In an interview with Esquire from back in May, Louis CK explained the way he now approaches movie studios when he looks to re-enter that universe: “Just give me $8 million. I’m not telling you what it’s about and I’m not telling you who’s in it.” Anyone with even a basic understanding of how most movies get made will know that for virtually any studio executive, this is an absurd proposal. Yet CK’s almost adversarial stance to the industry is merely logical: after all, he’s getting away with it on TV.
He’s earned the right to feel entitled to exceptional treatment. After many years of false starts – The Dana Carvey Show, Pootie Tang, and especially the HBO one-season-wonder Lucky Louie – CK has finally found his ideal vehicle, and all he had to do to realize it was…well, everything. Louie, now in its second season on FX, is in some ways like nothing else in the history of the medium. For the entire 13-episode first season, CK directed, wrote, edited and starred in every episode. CK is the only permanent cast member (though Lucky Louie collaborator and kindred spirit Pamela Adlon’s character has recurred). For the second season, CK keeps all of those titles – and adds music supervision. (Another FX show, Archer, boasts a one-man writing staff in creator Adam Reed, but even he shares the credit on a few episodes.)
The more you know about CK’s background, the less surprising it is that he was so eager to assert control over every aspect of his show. Some time after the cancellation of Lucky Louie, he filmed a pilot for CBS called St. Louie, which was never optioned, and apparently this attempt to shoehorn CK’s comic sensibility into a standard sitcom format left all parties less than satisfied. Before that, his only major film release as a writer/director, Pootie Tang, had been hacked to pieces by a studio eager to mold CK’s surreal, vulgar comedy into something that might potentially appeal to a mass audience – and again, the compromise failed. These projects flew in the face of CK’s scrappy indie-film roots (he cited Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope as his initial inspiration for getting into filmmaking), lacking the freewheeling energy of his short films, many of which you can still watch on YouTube.
So when FX president John Landgraf offered him a TV deal that would grant him showrunner status and relative creative freedom, CK decided to push his luck a bit further and iterated more or less the same pitch he now says he’s been giving to film producers, only on a much more modest budget, and Landgraf acquiesced. FX gave CK the funds to make the pilot himself without any discussion of form or content, and the result was Louie‘s first episode. The show’s basic format – in which bits of CK’s standup loosely frame what amounts to a collage of short films in which he stars as “Louis CK,” a semi-successful, divorced, 42-year-old comic with two daughters – has remained since that pilot, but many episodes feature surreal and sometimes even dramatic segments that don’t always, as CK puts it, “go for the laugh.” In the first season, two episodes were almost joke-free besides the brief stand-up segments: “”Bully,” in which a young tough publicly humiliates CK during a date, and especially “God,” in which the always-creepy Tom Noonan guests as a “doctor” who attempts to terrify a young Louie and his peers into a closer understanding of Jesus’s suffering. (Not every segment works – in particular, a few Season 1 sketches never quite came together)
If the show’s occasionally awkward tonal shifts and film-school energy (including varying film stocks and jazz-based scoring) make for difficult-to-pigeonhole TV, other elements render the show even stranger. In the first season, CK provides two different versions of his mother – one as an elderly asshole and another as a supportive, understanding woman, who he’s said reflects his real mother. His kids are routinely swapped out in favor of new young actresses. His date in “Bully” is played by the same actress (Amy Landecker) as his mother in “God.” Robert Kelly appeared three times as CK’s (fictional) brother Robbie, but has been replaced in the second season by two sisters, one of whom has remained unseen. Some episodes remain grounded in reality, while others drift off into bouts of magical realism. On Louie, CK’s imagination takes precedence over traditional continuity, form, and emotional tenor.
The concerns addressed by Louie, and especially the manner in which they are addressed, is also unusual. Many of the stand-up bits revolve around concepts that would be verboten on most sitcom sets: Western complacency and entitlement; race politics; historical revisionism, and most importantly, the idea that things may not get better as you get older. At the end of Louie‘s first season, CK reaches the conclusion that the only two things he is still meant to excel at in life are masturbation and child-rearing; for him (“CK,” the character), all else is in decline or worse. He actually manages to find some solace in the idea, ending the season on a sweet long take on CK and his kids on a 4am food run, but it’s still a far cry from the (romantic-) love-is-all platitudes even the cleverest of sitcoms (IE How I Met Your Mother) tend to fall back on.
What’s most amazing about Louie, though, isn’t actually in the show itself: it’s that for all of its unusual tics, people are actually tuning in. Considering the low production budget and CK’s meagre cut (in the Esquire piece, he claims he makes more in three nights of stand-up than in one season of Louie), it’s unlikely that Louie needs to be a ratings powerhouse to stay on the air, but both it and timeslot neighbor Wilfred have garnered a solid following. What’s even more surprising is that the show garnered multiple Emmy nods this year – including one for CK’s acting, which is a mild surprise since he based an extended segment in Season 1 on his mediocre acting skills (“Cop Movie”).
Is CK the only true auteur on television? That depends on your definition. It’s certainly true that Louie is the only scripted show that is unilaterally directed, written and edited by one individual and a small, handpicked crew. On the other hand, other shows have been just as clearly defined by their showrunners; what would The Sopranos have turned out like without David Chase’s audacious sense of subverting audience expectation? The Wire without David Simon’s outspoken political biases? Other, maybe less prestigious, arguments could be made for the likes of Chuck Lorre or Ryan Murphy, whose respective legions of shows certainly have shared DNA. In these cases, though, this is a different sort of authorial power, in which one figure determines the general direction a series will take, and perhaps pens or directs a number of installments. (In film terms, you might say that CK is akin to an individualistic 70s American golden-age filmmaker where other contemporary showrunners are more like Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker with a distinct, but heavily collaborative style – but there are obvious flaws even in this analogy.)
Will anyone else ever demand what is now referred to in hushed tones as “the Louie deal”? It’s doubtful. Compared to other showrunners, CK has many more responsibilities and makes a fraction of the money. (Compare the roughly $200,000 an episode that Louie costs to produce, including CK’s fee, to the recent three-year, $30-million deal Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner recently signed – and that’s likely just his fee.) It’s an ideal situation for someone who sees a free-form TV show as the ultimate cinematic playground, but as Frank Darabont’s recent departure from The Walking Dead reminds us, most don’t thrive under the immense pressure of being responsible for a massive, indefinitely long production. with Louie, CK has inadvertently created a new model for TV production that offers a greatly expanded sense of freedom; it remains to be seen if other would-be showrunners will accept a significantly smaller payday for the same privilege.