Louis C.K. is a filmmaker.
That is not to undermine his world-class abilities as a writer and performer, but rather to emphasize the role his direction and visual style plays in his comedy.
Historically, audiences have operated under a false perception that in comedy films and television, actors and writers are doing the heavy-lifting and directors set up a wide shot and let the magic happen. In dramas, nobody questions the role of the director in bringing out performances or employing the perfect close-up. They are, deservedly so, regarded as integral pieces of the storytelling.
When considering C.K. in this canon, it is important to look at his career arc. When he was an up-and-coming standup in the nascent years of the downtown New York alt scene, C.K. was also busy making short films. From these films, two things are immediately clear. First, C.K. is extremely aware of and inspired by major stylistic movements in filmmaking, most prominently the French New Wave films of the 1960s, the American New Hollywood films of the 1970s, and perhaps most strangely, the silent Surrealist films of the 1920s. Second, Louis C.K. has always wanted to use his cinematic style to present his comedy.
Pootie Tang took his voice and writing style but without his performance. Lucky Louie allowed him freedom in writing and performance but within the visually constraining form of the sitcom. It is no coincidence that the final piece of the puzzle for C.K., and the medium in which he would find major celebrity, was the freedom provided by FX to direct and edit his own show. In being able to combine his distinct and specific directorial style with his comedic voice and performance, C.K. has made what I and many others believe is the funniest, deepest, nuanced, and most successful work of his career as well as on television today.
One of C.K.’s goals with his visual comedy is to translate his standup humor and sensibility to the screen. What we see are his experiences and observations filtered through his interpretation. Looking at it this way allows us to engage with the more stylized visual choices he makes.
In this scene from “Subway/Pamela,” Louie watches a violinist play in a subway platform. The camera pushes in on Louie’s face to indicate that his perspective is our access point to the narrative, as is almost always the case in Louie. Then, a homeless man enters and C.K. frames the scene so the violinist is out of focus in the front right of the frame and the homeless man is in focus in the back left.
This is the build up of his standup act visualized on screen. He successfully executes the strangeness he feels and observes as a viewer in this space with his placement of the two men holding equal weight in size and depth within in the frame. This allows us to understand each man’s sense of pure ownership of the space, and thus the main comedic push of the scene.
Initially, C.K. paces the scene slowly and allows the framing device to build. We watch the homeless man enter and disrobe without a cut, which draws in the viewers' curiosity and heightens the feeling of discomfort clearly felt by Louie. Once the music picks up speed, the pace of the action follows suit, with the homeless man manically scrubbing himself. By remaining in the wide shot for this, C.K. forces the viewer to consider whether or not this choreography is intentional or some strange and fantastic coincidence being observed by Louie.
As Louie’s character realizes the way the two are interacting with each other, C.K. cuts quickly with the music. The close-ups of the homeless man’s physical grotesqueness moving in unison with the pace of the complex violin music is almost Chaplinesque. As the piece reaches it’s grand conclusion, C.K. cuts to the homeless man coughing. This abrupt sonic change is a release of tension in the scene, a reminder where we actually are, and the laugh beat.
Much of this is classic French New Wave style filmmaking, which is known for it’s combination of single camera, on-location realism with a certain self-aware choreography in it’s representation of everyday city life. However, Louis C.K. also takes his inspiration from Surrealist cinema, which allows him to go even further in breaking narrative convention and dramatic psychology. For example, it is not presented as strange that his ex-wife and the mother of this children in the show is black, despite the children very clearly not being of mixed parentage. While not as viscerally shocking as Luis Bunuel’s razor through an eyeball in his classic Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, the effect is all the same, C.K. forces reaction and consideration from an audience with the casting of a black actress that a more dramatically conventional choice would not allow.
Perhaps his deepest foray into Surrealism comes in Season 3’s “Late Show” trilogy, where Louie falls head first into the institutional madness of late night television. One needs to look no further his casting of modern Surrealist David Lynch as the talk show “coach” Jack Dahl, to see where C.K.’s directorial intentions lie.
In this scene from “Late Show, Part 2,” there are clear differences from the show we are used to seeing. The colors are far more saturated and the lighting flatter. This is a visual reference to the look of a late night program, but what looks “natural” there appears bizarre and stilted in the world of Louie. Stylistically, this serves to call out the plasticity of those programs. When Louie, in his signature black shirt and generally unkempt appearance, enters into this set, the two elements could not clash more. After spending three seasons successfully giving his show a naturalistic style, the viewer is made to feel totally disoriented in this juxtaposition of forms. This clash is not only a great comedic moment, but also a tenet of Surrealism.
When the exaggeratedly stiff Dahl steps in front of the camera to coach Louie, C.K. positions the camera so he can cut from Louie observing Dahl in the monitor, what can be seen in the monitor, and the wide of Dahl off-camera. Through the monitor, Dahl is perfect. His gestures are timed exactly to the “audience” reaction, he feels in control and confident, he hits all the beats we are familiar with in the late night form. But Louie and the viewer are confused, because what we see off the monitor plays as removed and awkward, making meaningless gestures into empty space. It is unclear whether or not Louie can hear the band and audience the way the viewer can, or if he's simply having a moment of realization that Dahl’s impression is so spot on that he feels these things are present.
This meta breakdown of the construction of late night variety programming deftly allows the viewer and the character to see and understand the seams of what we consider tight construction. C.K. is able to show that the “naturalism” we value from our genial late night hosts is learned and rehearsed. As Lynch would say, it’s all recorded.
The heightened confusion of the scene, full frames, and the juxtaposition of the soundscape are all staples of Louie’s comedy direction and his standup style. It is ostensibly observational comedy, but filtered through a wholly specific worldview translated to the screen only when he has full control of how the viewer experiences his world. His humor is in the unexplained and the surreal, not typical of TV comedy, where humor is in the reveal. By using a “gritty” filmmaking style inspired by the realism of the films of the '60s and '70s mixed with the dramatic liberties afforded by Surrealism, Louis C.K. is able to successfully translate his standup act rooted in commenting on the deep strangeness he sees in humanity to a uniquely singular visualization of just that on television.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.