Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In an interview with his old friend Marc Maron for Maron’s WTF podcast, comedian Louis C.K. talks about the months between when he completed shooting the first season of his HBO sitcom Lucky Louie and when the channel began airing the show. Unsure how Lucky Louie would be received, C.K. dedicated himself to realizing another of his career goals: developing a stand-up act that runs a full hour, instead of the half-hour-to-40-minute sets he’d been doing since he broke into comedy in the late ’80s. His rationale? If Lucky Louie did well, it could be years before he had another chance to hit the road as a headliner. And if it flopped, well… a man’s got to feed his family.
Honing his stand-up would turn out to be one of the smartest career decisions C.K. ever made. Since 2006, C.K. has written and toured an entirely new hourlong set each year, always scrapping the previous year’s material and starting fresh. (In an interview with our Nathan Rabin last year, C.K. explained, “If people pay to see you because they like your special, and they pay money to see the exact same show, they’ll actually be very happy. They won’t complain. They’ll go, ‘Ah, that was exactly as great as I thought it would be, because I’ve seen it.’ But they won’t see you again.”) He now plays some of the biggest concert halls in the country, delivering riffs on parenthood, relationships, loneliness, and modern inconveniences that get passed around, referenced, and analyzed by comedy nerds and civilians alike. When our Sean O’Neal interviewed Christian Finnegan a couple of years ago, the comic summed up the opinion of a lot of his peers, saying, “Claiming to be influenced by Louis C.K. is a lot like saying ‘I like beer,’ but it’s true.” And C.K.’s old writing partner Chris Rock—no slouch as a concert attraction himself—said in a recent Esquire interview, “Louis’s the best right now… one of the biggest comedians in the country.”
And all because Lucky Louie got cancelled.
Some people love Lucky Louie, either because they honestly think it’s a hilarious show, or because they admire its audacity. Certainly Lucky Louie’s core idea was strong: to bring back the look and tone of classic “shot in front of a live studio audience” sitcoms like All In The Family and The Honeymooners, but with profanity, nudity, and frank talk about sex, race, labor, and our common despair. Formally, the conceit is brilliant: Take a familiar genre with rigidly constructed visual elements, and then twist it just enough that it becomes either refreshingly new or beguilingly alienating. But even among the adventurous subscriber base of HBO, Lucky Louie didn’t connect. The reviews and ratings were mixed, and at a time when the channel was going through a rough transition, Lucky Louie fell through the cracks and wasn’t renewed.
“Kim Moves Out” was the last Lucky Louie to air on HBO, in August of 2006. On the commentary track on the Lucky Louie DVD set, C.K. breaks down the episode with executive producer Mike Royce (a former stand-up who’d previously worked on Everybody Loves Raymond and is currently the showrunner for Men Of A Certain Age) and his co-star Pamela Adlon (an accomplished voice actress). In the series, C.K. plays a working-class slob named Louie, while Adlon plays his wife Kim, a nurse. In “Kim Moves Out,” Kim gets fed up with Louie’s general schlubbery, and when Louie suggests that she spend a weekend off on her own, they both enjoy the break from each other so much that they worry they’re on the road to divorce. So they go out to dinner together and have a revelation: They hate each other, but that’s okay, because they’ve always hated each other. Their relationship is built on hate.
On the commentary track, C.K. says that the story for “Kim Moves Out” was one of the first he came up with when he was developing Lucky Louie. C.K. never wanted elaborate problem-plots on the show. “Kim hates Louie”—that was enough. Playing so close to reality had a powerful effect, though. C.K. says he had to leave the set for a while because he broke down crying in the middle of a scene. And Adlon says one of her best friends quit watching this episode halfway through because it was too true, and too painful.
Credit the rawness in part to C.K., who wrote the script (with a lot of help from his team of actors and writers, he insists), and credit it in part to Adlon, whose performance in the first half of the episode borders on the terrifying. When Kim wakes Louie up because she has to go to work, she smacks him hard, and is so mad that he’s been sleeping while she’s been attending to their daughter Lucy that he doesn’t dare talk back, instead muttering under his breath, “Don’t fuckin’ tell me what to do… I’ll kill you.” (And he only mutters that after she’s left the room.)
Later, Louie is bumming around with his buddies Mike and Rich on the playground when Kim shows up, spitting fire because Louie was supposed to have been home getting dinner started an hour ago. Now Lucy’s bath will be late, and Kim won’t get to bed early like she planned, and she has a double-shift tomorrow. When Louie tries to stand up to her in front of his friends, she stares all three of them down. Even after Rich tells her to blow him, she gets right up in his face and hisses, “If you take it out and it’s hard, I swear to God I will suck it.”
