Why We Relate to Louis CK
Louis CK is having a great year. A tremendous year, arguably his best. Between the theatrical release of his new stand-up special Hilarious and the critically-acclaimed, fan-adored FX series Louie, the comedian is at the top of his game. He’s selling out venues nationwide, delivering phenomenal performances that pushes envelopes but stays grounded in brutal, highly literate honesty. He’s breaking down walls, cutting through stale, watered-down programming, and redefining what’s possible on network television.
We’re witnessing a comedy revolution, and a 42-year-old divorced father of two is at the helm.
Really, cable’s FX deserves a lot of credit for giving Louis the freedom to create a show as unique as Louie. As Louis himself told an audience at a Hilarious screening in New York last night, the only reason he agreed to do the show was because of the terms they offered him: money up front and 100% creative freedom. For the pilot, they wired him $200,000 and aired whatever he sent back. He didn’t even have to make a pitch or give them a premise before they gave him the cash. When they picked the show up for a full season, they bumped that amount up to $300,000 per episode, and pretty much nobody at the network sees an episode before it airs. That sort of freedom is almost completely unheard of in the entertainment industry.
And he earned that trust not by doing what most other ambitious comedians do, which is hang out in NY or LA, pitching networks and studios while performing to a comedy-savvy crowd at a hip club and making web videos. Instead, he got his cred by hitting the road, selling out shows in places like Milwaukee (where Hilarious was filmed) and gaining a following that existed in places beyond the two coasts. He took the route of an old-school comic to create one of the most forward-thinking comedies to ever be aired on national TV.
And there’s a good reason that he’s gained such a loyal national following: we relate to this guy. We feel his pain. Most of us know what it’s like to be the sad sack at one end of the bar noticing the sexpot on the other, feeling incredible desire twinged with enough self-awareness to know that they’d never, ever be interested in speaking with us. And once they catch you staring, the embarrassment and shame begin to swell.
But it’s also his perseverance that endears us to Louis. His stand-up act is filled with the trials of being the father of two girls, aged eight and four, but he delves into the hardships of parenthood with a shocking honesty not found since Bill Cosby’s Himself. In Hilarious, Louis recounts the soul-crushing effort it takes to dress a wriggling child before taking her to school and describes the overwhelming urge to just throw up his hands and quit. Not just for the kid’s outfit, but for fatherhood and life. But unless he wants two small corpses in his apartment, he knows he has to keep at it.
It doesn’t take being a father to relate to that, but not many people would willfully admit it on stage.
Louis has mentioned that his character in the show is essentially himself. And while he’s drawn upon several moments from his actual life for the show, because of his warts-and-all candor, those scenes are indistinguishable from ones he’s exaggerated or fictionalized. The Bully episode, for example, which features Louis following a 17-year-old thug from a doughnut shop to his home, is likely a completely made-up tale. And yet feels entirely believable.
When his date commends him for avoiding a fight with a teenage tormentor, she admits that her basest instincts are repulsed by his cowardly display. This woman isn’t a sophomore in high school who gravitates toward the football team’s starting line. She is a middle-aged woman whose reptilian brain is laid bare when Louis needs reassurance. He is rightfully offended, promptly ends the date, and — with an immediate shift in the episode’s tone — begins following the group of hooligans through the streets of New York.
Now, at this point, viewers who have endured that kind of humiliation are watching and hoping for an incredible act of vengeance. Maybe Louis corners the kid in a dark alley, points his finger in his jacket pocket, and grunts, “You think it’s funny? You think it’s funny making fun of me while I’m on a date?” Then, the teen shits himself and runs off crying.
But that’s not this show. That’s not who Louis the person, Louis the writer, or “Louie” the character are. Rather than sacrifice the realism of the scene, Louis goes to the bully’s home and confronts the kid’s parents — whose violent tendencies indicate where the kid gets it from. The episode ends with the mother throwing Louis out onto the porch where he subsequently shares a chat and a cigarette with the father.
There’s no pitch-perfect revenge. There’s no apology from the date. Louis remains a sad sack who was bullied by a teenager and had his masculinity demeaned. As a tale of humanity, it’s depressing and unsatisfying. But as a slice-of-life account, as a frank and genuine series that reflects Louis’ character on and off-screen, it’s extremely gratifying. Like a character tells him in the following episode, “You don’t get what you want. Not all the time.”
Something we’re all familiar with.