I recently listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast interview with Mike Birbiglia, who shares an agent with Louis C.K. While discussing taking meetings with television people, Birbligia said that he and seemingly every other comic out there pined for what he called “The Louie C.K. deal”: complete creative freedom in exchange for less money. To stand-up comics desperate for the exposure and money and celebrity that regularly appearing on television brings, yet freaked out about selling out or compromising, it’s ideal.
Listening to WTF and other comedy podcasts like Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny and Comedy Death Ray Radio I get the sense that C.K. has reached an enviable place in his career where many of his peers and friends resent his success and envy his work ethic, talent and determination. This seems strange. C.K. is enormously successful, albeit in a very narrow way. I suspect that C.K’s name would prompt shrugs and blank stares from the vast majority of the American public but within a small sphere of comedy geeks and comedians he’s a superstar.
He’s living the dream, writing, directing, editing and starring in a show that reflects his sensibility in the purest possible manner, with no network input and no outside directors or writers telling him what he can and cannot do. C.K. is doing everything his way and succeeding. He may not have the adoration of the masses but he commands the respect of his peers and critics as well as fans who flock to see him in increasingly large venues.
In the past I’ve called Louie a show about everything. In tonight’s episode C.K. stops wasting his time addressing minor concerns like class, race, sexuality, divorce, dating, childhood, and aging and finally tackles something important: God.
“God” begins, as all serious explorations of faith, martyrdom and the existence or non-existence of God must begin, with our intrepid hero in a bathroom with a glory hole underneath graffiti reading, “Heaven.” C.K. is appropriately horrified when he sees a conservatively dressed middle-aged man getting ready to stick his dick in the hole.
When C.K. asks him why on earth he’d put himself into such a vulnerable position without knowing what lurked on the other side of the glory hole, the stranger replies, “I don’t know. You’ve gotta have faith.” In the grand tradition of Louie, the moment finds pathos and philosophy and deep meaning in the seemingly crude and scatological. In many ways, the stranger’s response represents the key line of dialogue in an episode that asks, “Do you really have to have faith? Why?”
Faith. It’s a tricky concept that unites believers of all stripes, from Evangelical Christians to dudes blessed with absolute confidence that a glory hole will contain the best blow-job of their life and not the sinister snip of a pair of scissors. You’ve gotta have faith.
This segues to C.K. onstage alternately describing God as an asshole, a jerky friend and a shitty girlfriend. After all, what kind of sane, benevolent deity would ask one of his followers to sacrifice his son to test his faith, as G-d did to Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac? C.K. depicts God as an egomaniacal asshole who puts “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain” in the ten commandments rather than rape, which is, perhaps, some might argue, a more serious offense.
We then flash back to C.K’s childhood in a Catholic school where a nun struggles to convey the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice. In desperation, she takes her class to a church where they meet a dark, towering figure played by a perfectly cast Tom Noonan. Noonan, it seems, is a medical doctor, or judging by his creepiness and intensity, perhaps a disgraced former medical doctor, who describes Jesus’ crucifixion in gruesomely graphic physical terms, lingering unhealthily on every torment Jesus suffered while being whipped with a flagellum and nailed to a cross. Noonan brings an unseemly relish to the words, “brutal punishment.”
Noonan’s creepy M.D is intent on scaring these youngsters straight, in part by having one of them play the role of Jesus and asking C.K’s younger self to drive nails into the pint-sized faux-messiah. It’s a brutally intense scenario that comments both on God’s command to Abraham to kill Isaac and the notion, advanced earlier in the episode, that we each drove nails into Jesus’ body through our sins.
Unlike Abraham, C.K. can’t go through with it. How could he? This enrages Noonan, who can’t understand why a boy would refuse to pound nails into the flesh of an ungodly child but thinks nothing of driving nails into Jesus with his sins.
Religion was created partially, if not primarily, as a means of terrifying small children and inducing horrible nightmares. So it’s not surprising that C.K. is tormented by his traumatic run-in with Noonan and races back to the church, where he takes a statue of Jesus down from the altar and lovingly cradles it in his arms. Like so much of Louie, it’s a moment of unexpected emotional power and poignancy, a vivid illustration of how religious dogma can warp children’s minds at a time when they’re most vulnerable and naïve.
C.K’s terror and anxiety only subsides when his mother tells him that to her Catholicism is nothing more than a bunch of far-fetched stories designed to teach morality, not something to be taken literally. C.K’s mother was a non-believer, but given the centrality of Christianity in our culture, she wanted to give him the gift of faith when it turned out that what he really needed was the power and the release of faithlessness or at least of being sufficiently skeptical.
What began with a trip to a glory hole in a men’s room developed methodically into a deceptively thoughtful and moving exploration of faith. C.K. is confident enough in his vision and the strength of his material and for that matter, his actors (How great have Noonan and practically every other guest star, famous or otherwise, been this season?) that he doesn’t always have to go for laughs. For a stand-up comedian, that’s enormously brave.
Well, folks, it looks like we’re in the home stretch here. Only two more episodes to go before the end of Louie’s first season. Thank God the show has already been renewed. The first season of Louie has set the bar prohibitively high, but like the glory hole enthusiast in the first scene, I have faith in C.K. He seems way more dependable than that God guy at least.
—“IF there is a God, that guy’s an asshole.”
—“It was a huge pumpkin, what could I say?"
—Did anyone else read Noonan's loving description of Jesus' physical suffering as a possible comment on torture-porn epic The Passion of the Christ?
—"Louie" reminds me of Woody Allen's early work in a way I have difficulty putting into words.