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.

Louie sick in love

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.

Louis CK Ricky Gervais in episode 3 of LOUIE on FX TUESDAYS 11pm

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.

Eddie is cashing in

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. 

Final Scene from Woody Allen's Annie Hall

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:

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  1. zalazar

    It is phenomenal. It blows highly overrated shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men out of the water in terms of overall quality (in my opinion). It’s a perfect blend of comedy and drama, and the characters feel very real. I can understand why this show isn’t for everyone, though. It’s confrontational and can make you question your own life. People who already have an existential crisis might find this show downright depressing at times. Plus, while there certainly is quite a lot of sex in the show, the characters are never oversexualized.

    • this show is way to real and way too deep for the “average US public” (or any other region for that matters, but it airs only on the states, so ..).

  2. cBailey

    Whomever not watching this show is missing out on some great programming. The show has some great scenes like the part where he smokes weed with the neighbor and suddenly there’s a different dog there then the dude shows him what he loves to do with the water jug doing it so casually. The part with the crazy bum and the garbage truck on the way to the movies was funny too.

    • The subway scene is probably my favorite as well. It’s such a perfect little vignette – funny, bizarre, strangely moving, and relatable.

      • Jon Lisi

        I agree. I love the Subway part. The scene on the way to the movies is equally brilliant. What I love the most is that it’s a show about ideas. If C.K. thinks it will be funny, he tries it out. Maybe it doesn’t work, but it’s always interesting.

  3. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I wish more television shows would follow Louie’s lead by allowing one auteur pretty much do anything. By the end of season one, we’re so in Louis’ head and it’s so great. I think Broad City is surprisingly following this approach to tv making and I hope other writers and comedians follow too.

    Louis is such a personal show.

    • Jon Lisi

      Haven’t seen ‘Broad City’ yet but I’ll check it out. I agree with you about this, though. There are of course many great shows on TV, but few of them are as creative and distinct as ‘Louie.’ ‘Girls’ might be the only other auteur-driven show on TV.

  4. This show is inventive, new and very deep even when its just simple and in your face. You have to look at the bigger picture to really see whats going on. It feels real, because it is so raw and close to real life. All these scenarios happen all the time. In fact, I love this show because it gives me the courage to fuck up, fail, fall down, do absurd things and just live and be okay with it.

    It makes me laugh at all the stupid things that happen, especially all the terrible drastic things that just fall upon me. I just imagine I’m on Louie’s show with the music he plays in the background (whether it be jazz, bebop, or those really really sad strings) and i just giggle. I love it, and I love Louis CK. Louie keep on kicking ass man. You are my favorite human being currently on this planet hahah. I hope to see one of your stand up’s soon in NY. NY is calling ;D to me

  5. Honestly, the show depresses me a little. Just the tone of the show is very dark. You can tell from his interviews too that CK has a lot of darkness to him, which is probably why he was drawn to comedy and standup as a lifestyle and career. He’s one of those sensitive people who experiences a lot of joy and success but also a lot of darkness and pain. He inspires me in that way to stay positive and not let the extreme negative side of me become prominent.

  6. Never got into this, watched first season and thought nothing of it.

    • Jon Lisi

      I’d recommend giving it another try. You may even want to start with the third season. The great thing is that, for the most part, you don’t need to watch the episodes in order.

  7. It’s such an incredibly deep, and thoughtful show that is able to look at insights on human life much better than most comedies on TV today. I think this article nailed the appeal of the show

  8. Shane

    Oh man, Louie is such a great show and you mentioned some great episodes. I can’t wait for the next season!

  9. RCarroll

    Good writeup. Louie is a wonderfully well written, acted, directed show. Completely original and creative. Louis has a unique vision and this medium fits it well. It’s not always funny and doesn’t have to be. Once you realize it’s not a comedy it really opens up. I mean, it can certainly be funny and often is. It kind of reminds me of George Carlin’s last few specials. I didn’t find myself laughing nonstop like I did at most everything else he’d done, but I was completely enthralled and entertained by what he had to say. It really made you think.

