In the last few years, Louis C.K. has slowly advanced his claim as a modern philosopher masked as a comedian. He is one of the foremost artists of our generation, and his transformation from a “comic’s comic” to elder statesman—joining the ranks of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks—has been incredibly exciting to watch as a longtime fan of C.K. and comedy. His material succeeds in being both honest to his experience and profound on a cosmic level, and C.K. as an individual has defined a new independent spirit, working on the edges of what is mainstream to create innovative art.
Since 2009, Louis has independently produced, written, and directed all of his projects and in an attempt to redefine standard Hollywood business practices in the digital era, released his last stand-up special, Live at the Beacon Theatre, directly to fans through C.K.’s website for a modest fee of $5.00. The experiment netted him more than $1 million, over 80% of which he gave away to charity and his staff. Since then, it seems like Louis has decided to release everything he creates through his website, recently announcing that it was the only place to buy tickets for his upcoming national tour, effectively removing the burden of engaging with dubious ticket distribution companies like Ticketmaster.
None of this information is necessary to watch his idiosyncratic cable show Louie, but it definitely informs the unique sensibility that pervades it. Shot in a style reminiscent of 70s-era Woody Allen, Louie draws from C.K.’s life as a working stand-up comedian and a divorced single father. Each episode stars Louis C.K. as himself and consists of loosely connected vignettes, which often explore abstract themes like religion or sexuality, bookended by live stand-up. Structurally speaking, Louie is a television anomaly unconcerned with maintaining fundamental aspects of the medium, such as serialization and continuity. No long-form character or story arcs exist within the series. Different actors often play recurring characters; recurring characters often have altered motivations or personalities depending on a particular episode’s story. In one episode, Louie’s mother is portrayed as a bitter, unloving woman and in another she is portrayed as patient and kind; in the third season premiere, Louie’s wife is revealed to be an African American woman despite the fact that both of their fictional children are white. C.K. approaches every episode like a short film with its own specific narrative objectives. Anyone who has followed Louie over the past couple seasons knows to expect and assume nothing, except Louis C.K.
While some might consider the subject matter in Louie groundbreaking for television, episodes about masturbation and aging are well-tread territory for C.K. fans. Yet, it is C.K.’s perspective that has vaulted Louie into top-tier television—the kind in which everybody stands up and notices. His worldview is easily the most intricate and pervasive element of the show. It isn’t defined by one characteristic or does it stem from one event in his life, but rather from an amalgamation of contradictory beliefs, storied experiences, existential dread, and humanism. Louis C.K.’s perspective embodies Louie’s style, tone, writing, direction, and characters.
In “Telling Jokes/Set Up,” the second episode of the third season, C.K addresses modern masculinity through an absurd, shaggy-dog style structure. In the episode, Louie is set up with a woman named Laurie (played by Academy Award winner Melissa Leo) by his comedian friend and his wife. They get a drink and proceed to get along before an uncomfortable sexual encounter occurs. In the final scene, Louie receives oral sex from Laurie in her truck outside the bar, and when she asks him to return the favor, he balks and says it is too soon for them to be intimate. Louie claims they simply have different values regarding sexual reciprocity, but Laurie decries the inequality in the exchange. They argue for a bit before Laurie bets Louie a thousand dollars that she will persuade him to give her oral sex. Louie agrees to the bet. Almost immediately after, Laurie calls Louie gay, smashes his head against a passenger seat car window, climbs on top of him, and threatens to break his finger unless he pleasures her. He complies. Then he enthusiastically agrees to go out with her again.
Prior to Louie and Laurie’s date, there’s a scene with Louie and his two young daughters, Lily and Jane, eating a meal and telling knock-knock jokes to each other. The scene switches to Louie retelling one of Jane’s jokes on stage: “Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet? The people who were in charge of that decision.”
Jane’s joke serves two narrative purposes in “Telling Jokes/Set Up.” First, it subtly prepares the audience for the entirety of the final scene. Louie loves Jane’s joke because the set up and the punch line are both logical and absurd at the same time. The concept of the joke is unexpected, but the ending is predictable. Louie and Laurie are established as two lonely people who are tired of the charade of dating and cynical about the prospects of marriage. The two of them have great chemistry and it isn’t until their sexual encounter that they hit an impasse. Though Laurie emasculates Louie into pleasuring her, Louie still agrees to go out with her because, in spite of her behavior, they had a fun night together. The predictability of Louie’s response juxtaposed with the absurd image of Louie’s smashed head against a car window mirrors the trajectory of Jane’s joke.
