SHE SITS ON THE EDGE OF THE BED, wearing a black leather jacket over her pink nurse’s scrubs. She is late for work and keeps checking her watch. Her 4-year-old daughter is eating cereal in the next room. She stares at her husband. He is slumbering. She is fuming.
It’s a familiar sitcom scene. We all know what’s coming next. The set, with its obligatory swinging door to the kitchen, is sitcom-familiar, too, but in a retro kind of way, because it’s raggedy and spare. The view from the kitchen window is of a hideous electrical transformer. And the bedroom is actually a converted living room. Lots of sitcom sets looked this working-class in the ‘70s, in the era of Good Times, before we were all asked to swallow the notion that coffee-house waitresses could afford spacious Greenwich Village apartments with skyline views.
But when the payoff does come, it’s not what we expect. She doesn’t just nudge her husband. She smacks him. Hard enough to make his pale cheek red. “Wake up, you lazy piece of crap!” she screams. Except she doesn’t say “crap,” because this sitcom will air on HBO, and no one on HBO says “crap” when they can get away with so much worse. (This is, however, The Boston Globe Magazine - so you’ll have to fill in your own choice words as you read on.)
The show is called Lucky Louie, and it will debut next year. There’s a lot more than swearing that sets it apart from the heaping pile of forgettable sitcoms on the air right now, with their hot moms and bumbling dads and sassy kids trading lines as watered down as the drinks in comedy clubs. This show’s content is raw. But the biggest difference may be its rejection of the networks’ obsession with making their sitcom characters likable.
After decades of being the staple of network television, the sitcom is dying. Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond exist only in the world of reruns now, and this season, only one sitcom - CBS’s warmed-over Two and a Half Men - is among the top 20 in the ratings. The networks blame the sitcom’s struggles on the format itself, suggesting younger viewers have no use for the telegraphed setups and wacky mix-ups that have grabbed laughs since Ralph Kramden first clenched his fist at Alice. With Lucky Louie, HBO is hoping to send a different message: The only thing dead about the traditional sitcom is the traditional networks’ execution of it.
The show’s 38-year-old creator and star is comedian Louis C.K., who grew up in Newton and began crafting his act 20 years ago in Boston’s clubs. There’s nothing immediately likable about his “Louie” character in the show. He works part time at a muffler shop while his wife logs double shifts at a hospital and keeps the household running. He spends most of his time hanging out with his two foulmouthed friends. His attention drifts every time his precocious daughter with the TV-requisite bangs and lisp starts into one of her stories. In the pilot episode, his wife, Kim, catches him masturbating to a Jessica Simpson magazine spread in the closet off their kitchen. Hey, he tells her, it’s not like I’m masturbating to her music.
The show is an extension of C.K.’s brilliant comedy act, which had long been popular with fellow comedians but which found an outrageous clarity and wider audience after he became a father nearly four years ago. Before crowds, he detonated the convention of the proud father proffering baby pictures. Instead, he would deadpan, “My baby is a f****** a******.”As his daughter got older, he took his audience into his diminished world of parenting. “We have rules in our house,” he’d say, “like, we can’t hit her.” Even as he honed this persona of the ticked-off, sex-deprived, hobbled husband and father, he somehow managed to keep the crowds on his side.
Last winter, he persuaded HBO executives to give him the chance to make their first traditional sitcom - complete with live studio audience, multiple-camera effect, and a stripped-down set where the action revolves around a kitchen table. The premium cable channel had spent the last few years outclassing the networks in producing edgy drama and comedy that people just had to see. Every time HBO walked out of an Emmy Awards ceremony dragging a satchel full of statues, the networks would grumble, “They don’t have to play by our rules.” C.K.’s show could help provide the perfect retort. It wouldn’t be an expensive, movie-quality drama like The Sopranos. It wouldn’t be a racy, shot-on-location comedy like Sex and the City. Aside from the profanity, C.K.’s show would look exactly like a conventional network sitcom. He even vowed to abandon the current practice of shooting sitcoms on film, preferring the grainier videotape look of 1970s classics like All in the Family.
