Elaine Blair

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Elaine Blair

Louie a tele­vi­sion series cre­ated by Louis C.K.

FX, 5 DVD sets, $19.98–$29.99 each

2017 a stand-up com­edy spe­cial cre­ated by Louis C.K. for Netflix

Ho­race and Pete a Web series cre­ated by Louis C.K.

Louie, the FX show that the co­me­dian Louis C.K. wrote, di­rected, and starred in for five sea­sons, is cred­ited with ex­pand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the half-hour tele­vi­sion com­edy. Its first­per­son, ex­pres­sion­is­tic sen­si­bil­ity was some­thing new for the sit­com when the show de­buted in 2010. Another way to ap­pre­ci­ate its cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance and its ge­nius is to con­sider this: Louie may be the first sit­com fea­tur­ing chil­dren that’s wholly in­ap­pro­pri­ate for chil­dren to watch. The show’s ti­tle char­ac­ter, based on C.K. him­self, is a di­vorced stand-up co­me­dian with shared cus­tody of his two school-aged daugh­ters, six and nine years old in the first sea­son.

Louie is a rum­pled, out-of-shape, un­fash­ion­ably goa­teed white man who has not aged into com­fort­able suc­cess. On days when he has his kids, he picks them up from school, cooks their din­ner, re­minds them to do their home­work, tucks them in at night, and brings them to school again the next morn­ing. At forty-one, Louie is baf­fled by the shape his life is tak­ing, es­pe­cially by the fact that his di­vorce has con­ferred on him full parental author­ity ev­ery other week. The show is set to jazz, and the sweep­ing, wheel­ing cam­era and mu­sic are the chief in­stru­ments of com­edy, along with C.K.’s re­ac­tion shots— winc­ing, du­bi­ous, re­signed.

Louie takes fa­ther­hood se­ri­ously. His own fa­ther, he tells a friend in one episode, was “not around,” and he wants to do it dif­fer­ently. But the show is al­ways threat­en­ing to pull the rug out from un­der Louie’s great-dad con­ceit—not be­cause he isn’t a good fa­ther, but be­cause the value of his work is un­known and un­know­able. The same so­cial forces that have brought more men into the web of child care have also re­vealed that chil­dren do fine with all kinds of care­tak­ers: grand­par­ents, nan­nies, day care work­ers—pretty much any re­li­able, kind adult could per­form any one of Louie’s tasks with no detri­ment to his daugh­ters.

He cares for them in a state of con­tin­gency. Does it re­ally mat­ter that he cooks their meals from scratch? Do all th­ese clocked hours make a dif­fer­ence in the end? And is he hid­ing be­hind the kids to avoid deal­ing with other parts of his life? “You’ve been a good fa­ther,” his ex-wife ac­knowl­edges, urg­ing him to au­di­tion for a late-night show host­ing spot he’s been short­listed for. “But no one needs a fa­ther very much.” It’s a great bit of dead­pan three sea­sons into a show that has made so much of Louie’s fa­ther­hood. “Yes, you would be spend­ing less time with the girls,” she goes on, ex­as­per­ated, “but it’s be­cause you’d have a job, Louie.”

No one can say for sure how much the girls need him, but there’s no ques­tion that he needs them. When he doesn’t have the kids, his days are a waste­land: poker with a raunchy group of co­me­dian friends, ice cream ben­ders, mas­tur­ba­tion to the lo­cal news­cast­ers on TV. He dates a va­ri­ety of emo­tion­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­aged women as well as some well-ad­justed ones with whom it never works out. At night, he does gigs at the Com­edy Cel­lar and Caroline’s, and the stand-up bits are in­ter­spersed through each episode. C.K.’s stand-up is ge­nial yet dirty. He has pon­dered child mo­lesters (“From their point of view, it must be amaz­ing, for them to risk so much”) and bes­tial­ity (“If no one ever said, ‘you should not have sex with an­i­mals,’ I would to­tally have sex with an­i­mals, all the time”), as well as more run-of-themill as­pects of the post-di­vorce dat­ing scene (“I like Jewish girls, they give tough hand jobs”). He finds no end of oc­ca­sions to mime sex acts, es­pe­cially mas­tur­ba­tion, on­stage.

