A big hit in America, it’s time Louis C.K. and the success of hit show Louie crossed the pond.
For the uninitiated – and especially for those in the British Isles – the work of American comic Louis C.K. may need some introduction. It’s an interesting fact that while stand-up comedy may be as lucrative an industry as it’s ever been in the UK at the moment, comics from across the Atlantic rarely make the crossover to our grey little mainstream. As such, in 2008 Ricky Gervais clearly felt it necessary to give C.K. his dubious stamp of approval during this bizarre two-worlds-collide moment on daytime TV.
It’s a mark of Louie’s brilliance that it resists straightforward description, a product of C.K.’s subversive brand of comedy
In the age of YouTube, it’s probably not worth me wasting our time trying to describe the intricacies of Louis C.K.’s uniquely subversive and endearing brand of comedy, but I would urge anyone to waste the vast majority of their working hours watching a few videos of his on the aforementioned site. The success of his FX series Louie, which C.K. writes, directs and stars in, has seen the comic awarded with an unusual amount of credibility in the US showbiz stratosphere, allowing him to work comfortably with everyone from David Lynch to Woody Allen.
It’s a mark of Louie’s brilliance that it resists all straightforward description. Besides the occasional special episode set in China, Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re essentially in stable US sitcom territory — we follow a comedian during his daily life around New York — but whereas a show like Seinfeld always side-stepped the full force of the tragicomic with an aloof sense of cynicism, Louie is quite clearly someone in the full throes of a battle with mid-life depression. In one episode he even buys a motorcycle. He crashes it almost immediately.
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While this may not sound like hilarious and compulsive box-set viewing, watching Louie struggle with an uncertain career, two young daughters, a failed marriage, loneliness, obesity and existential angst, in all its variations, actually comes to offer us much more than laughter. The style, delivery and emotional range of each episode is quite simply stunning and the series has a cinematic quality far beyond what anyone could reasonably expect from any other 25-minute sitcom. Imagine Curb Your Enthusiasm with a heart, or Lead Balloon if it was actually any good.
For British audiences especially, Louie really does seem to have come out of nowhere, but it seems that in the US, C.K. has steadily been building a reputation as a writer and director of uncompromising talent. Last month also saw the release of Tomorrow Night, C.K.’s 1998 directorial debut, through the comedian’s website. For the cynics among us, as much as this archive-clearing has a whiff of the cashing-ins about it, Tomorrow Night actually deserves a wider audience. Its controlled execution clearly shows a filmmaker working with a clear sense of what it is he wants to achieve.
In an age when studios seem more and more risk averse, C.K. may be one of the digital era’s first TV auteurs
Critics have written about Tomorrow Night being a kind of oddball time capsule, but if comedy in 1998 was actually anything like it is in Tomorrow Night, we would surely be in stranger waters now. It makes The Mighty Boosh look like Playdays. Imagine Buñuel collaborating with Jim Jarmusch on a narrative of non-sequiturs held together solely by mundane acts of cruelty. At one point, a deranged old man is eaten by stray dogs. As with Tomorrow Night’s various other oddities, this goes without explanation, which is arguably the film’s strength: it is the rarest of debuts in that it is completely uncompromising in its singularity.
This sense of the uncompromising is also key to the success of Louie, which C.K. famously has complete control over in every aspect of the show’s design and execution. Allegedly, FX does not even get to see episodes until C.K. has made his final edits. Having this amount of control is one thing when it comes to making independent films, but in the rapacious world of American television it is remarkable. Louie’s quality speaks volumes for the work and risks FX is taking, just as it does for C.K.’s talents. In an age when studios seem more and more risk averse, C.K. may be one of the digital era’s first TV auteurs, at a time when they’re desperately needed on the big screen too.
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All images: FX