Friday, October 26, 2012

Men Reveal Themselves: Louie/Louie and Masculine Confession

(This is my position paper for the upcoming Flow conference at UT Austin, Nov 1-3 2012)

Given the failures of the male-crisis sitcoms of 2011-2012 noted in the call, what do we make of the growing success—and not just with critics—of Louie? Why did that show, which almost exclusively centers on Louie’s failures as a man NOT fail? Consider these numbers from its just completed third season: Total viewership up 36 percent and viewership in the 18-49 age bracket up 26 percent versus season 2. However, like “Louie” the TV character, Louie the TV show has problems with women: 70 percent of season 3 viewers were male (up from 64 percent last season). Louie/Louie has a proven ability to turn women off: 34 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 49 who watched the season premiere did not tune in for the second episode.[1] Maybe these numbers testify to the limited appeal of Louie’s brand of confessional comedy, but they don’t explain it. Perhaps it is in how Louie/Louie treads the territory between revealing oneself as an assaultive act to one of shame and pathos, trying to find some comedy in-between. Louie has conflated male confessionalism with the comically audacious eschewing of bodily self-control—particularly ejaculation and flatulence. That is, revealing yourself with revealing yourself. Fart and masturbation jokes enjoy equal time with narratives of humiliation on Louie.[2]

As far as content goes, Louis C.K. uses his authorial control as writer/ /director/performer and his relative freedom from network standards to explore and exploit “man problems.” Louie’s emasculation is typified by an episode in the first season in which he is humiliated by a high school-aged bully in front of a date. He won’t stand up to the boy and is forced to beg him, “Please don’t kick my ass”—a major turnoff. Louie also makes choices in other episodes which maternalize him. He decides to measure “success” through having breakfast at 5 am with his daughters after his failures womanizing with the boys, for example.

Louie has notably veered beyond the observational style, aspiring to more presentational aesthetics. Scored like melodrama and shot with an emphasis on close-ups like melodrama, the opening scene of the last episode of a three episode arc this season (“Late Show”), featured Louie being confronted by his daughters over whether or not he would be able to spend time with them if he becomes the new host of CBS’s Late Show. Louie faces the choice stereotypically presented to women: will he choose family or a career? Despite being stacked with celebrity guests like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, and notable Hollywood figures such as Garry Marshall as network executive “Lars Tardigan” and David Lynch as Louie’s mentor “Jack,” the three-episode arc played not as satire of the entertainment industry, but as melodrama. Would Louie be able to transform himself from fat slob/standup comedian to sexy-and-smooth, late night TV host? Would he prioritize his career, and then only be able to see his daughters on the weekend? Foregoing documentary realism for melodrama seems another feminization for Louie/Louie.
The last episode of the arc ended with Louie standing outside the Ed Sullivan Theatre, shaking his fists in the air and shouting over and over again “I did it!” This despite the fact that he did not get the job. Instead, he successfully transformed himself; he proved that he could do it. He could transform himself into a mega-successful TV host a la Leno or Letterman. Of course, the extratextually informed fan knew the “real” Louis C.K. needs no such insider deals. He bucks the system, self releases his own DVDs, then makes (and gives away) a fortune. Thus, Louis C.K. triumphs even if Louie/Louie is back in the season finale alone and miserable on New Year’s Eve.

            Louie typically uses the entertainment industry as a platform for staging debates about what it means to be a man, not a comedian. But given the authorial “aura” associated with the show, Louie is about “what Louis C.K. can do on his show” as much as what Louie does on his show. In that way, it can never be “just” melodrama. The final scene of the bully episode is telling in this regard: after following the bully home to confront him (actually, to tell his parents on him) he sits on the stairs outside the Staten Island home with the boy’s father, who laughs when Louie tells him he is a comedian. “It’s a job,” Louie says. “No, it’s not,” says the man, who works in “sanitation.” Louie has to admit that it isn’t; and Louie, however much it reveals the life of “Louie” can only take the crisis/humiliation so far. It has to stop in every episode—not in the narrative, but with the credits: Written and Directed by Louis C.K.

[1] Joe Satran, “'Louie' Season 3 Ratings Climb Amid Critical Acclaim,”

[2] For example, season 2 included an episode in which he debates the merits of masturbation on TV with an attractive conservative he then goes on a date with. He details the humiliation of his first sexual experience with a woman, which culminated not just in orgasm but uncontrollable flatulence. The episode ends with copious farting as Louie masturbates following her rebuffing his advances.