Friday, January 10, 2014

The Comedy of Truth Telling: Louis C. K.'s Louie and Simon Amstell's Grandma's House

Preface: Very seriously, if you don't like spoilers, don't read any of this blog post, which contains MAJOR SPOILERS for events old and new on all three sitcoms it discusses: Louie, Grandma's House, and Peep Show. The kind of spoilers that dwell on the profound televisual pleasure of the skillful revelation of surprises, ruining them for you in the process. So do not read on unless you've already seen these shows and want to compare reactions, or you like to read blog posts about TV shows you'll never watch, or on an impulse that you'll regret immediately after, cringing at each MAJOR SPOILER that erupts in your face.

For two comedians so drastically different, Louis C. K. and Simon Amstell have a remarkable amount in common. They both star in artistically ambitious, autobiographical sitcoms of the “comedy of humiliation/discomfort” sub-genre, playing less successful versions of themselves who are awkward, vulnerable, and have a difficult time finding love and getting laid. Both men have Jewish ancestry on the paternal side; C. K.'s parents divorced when he was ten, Amstell's when he wasn't much older; both shows are haunted by paternal absence. The strong autobiographical element in their comedy goes along with a broader concern with truth telling: Amstell became a minor celebrity in the UK by mocking celebrities, first as a presenter on Pop World, then as the host of the pop music-oriented quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, while (to judge by the bits featured on the show) C. K. prides himself in his stand-up comedy on telling uncomfortable truths which often have to do with sex.

But that's where the similarities end. C. K. is an out-of-shape man in his early 40s who's obsessed with the idea that he's decrepit; Amstell is a wisp of a waif in his early 30s who's as fat-phobic as C. K. is food-addicted and who frequently remarks on the youthfulness of his own appearance. When in Season 3 of Louie, Louie confronts the idea of failure, it's as a middle-aged man whose aim, given his career in show business, has always been to become a stupendous success, and who has started to realize that it may not happen, and soon his best years will be behind him and he will have no more opportunities. When in Series 2 of Grandma's House, Simon grows more desperate after giving up his TV host job, it's as a once-precocious success who thinks his best years may already be irretrievably behind him even as he watches his peers, such as the oft-mentioned Russell Brand, take their careers to “the next level.” It's important to the comedy of both men that we believe they're too prickly, insular, hapless, and, of course, honest for mass popularity; but in truth there's no inevitability to these things. Before Forgetting Sarah Marshall, only five years ago, it might have seemed that Russell Brand was too edgy and outspoken to make it in America; and (being Russell Brand's age) I'm old enough to remember when David Letterman, then in his mid-40s, was being considered as Johnny Carson's replacement, and everyone thought he was too edgy – in his case, acerbic and facetious – for the position. Edginess and awkwardness may reduce your chances of success in entertainment, but they doesn't preclude the possibility.

One of the most obvious differences between the two men is that C. K. is heterosexual and Amstell homosexual, which in their case affects not just their sexual preferences but their stance towards masculinity. C. K. struggles with what it means to “be a man”: fear of fighting and whether that compromises his masculinity; shame over his “disgusting” fantasies about women; a mixture of shame and defiant pride over his masturbation addiction; nervous mockery and jittery tolerance of male homosexuality, accompanied by homophobic/homoerotic fantasies (e.g., the denouement of the dentist episode). Amstell, on the other hand, seems as far from wanting to approximate traditional masculinity as he's incapable of doing so, with his adolescent appearance and voice; in Grandma's House the only function that traditional masculinity serves is to be mocked as absurd in the form of Simon's mother's boyfriend, Clive, an erratic alcoholic who calls Simon “Captain” and whose blustery attempts to engage in male bonding with his amused and horrified pseudo-stepson tend to evoke pity and fear.