C.K. got the go-ahead to shoot a pilot episode, which he delivered last spring. But HBO executives hesitated before committing to a 12-episode season. HBO’s entire enterprise is fueled by buzz - they need programming so compelling that people are willing to pay extra for it - and its last few attempts at new shows, like Carnivale and Unscripted, had fizzled. As C.K. waited, he e-mailed his friend and former boss, comedian Chris Rock, saying he feared the answer would be no.
“A sitcom with cursing is a better invention than the iPod,” Rock e-mailed back. “It’s going to be the biggest thing in the world.”
But first it has to be funny. HBO ultimately gave C.K. the green light. As Lucky Louie went into production in September, he said, “We have to do 12 perfect shows.”
THERE’S A BRONZE PLAQUE on the Hollywood lot where C.K.’s show is taped. It reads: “Original home of I Love Lucy, 1951-1953.” Lucy wasn’t TV’s first situation comedy. That honor belongs to Mary Kay and Johnny, a largely forgotten 1947 show about New York newlyweds. But Lucy remains the sitcom most identified with the format. Desi Arnaz even helped pioneer the efficient multiple-camera approach to shooting sitcoms in front of a live studio audience, which is still in use today. The sitcom has long been the comfort food of TV: familiar, non-threatening, entertaining through its very predictability. Lucy never stops being starstruck and out of control; Ricky never stops trying to rein her in.
For the television industry, the sitcom has represented a more important kind of predictability, that of moneymaker. Generally cheaper to produce than dramas, the most popular sitcoms have brought in buckets of ad revenue and been invaluable in helping a network burnish its brand identity. The shows are especially lucrative for the industry when they move into syndication, because TV stations are far more interested in buying half-hour reruns of light comedy that viewers can drop in on anytime than hourlong, heavy-commitment drama. (Seinfeld is expected to generate $3 billion in syndication revenue before long.)
Yet today’s network schedules are crammed with crime dramas and reality TV, the latter having virtually no shelf life after going off the air. The most inventive comedies, Fox’s Arrested Development and NBC’s Scrubs, are actually single-camera shows with no studio audience, and they’ve languished in the Nielsen ratings. (The NBC single-camera My Name Is Earl is one of the few new bright lights, hovering in the Nielsen top 25.) It’s surprising that Arrested Development is still on the air. Even though Seinfeld, Cheers, and All in the Family had abysmal ratings when they started, the networks are generally a lot swifter with the ax these days.
While the sitcom is dying, the need for digestible chunks of comedy will only continue to grow, as programming gets exported to micro-media like Game Boys and iPods. HBO, whose production arm had actually made a bundle co-producing Everybody Loves Raymond for CBS, figured it was time to create its own home for sitcoms, beginning with Louie.
Of course, pronouncing the sitcom dead is a cyclical exercise in Hollywood. The last time it happened was in the early 1980s, before the arrival of The Cosby Show, which triggered more than a decade of must-see dominance for NBC. And the same dirge was played in the early 1970s, when CBS dumped its roster of one-note hick sendups like GreenAcres and The Beverly Hillbillies and bet the farm on urban, topical comedies like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Norman Lear brought his live-theater sensibility to All in the Family, reintroducing the audience as a player in the show after years of canned laughter, with Archie Bunker freezing onstage to prolong a big laugh. From the flagrant flush of a toilet on the first episode, the show was real and raw.
ARCHIE: If your spics and your spades want their rightful share of the American dream, let ‘em get out there and hustle for it like I done.
“MEATHEAD”: So now you’re going to tell me the black man has just as much chance as the white man to get a job?
ARCHIE: More; he has more. I didn’t have no million people marchin’ and protestin’ to get me my job.
EDITH: No, his uncle got it for him.
The show tackled serious subjects. But it did it by first being funny. During an episode about Edith’s menopause, Archie yelled, “If you’re gonna have a change of life, you gotta do it right now. I’m gonna give you just 30 seconds!”
