The mechanics of a joke are fairly straightforward: first there’s a set-up and then there’s a punchline (and then maybe a tag after that.) When an onstage Louis C.K. starts talking about his daughter’s joke-telling abilities, it’s a set-up for when he inevitably explodes one of her ridiculous joke premises a moment later in one long punchline.
Of course, an episode of a TV show can also be executed like a joke, especially with a master joke-teller like Louis C.K. behind it. On this week’s Louie, the set-up is itself a set-up – a blind date ambush. The punchline, however, is so unexpected that even the comedian himself, who at one point in the episode admits he’s heard enough jokes in his life to know how each one will end, does not see it coming. (Literally, if you’ll forgive the cheap pun.)
Here are the five most uncomfortable moments from tonight’s episode:
1. The cold open this week starts with Louie and his daughters sitting around the table eating dinner. When the youngest, Jane, initiates a knock-knock joke, Louie is quick to participate. Jane rebuffs him, though; she wants her sister Lily to answer the door, as it were. This subtle disregard for father Louie recalls other moments on the show, such as the season two opener when Jane straight-up tells Louie she prefers her mother, as well as some of C.K.’s stand-up material, which is roughly 27 percent about being underappreciated by his daughters. In this instance, however, Lily is Louie’s ally, refusing to “yes-and” the knock-knock joke, and instead answering, “Nobody’s home.”
2. The surprise romantic set-up at the heart of the episode is awkward from jump, with Louie’s pal Allen Havey inviting him to dinner immediately after mentioning a dead mutual acquaintance Louie doesn’t remember. But if the invitation to join Allen and his wife for dinner is already a little strained, when Louie realizes too late that there’s a fourth (female) guest joining as well, his face takes on the look of a weary battle general under great duress.
3. Punchline-conscious viewers might be wondering at this point what the payoff is going to be here. Will these two turn out to like each other or hate each other? Well, at first the meal goes just as terribly as Louie fears. The fourth guest, middle-aged, husky-voiced Laurie (a fired-up Melissa Leo), cuts her vegetables in a hostile enough manner that you can hear the shrill sound of knife grating against plate. When Allen’s wife points out that Louie is a comedian, Laurie’s reply (an eye-contact-free “Yeah?”) signals that she couldn’t possibly care less. After Louie is prompted to ask Laurie what she does, Laurie dismisses his follow-up question as aggressively as she cuts her asparagus.
4. Just in case any of us are left wondering whether the rest of the dinner went as poorly as the brief glimpse of it that was shown, in the next scene Allen and his wife are yelling at each other about how badly it went, one room over from where the ambushed twosome are sitting. The would-be couple has to sit and listen to a fight about who let the conversation die during dinner; that is, until Laurie asks Louie if he wants to go get a drink.
5. Finally, we come to the punchline. Laurie is a bitter crank who curses and drinks like a sailor. Although she may not exactly be Louie’s type, his lust for women who bust his balls has been well-documented (see every exchange with Pamela.) The two end up getting hammered and having a nice time, and when Laurie starts driving him back to his motorcycle (!) she ends up pulling over in a secluded spot and offering up oral sex. Everything up to this point could have been predicted. They either hate each other or they like each other, or both, as the case turned out. OK, that’s a fine conclusion; not very funny, but whatever. Except then there’s the twist.
After Laurie is done pleasuring Louie, she cannot seem to entice him to return the favor. Louie’s protestations spark a hilarious conversation about sexual quid pro quo. “Do you know how many dicks I’ve sucked that I didn’t want to?” she says. “Because I’m a good kid, because I do what’s right. I’ve never left anyone hanging.” She then bemoans the state of the country and blames it on President Obama, in what Vulture’s Zach Dionne mentioned last week is becoming a motif. Ultimately, though, Laurie finds a way to ensure that one good turn deserves another, a perfect tag for the end of this joke.
Beware of improvising 6-year-old actors.
That’s a warning from comic Louis C.K., who said Sunday that acting with Ursula Parker is one of the hardest parts of his job. Parker plays one of his two daughters on the FX show “Louie.” C.K. says Parker likes to improvise and even though he tells her not to, she does it because she knows it bugs him. The comic joked: “I’m burning film trying to raise this kid.”
