‘Louie’ Is More Standup Than Sitcom — But That’s Not All That Makes It Genius

Ezra Klein’s asked me to weigh in on some thoughts he has about Louie, continuity, and sitcom v. standup formats:

Sitcoms tend to have one defined plot that stretches through 22 minutes of show. Stand up, of course, doesn’t. An act consists of jokes and observations that may or may not be connected to one another, and each one gets exactly as long as the comic thinks is optimal. Here’s two minutes for how black people and white people are different, here’s one minute on the uselessness of bookmarks, here’s five minutes on the trauma and tribulations of marriage. The connecting thread isn’t a single storyline, but the comic’s unique point of view.

Louie CK’s original sitcom, Lucky Louie, was, well, like a sitcom. His current show, Louie, isn’t. It’s broken up by stand-up bits that are thematically, but not specifically, related to the narrative pieces, and even the narrative pieces often feel disconnected from one another. A recent episode, Bummer/Blueberries, included two storylines that were almost completely disconnected from one another. A more traditional sitcom would have made each into its own episode, and that would have meant padding them out. Louie CK clearly judged the material better at shorter length, and so that’s the length he used it at. Like a stand-up comic would.

I’d note that sitcoms are actually more broken up than this — B and C storylines may take up less time than A stories, but the 22 minutes of a sitcom episode are parceled out across a couple of different topics. But I do think there’s something radical about what pairing that parceling out of time with throwing out continuity has let Louis C.K. do. It’s not just that he allots time to bits based on how far he thinks he can reasonably stretch out the material. It’s that the allots time based on what he thinks the audience can bear.

I’ve written before that I sometimes feel like Louie is the closest I get to seeing the world as a (very specific) man might see it. And much of the critical praise for the show is based on how self-lacerating it is. In a world where we don’t have a lot of portraits of wounded masculinity, Louie almost single-handedly fills that quota.

There’s something categorically different about, say, 30 Rock‘s depiction of Liz Lemon’s inability to get and keep a man and the agony of Louis’ confession of love for Pamela. Liz’s misadventures are blunted by the fact that they’re somewhat implausible. It’s not painful to watch Liz have romantic trouble when it’s impossible to believe that someone that attractive will be alone forever, and when we know Liz Lemon is happily settled. We can watch her get embarrassed by dating a much younger guy whose mother turns out to look exactly like her or deal with dating Jon Hamm, because neither of those scenarios are actually wildly humiliating or particularly plausible. On the other hand, something like Pamela’s rejection of Louis is the kind of thing it’s painful to look at for too long, painful to revisit again and again precisely because it’s so initially affecting, so acutely observed. Looking at the sources of some of our worst emotional pain is like staring at the sun for too long: at some point, you just have to look away, to lock away the deepest hurts in your heart and not speak of them again.

And while there isn’t necessarily direct plot continuity, there are clear continuities in Louis’ behavior and emotions. The way he lunges in to plant one on Joan Rivers is the same way he lunges in on the abstinence advocate from last week’s episode. His daughters’ repeated slights to him, whether they’re directly saying they like staying at their mother’s more, or they’re reacting skeptically to his insistence that their visit to their great-aunt is a good idea, give us a sense of the weight of their disappointment and the pain they unintentionally inflict on him. There are some emotions, and life, that don’t actually take place or develop in particularly linear or predictable way. Louie‘s format lets it get at emotional truths that other sitcoms skirt. But I don’t think that the format alone would make the show revolutionary without Louis’ commitment to looking his own discomforts square in the face.