Saturday, July 6, 2013

Louie: Comedy Without Laughs

Louie C.K.'s Louie has received high praise from critics for its bold originality.  It is not a mass-produced formula sitcom.  It is, unlike the typical sitcom, personal and experimental.  A.V. Club reviewer Nathan Rabin wrote, "Television gently coaxes viewers frazzled from the stress and anxiety of everyday life into the realm of the soothingly safe and familiar.  The average television comedy is filled with characters and dynamics we’ve seen countless times before as well as jokes that have ricocheted through the medium since the days of Leave It To Beaver. . . Louie offers none of that."  Another A.V. Club reviewer, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote, "There's really been nothing like it in the history of television."  As many fans see it, Louie is on a mission to blow apart the rules.  Culture critic Adam Wilson believes that the series takes the radical position that an artist cannot create a new genre unless he "burn[s] what came before."  The problem, though, is that the rules of comedy may be immutable to torch-bearing rebels.

Producing a sitcom that is uniquely personal and experimental has a number of drawbacks.  Experiments, which are based on unproven ideas, are unreliable, failing more often than they succeed.  An experimental television series is a hit-or-miss affair that threatens to let down the viewer every time that he tunes in, which gives the viewer a good reason to stay away.  Wilson wrote, "C.K. wants to deconstruct the sitcom, to defamiliarize viewers in a way that is exciting, but this can also be alienating when it doesn't work."  C.K. is driven to experiment regardless of the consequences.  Roger Ebert described C.K.'s 2001 feature Pootie Tang as "one of those lab experiments where the room smells like swamp gas and all the mice are dead."  The show's most ardent fans are the sort of people exhilarated by the daring and unpredictability of experimental entertainment.  I am, as a consumer of entertainment, more pragmatic.  I care about results.  I want, simply, to entertained.  Yes, I am frazzled after a day's work and I prefer to be soothed.  The following scene from Louie is far from soothing and, even more important, it doesn't make me laugh.

I assume that this scene has personal meaning to C.K., but it means nothing at all to me.  This brings us to a look at the personal nature of Louie.  The series, which explores the comedian's psyche, is, according to Wilson, an exercise in "unchecked subjectivity."  C.K. explained that, while a series designed by a big writing staff has to follow strict rules and procedures, his own series is simply "one person going to these very strange places in their head."  The lack of rules or filters presents a raw form of art, which it can be argued is regressive.  Film comedy only advanced from its primitive beginnings because filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd established rules.  A greater problem than this is that personal vision is narrow while comedy, at its best, is universal.  Art should be governed by the artist's own internal logic, but it has to have meaning to others to find acceptance.  Comedy, more than any other art form, demands for the art to be directed outside of the artist.

A viewer can remain engaged in a dramatic film even if he feels removed from the action.  He can observe the action as nothing more than a voyeur, reveling in the sordid and the sensational without having to imagine himself as one of the participants.  It's different with comedy.  Not every drama needs to make a person cry, but every comedy needs to make a person laugh.  Laughter requires the filmmaker to make a simple and direct connection to the viewer.  Comedy that is personal or experimental risks coming across as something alien, off-putting, or confusing.  "[W]hen the audience is confused," said Mack Sennett, "it doesn't laugh."  The viewer must be able to quickly process a gag or a punchline to produce a response as clear and simple as a giggle, a chuckle, or a guffaw.  The slightest glitch can cause a disconnect and prevent the laugh.  It may not be reasonable to expect C.K.'s lonely loser, who never makes a solid connection to other characters in the series, to make a solid connection to viewers.  Chaplin's Little Tramp was an outsider, but he had emotions that inspired identification and qualities that inspired admiration.  The "Louie" character doesn't necessarily offer that.

This brings to mind the later work of author Carl Sandburg.  After having spent decades writing books, Sandburg had to dig deep inside of himself to find something new to write about.  His books became more personal and esoteric in the process and, before long, the author found that less people related to what he had to say and even less bought his books.  C.K. no doubt digs deep inside of himself, but there's no guarantee that a viewer will respond to what he pulls out.

Buster Keaton was in an unhappy marriage at the time that he created his classic silent features.  It is reasonable to question if the feelings that the man had about his troubled marriage are reflected in his work.  Let's take a look at this scene from College (1927). 

It is fair to say that, with this scene, Keaton was offering his personal perspective on marriage.  It is also fair to say that he wasn't looking for the scene, as disturbingly sour as it is, to get him laughs.  This is another example of a comedian going deep inside of himself and abandoning his comedy instincts in the process. 

Laughter is social.  It is about sharing and bonding.  It is about an association between the viewer and the comedian.  It is for this reason that, unlike drama, comedy is bound to certain expectations and conventions.  Comedy that strays too far from the essential rules may intrigue viewers, but it will not likely make them laugh.  This is not to say that comedy should be predictable (comedy depends on twists and variations), but comedy must stay within defined limits to remain comedy.

Let's get back to that earlier scene from Louie.  The woman acts horribly towards Louie, who cringes helplessly in response.  It is difficult to judge from this scene if Louie is a passive character or a witless character, but it makes no difference as neither sort of character is interesting.  Chaplin's Little Tramp suffered scorn and abuse, but he was never passive or witless.  Why is Louie putting up with this horrible woman?  More important, I do not understand at what point in this scene that I am supposed to laugh.  C.K. likes to create scenes that are tense or unsettling and he likes to withhold information to keep the action ambiguous.  We have never seen this woman on the series before and we know nothing about her relationship with Louie.  The scene is, in the end, unpleasant and confusing.  Yes, it violated Mack Sennett's "confusing" taboo. 

