As most dedicated Seinfeld fans know, the initial concept for what would become one of the best live-action sitcoms of all-time was an exploration of how comics get their material. The pilot episode was edited such that the action cut back and forth between Jerry’s life and Jerry on stage. And while the next few episodes maintained this format, the stand-up segments of the show were gradually scaled back, soon only appearing at the beginning and end of every episode, then only the beginning, and by the end of the show’s run not at all. By that point, of course, the show had evolved into the “show about nothing”—as opposed to a study of the life of a comic—that we all know and love.
Last night’s premiere of Louie on FX, though, is almost a look at what that initial concept could have looked like. Whereas Seinfeld quickly abandoned the stand-up conceit in favor a more general sitcom formula—with secondary characters and sets and cohesive plots—Louie’s first two episodes show no traces of those things. Instead we see C.K. play a man named “Louis C.K.” who, like the real C.K., is divorced with two kids who attend public school, lives in New York City, and works as a stand-up comedian. We see him on stage performing, and then we see little short films or vignettes that flesh out the ideas he talks about on stage. In some ways, it’s kind of like that old Comedy Central show Pulp Comics, except not awful.
In fact, it’s really the complete opposite of awful. While comparisons between Seinfeld and C.K. as comics don’t really work—C.K. is much edgier and darker, Seinfeld more polished and, of course, clean—it’s at least true that C.K. is, like Seinfeld was at the time of Seinfeld (as opposed to now), one of the best comics working, if not the clear #1. Unlike Seinfeld, though, he has a very clear vision of how to translate his stand-up voice into film; C.K. has written and directed shorts and a feature film before, and he directed and edited, in addition to writing, both of last night’s episodes. In fact, virtually all of the creative choices were made by C.K. himself, since FX didn’t even see scripts until the episodes themselves were completed.
As a result, the vignettes feel more like short films than sketches, which could feel silly and cheesy, or a traditional sitcom, which would make them more generic. Working outside these traditional formats helps the show tremendously, since it relieves the burdens of a super high jokerate that sketches usually need, or the story requirements of a sitcom. Instead, the shorts are allowed to play out naturally, and the humor builds gradually. In the second short from last night’s first episode, for example, Louie’s date with a younger woman (Chelsea Peretti) is allowed to play out for all of its awkwardness. When she asks the most harmless of questions—“What are your daughters like?”—Louis C.K. gives a charmingly and hilariously frank answer: “This was a pretty rough week for the younger one…. The doctor says she has a pretty aggressive rash on her vagina.”
This isn’t just another show about how funny awkward situations are, though. In fact, the tone and style of the show changes from short to short. Some of them don’t even seem like they are trying to be funny, like one in which a gay comic explains what it’s like to hear other comics use the word “faggot.” Even these, however, are cool and interesting.
Louie feels like a show that could have only been produced the way C.K. produced it: by himself, without network oversight or the burdens of a large cast and crew. If the cast were bigger, the writing would have to be spread over multiple characters. If the network were involved, they’d insist on more punchlines and DEFINITELY on less cursing. If the story were linear, then there’d be no absurd endings, like C.K.’s date running from him, getting into a helicopter, and flying away. As it is, though, Louie is totally original and weird and cool and fun. More shows should be like that.