Lucky Us for Lucky Louie

Posted 8/9/10 by Danny

Defining success in the world of stand-up comedy has gotten to be somewhat subversive, and progressively farther away from a meritocracy based on the quality of the material. Even fantastic comedians that reach the pinnacle of stand-up success have met a double-edged sword. The general public will either consider them second tier entertainers or, equally likely, will have never even heard their name.  Unfortunately, stand-up comedy is slowly becoming an outmoded form of entertainment.

I’m not saying it’s going to disappear entirely.  I like to think of it like this: No one needs a fireplace anymore now that we have central heat and air, and with the quality of home theater systems, no one really needs to go to the movies.  But as a society, we value these things.  We enjoy the act of sitting in a large theater and watching a new movie with strangers.  We enjoy sitting by the fireplace, even though we no longer rely on open flame for heat.  I imagine people will always enjoy sitting in a bar and listening to a guy stand on stage and tell jokes, even though we could just pipe in Justin Bieber songs and laugh at a castrato trying to pretend he’s into girls.

It only makes sense if he’s actually a lesbian

Stand-up comedy is an art form in and of itself.  It takes insight, creativity, timing, delivery, and a thick skin.  It should be revered and exalted on it’s own accord.  Instead, it’s seen more as a means to an end…that end being a television or film career.  You can credit “Last Comic Standing” for revitalizing stand-up to some degree, but again, most will parlay an appearance on the show, and any subsequent exposure, into becoming the “wacky neighbor” on the newest shitty sit-com.

If that’s the framework that we’re operating in, I’m prepared to accept it.  It’s only natural that certain mediums of entertainment will fall out of favor with the mainstream.  I doubt many people are longing for the old days when a magic show used to be an awesome Saturday night.

Bitchin'

Additionally, as much as it pains me to say, no one really cares about visual art (paintings, sculpture, etc.) anymore. There aren’t any Jr. High schools filled with kids abuzz about the new installation at the local art gallery…no, they’re talking about the new Transformers movie.  In fact, I think it could be said that film has become the 20th and 21st century equivalent of visual art; complete with an abstract, avant garde side and a commercial, aesthetically “pretty” side.

Cultural ebbs aside, as long as stand-up comedy still exists, I will still respect the craft.  As long as people still stand on stage and tell jokes, I will seek out the best among them.  And quickly ascending to the top of my list is Louis C.K.

Louie has been a favorite among other comedians for years now, which is no easy feat.  Comedians tend to be a catty bunch.  They’re all pleasantries to someone’s face, but pure vitriol behind their back.  Louis C.K. seems immune to this.

For example, Dane Cook’s celebrity exploded like an A-bomb.  You could call his place on the shit list of the stand-up community simple jealousy, but from what I gather, he was hated long before he took off.  Some people make compelling arguments that he borrowed some of his material from other comedians (namely Louis C.K.).  Call me crazy, but obvious plagiarism may have something to do with his infamy.  It may also be due to his “Maybe if I’m LOUDER I’ll be funnier!!!” approach to showmanship.  These days Dane Cook’s star seems to have burned brightly, but quickly.  He’s fizzled.

The Nickelback of stand-up comedy

Louis C.K., though, is a well respected comedian on the circuit.  It was only a matter of time before he ended up on your television in a more accessible way than guest comedian on a late night talk show.  First came his show on HBO, which failed pretty quickly.  Louie’s HBO show “Lucky Louie” was after the traditional (outdated) sit-com feel, but with a twist.  (The twist being the ability to say f*ck from time to time)  Louie was still married when he was producing the show, and I guess he wanted to take elements from his real life and turn them into episodes for the show.  This can be tough to make work, (more on that later) and it proved fatal for the fledgling series.

Also, I seem to recall a resounding, two-thumbs-down panning of  “Lucky Louie” from Barbara Walters on “the View”.  She thought it was too vulgar.  Funny, I always though B-Wal was down with filthy language.

"I'm hittin switches on bitches like I been fixed with hydraulics" - Barbara Walters

Now, years later, Louis C.K. is divorced from his wife (one of his reservoirs of comedic material) and going for round two with TV fame.  Cue FX to bankroll the project.  On June 29, 2010, FX premiered the comedy/drama/slice-of-life show “Louie”, written, directed, edited by and starring Louis C.K.  I’ve been tuning in every week, and like the majority of critics, I think this FX show is far superior to his HBO show.  Granted, I want to like it because I’m already a big fan.  I’m entering the viewing experience with my own preconceived bias in favor of the material.

