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Louie: “Duckling”

At this point in Louie’s run, the show can go anywhere and do anything. When I say “go anywhere” I’m not exaggerating. One of the places it can travel is the mountains of Afghanistan. One of the things it can do is go to war. Think about that for a moment. How remarkable is it that a low-budget television comedy show on basic cable can travel halfway around the world to do a show about the unbearable loneliness of being a soldier thousands of miles away from home?

Is there anything Louie can’t do? One of the things that makes Louie so special and singular is the palpable sense of joy Louis CK takes in filmmaking. I’m not just talking about the composition of shots. I’m talking about every element of filmmaking: writing and editing and direction and lighting and music and cinematography.

CK is in love with the possibilities of filmmaking. It’s a source of almost sensual joy for him; you can only imagine how exhilarating it must have been for him to direct an episode filled with helicopters and helicopter shots. He must have felt like a boy given the very best present in the world come Christmas morning. 

Louie always feels cinematic, but it’s never felt quite as boldly cinematic as it does here. Part of that is attributable to time. The hour-long format affords CK plenty of time to stretch his legs, creatively speaking, and simply watch his characters live. There’s plenty of dead time in “Duckling” where nothing much happens beyond CK simply hanging out and getting accustomed to some very strange surroundings. But dead time is not wasted time. Thank God, “Duckling” is content to ramble rather than rush, to meander and mosey rather than getting right to the heart of the matter. 

“Duckling” begins with an especially scatological CK set. CK’s stand-up is unusually testicle-centric. For a cerebral comedian and darling of the smart set, a lot of CK’s stand-up is literally ballsy: The man’s testicles have been discussed as extensively and with as much passion and care as anything else in CK’s life.

We then head to CK’s daughter’s school, and there is a great two-second callback of the mother who “enjoyed” dispiriting sex with CK in an earlier episode glaring coldly at him. Ah, but CK has more than ill-fated flings to worry about. I love how supporting characters in Louie often speak with a confrontational edge in their voice that’s preemptive more than anything else. It’s a way of communicating to the world, “This is how it is. If you don’t like it, then you can go fuck yourself." That's a very New York state of mind.

That’s certainly the tone of voice the teacher employed when she told CK that he had no choice in the matter: Whether he liked it or not he was going to be taking ducklings home to care for even if he was shipping out to Afghanistan the next day. Considering the episode’s name, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that one of the ducklings is tucked away into CK’s luggage by one of CK's daughters as a form of protection.

There’s a great shock cut that takes us from CK’s dingy little apartment to a helicopter in Afghanistan where he sports an expression that’s a little bit badass (he is in camouflage in a helicopter in Afghanistan after all) but mostly freaked out. Why shouldn’t he be? While his heroism is largely symbolic, he's in genuine danger, performing in places where there is a very real possibility he’ll take enemy fire. True, that Bob Hope guy made it through an awful lot of USO tours with his limbs intact, but it involves an element of danger all the same.

This is drilled into CK when the country singer he’ll be performing with very casually pulls out a gun and says, “Never go into a hostile area unarmed.” He’s not saying it to be a badass: There is no point posturing like a badass when you’re surrounded by men with machine guns. He’s merely being practical.

I really liked the way the episode handled the country singer. It began by acknowledging that he has enormous innate advantages when it comes to entertaining the troops. As a former military man himself, he can speak to the troops with a directness and a sense of familiarity unreachable even through stand-up comedy. He has the advantage of having been in their shoes, of knowing their experiences intimately.

“Duckling” delves deep into the contradictions and joys of being a USO performer: You’re serving your country and being heroic, but you’re also there to entertain the people who are doing the real job. You can leave. They cannot. You get an amazing anecdote out of the experience. They get nightmares and PTSD.

I had a powerfully bifurcated response to the country songs CK’s companion sang. My mind recoiled against the maudlin sentiments and rank sentimentality even as I went for them in a big way. Like so much contemporary country, the songs the crooner sings grabs your heart in a way that leaves your brain unaffected. CK and the country singer occupy very different places in our culture, but they share a common goal in wanting to provide comfort and escape for young men in desperate need of both. That bond proves powerful and resonant.

CK has a lesser bond with a 19-year-old cheerleader who greets CK’s questions about Led Zeppelin and Van Halen with a puzzled stare and is able to identify Steven Tyler not as the lead singer of Aerosmith but rather as a judge on American Idol. In a different context, this could have been a hacky bit, but as a representation of a middle-aged man’s attempt to find common ground it rang true. I love the way the cheerleader says that Steven Tyler is a judge on American Idol as if she is correcting CK’s earlier, incorrect assertion that he is in fact the lead singer for a band called Aerosmith.

For the second time in the last few episodes, we found ourselves watching Louie try and fail to pick up a Christian. His seduction attempt proves fruitless, but he does succeed in finding common ground with her in the duckling. The adorability of a duckling crosses all cultural, gender, religious, and political boundaries. 

In “Duckling,” it does more than just that. After entertaining in two different camps, Louis and the gang are forced to make an emergency landing in their helicopter and have a tense face-off with armed Afghanistan villagers that is resolved when the duckling gets loose and both parties break into ecstatic, cathartic laughter watching the ridiculous white American man chasing after the baby duck.

The clown brings everyone together after all. In his buffoonery, there is heroism. In his heroism, there is buffoonery. I am not too proud to admit that I choked up a little at the end of “Duckling.” Oh, who am I kidding? I fucking cried and cried and cried.

In its own idiosyncratic way, “Duckling” is an incredibly patriotic tribute to boys forced to be men in defense of our freedom. In the end, it’s CK’s freedom they’re fighting for as much as anyone else’s. Everyone is simply playing their part: soldiers by defending Afghanistan and CK by elucidating the human condition via dick jokes and a television show that’s shaping up to be something pretty goddamned special and unique. 

Stray Observations— 

  • "Duckling" goes long stretches without anything even resembling a joke. I like that. 
  • “Get on the dick train, bitches! That’s how dumb you have to be.”
  • How great is the music and editing in this episode? It really lends it an epic feel. 

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