There’s a great moment in “Niece” when Louis C.K. asks fellow comedian Godfrey how he’s able to talk to a 13-year-old so easily and Godfrey responds, “You’ve just got to learn how to talk to people who aren’t like you. It’s called empathy, man.”
The line echoes the moment in the Joan Rivers episode when Joan takes Louie to task for not bothering to learn the names of the people he deals with during his Trump casino gig. In both instances, a more socially gifted and less awkward comedian is very overtly telling C.K. to get over himself and his own neuroses and self-absorption and engage with the outside world.
Engaging with the outside world: That’s a bit of a tricky thing for stand-up comedians socialized to be narcissistic and self-absorbed by nature. The stand-up comic sees the world as a monologue, rather than a discussion. Before she performs, the stand-up comedian is given a special piece of equipment so that the sounds of her own thoughts and ideas will literally drown out everything within earshot. Is it any wonder comedians sometimes have difficulty being interested in other people and their problems?
I suspect one of the reasons Marc Maron gets so much out of his guests despite being famously self-absorbed is because he interviews people who inherently are like him by virtue of being comedians or professional funny people. Comedian-speak is a language onto itself; it’s a vernacular rooted in a set of common experiences and acquaintances.
In “Niece,” Louie’s 13-year-old niece doesn’t know how to communicate in Comedian-speak any more than Louie and his comedian friends Todd Barry and Nick DiPallo know how to communicate in 13-year-old girl-speak. So they eye each other warily from across a vast cultural, age, and linguistic divide before an outsider steps in to end the stalemate and illustrates their shared humanity.
Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. “Niece” opens with inspired stand-up relating to one of C.K.’s pet themes: the insufferable self-absorption of over-fed white Americans. In this case, he’s directing his expert vitriol in the direction of service-industry professionals who betray their ferocious contempt for their jobs via their belligerent incompetence. There’s an element of blaming the victim in going off on bored 20-year-olds with shitty jobs, but C.K. eschews bullying by focusing on the unearned entitlement of children who consume and consume and consume without ever giving anything back instead of their place down at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
We then segue from Louie railing against the young people to Louie’s deeply troubled sister dropping off her 13-year-old daughter, Amy, with Louie for reasons that remain mysterious. She’s just barely holding it together as she drops off a daughter who looks all too familiar with being shuffled off from one irresponsible adult to another.
Louie looks at his niece as if she’s from another species or another planet. The niece shoots back a look that betrays nothing beyond default dissatisfaction with wherever she is and whatever she’s doing.
When the niece asks to go to a hip rock club, Louie gives his niece that expression he gets when he decides that it’s easier to simply do something he doesn’t want to do rather than argue the point. He doesn’t take her to the club because he’s hip or even an accommodating uncle; he does it because it’s the path of least resistance, and he’s already feeling overwhelmed.
Children learn from their elders. C.K’s niece learns from the dour scenesters around her that the proper way to not enjoy a show is to stare glumly at the band while standing defiantly in place.
Children are inherently resilient. When Amy says, “My mom says fuck all the time. She screams it. In my face,” she’s not saying it to make a point or to be shocking. It’s simply an unfortunate part of everyday life when you’re a 13-year-old with next to nothing in the way of parental supervision.
Louie takes her to a comedy club, where she is won over by the crowd work of Godfrey, a handsome, charming black man whose humor is antithetical to that of Louie. When the niece says Godfrey is funny, Louie passive-aggressively dismisses his comedy as a lesser form of humor though that doesn’t keep him from trying and failing a little crowd work himself when it’s time for him to go on.
The eternally deadpan Barry and DiPallo serve as a Greek Chorus for Louie and his generational confusion; DiPallo has a great rant about how teenage girls are lost in a forest of bad ideas and hormones they emerge from at 16, either a person or a whore. It’s a funny line and an astute observation, except that teenagers are unreachable only to people who have no interest, desire, or way to reach them.
As a social black man at a table full of dour white comics, Godfrey is an outsider himself, but he’s able to talk to Amy primarily because he takes an interest and tries to speak to her in her language, rather than impose his own sensibility onto her. It’s remarkable how much something as simple as a smile and a handshake can do. Godfrey reaches the niece by appealing to the universal: hatred of parents, hatred of hometowns, hatred of everything, pretty much. That’s how you reach the kids.
“Niece” ends on an unexpectedly melodramatic note, with Louie receiving a phone call that his sister is in the hospital in Philadelphia. It’s a bit of a cliffhanger for a show that typically eschews such conventions. Could this ending mark a new direction for the show as it closes out season two and prepares for season three?
- “You’re wearing a vest that matches the building. Do the thing that is the point of the place.”
- “I’ve got a mudslide on my house, and now I’ve got to babysit a fucking college kid.”
- How great are Barry’s under-reactions? He’s the king of deadpan.