Louis C.K is no longer a well-kept secret. Sorry, hipsters. Sorry, students of comedy. You can no longer feel cool because you know of the pudgy white guy from Newton, MA who is wicked funny. He’s a household name now. Hell, the Twitterverse was in an uproar when we mistakenly thought he defended Dane Cook, for Christ’s sake. He’s been Emmy nominated seven times over for the pending ceremony, he’s wrapping up the third season of a show in which he stars, writes and directs, and he’s selling tickets to his nationwide tour by his goddamn self. He’s not just a comic’s comic anymore, he’s a comedic icon.
Clearly, this fame and notoriety is weighing on him a bit. Not necessarily in the sense you’d think. While he may be a private person and is daunted by the attention that follows him, “Late Show (Part 1)” illuminates his deepest fear. He’s petrified that he’ll get a shot at the big time, and blow it. Granted, fictional Louie is clearly less blessed than his real-life counterpart—he earns roughly $80,000 annually and is told that he’s “on the back nine.”—but Louie is still a cable star. He’s doesn’t have a network sitcom (yet, he’s working on it), and he most certainly isn’t replacing David Letterman. And even amid the glory that has been this artsy, quirky, revolutionary show, you know that Louis must still have ambitions. Is he worried that when this show ends, his legacy does too?
As a writer, one of the anxieties that persists even once you attain recognition, is that you’ll never be able to top yourself. To think that you have already created your masterpiece is equal parts satisfying and horrifying. After all, writing isn’t just fueled by sheer egoism. I know for me it’s fueled by a necessity of expression. If I can’t make observations, or creatively channel my emotions into characters and story, you might as well put me down. It’s like that extra valve that picks up the pace and pumps the blood when my heart is weary. Louis C.K should be incredibly proud of all the laughs and thoughtful art he’s injected into millions of people’s lives. However, if that IV of jokes and witticisms were to stop tomorrow, he’d be quickly forgotten, and only revitalized in comedy classes, and on DVD.
It’s that fickle consumer—the one that sustains a comedian’s life force, and is simultaneously the bane of their existence—that’s the subject of Louie’s ridicule in his set that kicks off the episode. At The Improv in Hollywood (time stamped as a Wednesday night), Louie talks about our “burden” as Americans: when do we expose our kids to harsh realities? He continues, “In other countries, they don’t have a choice.” Referencing a time when he was at his daughters’ school, he says that parents were discussing how they would tell their children about the war. Louie observes, “In Afghanistan, they found out when they ask ‘How come Uncle Harry’s head is gone now?’ Oh, ’cause the war.”
Then he riffs on another aspect of your privilege and American exceptionalism—consumerism. He wryly states that being an American consumer is a full-time job. You have to sift through all those different products to choose the absolute best (which he adds, is a super-entitled way to think besides). “You have to read a really long review on Amazon, written by an insane person who has been dead for months (pause for laughter) because he shot his wife and himself after explaining why the remote is counterintuitive.” It’s redundant to say at this point, but he’s absolutely right. Why do we care what other people with no lives have to say. As long as it works, it’s all a matter of perception anyway. He adds, “They’re all the same machines. They all come from the same Asian suffering.” Let’s marvel for a moment at the wording of “the same Asian suffering.” It’s a delightfully sinister way to say “sweat shops,” without the sadness attached, while still cutting deep at our often conscious ignorance.
After what might be the best bit of a routine we’ve seen this season, Ross Mark, a producer from The Tonight Show With Jay Leno approaches him. Apparently, this was a test run for the set he’ll do on The Tonight Show. He bums Louie out, however, when he tells him Tom Cruise will be the feature guest and he likes too go long. Louie’s immediately incensed that he flew across the country just to be bumped. His wunderkind agent, Doug, the one who looks twelve, even agrees—he’s getting the bump.
Time stamp reads Burbank, Thursday night. He’s in the green room awaiting his turn to hit the stage. As he’s being miked (and embarrassed by the wardrobe assistant who asks where his jacket is when he’s only wearing his standard black t-shirt), suddenly, Jay Leno appears. Tom Cruise isn’t coming, so now Louie is the lead guest. They assault him with hairspray and cake on the makeup, and he wrestles away as someone tries to force a jacket on him. Doug watches anxiously.
With a choice commercial break, we’re denied the knowledge of whether he bombed or blew them away (isn’t it intriguing that in the literal sense those expressions mean the same, but in the figurative they’re opposing…hmmm). Instead, we see him resting peacefully at The Standard. Timestamp, Friday 11am. Both his cell and the room phone are ringing off the hook and he answers to shut it up. Housekeeping asks him about the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door, and when he would like them to clean. Louie, confounded, responds, “I have a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door. That’s your answer, don’t do this to me. This is the opposite of what it says.” And to add the cherry on top of that hilarious sundae, he hangs up the phone and whispers to himself, “Shit on a dick.” I kid you not, I curse that under my breath all the time. Stub my toe, “Shit on a dick.” Drop my phone, “Shit on a dick.” The person ahead of me closes the door in my face. “Shit on a dick.” There’s a reason I love this man. We’re freaking kindred spirits. But seriously, who hasn’t been infuriated when you request something specifically—at a hotel, or any place you pay for services—and they just blatantly ignore it.