As 2011 comes to a close, EW.com wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. Here, Louis C.K., who contributes both on- and offscreen to his critically acclaimed FX series Louie, opens up about the groundbreaking, hour-long season 2 episode “Duckling,” which brought viewers an unfiltered look at life on the decidedly unglamorous USO tour in Afghanistan. With television like this, we’ll always wait for Louis… and follow him wherever he may go. For more behind the scenes access to the year’s best TV and movie scenes, click here for EW.com‘s Best of 2011: Behind the Scenes coverage.
As told by: Louis C.K.
The idea for “Duckling” came from my daughter, who was 4 years old at the time. We had these ducklings that she took home from school, and they were a lot of work. I’d been to Afghanistan for a USO tour, so she told me, “You should do an episode where you take a duckling to Afghanistan.” And that sounded so crazy to me. But I just thought, “If there’s a way to logically make that work, that’s going to be a great episode.”
We shot in a Navy Marine base in New Mexico that was meant to double as Iraq or Afghanistan. The military gave us a bunch of soldiers for the show, and it was great. When I was in Afghanistan, [cheerleader] Lilly Robbins was there with me. She really worked hard over there. So when I wrote the episode, I just thought, “Why get an actor?” And she was great in it. It’s fun to give TV parts to people who aren’t used to getting them. That [episode] was extremely accurate about what happened to me in real life. We went to a very remote location with only about 20 soldiers on it, and we did this really awkward and emotional performance. [Country singer and former U.S. Army Ranger] Keni Thomas played that song, the same one he played on the show. And we played soccer with the Iraqi soldiers right before the helicopters came. The fear that I felt on the helicopters in the show? Well, I was really frightened. The helicopters are all open; there’s no doors. They’re just hurling towards these fucking mountains and pitching over them at an incline. In the show, there’s a general who gives a speech about what it’s going to be like for us over there. As far as I can remember, that’s exactly what that guy said to us in real life. He was head of operations in Afghanistan and he really blew my mind. I didn’t really know what I was doing there or what it was going to be like, and he ran down for us in no uncertain terms: “This place sucks for these kids. What you’re doing is important, and it’s dangerous.” We tried to re-create that almost exactly how it went down. I have a lot of mixed feelings about what is going on over there, but all I could show is what I observed.
[Oscar-nominated Restrepo filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Timothy Hetherington briefly consulted on “Duckling.” Hetherington was killed in Libya in April by mortar shells. “Duckling” was dedicated to him.]
I met Sebastian Junger at Sundance and he’s really good friends with [Louie producer] Blair Breard, as was Timothy [Hetherington]. When we started, our original intent was to go to Iraq and shoot in that country. And we went to the USO and they approved it, but it would have been really hard. They wanted us to go there for three weeks, and the only way for me to do that was to really join a USO tour. I didn’t have three weeks to give. So we reached out to Sebastian and Timothy about trying to find us some units that could help us when we were over there, or maybe in Afghanistan. So they got us in touch with someone at the Army. And in the middle of that, that was when Timothy died. Blair was really cut up about it. We had almost given up on the episode at that point, but that re-energized us to get the goddamn thing done.
There are two shows happening at any given comedy club on any given night. There is the show people paid a cover and two-drink minimum to see on stage. And there is the comics-only back table, where acts are dissected, beefs are adjudicated and global issues are hashed. Louis C.K. is one of the few working comics who commands equal respect in both venues.
“Nightline” spent a day with the “comic’s comic,” as the notoriously creative control freak finished editing “Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater” on his MacBook Pro. He not only wrote, produced, performed and edited his fifth stand-up special, but he is also releasing the concert film himself, blowing off HBO and Comedy Central to sell downloads on his website for $5 a pop.
Soon, he’ll begin writing, directing, producing, starring and editing the third season of “Louie.” Since FX lets him make the show with no network interference, it is the single greatest deal in the history of televised comedy. C.K. knows this, and is savoring the pinnacle of his sometimes brutal career while refusing to let success corrode his soul.
“People get successful and they start saying, ‘Well of course I am! I was chosen! I’m special!’ No, you’re not,” he said. “You’re a dirty monkey and you freak-lucked into a pile of money and it’s going to be gone at some point. So you can’t get excited that you’re doing well.”
