It can be tricky to describe what distinguishes Louis C.K. from other stand-ups, even from those who specialize in observational, storytelling, confessional comedy. I first heard about him from a friend in the mid-2000s, who related to me the “suck a bag of dicks” routine, where C.K. relates his forensic analysis of a drive-by shouting. The way C.K. spins the recollection (I caught up with the routine on YouTube) into a close reading, drawing concentric circles around the moment of shock in order to reframe it and give it perspective, is a trademark for his work as a comic, and an indication of the way he thinks and dialogues with others. This practice—reframing, always examining, interrogating—occurs again and again both in his routines and on his TV show for FX, Louie. A close relative of the “suck a bag of dicks” bit is a conversation in the “Poker/Divorce” episode when he explains to a poker buddy just what another player meant when he made a crack about the first player’s mother. The crack is dissected and given context, like a Wikipedia article, and the genius of it is, he enhances, rather than mitigates, the absurdity of the original remark.
You watch enough of his stand-up, you get the sense not just of an ongoing confession, but of a series of candid snapshots taken from a man’s timeline (we revisit his domestic situation every now and then), sort of like Michael Apted’s Up series. He synopsizes his life at some point during most of his appearances, as if introducing himself for the first time: We learn his age, his marital status (he has been divorced from his wife, artist and painter Alix Bailey, since 2008), and how old his two daughters are. Without being too explicit, there’s a strong feeling that he’s doing almost all of the heavy lifting in raising his kids. While professional child actors play his daughters on the show, there is no fictional counterpart to his ex-wife. In that void, we see Louie try, often unsuccessfully, to imprint his daughters with positive values, self-reliance, and responsibility.
His stand-up ticks off the bullet points of a middle-aged comic. There’s the slightly overweight man, balding, who feels unattractive, uncomfortable in his own skin. (In early footage there’s a goateed man with a full head of hair, wearing blazers with shoulder pads: that man is gone.) He finds comical perspective on everyday life, the strange people and phenomena in New York City, and he doesn’t shy from using foul language or describing, in detail, outrageous and disgusting situations or personal details. In blind marketing terms, none of this is uncharted territory for stand-up acts. It could be suggested that he’s better than most because he’s funnier, that his position as one of the planet’s foremost comics is simply a matter of superior technique. His timing is rock-solid; he holds his audience in thrall, and his room-filling voice (he scarcely needs the microphone) is filled out by confidence and tempered by relentless questioning and a ready reservoir of incredulity.
Technique, however, only tells part of the story. C.K. always grounds his jokes (about behavior, language, children, travel, relationships, sex, technology…everything under the sun, basically) in an ongoing autobiography, the inscription of his worldview, the meticulously, obsessively thorough catalogue of his liabilities and limitations as a person. As only a few comics can really claim, Louis C.K.’s larger agenda involves tagging and compiling all of the countless ways he processes the world, affects those around him, or is otherwise carried along by forces greater than himself.
Although the show’s fly-on-the-wall/sitcom vérité camerawork has been normalized over a decade’s worth of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and wall-to-wall reality programming, Louie is completely unique. By his own account, Louis C.K. has been given complete autonomy to go bananas and do whatever kind of show he feels like doing, without anyone looking over his shoulder or giving final approval before any of it airs. Whereas most television, even the best, is written by a team of writers, the director held on a short tether by a creator or “showrunner,” Louie often resembles a home movie on a medium-sized independent film’s budget. The camerawork grows more polished and pleasurable as the show develops and evolves, remarkable perhaps for its plainness (in composition and angle), the way it seems to have been filmed only with available light, tipping at times almost into Gordon Willis-esque darkness.
The structure of the show could be described roughly as a series of short films, one or two per episode. In keeping with the pattern of his stand-up, the “joke” is often a starting point for a more complex object, one that is shaped by his singular manner of truth-telling, where getting a laugh is only one bullet point on a broader agenda. In fact, the clichés that TV and film writers have been emboldened into believing are still fresh—uncomfortable silences, the “new sincerity,” TMI situations—are simply a means to an end for C.K., rather than the whole kit. Where we tend to arrive at the conclusion of a given Louie narrative is far stranger, far funnier, or more troubling, than we’d get on any other comedy program.
It’s often said that you can’t define a joke without killing it; perhaps that’s true, that the fragile effect of a joke requires the free-fall from the setup to the punchline, the resolution of an initial bout of misdirection, and that a dry explanation erects scaffolding that crushes, rather than upholds, that fragile object. On the other hand, getting a laugh is, often as not, the result of a structure that is easily explained: People laugh when something occurs at the intersection of what was unexpected and what is just perfect. Just mentioning the name Lubitsch evokes a whole catalogue of ideal specimens. It can also be said that this phenomenon occurs in other, beautiful art forms, such as jazz music, dance, live theater, film, etc.—not always provoking laughter, but, in the best cases, giving us a positive response that’s purely organic, physiological, an electrical shock that binds us with the artwork. Laughter without laughter.
In the interest of assessing Louis C.K.’s imprint as an auteur of cinema (on television!), I would argue that Louie, in its freewheeling, no-oversight, “self-indulgent” style, indicates the personality of its author with a set of recurring patterns and tones, rendering the show—often characterized by a blackout style that disregards nearly every story thread in every other episode—a more coherent whole than it might seem, at first blush. Here they are:
1. The “person” of Louis C.K. in the show’s world is mostly a fabrication, a celebrity wearing his own face as a mask. Precedents for this include, obviously, Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm and John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, but you could go as far back as Jerry Lewis’s pampered movie star in The Bellboy, or further, with the films of W.C. Fields. In C.K.’s case, the character on the show is a struggling comic, scarcely as widely regarded as he is in real life.