Secondly, the entire premise of Louie and Laurie’s date is in the vein of a shaggy dog story, like the famous Aristocrats joke. A woman bets a man she’ll be able to convince him to pleasure her. She goes through varied lengths to get the man to comply, before eventually doing so in a shocking, uncomfortable manner. The joke ends with the episode’s ending dialogue: “You wanna go out again, right?” “Yeah, sure!” The vignette’s structure fits the theme of joke telling established in the beginning of the episode, not to mention the double meaning embedded in the vignette’s name “The Set Up.” If C.K. wanted the audience to respond negatively to Laurie’s attack against Louie, the scene wouldn’t have ended on such a purposefully punch line note, like almost nothing inappropriate had happened prior.
However, Louie’s brilliance lies in the episode’s implicit discussion of modern masculinity. C.K. wishes to portray Louie as a man who’s completely self-aware of his societal privilege and the subsequent responsibilities with having that privilege. Despite Louie’s talk about being sick of traditional dating, he still functions in society’s norms, refusing to be sexually inappropriate on a first date with Laurie. This is how men are supposed to act: respectful, firm, and honest. Yet, when he encounters someone like Laurie who feels that those same norms have cheated her out of any meaningful connection, and just desires the simplicity of sexual gratification, he is unsure of his footing. Part of what makes Louie a constant delight is watching Louie encounter people who make him question his own prescribed opinions about the world.
One of Louie’s greatest assets to conveying C.K.’s complex perspective is its blurred line that divides extremes inherent in the show’s framework. It rests in the uncertain place between realism and surrealism, comedy and drama, fact and fiction. Stories and characters are pulled directly from C.K.’s past and present life, but it’s purposefully vague whether or not they are from reality or a product of his imagination. While the Louie universe exists in a recognizable, modern New York City, it doesn’t necessarily obey the natural laws of our world.
It’s also unclear whether Louis C.K. is playing himself or a version of himself. In the third season premiere, “Something is Wrong,” Louie impulsively buys a flashy motorcycle after a construction crane crushes his car. He almost immediately crashes it after encountering a motorcycle gang and ends up on a gurney in the hospital hallway talking to a doctor who disparagingly describes the dangers of motorcycling. Elements of this story are from a pivotal moment in C.K.’s early career as a working stand-up in the late-80s, as described in his interview with fellow comedian Marc Maron on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Louis would ride his motorcycle back and forth from Boston and New York doing ten sets a night thinking he has “the greatest life in the world.” This lasted a short time. Louis describes:
“I was going down 2nd Ave about 70 mph, and a car went through a red light going perpendicular, and I never even touched my brakes, I just plowed right into this car. I flew over the car, I lost my sight… And, uh, the bike was in pieces in front of me… It was a nightmare, and I got strapped to a board and taken to a hospital, and after lots of CAT scans and tests and shit, this doctor came to me in the hallway, didn’t have a room, and said, ‘You’re fine. You’re stupid, don’t ride motorcycles anymore, but you’re fine. Take it easy for a while.’ And I hopped off this table and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna go home,’ but… I really fucked myself up…. My whole body had bruises all over the side of it that grew as the weeks went by. For two weeks I was in bed, and I was a fucking wreck, and my motorcycle was gone…And I looked in the mirror the next day and I was balding. I saw it for the first time.”
Louis describes this event as the turning point before his luck changed for the worse. Local comedy clubs began closing down a week after the crash, resulting in a decrease in readily available work and prolonged self-doubt over whether he was able to continue his career. However, the personal implications of this story are not included in the episode, but rather just the bare details: Louie ends up in a hospital hallway following a motorcycle accident and is in a great deal of pain. But C.K. takes this story and has it serve entirely different narrative ends. His character’s active purchase of a motorcycle stands in sharp contrast to his passivity in relationships, as his girlfriend breaks up with him earlier in the episode because Louie isn’t able to.
Many different stories in Louie’s run seem to be from C.K.’s personal life, but it’s ambiguous whether they are a literal depiction or only contain certain elements. In the acclaimed first season episode “God,” a doctor gives a graphic description of Christ’s suffering on the cross to a grade school Louie at his Catholic School. The younger Louie is traumatized by religious guilt before being assuaged of his fears by his mother who tells him that religious doctrine isn’t the only way to be a good person.