What about this scene? 

Again, the world heaps abuse on Louie and he stands by helplessly.  Is this funny?  The comedian accepts various humiliations and lumbers off in his patented sad sack style.  Wilson wrote, "Louie's misery seems inevitable, irreparable [and] real."  But, in Wilson's estimation, the character redeems himself by demonstrating dignity and persistence in the face of his humiliations.  I think that, by persistence, Wilson means that Louie continues to breathe.

I must admit that, in early episodes, Louie did occasionally stand up to a wrongdoer, pleading with them like an angelic emissary to be a better person.  He seemed to believe that everyone possessed basic human kindness and they could find it inside of themselves if they just looked.  Unfortunately, that never really worked out for him.

Here, another comedian set up a scene between a man and a woman.

That scene, which comes from Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother (1927), may be old-fashioned, but I find it poignant and amusing.  I am able to identify with the scene in a meaningful way.  It may be stylized, but I am fine with that.  What's most important to me is that it made me laugh.

Wilson wrote, "Not only does Louie's audience not know when to laugh, they don't even know if what they're watching is supposed to be funny."  C.K. said, "To me, as long as it's compelling, as long as it's something worth watching, it's okay if we're not getting laughs."  It's all the same to C.K. if a scene makes you laugh, or cry, or cringe.  C.K. insists that any sort of "high-registering reaction" is, in his opinion, "as good as a laugh."  C.K. upheld this theory in defense of a controversial episode called "God."  He said, "[E]ven though there aren't jokes [in the episode], it's funny to me."  He had to deal with a backlash of angry emails after the episode aired.  "[N]one of them were religious," said C.K. "All of them were, 'Why wasn't this funny?'  They were outraged, like, 'Go ahead and say these fucked-up things about religion, but be funny, you jerk.'"

It would feel like death for a comedy film to play in a theater without getting laughs, but Wilson suggests that Louie's laugh-free humor plays well to people watching it alone on their laptop.  He said that the series taps into the "post-millennial loneliness."  It is comedy for a new age.

C.K. has remained unwavering in his belief that comedy can be funny without jokes to make people laugh.  He explained, "I think that jokes are little insecurities inside a comedy.  They're there to test, 'Are we all still here?  Are we all still watching?  Are we all laughing?'  But in fact, jokes are stoppers.  When you have a stream of funny, and it's building, a joke releases it, and it stops, and you have to reset."  At another point in the same interview, the comedian said, "[S]ome people get irritated by comedy that's funny all the time.  I like funny things.  I don't like comedy."

I will say that the show, as memoir, is original and engrossing television.  It is understandable that the show went in this direction.  The most important achievement of the stand-up comedy revolution of the 1950s and 1960s was that it gave rise to a more personal form of comedy.  C.K., who has worked as a stand-up comedian for 29 years, has come out of the same tradition as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.  He stands on stage and talks about his life.  It is to be expected that, when it came time for him to write scripts for his series, he would look to his own life for material.

I admire C.K.'s work on a number of segments, including "Divorce," "Blueberries," "New Jersey" and "Miami," but I simply cannot bring myself to categorize the series as comedy.  I cannot tell where episodes like "Eddie" and "Niece" make the slightest attempt at humor.  The times that I do laugh, I usually feel guilty because I am laughing at a character with a true-to-life mental illness.  The best example is provided by "Blueberries," in which Louie obliges to spank a morose woman during sex and then realizes as the woman sobs uncontrollably and cries out "daddy" that they are reenacting a childhood trauma.  The series has been good at wresting uncomfortable laughter from me.  Laughter is cathartic.  Discomfort is tension.  The two are at odds with one another. 

Despite C.K.'s rebellious efforts, I can identify an occasional element of classic comedy in the series.  I love good, bona fide reaction comedy, which is the reason that I love Lloyd Hamilton and Laurel & Hardy.  The greatest strength of C.K. as an actor is his ability to react in amusing ways to the surreal, absurdist events that play out around him.

One stock comedy plot that has been used on Louie was the "brat" plot, which served as the basis of a segment called "Never."  Louie takes care of a weird, bratty boy, whose mother's parenting strategy is to never say "no" to the child and never criticize his choices.  Modern parenting has taken on the responsibility of esteem-building, which is all well and good, but this sort of indulgent parenting only succeeds at monster-building.  This is not "The Ransom of Red Chief."  The misguided child does not shoot rocks at his caretaker with a slingshot.  Instead, he tosses Louie's rug out window for no reason, he refuses to eat anything except raw meat, and he thoughtlessly empties his bowels of diarrhea while in repose in a warm bath.  This scene from "Never" has been the one instance in which the series has indulged in old school comedy mayhem.

All in all, the episode is more disturbing than funny, causing me to laugh in an "Oh, God!" sort of way a number of times.  The best part of the segment occurs when Louie offers honest, heartfelt advice to this clueless train wreck of a child in hope that it isn't too late for the child to correct his bad behavior.  It's a moving scene that, in the end, made me smile. 

Supporters of the series refuse to call Louie a sitcom or a comedy.  It is something else entirely.  The series, by C.K.'s definition, is funny, which is to say that it is strangely compelling.  HBO's Girls followed Louie's personal and experimental path and, before long, what started out as a comedy became dark drama.  As I said, a clown who breaks the basic rules of comedy will discover in the end that what he has produced is not comedy after all. 

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