Back in the apartment the next morning, Louie finally gets up the nerve to confront a still-cranky Kim, saying that while he agrees he sucks ass as a partner, he’s “sucking the same amount of ass I always sucked.” She apologizes—a little—and allows that the place inside her where she’s always stored her frustration with him must be too full. (“Does it have a bag you can change out?” Louie asks.) She hates that he wakes up whenever he feels like it, hates that she has to nag him about everything, and hates that he doesn’t seem to care how he looks. But when Louie tries to change—getting up early, cleaning himself up, cooking her breakfast—she’s still annoyed, which causes him finally to blow up. On the commentary track, Royce says that the Louie/Kim scenes in “Kim Moves Out” were simply written, such that we’re “not sure where the punchlines are.” The episode’s director, Andrew D. Weyman, encouraged C.K. to play those conversations not as comedy, but like a man scared he’s going to lose everything that matters.
According to Royce and C.K., it’s at this point where the writers got stuck. Earlier versions of the script explored different scenarios, including having Kim leave for a few days then become distraught that Louie and Lucy are getting along so well without her. But everything they came up with was too sitcom-y. Instead, they wrote it so Kim has a great time crashing in her brother Jerry’s vacant apartment—where she smokes pot with her pal Tina and swears, “I’m never going back to my shitty little family!”—while Louie watches dopey movies all night and is “as happy as I’ve ever been.” Their joy frightens them—because as C.K. notes on the commentary, “There’s a kid, who’s not in the shot”—so they have their night out, where they get right back to bickering, while reminiscing happily about how much they couldn’t stand each other when they had their first date. Disorder has been restored in the marriage, and the episode ends with Louie saying, “Tonight when we get home I’m gonna fuck your tits off!” (That’s Lucky Louie-speak for “Baby, you’re the greatest!”)
So… why doesn’t “Kim Moves Out” work as well as it should? On paper, the lines are funny. On paper, the cast is funny. The studio audience laughs a lot. And it’s not like the episode is bad, by any means. C.K. intended to explore the animosity that builds up between married couples, and to do so in a non-cutesy, non-gimmicky way, which he did. On that level, “Kim Moves Out” is a success. But on a basic entertainment level, something’s a little off. The pacing is out of whack. Adlon aside, the acting is stiff. The jokes don’t always land.
If you’re one of those who believe that Lucky Louie is weird on purpose—that C.K. was going for a kind of Brechtian distancing effect—there’s no problem here at all. Me, I’m not so sure. C.K. does have arty inclinations, as evidenced by some of his other work (which I’ll get to in a moment). But from everything I’ve read, heard, and seen about the production of Lucky Louie, the goal was always to combine the traditional with the modern in a way that honored the traditional. This wasn’t meant to be like those I Love Mallory flashback scenes from Natural Born Killers where Rodney Dangerfield makes violent threats over a laugh track, or like the remote-looking rabbit sitcom interludes in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. No, C.K. invited real audiences to watch the taping because he wanted real laughs.
Ultimately, C.K. may have misjudged some fundamental factors when it comes to making a show like this. The Lucky Louie DVD includes a featurette that documents the weeklong production schedule for a typical episode—a process that included a lot of rewriting, blocking, and taping in front of two separate audiences to allow for even more tweaks. Talking to Maron, C.K. says that in his mind, he envisioned a much looser show, with minimal rewrites and rehearsal and more trust in the process of creating comedy in the moment, letting the audience guide the performance. Instead, the fussier process of modern sitcom creation kicked in, “Because that’s how people know how to do it.” Making matters worse: C.K. wasn’t much of an actor back in 2006. He’s hardly Olivier now, but he’s learned a trick or two over the years about how to invest lines with some natural energy. On Lucky Louie, his character was listless by design, which often made his half of any two-person scene a virtual void. C.K. was surprised that some critics dinged his show for having cheap-looking sets, when it should’ve been obvious that the look was intentional. But he was also surprised that many people thought he was using a laugh track, which shouldn’t have come as such a shock. The audience does laugh at odd times on Lucky Louie—and if the sets were artificial, why wouldn’t the laughter be?
Still, if good intentions matter in art—and I happen to think they do, at least a little—then Lucky Louie deserves some respect for what C.K. and company attempted. At the time it debuted, there weren’t that many American TV shows about working-class people living in cluttered, dingy spaces. (My Name Is Earl and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia got the grime right, but few of their characters can be described as “working” per se.) And though Louie and Kim are miserable a lot of the time, neither they nor their friends’ lives are completely devoid of joy, pleasure, or moments of simple humanity. There’s even sweetness in the sour “Kim Moves Out,” as when Louie tells his brother-in-law that he’s “makin’ wiggly pasta with tomato sauce” for dinner, which is exactly how a parent would describe a meal to his kid. Add to that moments of well-observed truth, as when Kim tells Louie on their date to order something healthy and he complains, “It’s a restaurant!”
