Say what you will about Louie 'cause Louis C.K. won't care. It's exactly the show the comedian wants it to be.
Most television shows are an amalgamation of dozens of minds and sensibilities, from the writers to the producers to the stars to the network executives to advance-screening audiences. On Louie? It's C.K.'s way or no way. He writes, directs and stars in this semiautobiographical comedy (and for the first two seasons, he edited it, too). Half-hour competitors cost anywhere from $1-2 million to make per episode. Louie runs FX just $200,000 per—C.K.'s concession to keep the suits out of his show. The show's pilot was, according to Entertainment Weekly, the worst test screening ever done by an FX program (largely because Louie euthanized his dog). C.K. refused to change it.
The result is one of the most distinctive, critically acclaimed and foulest programs on TV. It's the sort of show that makes content-driven reviewers like me raise their hands in frustration—a little like Dr. Frankenstein when he realizes that a) his brash experiment worked beyond his wildest dreams, and b) his experiment kidnapped his fiancée and burned down his castle. Louie is indeed a monster of a show—an impressive monster perhaps, but a monster nevertheless.
Louie is loosely based on C.K.'s life after his divorce, complete with forays into dating, single parenting and his struggles balancing (as many of us do) work with family. Simple enough, right? These are mountains that many sitcoms have mined in the past.
But C.K. brings new tools to bear. First, there's the comedian himself—a disarming, inelegant presence paired with an expert delivery system. There's his studied insights, which can inject incongruous moments of sweetness and honesty. And then there's his preoccupation with his own (and our) discomfort, his uncanny ability to drill down into what's embarrassing, titillating, painful or disgusting … and get a laugh out of it.
Indeed, much of C.K.'s comedy seems to be predicated on awkward, sometimes horrific interactions between people—be it an uncomfortable conversation with fellow comedian Dane Cook (who, in real life, has been accused of stealing some of C.K.'s jokes) to being sexually assaulted by a dentist while under the influence of laughing gas. The Louie in Louie has had more inept, shallow and (for basic cable) graphic sexual encounters than half the cast of Jersey Shore. And there is no detail too sordid to leave out of the showing and telling.
That's part of the point, it seems. The Louie in Louie is stunted in some way. Incomplete. Louie, for all his dating, is unbearably lonely. And as much as he strives for intimacy, he keeps missing the mark. At times, we're left wondering if his failures in his personal life help him be successful professionally. Or perhaps the show is exploring society's own loss of intimacy in its quest for instant gratification. Which means that in its own quirky and salacious way, Louie is a half-hour comedic think-piece, far more interested in asking questions than finding answers, in picking at a scab then letting it heal.
"I've always felt compelled to say things that most people don't want to hear," C.K. told Entertainment Weekly. "They're either offensive or weird, but my goal has always been that anybody can enjoy them. What's more fun than taking something that's really from the depths of you—something that should really be kept private—and making some 54-year-old guy in flip-flips in Kentucky really laugh at it?"
Comedians have long built careers on talking about things thought too crass or impolite or base to discuss openly. Don Rickles shocked a more genteel America with his litany of insults. George Carlin introduced it to seven dirty words. In an era in which many expectant fathers were handing out cigars in hospital waiting rooms, Bill Cosby walked us right up to the stirrups.
Little wonder, then, that Louis C.K. has become one of the 21st century's most popular comedians. In an age where people disclose their sexual exploits on blogs and their bathroom habits on Facebook—when there's so little of our lives that we leave behind closed doors—C.K. teaches us that there are still some things some of us like to keep hidden and things we don't necessarily want to hear about others. And he's apparently determined to drag every last one of 'em out into the sunlight for us to gape at, make faces at and, if he does his job, laugh at.
To his credit, he does his job well—but it's to our detriment. He longs to expose us to the discomfort of his life, his furious mind. But there's a reason why some forms of exposure are crimes. There are things we don't need to see, thoughts we don't need to hear. Sometimes, when someone wants to expose us to something, it's best to turn around and walk the other way.
"Elevator, Part 5"
Louie's been having a grand time hanging around with Amia, a Hungarian visitor who speaks no English (perhaps a symbol of Louie's inability to communicate with women in general). But he decides to take another, more carnal step when one of his neighbors asks if he's "serious" about her, using an obscene gesture. "In Hungary we have a saying," the elderly woman says. "If you didn't screw the cow, she's not your cow."
Cue the sex scene (which we hear the beginning of more than we see it). And cue Amia's abrupt exit the next morning. All the confused Louie hears amid her Hungarian spiel is "no good." And the scene shifts to a newscaster who says, "A small bird died today due to sadness. He was six years old."
The show opens with the same broadcaster mentioning millions dying in a hurricane. A woman nearly chokes to death on a Mentos. There's an obscene reference to a penis. AIDS is mocked. Derogatory comments are made about marriage and kids. Characters say the s-word at least eight times, "a‑‑" three or four. God's name is paired with "d‑‑n" and Jesus' is abused two or three times each. There are a handful of crude references to body parts.
Louie arrives for a show in Miami—uncomfortably surrounded by twentysomething beauties, both male and female. He waits until all the would-be models leave the beach before he takes a dip in the Atlantic. But when he does, a lifeguard thinks he's drowning and drags him in.
Louis and the lifeguard become friends, and the young man invites the comedian to see the "real" Miami—Cuban neighborhoods filled with family and friends and laughter. He tells Louie that he feels sorry for Miami's richer, more Plasticine people because they're so alone. Louie has such a good time that he opts to stay for a couple of extra days, whereupon his ex-wife promptly assumes he's "found somebody." And when he meets up with the lifeguard again, the guy assumes that he's gay. One of Louie's trademark awkward moments ensues as the lifeguard "breaks up" with him—but not before trying to set him up with a gay cousin.
In a comedy routine, Louie suggests that straight guys miss out on some cool stuff (like friendship and the word "wonderful") because they don't want to be misidentified as gay. We hear the s-word five times and a crude term for testicles once. Bikini-clad women scamper in front of the camera. Louie drinks and smokes a cigar.
"Telling Jokes/Set Up"
Set up on a blind (and unexpected) date, Louie and his new lady friend end up going for a drive in her truck. Louie's blindsided again when she parks and bluntly offers to perform oral sex on him. The next thing he knows, she follows through (as the camera watches from outside the vehicle).
Nearly the entire episode revolves around this scene, so the "action" doesn't end there. The sex act complete, she informs him that now it's his turn. He refuses. And she refuses to be refused. The result is her assaulting him, hitting his head and ramming it into the side window (breaking it), then forcibly climbing up onto him to make him reciprocate. (The camera stays inside the cab.)
Accompanying their explicit actions are explicit descriptions of oral sex, with vulgar and obscene words interspersed. We also hear about guys' erections and ejaculations, and truly dirty jokes about various sex acts are told from the stage. The f-word is bleeped. The s-word isn't.