Comedy is at its best when it is followed by tragedy. Extend that analogy into the general vagaries of the thrill of happiness and the emptiness of sorrow and you might be onto something. Happiness is a transient emotion, an anomaly in the vacuum that exists inside our mind and it always gets sucked out. Always, that happiness is followed by an emptiness. The laughter with silence.
“A temporary bandage on a permanent wound” — Pete Campbell, Mad Men
It’s also said that comedy and tragedy go hand-in-hand which isn’t all too surprising considering the neural pathways that act on the stimuli of both those emotions are closely matched to one another. Tears of happiness, anyone?
That often puts both the comics and dramatists enacting comedy and tragedy respectively on stage in a similar unique position. Both are capable of evoking conflicting emotions in their audience almost simultaneously and in doing so often leave them more susceptible to certain things they would find harder to accept otherwise.
It’s not a joke when you see so many people say they strongly believe in George Carlin’s words even today. He was a fierce speaker, stirring the disillusionment among the masses but he was also a comic and in the laughter he generated, he often made it easier for his words to be embraced by the audience. Carlin didn’t evoke tragicomedy directly but in subtext to his jokes, particularly the manner in which he derided the government & society and how all of us didn’t care but still managed to laugh at how fucked up things were.
Which brings me to Louis CK. There are more than a few reasons why people see him as a sort of a Carlin’s successor even if Louis is more adept at surreal comedy — one which imagines ridiculous scenarios and then draws something irreverently meaningful out of it. He, like Carlin is a sharp observer of the society around him and doesn’t hold back tackling topics that are taboo or a minefield to controversy. And unlike Patton Oswalt, Louis CK is unusually good at avoiding getting trapped in those controversies, a credit to his skill no doubt. He is also brilliant at a more direct form of tragicomedy — one which both amuses and depresses you.
For three seasons, his show Louie has been bringing that tragicomedy element of Louis CK consistently. Even if the show gets tagged as a “comedy”, it is thoroughly devoid of any familiar elements that its’ contemporary, canned laughter peers like Big Bang Theory or even the laugh-out loud moments of oddity shows like Community or Archer. Most of Louie’s laugh-out loud moments occurred in its first season when it was still searching for its’ identity. From that point on, the show has veered heavily into the tragicomedy area with morbid episodes like Eddie combining humor with the darkest truths behind society’s fetishized approach towards helping people to not commit suicide. Or with extended forays into self-deprecation like the entire Late Night Show arc. It has become a canvas not just for Louis CK’s ambitious film-making flair but also a direct critique of society, relationships and our behavior in the midst of it all — all of it observed from one man’s eyes.
Many term Louie as a semi-autobiographical show as elements right from the protagonist, to those surrounding him including his family are largely inspired from his real-world parallels. I would however prefer calling Louie as a “fictional show with an indelible authorial stamp” on it. Not everything that happens in Louie needs to have happened in real but I can totally imagine that happening inside Louis CK’s head. The fourth and its latest season of the show proves my point because for the first time it acknowledges it has veered into the surreal comedy territory from the very first scene — a nightmarish exaggeration of trash collectors invading Louis CK’s room and trying to disturb him from his precious sleep. Louis’ unfazed reaction throughout the scene as if it’s a mundane, matter-of-factly occurrence adds to the surreal nature of that scene. It’s a continuation of a surreal streak the show began developing in the latter half of its third season that culminated with David fucking Lynch guest starring in a three-episode long Late Night Show arc.
The fourth season also continues Louis CK’s showcasing of his impeccable film-making skills with some brilliant shots, one of which in the image below during the episode “Model” led to many saying it reminded them of Godard or Wong Kar-Wai. The six-episode “Elevator” arc that forms the center of Louie’s latest season is almost like the greatest Woody Allen movie that was never made — the low key unlikely romance surrounded by flawed characters that makes you smile and reminisce in equal measure. The 70-minute “In the Woods” is a dreamy reminiscence of the agency that teens give up to drugs, on parenthood and on masculinity. It is like a dreamy homage to Dazed and Confused compressed into two half-hour episodes with a clear-cut message.
But the fourth season of Louie also does something else besides the flights of visual ambition and the incremental steps towards surreal comedy. It projects women Louis CK is surrounded by through his eyes and in doing so he achieves some pretty interesting things.