When he started re­leas­ing hour-long com­edy specials ten years ago, C.K.’s ma­te­rial was long on kids, mar­riage, men and women, and get­ting older and fat­ter. Th­ese sub­jects are still a big part of his acts, es­pe­cially in Louie, but he’s got­ten even more trac­tion with ob­ser­va­tions about our na­tional mood disor­der: the ir­ri­ta­ble, self­ish pub­lic be­hav­ior and pri­vate melan­choly of Amer­i­cans in the smart­phone age (or some­times, more specif­i­cally, af­flu­ent white Amer­i­cans). He’s most ef­fec­tive when he uses him­self as rep­re­sen­ta­tive Amer­i­can jerk and melan­cholic. In a Satur­day Night Live ap­pear­ance in April, he de­scribed a re­cent trip out of town dur­ing which he felt he wasn’t get­ting his fair share of white priv­i­lege be­cause the ho­tel staff didn’t treat his lost laun­dry as a top-level emer­gency. C.K. beams when he laughs at his own jokes and his amuse­ment seems gen­uine and deep, tak­ing the edge off his provo­ca­tions as well as his de­pres­sive ob­ser­va­tions about his own life. In 2017, his lat­est stand-up spe­cial, re­leased this spring, he has a riff on sui­cide al­ways be­ing an op­tion. “But don’t get me wrong, I like life. I haven’t killed my­self. That’s ex­actly how much I like life. With a ra­zor-thin mar­gin.” In Louie, his will to live is al­most ex­clu­sively bound up with his daugh­ters: “I was think­ing that on Jane’s eigh­teenth birth­day,” he tells a fel­low par­ent, “that’s the day I stop be­ing a dad, right?... The day I just be­come a guy, not daddy. I just be­come some dude. I think on that day”—he pauses—“I might kill my­self.” He looks as sur­prised as his in­ter­locu­tor at where his train of thought has taken him.

Sex­ual per­ver­sity is around ev­ery corner in Louie, whether it’s an old woman who opens her apart­ment door stark naked, flashes Louie, then hisses “Pig!,” or a jit­tery book­store clerk (played by Chloë Se­vi­gny) who in­sists on help­ing him track down an old flame and then gets so turned on by the project that she mas­tur­bates to or­gasm in the mid­dle of their con­ver­sa­tion in a cof­fee shop. You could play the mas­tur­bat­ing woman strictly for laughs, or it could be some­thing darker, un­nerv­ing. C.K. tips it to­ward com­edy (there’s a bril­liant ex­change of glances be­tween Louis and the only other per­son in the cof­fee shop, an aus­tere male barista), but not too far so; the scene has a com­plex­ity of tone typ­i­cal of the show as a whole. Un­til she ac­tu­ally puts her hand be­tween her legs, we don’t know what Se­vi­gny’s char­ac­ter, who has the air of an in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated, ec­cen­tric loner, is go­ing to do. When it hap­pens, the ges­ture of pulling aside the waist­band of her skirt is as star­tling as an act of vi­o­lence.

Over the show’s run, Louis has been the vic­tim of two in­ci­dents of sex­ual as­sault: one by a den­tist who seems to have put his pe­nis in Louis’s mouth while he was se­dated in the den­tal chair, and one by a woman who’s so an­gry that Louis won’t go down on her af­ter she gave him a blow job that she smashes his head against a car win­dow un­til he ca­pit­u­lates. Is it funny? Yes, but it’s also some­thing other than funny. Sit­coms of the last twenty years like Curb Your En­thu­si­asm, Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment, or 30 Rock have been in­no­va­tive and daz­zlingly funny, but they’re also uni­formly light, is­su­ing a steady, rhyth­mic pulse of lev­ity at pre­dictably short in­ter­vals, mak­ing for great bed­time view­ing.

Louie is some­thing dif­fer­ent, a com­edy about bod­ily shame and sex­ual de­spair and the nar­row­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of mid­dle age whose turns are un­pre­dictable, enig­matic, and carry emo­tional risks. The jokes push be­yond the fa­mil­iar con­ceit that Louis is a sad sack who can’t get a date. In fact he of­ten does have a date, and sex, but that only opens him up to a world of un­set­tling dis­cov­er­ies about him­self and his part­ners. Louie’s New York is a sex­u­ally per­mis­sive play­ground in which hardly any­one can get what he or she wants. More of­ten than not, peo­ple’s sex­ual ap­petites alien­ate them from one another, or even cause harm.

Mean­while, the chil­dren are in jan­gling prox­im­ity to all this per­ver­sion. The scenes in­volv­ing child ac­tors are of course clean, but they’re only a frame away from Louie’s off-hours de­prav­ity, rais­ing anx­ious ques­tions about mod­ern fa­ther­hood. Can a di­vorced fa­ther on the prowl also make him­self safely and in­ti­mately avail­able to his chil­dren? Can Louie reign in his de­pres­sive, pes­simistic, and self-de­struc­tive im­pulses and give him­self over to his daugh­ters’ needs for hours and days at a time while still re­tain­ing enough of him­self to write com­edy? The an­swer, and the source of the show’s rogue joy, is yes—in­cred­i­bly, yes.

