Louie as Jazz for TV (with fart jokes)

Jason Mittell's picture

An old college friend posted the following on Facebook yesterday: “So I keep watching the show Louie, which I find to be the most depressingly realistic TV I’ve ever seen. I think it’s a really good show, but it’s about as far from comedy as one can get. Why is it called a comedy? The topics are exceedingly heavy, and handled with a minimum of drama – they are too realistic.” My brief reply to her was that the show could be as funny as anything on TV (citing the episode “Come On, God” about masturbation as an example), but that really it’s a show that transcends genre. Thinking more about it, and watching the truly amazing season finale “New Jersey/Airport,” I’m changing my tune.

There’s a history to me discussing television genre categories with college friends – I open my book Genre and Television with an anecdote about debating whether Northern Exposure was a comedy or a drama. And some of the points I brought up there apply to Louie - just as Northern Exposure fit the industrial criteria of a drama for its era (ensemble cast, hour-long format, serialized storylines, single-camera production without a laugh-track), Louie‘s basic attributes point to it clearly being a contemporary television comedy. It’s a half-hour show, produced much like many “quality” comedies today (single-camera without a laugh track), focuses on a titular stand-up comic in a long-standing television comedy tradition – and it’s often the funniest show on TV, with a distinctive comedic sensibility growing out of the commonplace gutter of jokes about farts and blowjobs.

Of course it’s much more than that – take the finale’s opening stand-up bit about the pleasures of sleep as a father. It starts with the familiar topic of parents griping about their kids waking them up early, and then gets more twisted as he vamps on the exquisite pleasures of “deep African sleep” with sleep as a “goddess whore sucking me off” with “a gold helmet and forty tongues… speaking in a dead language” (and it’s worth saying that the words alone cannot convey how hysterical this sequence is – Louis C.K.’s physicality and performance is essential to his comedy). This is the odd juxtaposition of conventional parenting and ribald blowjob forms of humor, filtered through a singularly warped creative vision. It’s clearly comedy, but its unconventional approach and rawness makes it push at the genre’s boundaries.

Note: I wanted to post this clip, but YouTube doesn’t care about fair use. So instead, watch a scene Louis C.K. posted himself from the first season that similarly plays with offensive humor, conventions and serious issues:

I’ve read critics comparing Louie to short films, collections of short stories, or art cinema, and while I think those are all apt, I’ve come to think that the cross-media comparison that best fits what Louis C.K. is doing on his show is making jazz albums for television. The show uses jazz music as its score, which invites this connection, but I think it’s more than the sonic tone – jazz is lodged in the show’s approach and genre. I’ve not seen anyone else make this comparison except this nice account of C.K.’s standup by jazz musician George Colligan:

Watching Louis C.K. is like watching an older jazz musician play; he’s totally comfortable on stage, he’s has total control over his material, and the audience is left in awe of his mastery. His material is highly observational, and it covers things we can all relate to, but he can examine the simplest ideas with such angry, twisted detail, that you are left breathless at the virtuosity of his explanations. C.K. draws much of his humor from his complete honesty, his shamelessness, his willingness to leave no stone unturned in his self-deprecation and criticism of society.

I’m not jazz expert or even much of a fan, but what I take away from reading about jazz is that much of the genre’s pleasure is found in taking the conventional and making it new, in the virtuosity of the performance, in exploring innovation within limits, and in the sense of passion coming through the expression. Louie is far from improvised – the visuals and performances are tightly controlled and calibrated (although perhaps some of the dialog scenes are more improvised, especially when Louie chats with other comics). But I think jazz is unfortunately equated with improvisation too often – much of what happens in jazz music is about control, precision, and working within established limits and patterns.

The film work that Louie most reminds me of is peak Woody Allen (late-1970s) – films like Manhattan and Annie Hall have a similar jazz influence, juxtaposing conventions and influences, taking the norms in new directions, and finding heart and passion underneath a more flippant surface (plus the similar use of jazz for soundtrack material). C.K. and Allen have drastically different tones and styles, but both work as singular creators, as writer/director/star (and in the case of Louie, editor). Such singular vision is unheard of on television, fairly uncommon in mainstream American film, but quite common in the musical world of bandleaders and solo artists.

What C.K. has done with Louie is create a piece of television that is instantly recognized as the work of one creative vision, and arguably that’s never truly happened in American television before (maybe Ernie Kovacs?). It’s working in the vein of comedy, but wanders freely across genres and tones, embracing influences from all over the cultural map. Its refusal of overt serialization, such as abandoning the “plot development” at the end of “Niece,” runs directly counter to most of today’s best television, prompting Louie‘s comparison to short films and short stories more than the long-form novelistic mode of other great television. But I’d say that seriality is besides the point with Louie because the show is ultimately not that interested in plot or even storytelling per se – instead, it focuses on tone, style, mood, and sensibility, like a compelling piece of instrumental jazz that refuses simple categorization. And rather than trying to classify and understand it, we’re left just to enjoy its unique vision.

The jazz parallel also helps locate the show in terms of cultural hierarchies. Today, the commonplace perception is that jazz is part of elite, highbrow culture, catering to aficionados at swanky bars, but of course jazz’s origins are within lower-class, folk and street milieus, and in some places, that’s where it still thrives. Another jazz-influenced television show, Treme, mines this territory by contrasting the elite New York jazz culture where trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux resides with the street events and seedy bars in New Orleans where Antoine Baptiste plays. And jazz gains vibrancy when it crosses and transcends such cultural divides, making it more complicated than an elite form.

Louie is “art television” in many ways, with stylistic cinematic flourishes and measured pacing, layered with serious ideas and “depressingly realistic” themes, as my friend wrote. But it also employs lewd, lowbrow humor – as with the season 2 opener “Pregnant” that spent a tense 20 minutes building to an exaggeratedly long fart – that makes it a not-entirely-inappropriate companion to FX’s most popular program: reruns of Two and a Half Men. Such cultural contradictions are integrated into the show’s stories, most notably in the brilliant hour-long “Duckling.” Louie takes his act to Afganistan to entertain troops alongside a pair of cheerleaders and hyper-earnest country singer Keni Thomas. But while the show acknowledges that (character) Louie’s sense of self places him at a higher cultural plane (but lower self-esteem) than his fellow USO entertainers, he connects with the military audience through clever gutter humor, just as (show creator) Louis treats the singer and his song with respect – and ends by making Louie the show’s biggest buffoon through a perfect use of lowbrow physical comedy.

So in the end (of season 2, thankfully not the series!), Louie offers a virtuosic and singular approach to television that defies comparison within its own medium. I don’t know enough about jazz to be able to argue direct comparisons – maybe season 1 is “Kind of Blue” and season 2 is “A Love Supreme”? – but I find the cross-medium link useful to better understand the scope and power of C.K.’s innovations. And the next time a friend asks “is Louie a comedy?”, I’ll respond with, “no, it’s jazz.”

Filed under: Genre, Taste, Television, TV Shows Tagged: jazz, louie

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Fri, 09 Sep 2011 12:25:35 +0000