Time to be upstanding for 'Louie'

Mon, Jan 21, 2013, 00:00

Louis CK’s ‘sitcom’ is finally getting an airing here after three years of success in the US. Here’s why it’s essential viewing, writes PATRICK FREYNE

Louie takes his daughters to visit his elderly great aunt and has to explain, firstly, her casual racism and then her unexpected death. Louie discusses gay sex over a game of poker with, among others, a gay man and a homophobe. Louie goes trick-or-treating with his daughters (one dressed as 19th-century freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass) and is accosted by muggers.

Louie finds himself aroused by a woman from Christians against Masturbation. Louie goes to Afghanistan to entertain US troops accompanied by a duckling his daughter has hidden in his luggage (the idea for this episode came from Louis CK’s real daughter).

These are a few plots from Louie, the existential “sitcom” produced by the stand-up comedian Louis CK (CK is how his real second name, Szekely, should be pronounced). The first series starts tonight on Fox (until recently known as FX) although three series have already aired in the US and a fourth is due in 2014.

I put sitcom in inverted commas because brilliant as this programme is, it breaks most of the rules of the genre.

Some episodes are deliberately downbeat (although many are hilarious), it doesn’t follow standard plot trajectories (episodes are often made of seemingly unconnected vignettes) and the only regular cast member is Louie himself. (In the first series, Louie has a brother. In the second, he has two sisters. The actors who play his daughters change from show to show.)

Fictionalised Louie, like the real Louis (note the important one-letter difference), is a stand-up comic, divorced and a father of two. Each episode opens with the eponymous hero, a round-shouldered, bald, red-goateed man, shambling up from a subway and stopping for pizza before making his way to a comedy club as a cover of Hot Chocolate’s Brother Louie plays (the lyrics are crucially changed so that Ian Lloyd sings “Louie, Louie you’re gonna die” instead of “cry”).

Stories are framed with footage of Louie doing stand-up comedy in a small club (like in episodes of Seinfeld). Sometimes, these sequences segue into the scripted dialogue (like in one episode in which Louie harangues a heckler), sometimes they obliquely reference the plot (insofar as there is one).

There are also cameos from other luminaries of comedy. In one episode, he bickers with Dane Cook, who has in the past been accused of stealing CK’s jokes; in another, he is lectured on professionalism by Joan Rivers (they resolve their differences by sleeping together).

Doug Stanhope turns up as a burned-out, alcoholic old friend and their antics are interspersed with Rumblefish-like black-and-white flashbacks featuring the young Louie (young Louie is also played by different actors in different episodes).

Episodes involving drug-taking feature the type of hallucinatory visuals (dogs that keep changing breeds) familiar to those who have actually taken drugs. Or so I’m told.

A matter of style

Louie’s stylistic innovations shouldn’t be too surprising. The US sitcom medium has been a hotbed of creativity in recent years. The genre’s evolution is demonstrated by how the classically structured studio-laughfests of Seinfeld morphed into Larry David’s single-camera, laugh-track-free Curb Your Enthusiasm.

While the multi-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience still thrives (just look at The Big Bang Theory), the format has loosened up. There is a plethora of hand-held, mockumentary-style shows, such as The Office and Parks and Recreation (in which CK was a recurring guest). There are manic self-aware and self-deconstructing programmes, such as 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother. And then there are hybrid, comi-tragic dramadies, such as Nurse Jackie and The Big C.

Innovative as these are, they are all big-budget productions, written by writers’ rooms and a world of slickness away from CK’s personalised one-man show. And Louie’s idiosyncratic unpolished weirdness really can’t be separated from the circumstances of production.

Written, directed, produced and edited by CK himself, the cable channel FX has given him what others call a “Louis CK deal” – which means complete artistic freedom.

CK’s desire for control may be a reaction to years toiling as a writer on the projects of others (The Chris Rock Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the groundbreaking Dana Carvey Show) followed by the failure, in 2006, of his more conventional sitcom Lucky Louie.

(This must have been a scarring experience; one episode of Louie begins with a show within a show, in which Louie has a role in a conventional sitcom until he argues about whether his character would really have such an understanding, beautiful wife.)

CK now runs his own affairs. He turned down a bigger budget from FX in order to retain creative control. As well as becoming a one-man sitcom, he has also demonstrated admirable entrepreneurial zeal by self-producing and distributing live recordings of his stand-up shows without the aid of traditional middle men, selling them at reduced prices and giving chunks of the considerable proceeds to charity.

The altruism is unsurprising to fans of his comedy. His sitcom might have a nihilistic and scatological edge but it is fundamentally humane. Louie, and I suspect, Louis, may be world-weary but he wants to understand other people and to be a good person (one season-two episode is predicated on a simple message – get to know your neighbours).

So while his onscreen avatar navigates cultural taboos and everyday thoughtlessness, he never succumbs to despair about living in what is clearly, to him, a meaningless universe. Instead, he tries to fill that empty void with messy good intentions.

Louie isn’t for everybody, but the people it is for will love it.

Louie is on Fox tomorrow night

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