" is relative. They were minutes of small abuses and embarrassments. The grim pageant of life.
“Life is short if you’re a child who died,” Louie riffs in one of the stand-up segments. For the rest of us, it's very long. And so that's what the jokes are for. To make it bearable.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. This piece is for Eugenie Brinkema. He tweets here.