Comedian Louis C.K.'s current TV series, Louie, on FX has its detractors, but we should all agree on the greatness of its funky title song, Stories' hit rendition of Hot Chocolate's "Brother Louie" from 1973.
"Louie, Louie, you're gonna cry," singer Ian Lloyd falsettos, as the star of the show climbs out of a Washington Square subway station into the unfriendly New York night, with an anxious, wary look on his face. Given the themes C.K. deals with in his comic fashion, he could have just as well opened with Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" to make his point. Life sucks, and then you die.
If that were all there was to Louie, well, that would suck. But there's an intelligence, raw honesty, sweetness and basic decency to the show that balances out its creator's naughty mission to offend. Not only is Louie the best half-hour comedy on TV right now, it may be the best one so far this year.
It's not the first attempt at the sitcom format for C.K., a veteran stand-up comic and a writer for television and films. Lucky Louie, his 2006 HBO series, was unfairly lambasted by critics for its nude, rude and crude take on the multi-cam sitcom format. Imagine The Honeymooners with a bare-assed Ralph Kramden shtupping Alice on camera, and you get the picture.
HBO's audience agreed with critics, and it was gone after one brief season.
The new show, which is written, directed and edited by C.K., couldn't be more different. It's an arty, single-cam show with a jazzy soundtrack. Each episode stands on its own and feels like a short indie film.
It's easy to compare the show with Larry David's creations, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like the stars of those shows, C.K. plays "himself"—in his case, a divorced dad and stand-up comic in New York City, just like in real life. And like them, C.K. endures daily humiliations and petty conflicts in a show that is, pretty much, "about nothing."
The similarities stop there. Seinfeld and Curb are boisterous and loud, with their main men often howling as angry champions against the unfairness of it all. C.K. vents his frustrations on the comedy stage—and even then, with a sly smile on his face.
The rest of the time, he just tries to deal. The characters he comes into contact with don't make it easy. Still, he doesn't get angry when the fat guy in the airplane seat next to him practically sits on his lap, letting out a wet little fart in the process. Nor does he lose his cool when the Southern law officer asks him for a kiss on the mouth in his patrol car. C.K. really should teach an anger management class.
The one exception to his "no-drama" rule comes in Episode 3, "Dr. Ben/ Nick," which is the series' best. After enduring humiliation at the hands of a jokey physician played by Ricky Gervais ("Did no one tell you that tits are meant to be on women, not men?"), Louie gets into a scrap with comedian friend and staunch conservative Nick DiPaolo, over politics. It ends with C.K. taking his old pal to the emergency room for a fight-related injury, and they spend the agonizing waiting-room time discussing the relative merits of growing old either with or without a spouse.
"Must be nice having somebody at home, worrying for you," Louie says, sincerely. "You've got your kids," DiPaolo counters, talking about his own marriage. "We're gettin' old Lou. I mean, we can't have kids anymore. At one point, one of us is gonna leave the other one behind."
Many of the scenes in Louie have an almost quiet intimacy that's meant to be creepy and unsettling. In this scene, it was deeply poignant. C.K.'s ability to pull that off really helps put Louie over the top.