Louis C.K. is the creator, executive producer and star of the new FX comedy “Louie,” which debuts tomorrow night at 11. He also writes, directs and edits every episode, and he is essentially playing himself, as a stand-up comedian newly-divorced and helping to raise two young daughters. It’s entirely possible that he’s also responsible for the costumes, the catering and painting the sets. In every way but the presence of other actors on-camera with him – because C.K. is funny but not exactly man of a thousand faces – this is a one-man show. If it’s good, all credit goes to Louis C.K. If it’s bad, he gets all the blame.
“Louie” is very, very good. It may even, based on the four episodes I’ve seen, be great.
C.K. has been a working comic for 20 years, has written for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Chris Rock Show” (and wrote and directed that show’s spin-off film “Pootie Tang,” which was almost universally-panned but which always makes me chuckle when I see it on cable). In 2006, he did the auteur thing with “Lucky Louie,” an attempt to do a traditional-style family sitcom with a laugh track, but also with the kind of frankness about sex, class and race you expect on HBO. “Lucky Louie” was, like “Pootie Tang,” slammed by critics – my review, in which I admired what it was trying to do even as I said “its rhythms are too conventionally sitcom-y, and the occasional chuckle isn’t worth the long painful patches,” was one of the kinder ones – and HBO pulled the plug after a single season.
“Lucky Louie” was a noble failure. Plain ol’ “Louie,” on the other hand, is a remarkable creative success, as engaging in the (intentionally) unfunny moments as the (many, many, many) funny ones.
The structure is similar to “Seinfeld” – if “Seinfeld” aired on FX late at night and Jerry were cruder and his misanthropy was interwoven with a healthy amount of self-hatred. Each episode intersperses bits of Louis C.K. stand-up with vignettes from his life that illustrate how he might have come to those jokes. (FX, perhaps fearful of residual “Lucky Louie” memories, describes the show in its press notes not as a sitcom, but “a unique mix of Louis C.K.’s stand-up comedy and scripted short films.”)
And the key thing you have to understand about Louis C.K. as stand-up, actor, writer, dad, ex-husband, etc., is that he is one miserable bastard.
“I know too much about life to have any optimism,” he tells the audience in one stand-up bit. “I know that if you smile at someone, and they smile back, you’ve just decided that something shitty is about to happen.”
Later, he says that any father who gives his kids a puppy should acknowledge that they’ll outlive it with the warning, “I brought home us crying in a few years!”
Each episode tells two stories, though the length, style and tone of those stories varies wildly. The first of tomorrow’s two episode is an even split, first with Louie playing chaperone on a school field trip gone horribly awry (easily the weakest of the four stories you’ll see tomorrow) then with him going on a first date where everything that can go wrong, does. The date story unfolds almost like a silent film – albeit one where Buster Keaton is frequently saying inappropriate things about his daughters – and I was almost crying with laughter by the end of it.
(FX is putting “Louie” on Tuesdays at 11 in part because C.K. seems a good Angry Middle-Aged White Guy partner for Denis Leary on “Rescue Me,” but also because much of the show – particularly the stand-up bits – is just shockingly filthy, even for the network that’s been home to “The Shield” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”)
The most impressive achievement of “Louie” may be the way it at times doesn’t even make a pretense of humor outside the stand-up scenes, which are plenty funny enough to carry you through other parts that are just trying to illustrate the melancholy that comes with being divorced, balding and overweight at an age when, as C.K. explains, there will never be a year of his life that will be better than the one before.
Tomorrow’s second episode opens with one long scene set at a poker game with C.K. and his comedian pals (including “Lucky Louie” sidekick Jim Norton). The guys swap R-rated insults until everyone’s attention lands on the one gay comic at the table, and Louie asks, sincerely, how the guy feels about Louie using a popular slur for gay people in his act. The scene takes a very serious left turn at this point, but in a way that manages to remain completely true to the spirit of what came before, and then to the jokes that come immediately after. It’s so thoughtful and human and warm that I would have easily watched an entire episode that was just Louie and his friend debating the ethics of a stand-up comedy act. As it is, I was perfectly happy with the comic vignette that followed, with Louie turning to his brother for moral support after the divorce, and the brother being too depressed to cheer him up, telling him, “What’s sad is, you’re too old to get anybody else.”
Later episodes include a cameo by Ricky Gervais as an old doctor friend of Louie’s who tries to play comedian while giving Louie a physical, Louie making the surprising acquaintance of a groupie, and Louie bonding with a divorced mom (Pamela Adlon, who played his wife on “Lucky Louie” and is a producer here) while their kids have a playdate. None of the stories feel quite like the one before it, and C.K. is even willing to toy with the stand-up/story format in one episode where some of the stand-up sequences are replaced with Louie visiting his inappropriate, incompetent therapist. (When Louie complains that he doesn’t have any friends, the therapist asks, “Do you think it’s because you’re fat?”)
“Lucky Louie” tried to bring a new sensibility to a format that came with too much baggage. “Louie,” while it has elements of other comedies from both movies and television, doesn’t feel quite like anything I’ve seen before. As a TV critic, I find that exciting. But as a plain old fan of comedy, I’m even more excited by how painfully funny this show is.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org