The second season of Louie, apart from being one of the few things on TV this summer that worked, has established the show as one that commands tremendous respect within the industry – along with Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s the type of cable comedy that writers dream of doing. Even more than Curb, it’s about one person, and seems to present his point of view without all the filters and self-censorship (and censorship by others) that go into the making of most television shows.
In particular, Louis CK is not under pressure to be funny in every episode, which is a major restriction on any comedy. Anyone making a half-hour comedy of almost any kind knows that they will be thrown off the air if they don’t supply some laughs. But as Louie has gone on, as many people have noted, it’s pushed closer to drama than comedy, and it works. Whereas CK’s standup and Lucky Louie (which turned some of his standup routines into scenes) are under the usual pressure to provide a quota of jokes and keep an audience laughing, Louie episodes can sometimes skip the jokes and go directly for painful moments, dramatic moments, awkward moments. It can be funny, but it doesn’t have to be, because the goal of the show is to express what’s on CK’s mind, and his audience is interested in what he has to say. In some ways that’s less difficult than what he was trying to do on his previous show, but it certainly is artistically liberating to do a comedy that doesn’t have to be jokey, and that gets to take ideas seriously instead of finding the comedy angle on every one of them. When it started, I called it “a blog for television,” meaning that as a compliment; now, as the segments have gotten more ambitious, it sometimes comes off as TV fiction journalism – a series of visual/dramatic essays on big subjects. Sometimes they have humour, sometimes not, but the audience is there for the coverage of those subjects, not necessarily for jokes.
It also helps, as he himself has pointed out, that the stand-up comedy scenes provide some measure of laughter in an episode: the jokes, and the laughter beats, “brand” the show as a comedy even if the segment that follows is mostly dramatic. If Seinfeld used stand-up to justify the observational nature of the show (it suggested that there was a “point” to the pointless stories we were seeing: they provided the material for stand-up comedy routines) then Louie uses stand-up to reassure us that no matter how dark or raw the segments may be, there’s a comic or dirty aspect to the things we’re going to see in the episode.
Another thing that makes the show effective is that the visual style is very simple, discreet and even “classical.” I was thinking of this in seeing some of the long takes it uses, because long takes are now usually considered a gimmick shot – in a simple dialogue scene, the usual practice is to cover from at least two angles and cut between the actors. But in the most recent episode, you had a shot of Louie trying to come up with the name of a band a younger woman might recognize, going through one name after another until he drops a name she’s familiar with. The shot is done from behind them, without a cut, so neither one is facing the camera – they turn toward each other, and then turn away, but you only see their faces from an awkward side angle. This works extremely well, but most shows and movies would want to make sure both character’s faces are seen and that they’re not delivering lines with their back to the camera. But covering the scene from all angles would not express as much about it, visually, as covering it from just that one angle without a cut.
This is probably a good argument for the creator as director and vice-versa; as the creator, writer, director and editor of every episode, CK may be limited by his budget but he’s freed up by the fact that he knows what he wants and can shoot what he has in mind. On a normal TV shows, where the director is doing work-for-hire, the director must provide options for the person who runs the show – shooting a scene from one angle without “coverage” would be denying options to the creator, and the director trying to assert an authority over the show that is not his to assert. (Joss Whedon was able to do some long takes and other gimmicks in the episodes he directed himself, because he knew he was shooting to please himself – but even there, he was only one of several directors on his own show, trying to match his overall style with the style of other episodes.) Louis CK can do things, visually, that a director-for-hire probably couldn’t and even shouldn’t get away with.