It’s beyond hyperbole to say that Louie has forever changed the face of what a comedy show can accomplish, if not in its content then in how many people or how much money is required to succeed. As a result, having to write lucidly on the show rather than cower behind rabid but editorially-vague fanboyism has been causing me no shortage of anxiety, so before I have time to reconsider let’s jump into the style of the first episode in this two part arc and work our way to its substance.
We open with a lengthy establishing shot at the Improv in Hollywood — CK’s name slated for a solo Tuesday performance, while below him on the marquee Burr, Mencia, and Byrne split Wednesday. Immediately, the gaudiness (and the expansiveness of the shot, in stark contrast the sardine-packed New York) places Louie outside of his natural habitat.
A jarring cut, which replaces the crowd chatter of Melrose Ave. with CK’s performance, brings us slightly closer to the building’s façade and a lower-third announces the time and location, which to any regular viewer of Louie feels both stingy and artificial. In the aesthetic context of the show — which succeeds by eschewing exactly these sorts of shortcuts — a seemingly lazy choice such as this puts a bad taste in the mouth of the audience; it raises a red flag that something clamoring and ugly is afoot.
Like most episodes, the opening sequence in “The Late Show, Pt. 1” unfolds on stage, where CK first tackles the luxury Western parents have of gradually exposing the ugliness of Life On Planet Earth to their children (unloading, it seems, some of the psychic trauma of the previous episode wherein his elder daughter Lily showed the first signs of that vicious transition to adolescence) and then segueing into the idiosyncrasies of consumerism.
Post-set, Louie and his child-manager Doug are approached by a representative of Leno’s Late Show, who is, like the Improv, accompanied by a lower-third. The effect is immediate: not only does it strip this executive-type of his humanity, but it acts as an affront to an audience which the show usually trusts enough to search for context clues. Another time-and-location card later (the inclusion of time adding a feeling of anxiety), and our protagonist is awaiting the closing spot on Leno, which he’s certain he’s being bumped from.
His discomfort is visible as hair and make-up artists doll him for the appearance. But contrary to expectation, the headlining guest — Tom Cruise — is a no-show, and Louie picks up the slack, improvising much of a set which we don’t see but are later told (in a phone call from Doug) has gone viral by the next morning. The set’s success leads to a meeting the next morning with president of CBS Leslie Moonves — who was, coincidentally, the commencement speaker at my college graduation — a meeting which Louie seems to attach no emotion or significance to, his reaction largely being annoyance at having to wake up before noon and interact with other humans without getting a chance to masturbate. The fundamental difference between CK and “showbiz” is established: before rushing onto Leno, a PA shouts something about not cursing on air; upon waking up, Louie squints out the over-bright window, muttering, “shit, bitch, god dammit” to no one in particular.
What follows has been masterfully established by the episode’s earlier beats: just as Cruise dropping Leno led to Louie’s “break”, Letterman is gearing up to retire and Moonves offers the position to CK, who quickly announces his inadequacy and nominates Jerry Seinfeld. The falsity, anxiety, and discomfort that pervade “The Late Show Pt. 1” comes to a head here, when Moonves casually notes that Seinfeld is already being scouted, and that Louie is being tapped strictly for the reason that he would be less expensive for the network to pay for the same job. Moonves, growing larger in frame, hammers away at Louie’s fears: that his career is in its dénouement, that he never caught the break he needed, that he’ll very soon be teaching hopeless students how to be a comic rather than working as one. Furthermore, he informs Louie that if he should choose to try to replace Letterman, the first step would be to shoot a test — should the test fail, the scraps of Louie’s career would die with it.
Unlike his previous brush with Hollywood in “Halloween/Ellie” Moonves’ forthright nature and ease of authority affect Louie deeply. Moonves represents exactly what Louie does not have (and does not want), and has the power to trigger Louie’s feelings of inadequacy. The episode comes to a close with the wheels turning in his head, wondering how many more shows he has until he’s splitting a bill with other soon-to-be-washups.
The nuanced way that the show presents characters paints Moonves as neither bully nor adversary, and what makes Louie’s crisis of conscience all the more meaningful is that Moonves’ words hold a great deal of truth to them. Louie — whose routines regularly cite the burdens of middle age — must be considering how long he can continue being a working comic; what is the next step, or isn’t there one for him?
We believe in Louie. His character and his personal life overflow with integrity. And yet, much of that integrity stems from an internalized sense of inadequacy that Moonves has tapped into and fully exploited.
Louie — the character — suffers from low self-esteem, seems to have no luck at anything, and is frequently depressed and eating himself oblivion. But the constant comedy of errors that are his circumstances is what allows us to know that he’s going to be okay. He’s a comedian, god dammit! Every kick he receives when he’s down, self-inflicted or not, becomes another new piece of material to try out at Carolines, right?
But there’s the rub.
“Late Show Pt. 1” is intentionally one of the least-funny episodes of this season and of the show in general. The absence of comedy — via the excluded Leno set and the lack of situation diversions — is what helps this episode to feel fundamentally wrong. Normal Louie is a lovable Eeyore; Hollywood Louie is genuinely unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or feel any sense of achievement. We understand that, to the great detriment of his “career,” Louie will retain his integrity rather than roll over for some network big-wig, but that the sound of doors closed voluntarily will haunt him. For once, rather than being able to blame a difference of opinion, a jerk promoter, or his place as a “comic’s comic,” this loss will be entirely of his own volition.
Guest post by Bryan Menegus, who blogs here.