“Did Louis C.K. go too far?”
This was the question on the lips of more than a few media outlets this weekend, after the comedian’s opening monologue on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live.” In what amounted to a nine-minute excerpt from one of his stand-up routines (with the foul language edited out), C.K. tackled Middle Eastern politics, his own “mild racism,” and the psychology of child molesters, setting off uncomfortable titters in the audience and a common debate in contemporary comedy. Was he provocative, or simply offensive? Did he go too far, or did he go just far enough?
When it comes to C.K.—a humorist of privilege and its discontents—even framing one’s response in these terms implies a certain success. As evidenced by the sterling fifth season of his FX series, “Louie,” which concludes Thursday night, he’s at his funniest, and his most insightful, when poised on the comic knife’s edge.
By comparison with the series’ unwieldy, intermittently brilliant fourth season—an experiment in episodic structure that featured two extended arcs (“Elevator Parts 1-6,” “Pamela Parts 1-3”), a 90-minute episode (“In the Woods”), and a controversial, corker monologue of its own (“So Did the Fat Lady”)—the style of the current, truncated run is markedly less daring, not an auteurist’s salvo at the heart of the sitcom format so much as a negotiation between the possibilities of the serial and the pleasures of the sketch. Replacing the melancholic tone of season four with a looser, gleefully inappropriate examination of sex, gender, and modern love, “Louie” once again takes aim at its shambolic protagonist, and its discomforts are the lion’s share of its charm.
In part, I suspect, this is a function of C.K.’s ongoing collaboration with co-star Pamela Adlon, with whom he developed the story for the season’s finest episode to date, the consistently surprising “A La Carte.” After a tremendous gag involving Louie, his daughters (Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker), and a desperate urge to defecate, one that pitches the scatological joke as a miniature war movie (video below), the focus turns to Louie and Pamela’s ill-defined relationship. She tricks him into asking for oral sex at the cinema and sighs as he proposes moving in together, hoping to keep their mutual commitment to a minimum—not prix fixe but “à la carte.” “Do you remember how much fun it was, like, a few seconds ago, and now that you said that, it’s all tight in the chest and scary?” she says over dinner at an Italian restaurant. “So, are you glad that you said that now, about moving in together?”
Adlon, with brusque comic timing and an air of puckish nonchalance, plays Pamela alternately as a sweet sidekick and merciless opponent for Louie, the beer-bellied blunderer whose most vulnerable moments are nevertheless run through with the creepy, leering sexual entitlement of the middle-aged man. In “A La Carte,” she skirts any threat to her independence by encouraging Louie to embrace the opportunity to sleep with other women, and he responds by imagining the waitress grating Parmesan on another restaurant patron’s breasts. As in his “SNL” appearance, which also included a testy, lively exchange with cast member Leslie Jones, the comedy here forces you to consider who, exactly, you’re laughing at, an act of reflection that may well reveal the disconnect between your sense of humor and your stated beliefs.
Undercut and unbalanced by Pamela, or by Jones’ Sprint store manager, such sequences nod at, but rarely emphasize, the intended reading, which places C.K. at the receiving end of the joke. The self-awareness doesn’t always fly—the comparison between his taste for Mounds bars and the criminal predilections of pedophiles came off as a lazy analogy more than an impertinent one—but the usual sharpness of the comedy resides in C.K.’s acknowledgment, however faltering, of his own moments of racism or misogyny. (Whether this is sincere or performative, given allegations of sexual misconduct against the comedian, is an open question.) One might argue that the “mild” qualifier is no more than a defense mechanism, a way of preemptively letting himself off the hook, but this season of “Louie” has scarcely shied away from bursting C.K.’s bubble. He’s never in control of the situation for long.
“A La Carte” is only the strongest example of Louie’s frequent reversals of fortune this season, nearly all of which occur on the treacherous terrain of his relationships with women. A lesbian couple’s surrogate goes into labor as he has sex with her in “Pot Luck,” accompanied by the sickly splash of her water breaking all over the hallway floor; his daughter and her friends interrupt him during phone sex in “Sleepover”; Pamela makes him up “like a lady” and role plays as a man named Peter before she (apparently) pegs him in “Bobby’s House,” then suggests, in the post-coital haze, that they go back to being just friends. As with any series willing to toss out so many intimate situations for laughs, “Louie” periodically tumbles over the boundary of good taste—in the icky throwback “Untitled,” he “comforts” a crying divorcée by performing manly household tasks and fucking her on the kitchen counter—but in the main, the season’s weaker moments are those too broad to cause offense. The travails of Louie’s sister’s buffoonish ex, or his idiot brother, turn on a lack of precise characterization that dulls the knife’s edge instead of plunging it into society’s side. Anyone can make fun of Fred Flintstone or Archie Bunker. The real challenge is making hay from the middle of the road.
The best bits in “Louie” this season thus throw up hurdle after hilarious hurdle in his effort to have it both ways, free to play the field while being cared for by a committed partner, and in this the series sends up an entire subcategory of liberal self-congratulation. Nominally progressive, by no means a bad guy, Louie is still a mildly racist, misogynist, and/or homophobic jerk, and “Louie,” without the queasy self-pity of Woody Allen’s oeuvre, punctures the privilege of walking through life unaware of these cultural dynamics by punching Louie in the face with them again and again. The fourth episode, “Bobby’s House,” even makes the metaphor literal: when Louie intervenes in a disagreement between a man and a woman he doesn’t know, aiming a patronizing “take it easy” in her direction, she kicks the shit out of him with relish. As he ices his face, embarrassed to lose a fistfight to a member of the opposite sex, C.K.’s bruising comedy leaves the male ego with a shiner, too, and his punches register as neither too careful nor too provocative. Somehow, they land just right.
The season finale of “Louie” airs Thursday, May 27 at 10:30pm on FX.