Not being a big stand-up comedy follower I don’t have the nearly-worshipful respect for Louis CK that stand-up buffs have (I think he’s a funny guy, yes — though his Twitter feed is pretty unfunny, as comedians’ feeds often tend to be — but in the stand-up community he seems to be a God). But when he does film and TV projects, I admire the fact that he always seems to do something a little different from what the description would imply, whether it’s his very weird film Pootie Tang, his defiantly retro sitcom Lucky Louie, or his new show Louie, an unusual hybrid of stand-up, single-camera sitcom and sketch.
The format of the new show is a bit like early Seinfeld in that it mixes stand-up comedy with stories where LCK plays himself (in a fictionalized version). It also has its Curb Your Enthusiasm elements, like LCK is a less wealthy version of Larry David; if you took a plot from a Curb episode and played it straight through, without intercutting it with three or four other plots, it might look a bit like one of the Louie vignettes. Mostly, though, I would sort of describe it as a blog for television. Unlike Lucky Louie, which was a regular sitcom with a writing staff — or even Curb, where Larry David has a stable of Seinfeld writers on hand to help script everything except the dialogue — LCK has been the sole writer and director so far, and in interviews he implies that he intends to do the whole thing himself. He even edits the show himself.
Combined with the decision to use self-contained vignettes, which may be of unequal length, instead of full-episode stories, the show has the feeling of LCK using a few hundred thousand dollars (which sounds like a lot to me, but is a very low budget for a scripted television show) to create scenes about what’s going on in his life, what’s on his mind, and what’s bothering him. That’s where the “blog” feeling comes from: like a blog, you don’t know what the segments will be about or how long they will be, just that they are going to give us the thoughts of someone whose thoughts we hopefully find interesting.
The better segments so far have, like a lot of LCK’s work, a weird combination of the radical and the traditional. The following scene, which he posted on his official YouTube channel, is one of those self-critical pieces about himself, his friends, and heterosexuals’ attitude to gay people. It’s not meant to be funny all the way through, or even most of the way through. But parse it a little and it has a lot of very old-fashioned construction in it, particularly the device of building up to a big dramatic speech, followed by reaction shots (as the other characters let the speech sink in) followed by a “treacle cutter” where a character makes a joke about the speech we have just heard, awkwardly restoring something resembling the status quo. And LCK also gets points for his Jack Benny-like confidence (or Seinfeld-like confidence, for that matter) in making himself the straight man — no pun intended — for a large portion of this bit.
I don’t know how well the show will do, but LCK’s decision to do a low-budget show on FX is another example of how HBO has sort of lost some of its advantages over basic cable. I don’t mean that HBO would have wanted him to do another series for them, but LCK is emphasizing in his interviews that he has more freedom on FX than HBO, that HBO was full of executive interference and multiple executives who all wanted different things. He has a point in emphasizing this, since Lucky Louie didn’t deserve to be canceled and essentially got caught in a huge struggle at HBO: it grew out of a network initiative to create blue-collar sitcoms in the Norman Lear and Roseanne traditions, but by the time it was on the air, most of those plans had been scrapped, and some executives simply didn’t think working-class characters were “brand enhancers” with their audience. (It didn’t help that at least one prominent critic argued that a videotaped, traditionally-structured sitcom “didn’t belong on HBO,” begging the question of where it did belong given that no broadcast network will pick up a comedy about struggling people.) FX may not be the greatest network on earth, and they’re taking less of a risk with this show — both because of the low budget and because it’s about a guy who is at worst upper-middle-class. But within the budget constraints, LCK probably feels he’s under the gun less than he was at the other network.
HBO was more permissive in terms of language, but the advertiser-supported FX has managed to go quite far with language and content, even if there are a few words that can’t be said (and others that can’t be said very often). There are a surprising number of creators and producers out there essentially talking about HBO in the same way that they used to talk about broadcast networks, as a hidebound creativity-stifling place. Of course it’s in their interest to talk that way if they have a show on basic cable; they don’t want to claim that they have less freedom than they would have elsewhere. Still, it’s a long way from the days of “it’s not TV, it’s HBO.”