This post contains spoilers through the Aug. 25 episode of Louie, but read it anyway. I want to talk to you guys about this.
Let it be said, before I get into any of the substance of this episode, that if the high point of this extraordinary season of Louie is seeing Louis C.K. find a baby duck in his luggage in a war zone, then I will be satisfied. It’s the kind of thing that I should have seen coming from the moment Jane’s teacher presented him with a ventilated cardboard box, but I was still surprised, and got an incredible amount of pure pleasure from it. Louie doesn’t operate in the key of joy very often, but one of the profoundly exciting things about this season is seeing C.K. pick new challenges and tonal modes for himself, in this case, cornpone American patriotism, and proving he can absolutely nail it.
I realized as Louis launched into his first routine that I was tense about how the audience of servicemen was going to respond. It made me realize I tend to think of both the comedian and the show as the property of a certain narrow cultural perspective, which is to a certain extent the truth. Those of us who are critics and fans recognize that something extraordinary is happening here, but not that many people watch this show, between 725,000 and a million on any given week. So I was anxious about how the routine would play outside what I think of C.K.’s target audience. And of course the episode was set up precisely to mess with those expectations.
Louis’ mournful routine is a hit, cracking up young soldiers with his lament that “I work out to keep this. That’s the best that I can hope for. I’ll always have this belly…Women get to be elegant during sex. They get to lie back with their hair arranged on the pillow…They get to go for a ride…We have to be disgusting.”
And then in the mess hall, he achieves a breakthrough with the cheerleader he was making awkward smalltalk with earlier, in exchanges like “We’re not allowed to date football players.” “Do you ever do it anyway?” She’s annoyed by his routine, wanting to know “Why can’t you say Christian things and be funny?” Louis’ mystified, in a way that’s a stand-in for our skepticism, when he gets the inspiration to show her the duck, explaining that “my daughter put it in my bag. She said to keep me safe. It’s not going to help against an RPG, but it’s a pretty badass duckling.”
But he’s been through this territory before, most notably in the episode where he spends time with an abstinence advocate, and he was clearly revisiting it to set us up for something bigger. And that moment comes when the genre of the episode switches again as the chopper stars wobbling and has to land, only to have a bunch of armed Afghans showed up, the servicemembers on the chopper to react by tensely ordering them to disarm, and it looks like the situation could turn bad. But then the duck gets loose, and Louis saves the situation with the simplest, most universal humor: the pratfall. And miraculously, this awkward, middle-aged white guy, burning under Afghanistan’s sun, and terrified that he’s going to become the first USO performer to die on the job has united American soldiers, a country singer, a crew of cheerleaders, and a bunch of rural Afghans.
In recent years, comedy’s often been a signifier of subcultural difference. Dane Cook represents bros, Jeff Dunham has middle America, Dave Chapelle was a signifier for white audiences who wanted to show off their racial sophistication. But increasingly this year, Louie feels like a conversation with audiences about our assumptions and their limitations that’s among the most politically and emotionally sophisticated things I’ve ever seen. There are no victims here for our benefits, and no easy outs for us that will let us leave with our assumptions intact. Louis C.K.’s humor is operating at a level where he can redeem Dane Cook, make us appreciate abstinence experts, and where he can make us laugh at the same things as people we’re fighting a war against. Someone in Hollywood should give him a movie deal. And the State Department might want to sign him up as a cultural diplomat. What’s happening in this show isn’t just important because it’s artistically astonishing. It’s meaningful, to me at least, beyond metaphor and allusion.