Louie, Ep. 3.02: “Telling Jokes / Set Up” ranges from sweetly innocent to hilariously nasty

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Louie, Season 3, Episode 2: “Telling Jokes / Set Up”
Written by Louis CK
Directed by Louis CK
Airs Thursdays at 10:30pm ET on FX

Louie is one of the only shows running right now that allows for easy access for newcomers. For the most part, it eschews serialization, toys with tone and format on an almost weekly basis, and generally revolves more around one-off ideas than gradually built thematic throughlines. With that said, “Telling Jokes / Set Up” does feature some neat continuations, payoffs and easter eggs for longtime viewers, or even anyone who happened to tune in last week. For starters, he’s still got the motorcycle, which is a bit of a surprise considering how “Something’s Gone Wrong” ended that particular adventure. More significantly, this week marks the return of Louie’s two daughters, who are once again played by Season 2’s (wonderful) Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker. And, just for kicks, we get a third instance of the mere mention of “Obama” as a potent comic punchline. (This is also the second ep in a row to feature a charming retro-Euro pop tune, this time in French. What gives?)

While the connective tissue in “Something’s Gone Wrong” was fairly obvious, with each incident revolving around Louie’s inability to mature honestly, “Telling Jokes / Set Up” requires a little more decoding – in many respects, this is a strikingly schizophrenic episode. It opens with an unusually innocent scene between Louie and his kids, revolving around the art of telling a good joke. In fact, it’s not until Louie, in stand-up mode, realizes he’s his daughters’ “first asshole” that the idyllic nature of the scene abates at all. After the credits, though, things take a turn. It starts with another comic (Allan Havey) doing a set not entirely unlike one of Louie’s, before the two meet up for hot dogs and Allan invites Louie for dinner, knowing that his wife is planning to set Louie up with a friend of hers, Laurie (Melissa Leo).

Yes, that Melissa Leo, and it’s easy to see why CK wanted an actress of Leo’s calibre for the part. Their scene at the dinner table is funny and delightfully awkward, but let’s skip to the end, since it’s all anyone will remember about this episode anyway – not because the rest isn’t worthy, but because as soon as Louie climbs into Laurie’s truck, what follows is one of the most jaw-droppingly filthy, funny, and shocking sequences in recent memory. What’s really clever about the sequence is the way it toys with our sympathies, and promises to divide audiences – maybe along gender lines, maybe not – before confounding all expectations with one swift arm movement. At first, it seems like a simple issue of reciprocity: after she fellates Louie out of the blue, she simply expects him to return the favor. What follows makes it seem like we’re about to sit through a very funny but slightly strident lecture on double standards for sex acts, as Louie tries to intellectualize the situation, then more or less accuses her of being a whore (the opposite of intellectualizing a situation), all in pursuit of not giving this strange woman head in her pick-up truck. What follows in those next few minutes defies polite description, but it’s a wonderfully surreal blend of violence and strange ecstasy.

So what’s that mysterious throughline? Early in the episode, Havey’s onstage sequence finds him fearful of couples with children, as well as resentful of their judgmental ways.As the opening (and closing) segments demonstrate, though, child-rearing is full of little pleasures other people just can’t have, like watching their kids work out what makes for a good joke. Later, Louie is disgusted that he’s been set up by his friends, but he and Laurie really hit it off. And yes, she turns out to be a little unhinged, but Louie’s divoreced, so what does he have to lose? “Telling Jokes / Set Up” is all about savoring life’s surprises, whether they show up innocently at the kitchen table, or in the midst of a wild sexual encounter with Melissa Leo. What’s not to like?

Simon Howell

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