Note: None of the clips in this article are safe for work or anyone under 16. You’ve been fairly warned.
Comedian Louis CK’s single-camera comedy series Louie is making its UK debut this month, bringing America’s most highly acclaimed half hour show to a British audience. But with the third season now wrapped on US TV, it begs the question: what was the hold-up? Well, it’s not like British broadcasters have had a great track record with high-end American comedy: Arrested Development was pretty much hidden away by the BBC, which broadcasted double episodes late on a Sunday night. But why has it taken so long for a cable channel to pick up a show that was Time Magazine’s number one TV series of 2011?
Louis CK isn’t a household name here in Britain. Well, he’s not a household name in his native America either. Having been a regular of the New York stand-up scene for almost two decades, he’s quietly developed a reputation as one of the world’s finest comedians. Perhaps unfairly, he’s often referred to as a ‘comic’s comic’ for his proficiency and invention but that would suggest that he’s incredibly highbrow and inaccessible to mainstream audiences – which is in no way true.
His casual style of stand-up doesn’t feature the hard punch lines that are favoured by the most popular of British comedians. Instead, he tends to mine his life for material: taking an extremely profane approach to everyday topics like parenting. Very few comics are capable of speaking as graphically as he can and even fewer can do it while remaining so likable.
[Remember: not for the easily offended]
People on this side of the pond may have first heard of him when Ricky Gervais started championing his stand-up. However, this was also in one of his classic rants about how all comedians in the UK are bad compared to American comics (with the exception of himself), so it was hardly the most sterling of endorsements. But as comics, the two of them couldn’t be any more different. While Gervais pushes the edge of taste for the sake of getting a laugh, Louis CK’s profanity seems to come across as constantly fresh and feels earned. Like George Carlin and Richard Pryor before him, his act is one that depends on honesty and openness and his TV show is a reflection of that.
From the outside, his show might resemble the sitcom Seinfeld: it’s about a vaguely successful stand up comic who happens to have the same name as his creator. Many episodes start with snippets of Louie performing in a club, which will regularly segue into scenes that elaborate on the material. But that’s kind of where the similarities end. The show is highly autobiographical but not always in a literal way. In some episodes Louie in an only child while in others, he has a brother or a sister or a different sister as determined by the needs of the story he’s trying to tell.
The one constant parallel between the on-screen Louie and the real life one is that they’re both divorced fathers. His relationship with his onscreen kids mirrors the point of view he often takes in his stand-up. It’s not necessarily the same ‘I hate my kids’ angle taken by music hall comedians, but you get the sense that he enjoys being a dad while also coping with the constant infuriation of looking after two human beings.
[May contain swears]
It’s not uncommon to see a comedian’s stage routine translated to the screen but CK’s approach is to hit the same themes without necessarily re-enacting too many of his ‘bits’. It’s obvious that a lot of the ideas from the show have been floating around in his head for years. If you want a definitive break-down of why you should never heckle a comedian, just check out this clip:
[Once again: contains language]
The Louie in this show even hangs around with the actual types of comics he does in real life. This opening scene from the second episode feels like the most genuine portrayal of professional funny men hanging out. This scene -in and of itself- almost works as a mission statement: it’s profane, un-PC, funny and incredibly humane. And that’s the one word that sums Louis CK’s style of comedy. He works on topics common to observational comedy but he always approaches them with incredible empathy. Sitcoms can often feel hack when their characters learn valuable life lessons each week but the way in which Louis tackles his prejudices (from the perspective of a guy who perceives himself as incredibly progressive) never wonders far into cliché.
It’s also an tremendously well-made show that looks more cinematic than any other show on TV, which is a miracle considering its relatively miniscule budget. Commissioned by cable channel FX in the United States, Louis CK was offered complete creative control over the series. This meant that there would be no notes from executives, nor any casting mandates. But in exchange, he would have to find ways to stretch his budget of US$250,000 an episode. This might seem like a lot of money but consider the fact that relatively cheap sitcoms normally deal with a million and a half each episode. Hell, even the half man from Two and a Half Men gets paid $350,000 just to turn up on set.
CK not only get the show made under budget, but he has also manages to make it one of the most beautiful and ambitious programmes on the air. Not only does he write and star in every episode, he directs, edits and produces the whole series as well. For what is normally a collaborative medium, he is perhaps the only true auteur working in television. Shooting in New York (a notoriously expensive place to film in) he explores the city in a way not seen since the mid-period films of Woody Allen. And in a way, that comparison seems only appropriate. His show has a blend of humour, humanity and beauty rarely seen since Annie Hall and Manhattan. This red-haired comic from New York has picked up where another one left off decades ago as one of the most important cinematic voices.
And if you think that’s an overstatement, then you haven’t seen Louie yet.
New episodes of Louie are available every Wednesday on blinkbox