He continues to cuss when he opens the shades and the blinding sun pours in. Then he checks his phone and Doug’s tried to reach him a bunch of times. The boy wonder alerts him, “Your set from last night went viral!” One million hits in one night. Yeah, it’s YouTube stardom, but it’s more exposure than he’s ever had. Thus ensues the whirlwind that is instant celebrity in the 21st century. Doug’s urgent matter was that a CBS exec wants to meet him in a hour. Louie laments, “I don’t even have time to jerk off for Christ’s sake.” I sincerely hope, even as an agonistic, that no one has ever jerked off for Jesus.
The receptionist won’t tell Louie or Doug who they are meeting with. Lo and behold, it’s Garry Marshall! He’s playing the chairman of CBS, who congratulates Louie on a terrific appearance the night before. He also alludes to having privileged information he’d like to share with Louie that could change his life. “Charlie” from legal swoops in for signatures on a confidentiality agreement. Then, Chairman Marshall sits on the arm of Doug’s chair and spills that David Letterman is retiring, and he wants to know if he’d like to replace him. Louie’s gut reaction is no, he isn’t that guy. He wonders why they wouldn’t target someone like Jerry Seinfeld. Truthfully, they are in negotiations with Jerry. In Marhsall’s terms, “He’d be a slam dunk, but an expensive slam dunk.” So, obviously, they are tied up in tense negotiations and CBS is scoping out possibilities, gauging Louie’s interest.
Garry Marshall may not have directed any all-time classics, but he’s got acting chops. He provides the perfect blend of pragmatism, wisdom, and everyman approachability. This made him a convincing, dangerous network exec. He spells it out plainly, not hiding behind an assistant or Legalese. Jerry would cost them upwards of $12 million. Louie would settle for just $1 million. Louie is flabbergasted. As if he’s been mistaken for someone else. The chairman has him pegged though. Like a salesman, he drives a hard bargain. He taps into Louie’s reluctance, his lack of faith in himself. The snake charmer-like exec declares, “It’s over and you aren’t even willing to try.”
The ultimate proposal is offered. Go back to New York (said with the densest of Bronx accents), lose 40 pounds, and meet up with Jackie Doll who will coach you. Then, you’ll do a test show. Pass, you’re on the air. He’s even candid enough to illustrate how their deal is a win-win for the network and himself. If America loves him, they look like geniuses who saved a boatload of moolah. If America hates him, the network won’t be blamed, and they have Jerry in their back pocket. CBS is the #1 watched network by a large margin, they will get their guy. It’s just a matter of who that guy is. Inevitably, Louie would take the most heat if the show tanked. In language as elegant as I’ve ever heard Garry Marshall speak he says, “You’ll crack your head on the ceiling, and you’ll go down. Probably for good.”
It’s all awfully tempting, but intimidating as hell. And I don’t mean that last part figuratively. It’s a deal with the devil. He’s selling his soul. What’s the alternative though? The chairman paints a vivid, depressing picture of Louie teaching comedy at a community college to support his kids. He’ll fall asleep every night watching The Late Show with Jerry Seinfeld. He’ll be stewing over what he should have done. In another gorgeous arrangement of words (C.K is sharpening that craft on this show, boy) Chairman Marshall warns, “You’re circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit.” It’s earnestly spoken, and heavily received. Put in plainer, uglier English, he’s getting old. How many times is he going to flirt with potential before he scoops her up, wedding himself to glory. As if he were one of those fogies at the RBC in Tampa, he asserts, “You can change that!” He asks him one last time, and Louie’s agent’s mouth is agape.
And for the second time this season, we end on a cliffhanger. But instead of a date on the horizon, it’s the bigger prospect of his future. Continuity and multiple-part episodes are new ingredients to this experimental stew Louis C.K is cooking up, and it’s added real spice. While taking liberties with consistency before, Louie freed himself up to shoot off in any direction. The show became unpredictable in a tantalizing way. There was no boundary, physical, temporal, or conceptual it couldn’t cross.
This newfound appreciation for long form storytelling hasn’t constrained him, however, it’s allowed him to jump inside and outside the box, pulling from it what he pleases, like a magician with a bottomless bag of tricks. Seinfeld himself is set to appear, could Letterman stop by? More importantly, do we have the slightest clue what he will choose? As connected as we are to this goofball with a penchant for self-deprecation and fatal attraction, I find myself sitting firmly atop the fence on this one. Sure, he’s got his daughters to think about. Even if he’s jettisoned early in his run, his bankroll skyrockets. If he doesn’t take it though, he won’t risk losing his comfortable standing as the lovable loser. He’ll be fine. Just like those consumers he derided in the open though, he thirsts for more. Consumption, as my college sociology texts tell me, has become utterly conspicuous. If we seem rich, then we are. A gig in late night will fill his pockets, but will it fulfill his dreams?