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Metacritic Score: 91
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97
Number of Nominations: 6
Major Nominations: Comedy Series, Lead Actor, Direction (“Sleepover”), Writing (“Bobby’s House”)
I came very late to the Louie show. I’d seen Louis C.K.’s stand up once or twice in passing – most on his hosting gigs for Saturday Night Live – but the show was always something I’d meant to get around to watching. One of my problems as a television watcher and as a human being is that I have a little bit of the “bright shiny object” syndrome. I’m always off to the Next Big Event without finishing shows I’d started or getting to shows I’d intended to see. You could say I’m a bit like – SQUIRREL! – Dug from Up that way.
This week, I finally sat down to watch Louie and binged all eight episodes of its fifth season, and I’m here to tell you that Louie is without a doubt one of the finest sitcoms on television. It’s a deceptively smart show, almost too smart to win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, that dabbles in raunchy, often disgusting humor. But don’t let the sex and poop jokes fool you, Louie offers more subtext than certainly most popular comedies but also perhaps more than most dramas on television today.
Louie is an underdog winner of a comedy, and the Television Academy should learn to embrace the underdog.
The format of the show is deceptively simple. It often juxtaposes scenes of star Louie C.K.’s stand-up routines with seemingly intimate slices of his personal life. The show has roots in Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but neither of those shows seemed to dig as deep into the characters as Louie does. And dig deeply into Louie it does, often putting him through humiliating and ridiculously honest situations that feel so incredibly real and embarrassingly true. One of the brilliant aspects of the series is the way in which Louie is allowed to react to situations in a very humanly honest way. He doesn’t always do or say the right things, but he’s a flawed character. And that’s okay. That’s the comedy coming through in full force. Consider Louie C.K. a comic anti-hero, if you will.
Louie is “about” many things, particularly the art of comedy. The show dives deeply into what it means to be a comic and analyses what modern comedy has become. I literally cannot think of another 30-minute sitcom that tackles such a specific and personal topic so brilliantly. There are multiple scenes of comedy clubs sprinkled through the season, but, over the course of Season Five, there are two major (majorly funny) sequences that go a long way toward defining modern comedy, and Louie C.K.’s seeming frustration with it.
First, Louie is pestered by a fledgling comic for feedback – something apparently Louie doesn’t like to do. As with most events in the series, Louie’s soft-heartedness eventually leads him to giving feedback to the comic whose standup routine consists of a painful memory of bedwetting and beatings from his mother, something Louie found too personal to be truly funny. When delivering his opinion (basically that the kid should completely give up comedy), Louie ultimately gives the begging comic one bit of advice to becoming funny, “Use a funny voice or something.” Later in the episode, Louie is relaxing in bed watching a late night show when the same unfunny kid appears as a comedy guest using the same unfunny routine – this time with an exaggeratedly high-pitched voice. The audience guffaws while Louie dies a little inside.
The other hilarious modern comedy commentary from the season happens in the fifth season finale, “The Road Part 2.” Louie has a week-long stint at a comedy club, and the club owner has given him a free condo that he must share with the opening comic – a boozy, womanizing, and crass comic who thrives on the easy laugh. He lights his own farts on stage, to give you a taste. Naturally, the two do not get along, and their relationship comes to a head late in the episode when they confront each other on the validity of, basically, fart jokes. The comic Kenny, honestly played by Jim Florentine, challenges Louie to admit that fart jokes aren’t funny. It is a challenge that Louie fails despite not wanting to admit that comedy laughs can be so easily obtained by simple bodily functions. Louie wants to work harder, work smarter, for the laughs, but Kenny goes for the easy laugh every time. Finally, Louie admits that he laughs every time he hears someone pass gas, and they begin to bond over the moment, leaping immediately to a bottle of Jack. It doesn’t end well, though, as Louie begins to violently vomit into the toilet just as Kenny needs to poop. Kenny attempts an “upper decker” (look it up) but slips and cracks his head open on the tile bathroom floor. He later dies.
On the surface, each scene is a small nugget of comedy gold. But, as with any work of art, you have to look closer at the detail to see the deeper meaning. Louie spends a great deal of time commenting on the state of modern comedy and its various camps, influences, difficulty, and reward. It’s a testament to this great show that it even attempts such feats and that it succeeds so wildly. This is but one of the many themes Louie tackles over its too-brief season. It also covers family, aging, gender roles, relationships, and sex – all things that other comedies cover but in easy, surface, near-superficial ways. When it digs, Louie digs deeply and finds fresh ways to explore standard sitcom tropes while still making them as openly funny. I’m particularly fond of the episode that explores gender roles after finding our anti-hero fighting a random woman on the street and losing. He goes to his girlfriend Pamela (Outstanding Guest Actress nominee Pamela Adlon from Grease 2?!?!?! – how great is that) for some makeup to cover the bruises, and she finds herself sexually aroused by the experience. They switch genders for the night, and Louie discovers what it feels like for a girl.
Louie is probably the best comedy series currently airing on American television. Does that mean the Television Academy will reward it? Who knows. They should recognize it just as they should reward Louie C.K. with the Outstanding Comedy Actor trophy. The trouble with awards is that they generally favor series that are liked by all – not the ones loved by a few. It’s unfortunate, too, because Louie rises above its competition and operates on a wholly different level. It covers difficult topics with honesty and affection without ever approaching pretentiousness.
At its core, Louie is a very, very funny show that the Television Academy should wholeheartedly endorse. Even the underdogs need a little love every now and again. The Academy just shouldn’t be afraid to get a little poop on it, that’s all.
Hey, it happens.