All in the Family, which eventually drew big ratings and spawned a raft of other socially relevant spinoffs and imitators, proved that viewers could be challenged while they were being entertained. The problem with most new sitcoms, says Rick Mitz, author of The Great TV Sitcom Book, is that “viewers have gotten too smart.” After years of being rigidly programmed on where to laugh, they can’t help but see the plumbing now. “In the 1970s, Norman Lear turned the sitcom on its ear, but it hasn’t been reinvented since.”
That’s precisely what Louis C.K. is trying to do. While All in the Family brought racism out into the open, the interactions between C.K.’s character and his black neighbor capture the more subtle realties of race relations today. In the pilot, Louie makes a series of clumsy, halfhearted attempts to invite the neighbors over. Finally, the neighbor tells Louie, “I get the distinct feeling that you’re just trying to acquire a black friend.” Louie replies: “That’s exactly what I’m doing. But I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for my daughter.”
EVEN C.K. ISN’T SUGGESTING his show could transform TV as profoundly as All in the Family did. For one thing, HBO is available in only about 29 million households. For another, the networks could never get away with his level of adult content. Still, the devoted following for shows like The Sopranos and FX’s Rescue Me demonstrates that even many parents who may be concerned about the coarsening of the culture want to watch authentic, unfiltered programs themselves once the kids are in bed.
The profanity on Lucky Louie is generally not gratuitous, and the warts on the show’s characters are not over-the-top in the way they were on Married . . . With Children. They’re there to help make the show authentic. If it works, Lucky Louie could have a spillover effect when it debuts in June, in the same way that The Sopranos’ respect for its audience and creative narrative structure helped pave the way for a first-rate network drama like ABC’s Lost. Or the way all that sex in Sex and the City begot all that (slightly tamer) sex in Desperate Housewives.
C.K.’s experience tells him it may well be easier to reform the networks from the outside. In 2004, a sitcom pilot he starred in just missed making it onto CBS’s fall lineup. It was called Saint Louie, and it was produced by the man behind Roseanne. It told the story of an overstressed, underserviced new dad and his attractive wife and their young daughter. It was C.K.’s story, with just about all of the edge sanded down. He took it as a victory that the show opened with him telling his wife, “Honey, our baby sucks.” But otherwise it was an example of all the neutering that goes on to get a show past prickly test audiences and mountains of “notes” from network executives. His character was diluted from ticked off to mildly annoyed, and he was given a silly, high-jinks-enabling job as a product-safety tester. Saint Louie was a humorous half-hour, but not at all memorable. In the end, CBS opted for two dreadful new sitcoms - John Goodman’s Center of the Universe and Jason Alexander’s Listen Up - because they had big names attached to them. Mercifully, both were canceled.
When CBS passed on his show, C.K. feared he had blown his biggest break. He returned to the comedy-club circuit, prepared to play every yuk-yuk joint between here and Fairbanks, Alaska. Then came the chance to pitch HBO on its first conventional sitcom. This time, C.K. was interested in more than just getting any show on the air. He was determined to get one on that mattered.
“I am so glad the CBS show didn’t work out,” he says. “If it had, I would have missed this shot forever.”
AFTER TAPING FOUR EPISODES of Lucky Louie, C.K. speaks confidently about how each has hit its mark. But things change in the third week of October, when production begins on an episode he wrote called “Kim Moves Out.”
It’s Wednesday afternoon, and the cast is doing its first run-through of the episode for a couple of HBO executives as about 30 crew members look on. Louie is standing at the kitchen counter, getting dressed down by Kim while their daughter, Lucy, eats her breakfast. Kim is played by the tiny Pamela Adlon, a dark-haired actress who is the voice of Bobby on the animated Fox show King of the Hill. Louie, of course, is played by C.K., who looks the same way in and out of character - rumpled T-shirt, jeans hanging off his butt. His red hair is absent on the top, scruffy around his mouth, and bulging around his ears.