And though he didn’t achieve exactly what he was going for, C.K. deserves some kudos too for trying to change people’s perception of three-camera/shot-on-videotape/studio-audience sitcoms, which have fallen out of favor among sophisticates in the age of single-cam. Listening to C.K. and Royce on the commentary track for “Kim Moves Out,” it’s clear that they understood the inherent value of the form they chose for Lucky Louie. They note the times when the actors paused rather than rushing to the next line, because the laughter told them to stay with the moment, and they marvel at how the crowd responds to slow-burn reaction shots. “When you’re getting laughs on cuts to silent faces, that’s live comedy,” C.K. says.
Lucky Louie wasn’t the first time that C.K. failed in show business. After a bright start as a stand-up, C.K. was hired to work on the writing staff of the earliest incarnation of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and helped to define that show’s lighthearted absurdism. But when he tried to bring that sensibility to prime time as a writer on The Dana Carvey Show, his sketches were so weird that the show lost sponsors and was cancelled after seven episodes. C.K. rebounded with The Chris Rock Show, but when he tried to spin the character of Pootie Tang off from Rock’s show into a feature film, the project was yanked out of his hands and re-edited before flopping at the box office. The Dana Carvey Show and Pootie Tang are cult favorites now, but their commercial failure represents a common phenomenon: a comic genius failing to make large numbers of people laugh.
In fact, it may be the nature of comic genius to push the boundaries of what’s funny—not just in subject matter, but in the way the jokes get told. While C.K. was working as a stand-up and a comedy writer in the ’90s, he was also making short films, most of which are available on his YouTube channel. Watching those shorts is a good way in to C.K.’s aesthetic, which has been shaped as much by filmmakers as by comics. On Maron’s podcast, they reminisce about the time C.K. discovered underground filmmaker Robert Downey via a bargain-bin VHS copy of Putney Swope. In addition to Downey, there are traces of Albert Brooks’ Saturday Night Live shorts and early David Lynch experiments in films like the nightmarish “Hello There,” the blatantly silly “The Letter V,” and the horrors-of-maturity sketch “Ice Cream.” Also evident: the seeds of the style and sensibility that would take root in Louie, C.K.’s brilliant FX series, which combines stand-up performances and short comic vignettes, many of which are weird enough to stand alongside his early shorts.
In some ways, “Kim Moves Out” serves as a prequel to Louie. Not long after C.K. masterminded a TV episode about a marriage that thrives on hate, his own marriage ended, turning him into the stressed-out, melancholy single parent he now plays in Louie. Even the change in form fits the changes in C.K.’s life. Lucky Louie was created by a guy trying to understand his life in the context of an old sitcom. The strictures of the style and the “workaday drudgery” premise feel like an expression of someone trapped in a failing relationship. Louie though comes from a freer place. C.K. can tell the story of a date that ends in an impromptu helicopter escape, or he can turn the funny down to low and break for a lengthy flashback to a gory Catholic school lesson about crucifixion. The show can be anything C.K. wants it to be.
That he chooses most often to make it a show about the slow grind of daily life is understandable, given that C.K.’s a divorced man in his early 40s, prone to worry about his daughters’ future happiness and whether he’ll die before he sees them grow up. C.K.’s early shorts were absurdist because his stand-up back then leaned toward half-observational, half-goofy “Isn’t life odd?” jokes. But after his first child was born, C.K. started doing more from-the-gut autobiographical material. That’s what Louie is: C.K.’s early shorts remade by a man with a different act and a different eye. Perhaps as a response to the criticisms about the deliberate shoddiness of Lucky Louie’s look, Louie is well-lit and well-photographed, looking better than most of the movies I saw last year. And though not all the vignettes are funny, C.K.’s stand-up segments in Louie always kill, and the show’s best episodes stack up against anything on TV right now—comedy or drama.
I get that some people prefer Lucky Louie to Louie, and when I hear C.K. talk about the failed sitcom with Maron, I get the sense that maybe he does too; that maybe he thinks Louie is less of a challenge, because it’s made up of the kind of work he’d done before. All I know is that when C.K. tells Maron he’s certain Lucky Louie could’ve run for years if it had gotten renewed, I breathe a sigh of relief. Just think what we’d have missed if C.K. had stayed shackled.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Eight Is Enough, “Jeremy”