“Model” and the barriers that we perceive
This is first apparent in the second episode “Model” which sees Louie bombing at a charity event at Hamptons’ where he was opening for Jerry Seinfeld and he ends up stringing along with a beautiful model Blake, played by Yvonne Strahovski. The moment Louie exits the estate in her car, the subsequent shots depict the episode has clearly left the realm of the real. The calming, almost dreamy attribute to the scenes that follow which culminates in that darkened out-of-focus screenshot we see as Louie watches Blake strip into her bikini and he abruptly stops there. Not to stare at a beautiful woman but to gape at the distance of worlds between them and how vastly different their comfort levels are with their own bodies.
The dark, naturally low-lit shot focuses out over Louie’s shoulders to Blake as if momentarily breaking out of its surreal trance to wonder how can two humans’ like them even exist on the same plane. What might feel like a simple self-deprecatory statement actually digs deep into all of our own insecurities. Why does our perception of our own physical appearance generally overshadow every aspect of the domain of whom we can be with? The dating culture has permeated in more than a few ways where we are still sticking to the levels and class of school even as adults.
On Exposed Double Standards in “So Did the Fat Lady”
A reversal of sorts happens in the very next episode “So Did the Fat Lady…” where Louie gets repeatedly flirted by a fat waitress and Louie repeatedly comes up with silly excuses to avoid going out with her even after the show has established these two have a common ground and a chemistry. In a single almost 10-minute long scene the eponymous “fat lady” played brilliantly by Sarah Baker calls out Louie’s double standards and the general society’s inability to call a fat woman fat to her face as flat-out insulting. While there were differing reactions on the Internet, some thinking that Baker’s monologue was a proxy to fat women everywhere and others thinking it was a bit condescending to speak on everyone’s behalf. But the fact Louis CK had started a conversation was something most were glad about. The fourth wall was beautifully torn down during that monologue when Baker asks Louie to place himself in others’ shoes which coincidentally makes him look at the camera — at us. As if it couldn’t be any more obvious that the message was being aimed at the society at large.
On communication barriers in “Elevator”
The six-episode Elevator arc forms the very heart of Louie’s latest season partly because it fleshes out a recurring theme throughout many of these episodes. Something which is pointed out explicitly during a conversation Louis has with his ex-wife Janet, “I am speaking now but I’m not really listening anymore”. Over the six episodes, the show focuses not just on Amia, the Hungarian-speaking neighbour that Louie falls for but also briefly on his daughters and his relationship with his ex-wife. While his budding romance with Amia is sweet and charming, it does feel like Louie’s ideal romance because he can say what he wants without ever having to listen to what Amia is saying.
In a sense, isn’t that a distorted version of the “ideal, loving relationship” that many dream of? Where your loved one never complains. And Louie can stick to his “I’m speaking but I’m not really listening anymore” because he can’t understand a single word that Amia says. Our mind can conveniently fill the gaps to protect our side of an argument. Louie describes both the beauty and selfish ugliness involved in a romance where language is the prime barrier. When Louie’s ex-wife points that out, he vehemently refuses to hear her out — a continuation of one of the many possible reasons that led to dissolution of their marriage. Sure, he may still be incredibly caring about her but neither he nor Janet have been able to resolve their differences in the years post-divorce. Louie treats that as a natural thing however, as if sometimes differences aren’t really supposed to be resolved like Math problems. They can perpetually exist in various forms between two individuals and they still can have a good social relationship as long as they acknowledge those differences. Sadly, Louie doesn’t bother showing either of those things ending the Janet arc (atleast for this season) with a heroic rescue attempt by Louie during a hurricane to take his ex-wife and kids to a safer place. It shows Louie’s affection and dedication to his family but doesn’t do anything much beyond that.
The “Elevator” arc briefly touches on Louie’s insecurity for his daughters particularly the younger and wilder one, Jane. This first happens when Jane steps off the train thinking it’s just a dream (another explicit acknowledgment of this season’s surrealist vibe) just before the doors close leaving her father and elder sister panicking in the train. His elder daughter, Lily keeps him calm and acts like the adult while Louie panics.
This sees a reversal of sorts when Louie gets called to school after Jane misbehaves in front of a teacher. Sitting on a bench at Central Park, Louie simply asks Jane, what exactly her problem is? Jane then shoots off to a surreal monologue on how the school system is unfit for her and simply sucks the talent away from kids leaving Louie speechless.
Perhaps there’s a lesson for both parents and kids here — not every problem can be solved, some always exist to confound you, make you feel small and helpless and ultimately show that your kids can face real world problems too and you won’t always be there to help them. It’s a stirring lesson for Louie and his silence at an eight-year old Jane’s complaints speaks volumes. Which brings me back to Amia and Janet, both representing communication issues — the former of the literal kind and the latter of a more metaphorical sense.