“You should have a plan for what you’re doing with Lucy,” Kim tells Louie.
“I’m gonna watch her, like I always do,” he replies, reaching for a bowl and a box of cereal.
“That’s not a cereal bowl,” she says, grabbing it and slamming a different bowl down in front of him.
“Wow,” he says, cocking his head. “That was close.”
The director laughs a forced “Hah!” The HBO executives do not.
“You’re supposed to be raising her; you can’t just have her follow you around sharing your crappy life,” Kim continues, using the HBO word for crappy.
“Why are you mad at me?”
“Do you even have any parenting philosophy at all? Well, do you? Because I’d like to hear it.”
He stares at her for a long beat and then says, “I’m just trying to think of the least words I need to say to get you out that door.”
The scene is thick with realistic tension. But there’s not even a whiff of funny.
After the run-through, the actors sit at the kitchen table, waiting for the executives to give their feedback. The traditional networks are infamous for burying the producers of their TV shows with “notes” from every layer of their bureaucracy, trying to make the product more palatable to test audiences. HBO doesn’t do test audiences, and the executives’ notes for the earlier episodes of Louie were minimal. This one will be different. While the secondary scenes are packed with fresh comedy, the pivotal ones between Louie and Kim are deadly.
It’s been a trying couple of days for C.K. The day before, he had resisted attempts by his writing staff to change the focus of his script. During the Wednesday morning rehearsal, he struggled with one particular scene, when Kim tells Louie that she realizes she hates him. Louie had responded nonchalantly, saying, “So, what are you saying? You want to leave me?”
C.K.’s creative partner, executive producer Mike Royce, had been telling him that it wasn’t plausible for a guy to be so nonchalant when his wife tells him she hates him. C.K. had fought making his character too upset, saying, “This isn’t a drama!” But then he relented and tried the scene with more intensity.
He delivered a line in which Louie tells Kim to list all the things she hates about him so he can change. All of a sudden, C.K. remembers, "I got hit by a truck. For the first time it dawned on me that I wrote this, and it's about my life, and I feel that way sometimes about my wife. I feel like, 'You hate me, and I don't know what the f*** to do.' In the stress of our lives, that's really painful."
He walked off the set, shaking. He went to his office - a deluxe space once occupied by Francis Ford Coppola and equipped with a private steam room - and called his wife but couldn't reach her. "I've never gotten that involved in what I was doing," he says. "I make money taking [crap] out of my life that's misery and [crappy] and presenting it to people and letting them laugh at it. I love doing it, and I never feel misery while I'm doing it. Never."
The experience, he says, "changed how I was looking at everything all week. I realized I was avoiding some truths about the show to the writing staff." His change was too abrupt to make things work in time for the afternoon run-through. But he had a good feeling that by the time the audience filed in the next night, everything would be all right.
"LOUIE'S LIFE," SAYS HIS MOM, "is just one endless bunch of improbable stories." Louis "Louie" Szekely is Hungarian Jewish and Mexican Catholic on his father's side, Irish Catholic on his mother's. His parents met at Harvard, where his father, Luis, was a graduate student in economics, visiting from Mexico, and his mother, Mary, was a summer-school student studying German, visiting from Michigan. They married, had three daughters, and then not long after Louie was born, moved to Mexico. They came back to New England four years later, settling in Framingham. There the 6-year-old punks taunted Louie, who spoke no English, calling the red-headed, freckled kid a "spic." The next year, the family moved to Newton. When he was in the third grade, his parents sent him to camp, neglecting to notice that it was primarily a place for kids with special needs. Louie worried: Is this their way of breaking it to me that I'm retarded? He got a comedy bit out of the experience. A stage name, too. He told the camp counselor to stop getting laughs out of his name during roll call - Louie Sa-Sneeze-ly! The counselor said he honestly didn't know how to pronounce the name (SAY-kay). "It sounds like C-K," Louie said. The guy wrote the two letters on the roster. That was that.