The Trouble with Truth Telling

An unfortunate aspect of Amstell's truth-telling persona is his nastiness towards those he deems deserving, whether celebrities or relatives; although in Grandma's House this is tempered by self-deprecation, on the one hand, and intermittent compassion towards most of the other main characters, Clive included. An unfortunate aspect of C. K.'s truth-telling is that he seems to think that he's speaking for “men” and hides behind this idea when he tells us unsavoury truths about himself, such as about his sexual thoughts and habits. The same can't be said of Amstell: when in his stand-up show, Do Nothing, he tells us about his attraction to young men who are thin and vulnerable, like himself, he's not talking about anyone else's foibles but his own, and one is astonished, as throughout the show, equally at his confessional bravery and his infinite narcissism.

This willingness to speak on behalf of “men” is no doubt a large part of the reason that C. K. has been embraced as philosopher-comedian, appealing to the same middle-aged white male demographic, confused and disoriented in a world that is no longer theirs even though it still pretty much is, for whom Walter White is a badass. C. K.'s weird, prematurely-curmudgeonly, anti-modern world stance must also have something to do with it, as well as his absolute confidence in the familiar fallacy that if he thinks something, and it's unpleasant, it must be true. The nadir of this attitude is on display in an early episode in which he asserts that lesbianism is wrong “not ethically, but geometrically,” a repetition of the stale sexist idea that “it can't be sex if there's no penis involved,” and therefore lesbianism is neither harmful nor serious. Those silly girls can do what they want to because nothing real can happen until men are involved; and if you find that offensive, it must mean it's true, and not a culturally dominant prejudice that denies the truth of another person's experience.

A World Populated by Psychopaths

In a way, Louie has more interesting things to say about 21st century masculinity than more progressive sitcoms like Grandma's House or Jonathan Ames's on Bored to Death, which is a kind of post-masculinity buddy-comedy. Louie doesn't get the kind of firm, clear exemption from masculinity of an Amstell or Jason Schwartzman, baby-faced men whose adolescence has wondrously survived into their early 30s. He's a farting-and-masturbating “regular guy” who's nevertheless as neurotic and anxious as Woody Allen (although by Season 3 he's become almost as inarticulate as Jerry Lewis); whose “ordinary” appearance is brutally criticized throughout the series, mostly by men; and whose pathological relationship with food would appall Bridget Jones.


A more troubling aspect of C. K.'s comedic persona on Louie is the fact that he is almost always presented as a sane man surrounded by psychopaths, albeit a sane man with a binge-eating disorder and, quite possibly, clinical depression. That would be enough to make you a freak on most shows, but it's nothing compared to the eccentric, hysterical women he encounters in personal situations (dates, sisters, mother) and the strange men who put him and others in dangerous situations. Louie the character and Louis the writer rarely make any attempt to find out what is making these people act in the strange ways they do: why the woman who approached him for sex after the PTA wants him to buy her blueberries and spank her in bed and why the spanking makes her break down in sobs of despair; why the bus driver doesn't know where the field trip is, how to get there, or the regulations about taking buses on highways. Once these people have confirmed for Louie, once again, that the world is an insane and scary place, nothing more is needed from them. Sometimes the dynamic flips, in the episodes where Louie goes into a panic that turns out to be unjustified; then he is blindly hysterical, with the difference that we know the cause, and it's a good one. This does happen with another character in the show, once: the teenage bully who threatens to kick the shit out of Louie in front of his date, whom he then stalks to his house, where he confronts the boy's father and discovers that both of his parents are physically and verbally abusive. This of course ends up feeling a little like an after-school special, but if C. K. is so drawn to unhappy eccentrics and extreme situations, he might try a little more often, Cassavetes-style, to help us understand these characters and feel something for them. One of my favourite episodes is the one where a fellow comic that Louie's known for years, but not very well, chooses him as the person he's going to say goodbye to before committing suicide because his life is empty, facing the viewer with the question of whether this is always a stupid decision, sometimes a sensible one, or simply a personal one.

