The Louis CK sitcom you haven’t seen
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Louis CK is one of the most successful comedians of all time. His stand-up specials are exceptional, blistering and hardcore and unflinching, his fantastic television series Louie redefined the auteur theory for the small screen and went where no show had gone before, and with atypical work like the superb Horace And Pete (one of our top shows of 2016), he continues to push the envelope in unexpected directions.
Mr CK has, however, been honing his tart brand of comedy for a while, and one of my pleasantest and most overwhelming television surprises came when I chanced upon something weird called Lucky Louie. Aired in 2006 — half a decade before the comedian broke through with the Louie we love — for just one season, this odd little HBO show may well be the lowest-budget comedy I’ve ever seen. Filmed before a live audience, most of the show takes place in a cramped living room and the hallway right outside, and the subject matter, that of a harangued husband and father, appears as conventional as can be.
This is a far, far cry from Louie, where CK got David Lynch to tutor him on-screen for a talkshow gig, and chose to keep switching actresses for a secretary character in order to disorient the audience as much as the title character. In comparison, this multi-camera sitcom from a dozen years ago feels unvarnished, unspectacular and far from groundbreaking.
Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t feel dated. At all. Raw as it may be, Lucky Louie is a fascinating artifact, a basic-shaped show that proves to be a savagely written and foulmouthed harbinger of the ballsy comedy we now see on shows like Silicon Valley, The League and even Veep. The one and only season is available on DVD and to Amazon Prime users using a US account, and its thirteen episodes gave me some of the loudest and most satisfying laughs.
CK plays the eternally overwhelmed Louie, a car mechanic who would love nothing more than to be left alone to eat doughnuts or spend some quality alone-time in the closet — nudge nudge wink wink — but the world isn’t having any of that. Pamela Adlon — the star of current HBO dramedy Better Things, and who played CK’s love interest so memorably on Louie — stars as his wife, Kimmy, a nurse who displays remarkable patience in dealing with her husband and their bratty child, while various comedians like Laura Kightlinger, Michael Hagerty, and Jim Norton show up in supporting roles. Also, Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone shows up in a delightfully profane part.
A fearlessness runs through the writing. The very first episode features Louie trying to make friends with his black neighbour Walter (Jerry Minor), because he’s black. If this sounds like a riff on the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza schemed to do the same, well, that’s because it is, except Louie cops to this as soon as the neighbour suspects it. He wants to befriend a black man because it’d be good for his daughter to see him befriend a black man. This conversation takes place after Louie’s daughter, gifted a black Barbie doll by Walter and his family, says she doesn’t like it as much as she likes the white Barbie. In closing, Louie asks why Walter chose to buy the black Barbie, and Walter says it was half the price of the white one.
It’s a riot. For fans of the comedian, this humble but unhinged show will provide insight into how simply a genius can get off the blocks, how a self-made man becomes a made man. The subjects for each episode — a mugging, the wife’s first orgasm, parenting issues, the husband calling the wife an unforgivably bad word — all sound simple, but the show engages with them more deeply than one might expect. There is no Story B or Story C to take the heat off Story A, and thus Lucky Louie rips into one primary topic with exploratory zeal.
While watching, I could picture some version of Louis CK, many years after the events of an episode, laughing about what once happened, making jokes into a beer-flavoured microphone. And you know how people telling a funny story sometimes say that you had to be there? I was.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.
The writer tweets at @rajasen