His junior high school years were brutal. His parents had divorced. He discovered pot. He got implicated in a scandal involving the theft of triple-beam scales from the school's science labs and their subsequent resale to local drug dealers. Got implicated mostly because he did it. When the principal came down hard, C.K.'s beloved history teacher came to his defense. (He didn't have the heart to tell her he'd done it, until she wrote him unexpectedly in February to congratulate him on his success. He treasures her forgiveness.) By high school, he was over drugs but still not much of a student. After graduating, in the ultimate affront to education-fixated Newton, he skipped college in favor of the Boston comedy-club scene. He was always more of a self-taught kid, devouring books on Roman history and Russian literature and soaking up the best of film and TV. He moved into a dive in Mission Hill. Anyone brave enough to visit would get directions from him like "Go two blocks past the whore." He got a regular gig at the comedy club in the basement of Play It Again Sam's in Brighton and supported himself by driving a cab.
His first year after high school, he went to a New Year's Eve party in Newton and met a beautiful, classy Bennington freshman named Alix Bailey. He spent the party following her around and getting drunk. Late in the night, he told her, "I want to marry you." Then he excused himself to go throw up. He returned and continued to follow her around. She still remembers the smell of vomit on his breath.
He moved to a fetid apartment in New York. With no dishes or pans, he developed a science to his suppers: Boil a can of corn in the can. Remove corn and use can to boil a hot dog. Remove dog and use can to boil water for tea. Repeat. In 1993, he was hired as one of the original writers on Conan O'Brien's Late Night. He later moved to Letterman. In 1995, 10 years after he proposed to her at the New Year's Eve party, Bailey moved to New York, and they reconnected. After their first date, he took her back to his apartment. She didn't flee. She could see how charming he was, once you got past the mess. She told him to throw out every filthy item in there and start over. It was love. Before long, they bought a house in upstate New York and married.
He got a job writing for Chris Rock's late-night HBO show, winning an Emmy for the work. He expanded one of the characters he had created, Pootie Tang, who spoke his own personal ebonics, into an independent movie. Because of Rock's association with the project, Paramount decided to turn Pootie Tang into a major studio release. Instead, the project turned into a disaster after the studio took the movie away from C.K.
He and Bailey had a baby, Kitty, and then moved out to Los Angeles so he could take a job as executive producer of Cedric the Entertainer Presents on Fox. There was tension in the marriage. He was an overstressed, underserviced new dad who hated his job. Bailey was an overtired new mom who hated living in LA. He started incorporating his frustrations into his stand-up act. Audiences devoured it. After a couple of years, the tensions in the marriage eased. (They had their second daughter, Mary Lou, in April.) For his comedy, he still draws heavily from that painful period, so much so that people assume things on the home front are still touch-and-go.
In August, after he'd done his lacerating set during an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show, Kimmel leaned over to him in a commercial break and said, "Man, you've got to get a divorce." Kimmel, who himself is divorced, said later that he heard in C.K.'s daring act "despair - and I've felt that feeling in my life before."
C.K. says Kimmel is missing the point. His marriage is the font for his biting humor. But, more than that, it's testament to the endurance of love.
IT'S JUST AFTER 5 on Thursday evening. About 130 people have filed into the studio audience. When the perspiring warm-up comic asks how many of them have been to a sitcom taping before, nearly every audience member raises a hand. Life in LA. But they've never seen a show like this. In a way, C.K. hasn't either. Over the last 24 hours, he and the writers had been overhauling the script, adding and killing entire scenes. Lots of new dialogue to be learned. He shakes his head and whispers, "We don't know this show."
For starters, the audience is shown the Lucky Louie pilot. Many wince the first time the characters drop the F-bomb. Their comfort level and laughter build during the inspired half-hour.
Just after 6 p.m., C.K. tells the crowd, "Other shows try to force you to laugh at everything. We're not like that. Don't laugh if it ain't funny."