There prob­a­bly won’t be another sea­son of Louie, C.K. has said. In­stead, he recently re­leased on his web­site the self-funded show Ho­race and Pete, also writ­ten and di­rected and star­ring C.K. Though the show has a dis­tin­guished celebrity cast (in­clud­ing Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Jes­sica Lange, and Steve Buscemi), C.K. made the show qui­etly in a mat­ter of weeks and re­leased it with­out ad­vance pub­lic­ity. Ho­race and Pete is not a com­edy. It is, in fact, a tragedy, and there’s no miss­ing the fact that this show is also about fa­ther­hood, or, more pre­cisely, pat­ri­mony. Three sib­lings in their late for­ties and early fifties have in­her­ited a fam­ily busi­ness, a one-hun­dred-year-old bar in a for­merly white, work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood in Brook­lyn that’s now gen­tri­fy­ing. The bar doesn’t make much money, but it’s now ex­tremely valu­able real es­tate. Should they sell it?

The look and feel of the show is a sharp con­trast to Louie, so much so that it seems like an ex­er­cise in vol­un­tary artis­tic de­pri­va­tion for C.K.: mul­ti­ple cam­eras, just three in­te­rior sets, al­most no mu­sic. And in place of the as­so­cia­tive logic of Louie, with its seg­ments in am­bigu­ous re­la­tion­ship to one another, we have the un­spool­ing of a lin­ear plot. The tech­ni­cal el­e­ments of Louie that made the show move and breathe are ab­sent here. In­stead, the fo­cus is on writ­ing and act­ing and bod­ies against an un­chang­ing back­drop; char­ac­ters re­veal their sto­ries in noth­ing more cin­e­mat­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated than mono­logues.

It is, as crit­ics have noted, much like a filmed play, and its themes of fam­ily dys­func­tion and vexed pa­ter­nal lin­eage evoke not only twentieth-cen­tury Amer­i­can play­wrights like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, but Hen­rik Ib­sen be­fore them. And while the show is set in the present—bar pa­trons yak about the Trump cam­paign—it also re­lies on some con­spic­u­ously ar­chaic turns of plot. There are rev­e­la­tions of se­cret pa­ter­nity. Not one but two char­ac­ters have given an un­wanted in­fant to a sib­ling to raise as his or her own.

The bar, Ho­race and Pete’s, has been passed down through many gen­er­a­tions of the Wit­tel fam­ily, al­ways

to sons named Ho­race and Pete af­ter the orig­i­nal pro­pri­etors. But now the lin­eage is threat­en­ing to break down. De­pend­ing on how you look at it, the rea­son for the break­down is ei­ther bad fa­ther­ing or the rise of Wit­tel women, or both. Sylvia (Falco), the old­est of the sib­lings, is try­ing to con­vince her broth­ers Ho­race and Pete (C.K. and Buscemi) to sell it. The bar had pre­vi­ously been owned only by male rel­a­tives, but be­cause their fa­ther died with­out a will, Sylvia is now a com­mon­law co-owner with her broth­ers. “This place is worth mil­lions,” she tells Ho­race—they could di­vide the money and get on with their lives.

Get­ting out, mov­ing on, and start­ing over are big with Sylvia; she has the least emo­tional at­tach­ment to the fam­ily busi­ness of all the sib­lings—in fact, she loathes it. When the sib­lings were young, their mother left their vi­o­lent fa­ther and raised the kids by her­self up­town. Sylvia cher­ishes her mother’s brav­ery and in­dulges no sen­ti­men­tal­ity about the gen­er­a­tions of Ho­races and Petes. “My fa­ther was a wife beater and a fuck­ing brute and a nar­cis­sist. And thank god our mother got us out of here. How many wives have been beaten in this place?” she says to Un­cle Pete (Alda). And to Ho­race: “Ma got out. She got us out. It kills me that you’re back here.” But Ho­race, played by C.K., doesn’t want to sell. When their fa­ther died a year ago he left his job as an ac­coun­tant to take over the bar. He is helped by his brother Pete, a heav­ily med­i­cated psy­chotic who spent much of his life hos­pi­tal­ized for men­tal ill­ness but now lives in a room be­hind the bar and helps out with house­keep­ing, and by bel­liger­ent, ca­su­ally racist Un­cle Pete, who works be­hind the bar and yells at the bar’s new hip­ster cus­tomers to get off their phones.

