Comedy works best when it makes us think, and Louis CK’s brilliant Louie definitely makes me think. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to review episodes from the third season of Louis (along with the fifth season of Breaking Bad).
“Something is Wrong” – Louis, Season 3, Episode 1: Grade: C+
I didn’t know what to expect from Season 3 of Louie, because the show lacks continuity and consistency. It wasn’t really heading in any discernible direction after Season 2. It often feels like a collection of sketches and great ideas sewn together – sometimes out of order. Most other characters are plot devices that behave inconsistently. The constant tonal shifts can be jarring, as the show shifts on a dime from observational humor to a portrayal of male self-loathing and neurosis to standard slapstick to the patently absurd. This sort of haphazard plotting of comedy can work, but without strong jokes and something to tie it all together, it can flop.
That was the case with Season 3’s opener, “Something is Wrong”, which contains a few interesting ideas but failed to focus on any one of them. We’re left to wonder, “What was he trying to say?” or “Why did I just watch this?” My favorite episodes, including the very funny “Telling Jokes/The Setup”, focus on four of Louie’s favorite ideas: the awkward transition from youth to old age, the interplay between single father and his children, the science of comedy, and what he sees as the pathetic nature of men.
“Something is Wrong” starts out with an out of place standup clip that has little to do with the events that follow it. After some amusing but throwaway observations about street signs, we move into the meat of the episode: a breakup between Louie and his short term girlfriend. It's unclear what Louis CK is trying to accomplish in these two scenes (one at the beginning and one at the end). If he’s using the “if only I could get a word in, all of your confusion would be resolved” comedy trope, then that would be disappointing.
On the other hand, I’d like to hope that these scenes are exploring the tendency of men to deal with problems by forcing a confrontation through purposeful apathy and indifference. In this case, I believe that Louie is actually trying to breakup with his girlfriend using this technique.
So why is he doing this? Breaking off a short relationships is awkward. No one wants to needlessly hurt someone's feelings or provoke awkwardness, and there isn’t enough history to merit some sort of meaningful talk.
So Louie's “elegant” (and cowardly) solution is to just shut down. If I’m right and this was some sort of example of that gambit, then maybe these scenes were mildly interesting. They certainly confused me enough to merit multiple paragraphs. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode seems to have little to do with the breakup scenes (which bookend a story about a motorcycle).
On to the motorcycle plotline. It’s obvious that Louis CK thinks that motorcycles are both stupid and fun. There's some heavy-handed symbolism when he crashes his bike and misses an outing with his kids. For Louie, parenthood is an endless series of restrictions that coincide with the loss of youth. When he's sitting in the hospital bed with his head in a vise wondering if he is injured, I can't help wondering if this his metaphor for being a parent. But this is a theme that plays out with more success in other episodes.
This was a listless and somewhat unsatisfying episode of Louie. It's like the show was trying to break up with me. Fortunately, things returned to form the following week..
“Telling Jokes/The Setup”: Season 3, Episode 2: Grade: A
In “Telling Jokes”, the first part of a much stronger effort, Louie takes yet another stab at a comedian’s favorite question, “Why are things funny?” As you might guess, we never find out the answer.
Louis CK had a unique and timely take on this question. Considering the recent flame up after Adam Corolla controversially exclaimed "Women Aren't Funny" (prompting an upcoming documentary called "Women Aren't Funny" from the very funny Bonnie MacFarlane), Louis CK made an interesting choice here in having Louie's young daughters tell jokes that were as subversive as many of his jokes.
Louie's most effective scenes involve the interplay between him and his daughters and the standup material about raising children. My favorite Louis CK standup material involves his take on the parent-child relationship. Louis CK is refreshingly open about the idea that your children are these incredibly needy and selfish brats…but that you love them anyway. He wants to dispense with the idea that teenagers are monsters and children are delightful. They’re all monsters to Louis CK. I’ll get into more in later episodes.
If you have not seen it, I highly recommend the HBO special, Talking Funny. Louis CK is joined by Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and an oddly restrained Chris Rock for a discussion of the science of comedy.
In “Setup,” Louis takes a quick shot at married people’s creepy fascination with setting up their friends (see the wife smiling out the window as Louie leaves with his date) and then moves onto a fantastic blind date sequence that goes in an unpredictable direction. The ensuing scenes in the pickup truck are a hysterical play on men’s contradictory system of evaluating what constitutes “promiscuous” behavior. The way this plays out (including the physical comedy) is genius.
Odds and Ends:
Louie’s comic friend Alan insists that his wife likes him without being prompted. Men feel a need to say things like "My girlfriend really likes you!" to their friends. They're almost always lying. They do this because they crave their friends’ affirmation of their choice of a girlfriend. And that affirmation is easier to earn when the friend believes that the girlfriend likes them. It’s a weird shell game of feigned ego stroking and pack behavior that makes little sense. The budget increased this year. I’m guessing that he wanted to film this bit for the past two years but lacked the money in his budget to pull it off. But this just doesn’t fit.