“Nightline” anchor Bill Weir: Do you remember the first laugh you ever got?
Louis C.K.: I was in third grade and we did these vocabulary studies where you had to stand up and read a sentence using one of your vocabulary words. I asked, “can I use two words in this sentence?” And he said “sure.” The words I had were “building” and “clothes” and I said, “I want to take off my clothes and climb a building.”
Everybody went nuts and I got filled with this hot feeling. But then other kids in the class started doing it too… like Mary Beth and all these popular kids started standing up and doing funny ones that also referred to other kids that were popular.
Weir: See, people have been ripping you all since the third grade.
C.K.: Yeah, exactly. And I remember that feeling what they’re doing is cheap.
Weir: About 10 or 15 years ago, you were doing a lot more absurdist, goofy stuff before you made the transition to raw honesty. Was that a deliberate decision?
C.K.: No, it just kind of happened because when you start doing comedy you’re trying to think of funny things, you’re trying to find funny things, and you’re trying to be funny. And then at some point you just get older. You grow up and you get tired of doing it and something happens where you just don’t care — you just can’t keep faking it, you can’t keep being fake.
And some people harden into a glazed version of their fake selves. And I’ve seen them all the time. They’re frozen into this one face on stage. And after the show you’re like, “How you doing?” and they’re like, “Yeah! I’m OK!” And they’re living with some awful thing in their life. I said to myself at some point I’m either going to stop this or I’m going to do the wrong version of this. I was like, “these jokes suck.” I had gone around many times with, “this guy’s funny, maybe he could do a TV show!” “Ahh, maybe not.” I’d gone that circle so many times, and I realized I don’t want to do this. Let’s really trash this career in a fabulous way.
Weir: How did fatherhood change you?
C.K.: Well being a dad made me not so concerned with myself anymore. When people have kids they get into a competition with their own children for their own energy and priorities. They think the kids are taking something away from them. But if you just let it go — of COURSEyour kids are more important than you. Just accept the premise that your kids are more important. And I say no to jobs all the time, because I have to go to ballet or whatever it is.
Since I’ve made that choice, my career has gone through the roof, because if you approach something like show business like, “I’ll do whatever these people want me to do,” or “Whatever it is, I’ll take it!” you just end up chasing weird trajectories. I could have done a second-tier part in a sitcom in Los Angeles and I would have lived out there and people would have said, “Yeah that was pretty good,” and I would have made some money. That would all be gone now, but because I said, “I don’t leave New York, and I only work three and a half days a week,” I held out until I got this show that’s in New York. I don’t work for other people. I make my own schedule. That’s why the show is good.
Weir: Chris Rock said you’re the only white comic who can get away with saying the “n” word. Why?
C.K.: I don’t know, because, I’m exploring it. The fact that it’s a terrible word to say and it hurt a lot of people makes it worth talking about. Everything that’s awful — really the best thing you could do is talk about it and discuss, “Why does it hurt so much? Why do people talk about it this way? Where did it come from?” That’s usually when I’ve used that word on stage, I’ve usually approached it like that, “let’s talk about that word, it’s worth talking about” or I use it in an absurd way. It’s cyclical. People become more puritanical periodically.
You know, Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” gets censored every 10, 20 years. You have to accept it. I’m not one of these comics that’s like, “Hey, don’t tell me what to say!” I understand people get upset. I understand. I just I have to keep doing what I do. It’s a very Darwinist system. If I upset enough people I won’t sell anymore products or tickets and I’ll disappear.
Weir: You joke about your non-sex life, but with this new fame you must be getting more game.
C.K.: I get emails from women that say, “I want to have sex with you.” I kind of know what the shape of an email like that looks like now so I don’t really read it. There’s always an attachment. It always starts with, “I’ve never written a celebrity before in my life.”
I don’t think I want to get laid as much because that’s very intimate to be with somebody. When I first got divorced, I f—-ed around. It was fun but then I quickly realized when you’re 44 and you have a life and you have kids you’re like, “There’s a stranger in my bed. That is not cool, and we’re naked. This is a nightmare, I don’t know her, I want to know someone way better before I do this again.” So I can wait to get laid. I got kids. I got a job. I’ll be alright.