They come up alone, standing behind a microphone, their p’s and t’s thrumming the audience’s eardrums through the house sound system. Hoots and hollers from drunk listeners punctuate their punch lines, along with trickles of applause, a dropped glass, and the bass from the club next door.
Some of these stand-up comedians, though, eventually find their way to a TV studio, where they’ll infuse their humor into a sitcom scenario. Their jokes will come out of the mouths of a full cast of characters; their wit will expand into a show’s comic perspective. There was a time when, generally speaking, excepting Bob Newhart and a few others, stand-ups made their way onto TV only by appearing on variety and talk shows. But since “Seinfeld” hit the mother lode, stand-ups have been sitcom staples, not just as sidekicks but as central figures and driving creative forces.
But no one has done it like Louis C.K., stand-up comic and, now, auteur. His FX series, “Louie,” now in its fourth season, is anything but an adaptation of his jokes, the more conventional approach taken by, for example, Ray Romano, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Kevin James, and Drew Carey. C.K.’s M.O. is more dimensional than theirs, more of a projection of his entire sensibility than an extension of his routines. He blows the walls off his jokes, turns them from stage acts into free-floating expressions of his psyche and larger questions of philosophy. Both Larry David and Marc Maron come closest to C.K.’s far-reaching model, but even they don’t deconstruct the stand-up-to-TV genre to the same extent.
The most interesting thing C.K. has done with his show may be his willingness to veer in and out of drama, from episode to episode and from scene to scene, and throw viewers off balance in the process. While we’ve come to expect drama and antiheroic behavior in half-hour comedies such as “Nurse Jackie,” we’re not accustomed to seeing it on a stand-up’s series, particularly when the antihero is a version of the stand-up himself. It’s a risky tonal choice, and it makes for unpredictable viewing, especially with C.K. also dropping in moments of surrealism.
In the third episode of this season, Louie is pursued by an overweight comedy-club waitress named Vanessa, who is played with unforgettable grace and directness by Sarah Baker. Finally they hang out for an afternoon on a non-date, during which their conversation leads to her painfully honest monologue about being “the fat girl” and our cultural double-standard about overweight men. The intensity of the scene is great, not least of all because Louie himself has been in her position — with Pamela Adlon in an earlier season. But Louie comes off as a condescending and shallow if decent guy, without the yuks-all-round denouement you’d find on, say, “Undateable.”
And the scene, like many on “Louie,” is long, the power sustained for some eight minutes. It’s not just a quick teaching moment in the midst of laughs; it’s the centerpiece of the episode. TV comedy has always moved at a quick pace, and it has gotten extremely fast in recent years, something that, with a show such as “30 Rock” that aimed for cartoonishness, is entirely appropriate. So it’s even more compelling and distinctive when “Louie” lingers and lags — it’s an adjunct to the slow-drama trend of shows such as “Breaking Bad” and “Rectify.” The mesmerizing deliberateness adds to the drama.
And that brings us to “Pamela, Part 1,” last week’s disturbing second episode (FX runs two, back to back, every Monday at 10). Stuff got dark indeed in that half-hour. And it was particularly powerful not least of all because the previous episodes, part of C.K.’s “Elevator” series, had been filled with some deeply romantic material. (While so many New York sitcoms stick to rooms, “Louie” spends an awful lot of time in stairwells, hallways, and elevators.) Louie was falling for Amia (played with wonderful facial expressiveness by Eszter Balint), a Hungarian visitor who couldn’t speak English. Their pairing was lovely, despite the lack of talk, or perhaps thanks to the lack of it — the point being that love and words aren’t always compatible.
When Amia had to return to Hungary, and a waiter translated her farewell note to him in a restaurant, Louie instinctively grabbed the waiter’s hand — an LOL moment on another show, but a really sweet gesture on “Louie.”
But in “Pamela, Part 1,” Louie grows tired of his own passivity with women, particularly the high-maintenance women he is often drawn to — think of his adventure with the free-spirited model whom he accidentally punched in the face earlier this season. He is also grieving Amia. He comes home from a gig to find Pamela, the character played by Adlon, asleep on the couch, and he proceeds to try to force himself on her. She’d made an invitation days earlier, but later withdrew it when she realized Louie was interested only because Amia was gone. But he leans in for a kiss, thinking she wants one, and when she resists, he starts to grab her arms. They struggle. “This would be rape, if you weren’t so stupid,” she yells at him.
The scene is excruciating for more reasons than I can detail here. It puts C.K.’s risky, genre-shaking approach to TV in a strange new light, as he has now made his lead character — who, it needs to be said again, is not C.K. — thoroughly unsympathetic. Perhaps his point is that the men who do this aren’t always the obvious creeps; indeed, the stand-up act that Louie has performed before coming home to find Pamela on his couch is a feminist rant involving “God the Father” and the fact that American democracy didn’t exist until women could vote. Or perhaps C.K. is going to make his point in “Pamela, Part 2,” which is coming up. It’s hard to know how the show will recover from “Pamela, Part 1.”
Louie has not been Tony Soprano; he has been a likable, hangdog kind of guy with a lot of flaws. What will happen now? As is typical with “Louie,” I have no idea.
YouTube clips from “Louie” season 4:
Episode 3, “So did the Fat Fat Lady”
Season 4 promoMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.