Where do working stand-ups go if they don’t break big, if they have just enough success to keep grinding it out on the road, doing gigs around the country until they’re too tired? That dark kingdom is just as significant a presence as the crazy possibility of a major late night gig in last night’s episode of “Louie,” the first of a three parter, “Late Show Part 1.” Louie (Louis C.K.) gets flown to Los Angeles with his pre-adolescent agent Doug (Edward Gelbinovich) where he’s going to close out “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” He warms up with his four-and-a-half minute bit at the Improv the night before, a solid and thematically relevant piece about the luxuries and burdens of consumerism, and how “life is good, and so we want it to be better.” His biggest worry is that he’s going to be bumped, because the main guest on the show the following night is Tom Cruise, who tends to go long.
And then Cruise doesn’t show, scared off by the surprise Leno (playing himself) had planned for him (a motorcycle), and Louie’s suddenly getting promoted to lead guest by the apologetic host (“Tell an airplane story,” he suggests), having a mic slapped on him, getting showered down with hairspray and ushered into the bright lights of the studio. We don’t see his appearance, only the morning after, when Louie wakes up in his hotel room looking like he’s been dragged through the back alleys of Hollywood, and the melancholy music suggests maybe he bombed — except that he’s got multiple missed calls from Doug, who tells him the set already went viral on YouTube and that he’s got a meeting with someone high up at CBS in an hour.
The weirdness of the whole sequence, of Louie’s sudden showbiz hotness after a lucky break, of the very important meeting with someone unknown for reasons unknown, of confidentiality agreement and the unexpected giant potential job offer he’d never thought about being waved in front of his face — these things don’t actually seem that exaggerated from the reportedly reality of how these negotiations shake out. Bill Carter’s great reads “The Late Shift” and “The War for Late Night” make it clear, among other things, that some people have always aspired to host a late night talk show and others, like Craig Ferguson, come into it unexpectedly.
While the idea of offering up David Letterman’s spot, one of the prime gigs on television, to someone who in the universe of the show isn’t a giant star is a little unexpected, it isn’t irrational. As the CBS chairman (played by “Beaches,” “Pretty Woman” and, more recently, “New Year’s Eve” director Garry Marshall, and in FX’s photo credits given the name of “Lars Tardigan”) points out with surreal clarity, if a test run with Louie goes well, he’ll be hailed as a genius and will have saved the network the $12 million they would have needed to spend on Jerry Seinfeld. If it doesn’t, it’s Louie who’ll take the beating — “You’re going to crack your head on the ceiling and you’re going to go down.”
It’s too early to guess where the show’s going with this arc, though I’m assuming it’s not going to set up its main character as the host of a major late night show for its next season. But in that office, Louie’s squirmingly forced to look ahead to his future and to whether he wants to keep to the comfortable middle ground he’s been occupying, one that may end with him, as Marshall’s character predicts, teaching comedy at a community college. To be offered the reigns of a late night show is an incredible, terrifying prospect — he could go down in infamy, or he could become a household name.
And there’s the side issue of whether Louie would be a good host to begin with. While it’s possible to be a famous stand-up, it’s a talent far more often used as a launch pad to set someone up with a sitcom based on their comedy, or an acting career. A hosting gig is both the closest one can come to a giant, stable platform for one’s stand-up — a nightly monologue, and the whole time you’re only playing yourself — but it’s also something very different, requiring a particular type of alchemy with the audience, both in the studio and in homes across America. The nation has to like you enough to want to fall asleep to your voice every night.
What goes unmentioned in this episode is that C.K. is in the process of pioneering his own showbiz path, one that doesn’t find him having to squash himself into the kind of cheesy sitcom his character suffered through in last season’s “Oh, Louie/Tickets.” With “Louie,” he has a pioneering deal with his network in which he took a pay cut in order to have creative control, an agreement that’s allowed him to make one of the most unique and acclaimed shows on television. He produced and directed 2011’s “Live at the Beacon Theater” and sold it himself online, earning over a million dollars and many imitators. And he went on tour and sold the tickets himself for a flat rate of $45, avoiding “the usual very excellent but expensive ticketing service” and doing his best to fight scalpers. His character may be facing a make-it-or-break-it chance of a lifetime that’s not necessarily the ideal fit for him, but in real life, C.K. is blazing his own path in remarkable ways.