While I watched the first two seasons of Louie with half-interest and occasional detached admiration, for me Season 3 is the big pay-off, where Louie and the show together try to push beyond their boundaries. Season 3 contains not one but two inspirational plotlines, although they're only “inspirational” within the context of the show's dark universe. First, Louie finds a new woman to obsess over in the form of Parker Posey's bookstore clerk, who agrees to go on a date with him, during which she reveals herself to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, pushing him to try things and do things he wouldn't normally do, to make the effort to enjoy life while you can. And then the season settles into its major arc: Louie's attempt to “get in training” for taking over Letterman's job on The Late Show. Fighting his own terror of failure, which manifests itself as a horror of effort, and his settled, comfortable conviction that he's a niche comic who can't entertain the mass audience, he pulls it together in order to be a role model for his little girls and show them that if you want something, you have to try. The more layers of cynicism and self-doubt that Louie strips away, the more vulnerable he becomes, and as he allows himself to want the job and believe in himself it's hard not to root for the underdog. He isn't allowed to get what he wants, or it wouldn't be Louie, but his triumph is that he thought he could, and knows he could have.

And then in the final episode, Parker Posey briefly reappears and we learn the reason for her sudden melancholy at the end of the date episode, while she was sitting, exhilarated, on the edge of a high rise roof; and that she was not a Manic Pixie Dream (or Nightmare) Girl after all, but Milly Theale. Like the Letterman opportunity, she, too, taught Louie to be a little less afraid of life; and she's denied to him even more brutally. In Season 3 of Louie, the world is perhaps even more insane and scary than ever, but Louie has somehow found the inner resources, and outer motivation, to take some risks, and C. K. shows the real difficulties and rewards of opening yourself up to possibility despite fear and pain.

Do Not Go Gently Into the Post-Masculine Era

Something similar happened to the protagonist of Peep Show, Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell), in the initial Series 7 of Peep Show, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain's point-of-view-cam sitcom, with voice-over access to the thoughts of Mark and deuteragonist Jeremy (Robert Webb), a couple of hopeless losers, Mark an anti-charismatic nerd and Jeremy a vaguely charismatic, irresponsible, unemployable mooch. Before I saw Louie, I thought Peep Show was the darkest sitcom I'd ever seen, with the most excruciatingly humiliating and generally horrifying situations. The first four seasons focus on Mark's seemingly hopeless obsession with his co-worker, Sophie, first leading the viewer to sympathize with and root for Mark despite his frequent ineptitude, then making us realize, with delicious dawning horror, that Mark is incapable of a functioning romantic relationship, never really wanted Sophie in the first place, and has fucked up her life by winning her over.

Armstrong and Bain then take us through the revelation of Mark's true, but involuntary, awfulness and manage to bring us around almost to sympathizing with him again as he keeps fucking up on Sophie and adding to her hatred of him. When Mark gets a crush on a new co-worker, a cute, funny nerd girl, we're relieved that it seems as though something is finally going to go right for him, and at the end of Series 7 it looked like he might be ready and able to take baby steps towards “growing up” by kicking Jez out and moving in with a completely awesome woman.

If Peep Show had ended with Series 4, it would have been a masterpiece. Series 7 doesn't add much to the proceedings, instead drawing out the question of whether Mark's “growth” will prove illusory and Dobby will turn out to be Sophie II, which no longer has the ability to surprise, or whether this time he won't screw it up, in which case Mark and Jeremy split up and the show has to end. Peep Show has gone into a soap-opera holding pattern and could go on this way for years with ever-diminishing returns. Grandma's House, on the other hand, is over too soon after only two series: proving true to his perfectionist and somewhat antagonist stance, Amstell has said that he likes to end things once they're good and while they're still liked. As for Louie – isn't he, too, going to have to get the girl and start getting his life together (if they're not equated) at some point, and won't that be the end of the show? Mark's emotional trajectory with Sophie makes perfect sense for Louie as well, but I'm not sure if C. K. hates him enough to tarnish the beauty of his wistful, delusional feelings for women he can't have. Louie's self-loathing is always on the border of self-pity, which is a frequent difference between British and American dark comedy, and which is something else that Louie has in common with Walter White. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, ageing white dudes. Or whimper, whichever. 

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