In another episode, “Oh Louie/Tickets” from the second season, the show flashes back to early in Louie’s career as he films a pilot for a sitcom. He loudly points out the unrealistic quality of the writing and the canned studio audience laughter to the producers before quitting the show. He glumly returns home to his unseen wife and Lily, their newborn child, telling her that her father will only ever be a comedian.
It is possible for the audience to derive two respective interpretations from both of these examples. In “God,” the audience can reasonably assume that the visiting doctor’s description of Christ’s suffering and Louie’s mother propelled Louie to abandon Catholicism and find satisfaction in other areas of his life. In “Oh Louie/Tickets,” the audience can assume that Louie turned his back on a traditionally successful life as a sitcom actor because of his personal principles to be a full-time stand-up comedian. These interpretations are certainly valid within the fictional narrative of Louie, but C.K. actively cautions the audience against accepting them as the only interpretations. Louie’s lack of fictional continuity immediately throws into question any sort of long-term implications from Louie’s life because it is possible that C.K. will later write an episode that contradicts the events in “Oh Louie/Tickets” or “God.” The two interpretations only function under a traditional narrative structure, in which prior events in a character’s life have significance or impact on future events.
C.K. works against that grain because he urges the audience to view and interpret each vignette in a vacuum, allowing more conducive thematic analysis over character analysis. In Louie, all of the characters, including Louie himself, serve solely narrative purposes and are secondary to the overriding theme present in that episode. “God” is more about the detrimental effects of dogma on a child’s development than Louie’s early adolescence and. “Oh Louie/Tickets” is more about the intersection between abstract principles and reality than Louie at all. In the Louie universe, characters are fluid because their collective experience is ultimately more impactful than any one character’s narrative concerns.
Since many of Louie’s stories are from Louis C.K.’s life, and contain many familiar celebrities that have colored his storied career, it’s also tempting to put forth a meta-analysis on any Louie episode, but he discourages his audience against this as well primarily through incorporating surreal, absurdist elements into the show. In “Something is Wrong,” Louie crashes his motorcycle because of showboating motorcyclists that perform tricks around him. In “Oh Louie/Tickets,” the studio audience that watch Louie’s pilot purposefully sound like a laugh track instead of real people. These features suggest that they are not only the product of C.K.’s imagination, but also a dramatization of his own worst-case scenarios. Moreover, the mix of fantastical and factual elements indicates Louis C.K.’s unwillingness to draw direct comparisons from his life to the screen.
It’s easy to say that he based Louie on his life and interpret the on-screen events as “real.” But C.K. would rather work in that gray area, which effectively spurs both fictional and meta- analyses, and permanently keeps the audience in the dark. But what can we infer from this? C.K.’s desire for his art to be fictional and factual, real and absurd illustrates the overlapping nature of his artistic and personal life. Rather than separating his character and his self, C.K. purposefully blurs the lines to demonstrate that a comedian, like any other artist, can never truly step off stage. Life and art intersect in myriad ways, and one more often than not diffuses into the other. C.K. sees no contradiction between his character and himself because both are different and similar at the same time.
Louis C.K. creates a rich, complex portrait of life and the ordinary people who experience it in his stand-up material and in Louie. Unlike what most of television portrays, human beings aren’t defined by their occupation or one personality trait, they are an intricate web of successes and failures, good memories and bad, mistakes and regrets, loves and heartbreaks. And the questions life poses to you may not have simple answers, nor may they have any answers at all. It’s easy as an audience to accept and consume the black-and-white portrayal of television reality, but we all know in the back of our heads that the world we live in is nothing like that. What C.K. tries to achieve in Louie is a depiction of the modern age, full of normality and absurdity, without the typical blinders on.
Vikram Murthi is a rising sophomore at Swarthmore College where he studies everything from Advanced Drum Circling to Theoretical Bobsledding. Vikram is an aspiring writer, critic, or bard (he doesn’t have a preference), but is secretly holding out for the position of astronaut chef whenever NASA starts hiring again. Meanwhile, he spends most of his days on Twitter, obsessing about television, or listening to the same three Modest Mouse albums over and over again. He wants to meet Abed Nadir on the street one day, but knows it’s very unlikely.