2. Personality: The fact that Larry David used to rake in millions as Seinfeld’s co-creator, and Louis C.K. used to fix cars, goes a long way in illustrating what kind of “just a regular guy” profile the latter cuts on his show. Nothing against the brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm, but Larry David’s show often laments the problems of the privileged, while C.K.’s protagonist’s roots are unequivocally blue-collar. When a celebrity appears on Curb, their appearance and status is framed by the terms of West Coast showbiz and privilege. On Louie, the perennial red-carpet fixture Joan Rivers is reframed to talk about “the work,” about being out-niched, about using sex to get ahead, transforming the very icon of West Coast awards show superficiality into a beacon of Big Apple labor, and grace through an ironclad work ethic.
3. The premise of each “short” is often a simple one, less than a story, more like a set of instructions given to an improv troupe: Louie has a confrontation with a pothead neighbor, Louie has a confrontation with a defiantly apathetic school field-trip bus driver, Louie rifles through a box of high school mementos, Louie takes his daughters to visit his elderly aunt, etc.
4. Most autobiographical/roman à clef films and TV shows either set the author-protagonist on a simple trajectory toward inevitable victory or tragicomic failure; it’s either self-effacement or self-aggrandizement, with few alternatives. Louie’s stories build similar emotional-psychological crescendos, only to scramble or derail them before they can reach their logical conclusion. This is an example of the “surprising yet perfect” phenomenon I attempt to argue above, but the result is often an anti-joke, refusing the clichéd follow-through we might see on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld (disparate subplots converge in a perfect catastrophe) or most sitcoms (one final laugh; an affirmation of the fictional family unit; or some minor victory to meet the credits on an up note), preferring instead to go right for the anticlimax, a frustration of rational thought. Louie-the-protagonist is allowed no moment of heroism or triumph that isn’t subverted or negated, but his personality emerges clarified, not defeated. The simple math of the conventional sitcom has no place here.
5. The meticulous realism that dominates most of the show is accented by surreal intrusions of too-honest characters from the fringe: the shady, apathetic real estate agent who openly acknowledges his bait-and-switch tactics, the divorced woman who behaves, on a one-night stand with Louie, as if they were a long-married couple, or Louie himself, as he takes the unspoken fantasy of many white middle-aged New York men (pursuing a pretty, but ruthlessly standoffish, black girl) and pursues it all the way to the end of the line. The shrewdly enhanced plainness and honesty that comes to the surface is highly disruptive—one of the show’s only special effects.
6. Music, used sparingly, is usually frantic, playful, Manhattan jazz that often resembles early Ornette Coleman. In an unforgettably brash and guileless scene in “Country Drive,” C.K. rocks out to the Who’s “Who Are You”—the whole thing.
7. As anyone who cares about such things knows, Louis C.K. edits the show himself. This is unusual for a writer-director, but not unprecedented: Filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, David Lean, and Robert Rodriguez sometimes (or frequently) did their own cutting, as did Orson Welles. C.K.’s decision to cut the show himself may have something to do with his experience making Pootie Tang in 2001: He was barred by Paramount Pictures from editing the film, and has been wary about putting himself in similar situations ever since.
8. For a comedy, not every show is meant to be funny, but the dramatic episodes are often blackly comic in a way that is terrifying, provocative, and wrenching: Louie flashes back to his Catholic school days, when a doctor (Tom Noonan, that miracle among actors) is invited to the school to give a horrifying, precise, and forensic presentation on Christ’s crucifixion; a medical emergency puts Louie in a catatonic state, and only the frankness of his neighbors (who, up to that point, have been invisible) can snap him out of it; and, in what may be the most riveting confrontation in all television, a teenager threatens Louie with violence while he’s on a date.
9. In keeping with items (4) and (8), the sheer unpredictability of these narratives (which, I would argue, stems directly from C.K.’s questioning and impatient creative personality) puts viewers into a state where they have no choice but to have all emotional responses ready and accessible at all times, because you just don’t know what’s coming—a dizzying, but invigorating state that you don’t come across very often.
10. To be frank, some segments are not that great (“Dentist” comes to mind), and Ricky Gervais’s guest spots don’t do the show any favors, but one overlooks such things.
In The Five Obstructions, Lars von Trier persuasively argues the notion that artists require some kind of resistant, obstructive force to make worthwhile work. It could be said that C.K. removed the largest obstruction of them all by refusing any deal with FX that precluded total and final creative control over Louie, but he finds such unlimited possibilities in the clash between his personality and the strange city that there’s no reason to fear a shortage of invention. With near-superhuman diligence, he looks for ways not to take anything for granted, and his powers of observation are of such a high caliber that there’s no reason to think he’ll run out of things to think about and depict on the screen.
When you say, referring to a body of work, that a director is an auteur, you’re taking a polemical stand that doesn’t necessarily sit well with everyone, for reasons that are too complex—and far too aggravating—to get into here. It might be easy to convince people that Louis C.K. is an auteur director, but the challenge lies in persuading some that it matters. I think it matters because, through the act of imprinting his personality on material that could have gone a different—and, crucially, a far less interesting—route in the hands of another director (seriously: any other director), and because he’s the kind of creator who cannot help but to question and reframe, and question and reframe again, anything that strikes him as vital, or unexamined, or weird, or lazily assumed…because of all this, he makes works of comic art (on television!) that enthrall and elevate the viewer. That matters because great things are rare, and deserve recognition.