Season Three, Episode Two: "Telling Jokes/Set-Up"
Plenty of movie stars, from Alec Baldwin to Dustin Hoffman, have been making their way onto regular TV gigs without the thought of harming their sheen of late, but even bigger names can also crop up for guest spots on shows, which allow them to upend their image, gain a little street credit, pay back some favors, or just have a little fun.
Louis C.K.'s been relatively sparing with this sort of thing; he doesn't really have to worry about ratings with his show "Louie", so he doesn't have to get involved with stunt casting. That said, a few of his famous friends have popped up in the first two seasons, from Ricky Gervais to Chris Rock, along with some more surprising guest spots, including Dane Cook and Joan Rivers. But we're not sure any have been as memorable as Melissa Leo.
The veteran character actress, nominated for an Oscar for "Frozen River" before winning one last year for "The Fighter," is no stranger to TV — she's a series regular on HBO's "Treme" — but her turn here was mostly unheralded, so much so that when she appeared in the back of a liquor store in "Telling Jokes/Set-Up," the second episode of season three of "Louie," we weren't entirely sure it was her. But as the episode came on it, it became clear it couldn't be anyone else, Leo delivering an uproariously funny, constantly surprising turn that ranks among one of the most memorable one-offs on the show.
Unlike last week, "Telling Jokes/Set-Up," as the title might suggest, had two strands, with a charming bookend (including a little stand up, as ever) involving Louie's daughters and their illogical approach to joke-telling. C.K.'s delight at his youngest's non-sequiters was touching, giving a much-needed heartbeat to an episode that was more of a comic affair.
After that, we get rare stand up from someone other than Louie — in this case, veteran Allan Havey, who invites his pal to dinner. What he hasn't mentioned is that it's an attempt by his wife (Larisa Polonsky) to set Louie up with a friend — the very friend (Leo) who he's already passed in the liquor store on the way. As such blind dates usually are, it's horrifically awkward, with Leo's Laurie seeming particularly shut-off and standoffish with the situation.
But when the Haveys erupt into a fight, Louie and Laurie go out for a cigarette, start to bond (with Leo's terrific line "Married people. They just want to spread their shit on everyone" finally breaking the ice), and decide to head off for a drink together (cue a cute little appearance from Mrs. Havey, excitedly watching them leave out the window).
At the bar, it becomes more and more clear that outside the awkwardness of the set-up, the two are getting on like a house on fire, and Leo's made an interesting choice to play her character as almost a female version of Louie (the red hair and name — Laurie — certainly help that impression). They drive away, and Laurie offers to blow her new friend; unsurprisingly, he doesn't turn her down.
But after the deed is done, Laurie demands reciprocation, telling him "Strap on the feedbag," but Louie freaks out, mumbling about intimacy and doing everything he can to avoid returning the favor. It's a neat little satire on attitudes to oral sex, and shows C.K.'s admirable willingness to make his own character the least likable person on screen.
But it's Leo's reaction that really makes this episode sing; initially despondent, complaining "Your sperms are dying inside my mouth right now" before the follow-up "What's wrong with this country now?" and the uproarious, under-the-breath answer, "Obama." Then she gets aggressive, shattering her own window with Louie's head, jumping on him, and threatening "Lick it, or I'll break your finger." Louie acquiesces, but despite everything, they seem to be keen on another date once things are done.
It was another entirely unexpected episode, lifted by a truly titanic performance from Leo, one that would be ripe for Emmy consideration if Emmy voters could get past it mostly being an episode about a woman being denied cunnilingus. The door's left open for a reappearance, which would certainly make us happy, although we can't imagine her schedule allows for too much time on the show. Perhaps our only real complaint that aside from the 'Set-Up' pun, is that there didn't seem to be too much thematic confluence between the two storylines, but when each was so strong, that's hardly a dealbreaker for us. [A]
Bits & Pieces
– Good to see Louie's near-death experience on his motorbike hasn't put him off riding, as he takes his hog to the dinner.
– We can't confess to being too familiar with Havey as a comic, but his stuff about not having kids marked a nice acerbic counterpoint to Louis' material, which did veer slightly towards the "kids say the funniest things" template. His Bing Crosby impression was killer as well. Oh, and if you do recognize him, it might be from some of his film roles, which include "Rounders" and Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!"
– One lovely throwaway line between the Haveys, that we're sure most people have experienced: "Where's the vodka?" / "You drank it."