The most explicit statement of that is made in a beautiful scene (image above) that takes place in Louie & Janet’s flashback, long before they were married. Louie sitting in the balcony with Janet trying to speak something. Considering the dreamy nature of the entire season, an average viewer expects Louie is simply fazed out but as it turns out there is a literal glass door in between them which Louie eventually slides to hear what Janet has to say. If a single scene were to describe the entire “Elevator” arc and perhaps the whole season’s strongest theme, then that would be it.
Ultimately, Louie isn’t able to build that final line of communication with Amia and that keeps their romance strictly in the “ideal, fantastic” territory even as they deal with Amia’s own insecurities about their relationship due to the little time she has left to live in the US. Ultimately, it is Amia who does the final push and writes a letter in Hungarian and finds a waiter willing enough to convey her message to Louie — and that remains as the sole sequence of communication that’s clearly exchanged between both of them. And it’s bittersweet in the best way possible.
On adolescence, parenting, drugs and “a man’s problem” of “In the Woods”
Sandwiched awkwardly between the “Pamela” arc is a dreamy 70-minute oddity of parenthood, adolescence and masculinity all drowned in the smoke of weed. Initially, “In the Woods” seems like the weirdest episode in Louie’s season — not just because of its themes that center mostly around the adolescent masculinity but also because of its almost Dazed & Confused like treatment where almost every other scene is tinted with a sort of rosy reminiscence. Triggered by the prospect of having to deal with a 12-year old daughter whom he caught smoking weed, Louie is taken back to his own adolescent days where amid the hormonal confusion, he drifted into the smoky haze of marijuana. While this 70-minute two-parter is largely about the adolescent Louie and the parallels he picks up for his big parenting test while he confronts his daughter, it is also about a father figure — in the form of Mr.Hoffman, his science teacher and his mother. Mr.Hoffman (supposedly to be played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman originally before his death, who this episode pays tribute to in the start) represents a father figure who the young, adolescent Louie looks up to and when he admits he was the wrongdoer stealing weighing scales and selling drugs all along, the shame from disappointing a figure like him drives Louie to a better path.
His mother on the other hand gets immensely distressed by the way Louie is drifting away from her, that emotion boiling over in a brilliant scene halfway through the episode which shows both the pain of a mother and the inability of an adolescent to express what he really is feeling. Because, as we all know from our experiences during that age, none of us really know. Then there’s the drug dealer played by Jeremy Renner who cautions Louie that once he has stepped into a “man’s problem” he has to deal it as a “man”. But the question, the young Louie quietly grapples with throughout that episode and in general in the entire season is “What is it to be a man?”.
Reimagining masculinity as a flawed version of humanity
This is what I believe Louie has largely been about this season — masculinity as projected from Louis CK’s own eyes. Masculinity as defined and shaped by his experiences around women throughout his life. Be it his mother, his wife, his ex-wife, his daughters, the best friend/lover or the Hungarian-speaking neighbor — Louie takes a look at where do as men we stand in our relationships with women. Whether it is gazing at a woman way above your “class” or insultingly ignoring someone you don’t think is of your “class” — Louie shows both sides of the coin in the dating game in space of two episodes and how men are as much part of the problem whose victims they conveniently play most of the times. As a guy in an engineering college, I’ve heard the line “That girl didn’t even look at me” , more than enough to last me a lifetime, yet are any of us really different when the tables are reversed?
Louis’ relationship with Janet is filled with the male ego of always knowing what’s right in his arguments with his ex-wife but he still does the rightful thing when it comes to being there for his family when they need him.
Masculinity is a dirty word and for its deserved reasons — it is a self-absorbed element of identity that encourages empathy when convenient, principles over understanding and blindly functions on power structures geared to benefit it. Anyone who doesn’t fit under that label gets mocked or treated as less than equal burdened by the gaze of numerous judgmental eyes while they work in a rigged system. What Louie does is it reimagines “new age” masculinity as a more understanding, responsible and generally more empathic and thus just more human purely by the virtue of its interactions with its opposite sex.
Louis CK’s reimagined masculinity as shaped by his interactions with women certainly goes in line with a theory that masculinity is partly defined by a boy’s disidentification from his mother. When Sarah Baker goes on a rant about the way men treat fat women, Louie initially argues, holds his ground like a traditional male before he eventually listens and ultimately reciprocates with a silent acknowledgment in the end. He struggles to communicate their issues with his ex-wife, but is right by her and their kids when they need him. He grows increasingly disconnected from his mother as a young adolescent on weed but eventually acknowledges her affection and follows her advice knowing she knows what’s best for him. He is immensely protective of his daughters but acknowledges that even he won’t be able to solve all their problems. Carving masculinity as a flawed version of humanity itself is an interesting concept and the only reason it works in Louie is because it doesn’t attempt to take broad strokes of the situation and projects it from Louis CK’s mild, almost completely respectful interactions with women.
