Louie: “Late Show (Part 2)”
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Louie: “Late Show (Part 2)”

Many years ago, I interviewed Chris Rock, and he said that when he was preparing to tape Bring The Pain, the special that would transform him from that black guy who used to be on Saturday Night Live to America’s greatest satirist, he ran into Andrew “Dice” Clay, and the profane nursery rhyme enthusiast advised him to re-watch Rocky to get into the mindset he needed to be in to triumph in what very well could have been Rock’s final opportunity to really make it big. Rocky, Clay assured him, would get the juices flowing, would reconnect him with the hunger, drive, and focus he’d need to make the most of this crucial shot. In the end, Rock heeded Clay’s wise counsel and delivered a performance that will still be studied and revered by students of comedy fifty years from now.

I thought a lot about Clay’s surprisingly sage advice throughout “Late Show (Part 2),” and not just because Rock and boxing both figure prominently in the episode. “Late Show (Part 2)” finds Louie very much in a Rocky state of mind but it’s a testament to the show’s ambiguity that he’s doggedly pursuing a goal, a dream, and a job he’s not entirely sure he actually wants.

The episode begins with Louie at a diner with his ex-wife, fumblingly telling her about the strange, wonderful and potentially horrible opportunity that has fallen into his lap. As she coldly surmises, Louie is partially telling her about the potential gig hoping she’ll remove his uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt by telling him that he can’t pursue the job, that his daughters need him to be an active presence in their lives more than he needs to be at the apex of the show-business food chain.

Louie’s wife steadfastly refuses to give him an easy out, or any out, really. She’s pragmatic and realistic, rather than sentimental. She tells Louie that his daughters need to see him succeed and thrive, that they need a role model more than a dude who reliably picks them up from school every other day. But there’s a self-serving element to her advice as well, since Louie getting the gig could very well make the difference between struggling and flailing and desperately trying to stay afloat for decades and total financial security, for herself and her daughters.

Much of this opening sequence plays out in a long, static single take that heightens the stomach-twisting tension of the scene. The scene is a good example of Louie’s admirable willingness to go long stretches without anything even vaguely resembling a joke. That extends to the episode as a whole. Nearly everything is played for drama rather than comedy, but some exquisitely awkward laughs slip in all the same.

To help him prepare for his date with destiny, Louie acquires a Yoda-like mentor in the exquisitely strange personage of David motherfucking Lynch, who keeps a gun and a stopwatch in his drawer and has Louie read a mothballed Nixon joke from a cue card to gauge his timing.

It’s an utterly surreal scenario: a man exuding profound ambivalence about a job he’s not sure he wants reading a joke from the 1970s for the benefit of a man who probably stopped paying attention to show-business, and the world around him, sometime in the mid-1980s. Show business is still being run by dinosaurs like the cranky old men played by Garry Marshall and David Lynch, even as the world of comedy has undergone dramatic changes as of late, partially due to the pioneering work of iconoclasts like Louis C.K.

If you really think about it, the talk show format is both antiquated and artificial to the point of being surreal. It’s less about content than personality, wardrobe, body language, and slickness, as well as adhering to a set of rituals and traditions that have been in place since the days of Jack Paar. “Late Show (Part 2)” features a scene of Lynch’s comedy coach smiling, gesturing and moving in ways that seem insane devoid of context, an audience, or music, yet seem familiar and logical within the strange, hermetic, and convention-bound world of the late night talk show, a format that has long proved resistant to change.  

As if to underline that point, “Late Show (Part 2)” has Jay Leno call Louie upon hearing that Louie is being considered for the Letterman slot. Leno advises Louie not to take the job, unless he wants to lose both his soul and his hipness in the process. It’s a weirdly intimate, revealing moment for Leno, though it’s difficult to say how much of Leno’s advice is genuine and how much is strategy. On a similar note, Louie talks to his friend Chris Rock about the opportunity, and Rock pegs Leno’s words as self-serving bullshit.

At the direction of Lynch’s cantankerous comedy coach, Louie heads down to a gym where he is instructed to put on gloves and shorts and is thoroughly beaten up by a hungry young fighter. The fight finds Louie in a familiar position: being viciously pummeled in a skirmish whose meaning and purpose he can only begin to understand. But at least the beating he’s taking is physical and not emotional or verbal. Louie receives an even more vicious blow when he comes home and discovers that Rock is also in competition for the Letterman slot and has the advantage of, you know, being Chris Rock.

Like “Late Show (Part 1),” this is a strangely melancholy, even dour episode largely devoid of laughs but rich in sadness, awkward pauses, and free-floating anxiety. Louie and its creator are confident and secure enough to forgo laughs and jokes in favor of a larger, more ambitious, and more meticulously observed creative vision, the full scope of which will only become apparent next week when this fascinating, gloriously bittersweet three-episode arc concludes. 

Stray observations:

  • I apologize for the lateness of this. We received screeners for most of the episodes from this season but not this arc, so I was seeing it in real time with the rest of y’all.
  • I feel like the character of Louie’s ex-wife really came into her own this episode.
  • I never thought I would write this, but I was impressed by Jay Leno’s acting in this episode.
  • You’ve got to give C.K. credit for genius misdirection: He seems to be setting us up for guest turns by Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman; instead we get David Lynch, of all people.  

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