Well, that was certainly interesting.
“Late Show (Part 1)” is fundamentally concerned with the dark side of success, with the seamy, shadowy underbelly of exceeding expectations, both internal and external. Throughout the episode, Louie does far better than he could have possibly anticipated and is forced to wrestle with the unexpected consequences.
Success is certainly something Louis C.K. knows an awful lot about. After toiling in the salt mines of comedy as a writer and stand-up for decades, he’s experiencing the kind of massive, even paradigm-shifting success beyond most stand-up comic’s wildest dreams. Even more remarkably, he’s achieved that success on his own terms, doing exactly what he wants to do for an audience that respects and reveres his integrity and purity as much as his talent. But as tonight’s episode compellingly illustrates, success and failure are inextricably intertwined.
Sometimes, failure can be unexpectedly positive, and sometimes, what appears to be success can ultimately be disastrous. To use an example extremely germane to tonight’s episode, if Late Night With Conan O’Brien had been cancelled after its first year as everyone more or less expected, then the huge coup of an unknown comedy writer replacing David Letterman would have been seen as a disaster for a green kid who fatally over-reached. But NBC was desperate or patient enough to let the weird guy with the terrible ratings and awful buzz find himself and his voice, and one of late night’s biggest disasters steadily transformed into one of late night’s great success stories. When he took over Late Night, O’Brien was in a place much like Louie is in tonight’s episode: He was respected but unknown and at a crossroads professionally. Then he was offered a chance to inherit David Letterman’s show and his whole life changed.
Ah, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
“Late Show (Part 1)” begins with Louie far outside his natural habitat of the dark, shadowy subterranean world of The Comedy Cellar. He’s in Los Angeles for a taping of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno but first, he warms up at the Improv with a devastatingly funny set exploring one of the comedian’s pet themes: the absurd privilege and entitlement of the American consumer. In this case, Louie lays into super-consumers who need to read “a really long review written by an insane person who has been dead for months because he shot his wife and then himself after explaining to you how the buttons are counter-intuitive on the remote” before buying a Blu-Ray player. It really is surreal how much faith people put into anonymous online reviews written by people who are clearly insane and feel the need to compose massive essays about electronic devices in a strange attempt to justify their existence even though, in Louie’s wonderful turn of phrase, “They’re all made from the same Asian suffering.”
Louie is supposed to follow Tom Cruise on The Tonight Show but is informed just before taping that something very bad has happened. Louie understandably thinks he’s being bumped by Tom Cruise when in fact Cruise never showed up and what is presented to him as an unfortunate turn of events turns out to be a boon for Louie's career. With Cruise out of the picture, a nervous Jay Leno informs Louie that he’ll now be taking his place as the primary guest.
Louie fucking kills. We do not see him on The Tonight Show. We don’t need to. We do not need to be convinced that Louie is capable of delivering the kind of dynamic, magnetic performance that instantly goes viral and prompts a million YouTube hits. Louie suddenly finds himself in the catbird seat. He’s roused from his slumber and told by his agent that he’s due at a meeting with the head of CBS in an hour.
At CBS, an executive played by Garry Marshall, the great character actor and phenomenally shitty director, wastes little time in getting to the point of the meeting. David Letterman is retiring, and CBS wants Louie to think about replacing him. Louie initially misreads this as a job offer and declines, asking why CBS didn’t go after someone more famous and better suited to the job, like, say, Jerry Seinfeld.
Marshall replies that they sure as shit did go after Seinfeld and that CBS isn’t making Louie a job offer; they’re rather transparently using him as a bargaining tool, a stalking horse they can use to spook Seinfeld’s people with the notion that they could just as easily save themselves $12 million per year by going with a talented unknown like Louie instead of forking tens of millions of dollars to a known quantity like Seinfeld.
It is at this point that “Late Show Part 1” goes from good to great. Marshall’s character is nothing if not brutally pragmatic. He appeals less to Louie’s ambition than to his fear of paralyzing failure. Marshall’s brutally savvy exec paints a stark, existential portrait of Louie as a man just barely making a living in a comedy career that has probably already peaked. He terrifies Louie with a horrifying vision of a future where he’s reduced to teaching comedy at a community college just to be able to support his children.
“You’re circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit,” Marshall’s exec tells Louie in an exquisitely delivered, magnificently written line that poetically captures the sense of profound existential terror the CBS big shot wants to instill in his potential employee. The executive does not sugar-coat the scenario: He lets Louie know that even if he does everything that’s asked of him (losing 40 pounds, developing the strange skill-set of a talk show host, and altering his persona to appeal to a massive mainstream audience), there’s still a very good chance that he will fail, that he’ll either end up losing the position to Seinfeld (because Seinfeld is, you know, Seinfeld, and has a massive head start on Louie) or failing as a talk show host. Nothing is certain. Nothing is promised. All CBS is offering Louie is a shot. A shot at the brass ring. A shot at glory. A shot at ascending to a much higher realm of show-business and sitting at the winner's table for all of eternity.
As the man who tempts Louie with a motherfucker of a proposition, Marshall’s pragmatic executive is equal parts dream-maker and Devil offering a Faustian bargain, albeit one where the downside is apparent from the very beginning. He’s a curiously 21st century version of the devil, one who presents himself as a straight-shooting guy from the Bronx rather than a shadowy figure of supreme power. “Late Show (Part 1)” ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, with the question of whether or not Louie will accept the proposal hanging in the air. “Late Show (Part 1)” gets off to a hell of a start, but it improves with each act and ends on a fascinating note of profound ambiguity. Will Louie accept? I have no idea and can’t wait to find out.
- Dane Cook, Robin Williams and now Jay Leno have all appeared on Louie. Somewhere, Carlos Mencia is waiting patiently by his phone.
- Would you watch a Louis C.K. talk show? I certainly would
- I wonder how much of the episode was inspired by Hollywood’s attempts to get into the Louis C.K. business in light of his incredible recent success and acclaim.
- In a perfect world, Garry Marshall would get an Emmy nomination for best Guest Actor, but that’s not going to happen.
- Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled to make an appearance on an upcoming episode. Do you think Letterman will do a cameo as well?