If the fam­ily sold the bar, Pete and Un­cle Pete would prob­a­bly never find work again. But that’s not the only rea­son Ho­race doesn’t want to sell. Ho­race has been liv­ing for the last year in his par­ents’ old apart­ment above the bar, still dec­o­rated in a dingy 1970s palate of brown, rusty orange, and av­o­cado and olive greens, be­tray­ing noth­ing of him­self. There is no self-ex­pres­sion in run­ning the busi­ness: Ho­race has stepped into a role oc­cu­pied by seven other Ho­races be­fore him, and that, one senses, is the ap­peal of it. His pat­ri­mony gives form and struc­ture and, po­ten­tially, mean­ing to his life: “This is Ho­race and Pete’s, and I’m Ho­race,” he says to Sylvia.

It’s hard not to see a par­al­lel in there some­where to C.K. him­self, who seems to be tak­ing a break from be­ing a vaunted com­edy in­no­va­tor by seek­ing refuge in pa­tently older modes. The sets, the mul­ti­cam­era for­mat, the dra­matic stag­ing, the long mono­logues, and the an­ti­quated plot de­vices all re­fer to ear­lier points in the his­tory of drama and tele­vi­sion; this is not go­ing to be some­thing new, ev­ery­thing about the show seems to scream. Of course, it’s such an anom­aly among to­day’s shows that it feels like some­thing new. Ho­race, in any case, likes the bar pre­cisely for its lack of nov­elty or growth po­ten­tial. “Does ev­ery busi­ness have to make a profit?” he asks prac­ti­cal Sylvia. “Can’t any place just be a place? Peo­ple come here. They’ve come here for a hun­dred years.” To which Sylvia’s typ­i­cal re­ply is, “A hun­dred years of mis­ery is enough.” Tough, foul­mouthed, unspar­ing, mirth­less, Falco’s leo­nine Sylvia has a moral author­ity and ra­di­ance in spite of her cru­elty, at times, to var­i­ous fam­ily mem­bers. A hun­dred years of mis­ery seems no ex­ag­ger­a­tion—mis­ery soaks th­ese char­ac­ters, a joy­less lot.

Yet one has the feeling that the show wants to de­fend the fam­ily busi­ness, and maybe even hold out the pos­si­bil­ity that some things about the older, whiter, prefem­i­nist order it rep­re­sents are worth de­fend­ing. No char­ac­ter can quite find the words to do so, how­ever. Un­cle Pete and Ho­race merely keep point­ing to the bar’s sheer en­durance. A com­mu­nity fix­ture, an in­for­mal neigh­bor­hood in­sti­tu­tion, a work­ing con­nec­tion to the past—it’s no small thing; do we have to give it up for lost just be­cause its own­ers were wife beat­ers? On the other hand, this par­tic­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion is a bar that caters to the neigh­bor­hood’s hard drinkers, where at least one pa­tron has died of al­co­hol poi­son­ing and at least one other has com­mit­ted double homi­cide. C.K. stacks the deck against Ho­race and Pete’s, and sub­tly evades a reck­on­ing.

Sylvia fi­nally pre­vails (though not in the way she in­tended) and has the last word, an as­cen­dance that seems in­evitable. But the show leaves us with an in­ter­est­ing twist on what has seemed, broadly speak­ing, to be a con­flict be­tween the Wit­tel men and the Wit­tel women.

The last episode con­tains a flash­back to the sib­lings’ child­hood, the de­ci­sive day that the mother and chil­dren sneak out of the house and leave their fa­ther for good. We see the elder Ho­race (also played by C.K.) hit his boys, pull his wife (played by Falco) by the hair, and gen­er­ally frighten and in­tim­i­date ev­ery­one in the fam­ily—ex­cept for the teenaged Sylvia, who comes home af­ter cur­few de­fi­ant and ends up hav­ing the last word even with her en­raged fa­ther. Un­til now, the show has dis­cussed pa­ter­nal legacy—fi­nan­cial and other­wise—as some­thing passed down from fa­ther to son, but the scenes of young Sylvia with her two par­ents point to a loop­hole in the pa­tri­ar­chal order. It’s not from her mild-man­nered mother that Sylvia in­her­ited her tough­ness and fe­roc­ity—it’s from Dad.

Louis C.K. as Louie and Ur­sula Parker and Hadley De­lany as his daugh­ters Jane and Lilly in sea­son 5 of Louie, 2015

Alan Alda, Jes­sica Lange, Steve Buscemi, Louis C.K., and Edie Falco in Ho­race and Pete, 2016

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.