Expressions of Disappointment in ‘Louie’
How can a television series be simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking?
Just ask comedian Louis C.K., whose FX series Louie brilliantly captures both the comedy and tragedy of existence. The show, like Seinfeld and It’s Gary Shandling’s Show before it, is a fictional glimpse into the life of its star. C.K. plays himself, but it’s often difficult to tell what’s imagined and what’s inspired by real events. The show’s first three seasons can be streamed on Netflix, but despite this instant accessibility, the show has been extremely overlooked. In an attempt to correct this, I will offer an exploration of Louie‘s major themes.
Above all else, Louie is a comedy about disappointment. Louie, a 46 year-old divorced father of two girls, often juxtaposes his dream of what life could be with the reality of what it is. Consider, for instance, the hilarious exchange between Louie and comedian Dane Cook in Season Two’s “Oh Louie/Tickets.” Louie wants to give his daughter Lady Gaga tickets for her birthday, and he asks Cook for them since Cook and Gaga are represented by the same people. Awkwardness ensues, however, because Cook was once accused of stealing Louie’s jokes, and Louie is now confronted with the aftermath of these accusations.
In real life, C.K. declined to chastise Cook for this, saying that Cook is a “good guy and not capable of maleficence.” In the show, however, Louie is a little more honest, suggesting that Cook did steal the jokes. This scene represents C.K.’s ability to laugh at the absurdity of his daily existence, and to showcase the humor in his feelings of disappointment.
While C.K. struggled as a comedian throughout his twenties and thirties, Cook achieved fame relatively quickly, released several comedy albums that went platinum, and performed in sold-out arenas. C.K. does well for himself now, but the scene subtly hints at his feelings of bitterness toward Cook. Cook, a decent comedian, gets away with stealing Louie’s jokes, whereas Louie, one of the best comedians of his time, lives with the shame of having to ask Cook for concert tickets.
Romance isn’t any easier. In an episode entitled “Subway/Pamela,” Louie confesses his love to his best friend Pamela (Pamela Adlon). He delivers a speech that in most movies would end happily ever after, but in Louie’s world, ends with rejection. It’s a truly beautiful moment that highlights Louie’s sensitivity, and although he hopes that Pamela might share his feelings, he finds that she only views him as a friend.
As a divorced father, Louie often expresses his feelings of loneliness and the difficulties of finding a woman with whom he can connect. In the double episode “Daddy’s Girlfriend,” he meets Liz (Parker Posey) and has what appears to be an instant attraction. In Part One, he asks her out and is surprised to find that she is interested. What Louie doesn’t know, however, is that in Part Two, Liz will reveal herself to be emotionally unstable. Any hope that Louie has of forming a romantic relationship with this woman is eradicated within the first few moments of their date. Another attempt leads to yet another disappointment.
Louie is not just disappointed with others. As a hilarious interaction with Dr. Ben (Rickey Gervais) demonstrates in “Dr. Ben/Nick,” Louie is also upset with himself. He is ashamed of his appearance, his bad habits, and his inability to correct them. Ironically, it’s through his self-loathing that Louie finds the most humor. We, like Dr. Ben, are laughing at him, but make no mistake: we’re laughing at his pain.
This is not to say, however, that C.K. has a pessimistic view of life. Rather, despite his disappointment, Louie remains optimistic, and continues to face the day and give it his all. In an episode entitled “Eddie,” for example, Louie reconnects with an old friend who hasn’t achieved the same success as Louie as a stand-up comedian. Eddie (Doug Stanhope) has lost hope and meets Louie to tell him that he will kill himself. Louie doesn’t accept Eddie’s decision, and he gives a long speech about the necessity to accept life’s hardships for what it is and get up in the morning anyway.
Ultimately, what we have is a brilliant television series about an average guy who has lived long enough to know that life, while disappointing, is still worth living. In many ways, Louis C.K. is a modern day Woody Allen, and his Louie, like many of Allen’s films, is a quintessential capsule of New York.
Whenever I watch an episode of Louie, I am reminded of the bittersweet final scene of Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). Alvy Singer (Allen) realizes that his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) has ended, and it’s disappointing for him to find that so much in life rarely works out the way he expects. However, he makes the decision to keep trying, if only because there’s nothing else to do.
So much of Louie is rooted in this belief. There isn’t an artist in television right now who has as much clarity and control as C.K. Although there are a number of differences between C.K. and his idol, namely that Allen doesn’t rely on bathroom humor, we can rest knowing that when Allen stops making films, C.K. is a worthy candidate to take his place as an uninhibited auteur.
Perhaps life is full of loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness, but shows like Louie remind us that it’s also extremely funny.
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