That scene during “Pamela” arc
It does stumble though. The “Pamela” arc brings Louie’s long-time crush/friend into the picture again and while their interactions often verge on self-aware offensive humor, they work because it’s genuine and the chemistry between Louis CK and his long-time friend/collaborator Pamela Adlon is sparking solid.
But the show has reiterated that Pamela, a target of Louie’s affection since she first appeared in Season 2 is uncomfortable with typical displays and expressions of affection. Having made that fairly obvious long back, it is during “Pamela (Part 1)” when Louie comes back after a gig to his home where Pamela was on nanny duty watching over his daughters and makes advances on Pamela. This being Louie-Pamela means it is mostly him being awkward and Pamela just avoiding any sort of contact with him. What’s worrying is that in their awkward attempt to “kiss/avoid being kissed”, it almost comes across as a physical tussle between a large, imposing man in Louie and a tiny woman in Pamela. Eventually, Louie gets his way as he blocks off the door until Pamela allows to kiss him — which she with utmost reluctance eventually does. Her reluctance stems from not that she doesn’t like Louie but she simply doesn’t want to express herself in such a manner. Louie meanwhile fueled by Pamela’s earlier confession of her feelings (which happened way back early in the “Elevator” arc) is determined to get his way, as signified by a fist of jubilation when he gets the kiss and he allows Pamela to leave.
This feels problematic especially in the context of the scene it’s placed. Just before that scene there’s a long stand-up sequence at Louie’s usual haunt “Comedy Cellar“ about “wife-beater” (the vest) and how such a troublesome term keeps being used even to this date in our lexicon. It’s no coincidence that such a scene was coupled with Louie’s physically towering presence pseudo-wrestling with Pamela for a kiss. She even explicitly comments “You can’t even rape well”. A dark joke, typical of Pamela but one which placed in that context rings with a definite amount of truth.
If there’s a lesson associated with “masculinity” even in the problematic waters of that scene, it’s that the general physical nature of men makes their mere presence intimidating to women in situations, even if in this case it was a friend and a possible lover. As the gender that’s traditionally tasked to “make the move”, men often overstep their boundaries without even realizing it and then feel like it’s a “defeat” if they step back. Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club made some brilliant points related to this in his review of the episode, recalling a similar situation when he had a confrontation with his wife and had blocked off the door. In that context alone, that scene between Louie and Pamela works — it makes the viewers uncomfortable about the physical differences of both the gender and how that turns “good well-meaning guys” like Louie into potential molesters and worse, even rapists. It’s an incredibly clumsy way to make such a loaded point and Louis CK’s treatment doesn’t make it any better.
To be clear, the problematic element with that scene is that Louie allowed its’ eponymous fictional character to have his way with Pamela and then end that note with a “victory pump”.
Everywhere else there has been a “sting and respite” model to the messages Louie has attempted to convey. Whether it was the monologue in “So Did The Fat Lady”, the letter over at the dinner table for Amia and the hurricane rescue for Janet in “Elevator” or the mere acknowledgment of mother’s good intentions during “In the Woods” and allowing agency for his own daughter to figure out her adolescent confusion without him repeating his own parents’ mistakes was one of the many important things which made Season 4 of Louie a thumping success.
The fact it wished to ditch the lure of trying to satisfy its’ viewers by making them laugh and instead doing so with style, ambition and in most cases, definite substance. It may come across as heavy-handed and too on-the-nose sometimes, but each time Louie did something like that, it started a conversation.
It dared to grow beyond its tragicomedy roots into a parable drama of sorts that almost acts like a dark mirror to the society albeit one that also doubles as a lens to its’ own creator, Louis CK. While fans remain divided over the latest season at the “droughts of laughs” and some critics found it hard to forgive its’ apparent missteps, they apparently don’t watch Louie for the same reason I and many others do.
Whether through dark humor, through flights of fantasy or of nostalgic rosy reminiscences, Louie‘s fourth season resulted in discussions at the end of almost every episode and sometimes that is more than we could have asked for this lovably oddity of a show that has become a strange but endearing creature of its’ own. In the fourth season, Louie finally found its place as a skewed mirror of its’ own brilliant creator.