The audience for this week's taping includes a gray-haired 50- something guy named Emperor Seidl. Honest. The guy's been to more than 30 tapings of other new sitcoms just in the last month and a half. He critiques them for various shopper newspapers in Los Angeles, commenting on not just the show but also the warm-up act and the refreshments. His take on the latest crop: Fran Drescher is good to her audiences, Julia Louis Dreyfus is just collecting a paycheck. And C.K.'s show? "I will mention the light," he says, pointing to a blinding spotlight trained on his seat.
As for the content of the show, the Emperor decrees: "They're running the wire between funny and perverted."
By 6:30 p.m., C.K. is lying in bed onstage, under the covers. Kim is fuming. She smacks him. Hard enough to make his pale cheek red. The audience goes wild. C.K. knows then that everything about this night will go right.
The deadly scene in which Kim swiped Louie's cereal bowl has been wisely pruned. It now consists only of Kim telling him, "Hey, pal, how about trying to squeeze in a shower today. Cuz you smell . . . awful." Edgy, but with a lighter touch. The audience is on board.
Next scene: Louie is hanging out on a park bench with his buddies. His daughter finds a cigarette butt on the ground and asks him if she can keep it. No, he says. And go wash your hands in the water fountain.
"You think that water fountain's any cleaner?" asks his pudgy, bug-eyed friend with the buzz cut. "The same homeless she-male that smoked that cigarette probably washed her scrotum in that fountain," he says, using the HBO word for scrotum. Huge laugh.
The original script called for Kim to move out for the weekend, to try to make sense of her swelling hatred for her husband. They would meet up again in the hallway outside their apartment, where they would bicker some more. Something about the approach wasn't working, but C.K. couldn't identify it. Eventually, one of his writers did.
In the reworked hallway exchange, Kim and Louie ask each other how they've been holding up during their time apart. Slowly, it dawns on them that they've been enjoying it way too much.
"I'm about as happy as I've ever been," Kim confesses. "Ever."
That short, recast hallway scene illuminates the dangerous state of their marriage better than three scenes of combat ever could. The people in the audience get it. More important, they can take it. Her line draws big laughs.
Mike Royce, the executive producer, is sitting next to the director, in front of a bank of monitors set up a few yards in front of the set. "It's really come together," he says between takes. "The audience is really on the hook."
Royce was one of the top producers of Everybody Loves Raymond, a conventional but brilliantly executed sitcom. He came to Louie excited by the chance to take lots of risks and break lots of rules. But what he's finding is that sometimes restraint can be powerful. "Because we're allowed to say f***," Royce says, "there's a big temptation to say it all the time." For every episode, they shoot profanity-free alternate scenes, to be used later if the show is sold into syndication. Sometimes, they've found the audience laughing harder at the clean versions, such as when Louie's sour friend barks that something "scared the tinkle out of me." They ended up going with "tinkle" for both versions.
The final scene between Louie and Kim finds them in a restaurant. When Louie asks for the double cheeseburger, Kim complains that it's not good for him. "Why don't you just order for me," he says, disgusted. "Why don't you eat it, too." Pause. "And then s*** in my mouth." Big laugh.
The waiter slinks away.
"You're not the only one who hates," Louie says.
"So what happens when you hate me?" she asks.
"I just keep it in . . . and let it crush my heart down into a diamond." Bigger laugh.
How did it get this bad? they ask each other. The reflect on their happy, early years and discover instead that the hate goes all the way back to their first date. Kim is horrified, but Louie knows better. "All married couples hate each other. The ones that don't make it are the ones who can't handle it. But we know we can handle it, because it's been there since the beginning, and we still chose to be together."
Kim smiles. "This marriage was built on hate." Huge laugh.
The waiter returns.
Louie and Kim hold hands. "I love you," he says.
"I love you, too, babe."
Warm applause from the audience.
The actors smile at each other from across the table. Then C.K. yells over to one of the producers: "We're going to cut the 'I love yous.'"Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.