  10. Cool Pete

    I identify with Louis CK and his humor a lot. One thing that gets me about this show are all the women characters in this show two-faced hypocrites?

    • I have not picked up on that. I’ve picked up on them mostly being nuts. I think that he’s often shown that he’s driven them nuts with how useless and unassertive he is. The ex is portrayed as quite a decent woman. She cares about him and she’s pretty stable and honest.

    • Jon Lisi

      That can go either way. I think it just expresses his disappointment with women. I don’t think he’s speaking for the entire gender–just the women he’s encountered in his life.

  11. I am a HUGE fan of Seinfeld… but I haven’t really given Louie a chance, a few of my friends are into it but nothing is sparking my interest enough to sit down and watch an episode.

  12. Rudy Gibbs

    It’s just something different this show, I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite show but I’ve never seen anything like it. The Late Show arc has to just be one of my favourite things ever.

  13. cool stuff dude

  14. Kyle Bassett

    Jon, this article is fantastic. With only three seasons under its belt, I completely agree that Louie’s success lays in its ability to simultaneous punch and tickle the viewer’s gut. The section discussing the Pamela/Subway episode is a poignant reminder of the shows unique dialogue, which seems so honest and awkward and contrasts so starkly against the forced (but still enjoyable) script writing of many major sit-coms. The way his initial heroic day dream of, “what if I wiped off the liquid filled subway seat by sacrificing my sweater” and its positive consequences – smiling passengers, reassuring nods of approval, and eventually a blowjob – highlight are a preview to the mentality of his character during his profession of love. As if this wasn’t enough, the final scene after his emotional outpouring is made exponentially dark in its humor. Pamela asks if Louie want to stick around for “a drink, or maybe a bath, or something like that”, but he is so defeated he doesn’t even register the invitation until he has left her apartment. Several comments mention that the show wasn’t up their alley. To them I say: give it time. The first couple of attempts were painful for me, but the more I watched the more C.K.’s infectiously dark tone began shine in its brilliance. Kudos, sir.

    • Kyle Bassett

      the word “highlight” should have been removed for grammatical purposes. My bad. I got too excited and typed too fast.

    • Jon Lisi

      Hey thanks man. You nailed it with the Pamela/Subway episode. And of course what I love is that his fantasy of wiping the subway seat ends with him actually not doing anything. This reminds me of a bit in his stand-up where he talks about giving up his seat in first class to a soldier because it would be the right thing to do, and then goes on to say that he would never actually do it because for him the thought is enough.

  15. Perfect description of the show. I hope your writing brings more viewers and fans to the show because you are absolutely correct in saying it is unappreciated and overlooked. I would also love to know which events from the show are rooted in actual happenings from his life.

  16. Danny Cox

    Great article. I think Louie works because he connects with everyone, not because we connect with a character during his or her best, but because we can connect with Louie when he is at his worst. And yet, we still marvel at the way he handles situations strangely better than we can.

  17. Celeste

    Louie is such an amazing show and this article is a great look at how well done it is. As far as funny and heartbreaking goes, Derek is also in this category. I do believe Louis C.K. and Rickey Gervais are really onto something with these shows. I don’t believe just anyone could pull off what they are. They have really create a narrative that is delicate and if it swings too far in either way it loses it appeal.

  18. mlopez55

    Wow. Thank you for this. I need to re-watch some episodes. I’ve never made a connection to Annie Hall, but I see it now. Thanks for pointing that out!

  19. Jemarc Axinto

    Louie is a show that I have heard of but never had the pleasure to watch. I’ve been a fan of Louis C.K.’s stand-up for a long time, and I’m glad the show is as fantastic as I have heard it was. Your assessment of the show makes me want to find a copy and binge-watch haha.

  20. It really is a great show. I remember watching the Pilot episode back when it first aired on TV and I liked it immediately. My favorite episode is “Bully” from season 1.

  21. “How can a television series be simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking?”

    In light of Louis C.K.’s personal life issue, this statement aged very well; probably better than the article’s author anticipated.

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