With all deference to the work of Louis C.K., I still see some potential pitfalls in the future for his most promising TV venture yet.  I don’t want this one to fall by the wayside.  So the following is my personal note to Louis C.K.  This is my simplistic advice on keeping his brand of humor on the airwaves.  These are a few points where I think Louis will succeed or potentially falter.

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To Sir Louis C.K. Esq.,

Please consider the following regarding your new show:

Don’t be afraid to dip into old material

Just because I’ve seen all your stand-up doesn’t mean everyone else has.  And I think your die hard fans will let it slide if you do the “Bill Gates” bit:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95fNgx8aCS8

…or talk about dolphin safe tuna being bland because they took out the dolphin chunks.

You’re gonna have a lot of time to fill as the show goes into future seasons.  I think your storylines are broad strokes at the moment.  If you go with the bigger ideas, you may end up running out sooner than if you focused on smaller moments.

Don’t pull a “Seinfeld”. Keep the stand-up routines heavy in the show.

“Seinfeld” started out with the same formula “Louie” has employed: small vignette scenes cut with short comedy routines.  Eventually, “Seinfeld” streamlined this formula and opted for only an opening and closing comedy bit.  But, I think dropping stand-up bits randomly throughout the course of the episode is the better approach.  It bookmarks the important points.

Also, the stand-up is where you shine.  Embrace it.  You’ve mastered delivery and timing.  This is what got you the show in the first place.  As with anything in life, success can often just depend on playing to your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses.

I think a good rule of thumb would be at least 3 stand-up segments per episode.  Not necessarily a beginning, middle, and end, but the episodes that ended without one seemed to lack closure.

Be wary of how comedy bit situations translate into live action.

Despite it’s appearance on paper, sometimes describing a situation is much funnier than seeing it acted out in a dramatization (comeditization?).  When you impersonate the “other” person while describing a scenario, you still carry your sense of pace and comedic rhythm in the delivery…even as the straight man in the bit.

Some of the scenes in the show fall flat because the person you’re playing off doesn’t have the same comedic sense.  It becomes lifeless and stale while the same scene described in one of your comedy routines would be hilarious.

I know you can’t eliminate the vignettes entirely.  I know you can’t just do a 30 minute comedy routine every week (I wish).  So what you’ll have to do is be very scrutinizing of these scenes.  Make them more narrative than comedic.  The more dramatic elements really work.  It gives the show more character.  It offers a misanthropic flare that people enjoy, and usually relate to.  It’ll also allow the comedy to be more subtle in underhanded comments rather than over-the-top situations.

Continue to tackle touchy subjects

The following scene was a stroke of genius.  Not only was it poignant, but in the lighter moments it took some of the pressure off to be “on” by bringing in fellow comedians:

Things get serious around the 5 minute mark.

This is the kind of conversation we need more of in the world today.  This is the meaty stuff; the taboo elephant in the room.  Most people aren’t even comfortable saying that word (me included), let alone studying it’s etymology.  But how else will we evolve when we can’t even engage in a discussion about some of these sensitive topics?  In it’s own crude way, this scene is opening a dialog that will let people find common ground, that will lead to understanding, and maybe make someone think the next time they dip into their bag of pejoratives.

What gets people really talking about a show around the water cooler is not just shock value, or simple comedic value, but material that has intrinsic relevance to society.

It’s the stuff that pulls back the veil on how we interact with one another, even if wrapped in base humor, that gets people thinking.

Bravo, Louie.

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It makes sense Louis C.K. would focus on the importance of words and their meaning.  Words are the paintbrush and palette of the stand-up comedian…the treatment and choice of words are of the utmost importance to the craft.  But maybe we should all take stock of the way we think about words.

I want everyone to watch the poker scene and think about how detached from words we become.  Words are utterances that are meant to carry symbolic weight.  Too often they start to lose their effectiveness as individual interpretations distort their original meaning.  Take the word “love” for example.  That word means 1,000 different things to 1,000 different people…and semantics are more important than people realize.  Our language is the tool with which we communicate, but it all goes out the window when the word I’m using means something differently to me than it does to you.  So maybe a childish insult to me is not really a big deal…but to someone with a painful personal anecdote it is a big deal.

And I don’t mean to put this on the top pedestal as the king of all after-school specials…I just mean that we forget how flimsy and ineffectual our words can be when their meaning varies so greatly from person to person.  It’s important to be reminded of this from time to time.  It’ll cause us choose our words more carefully, and that is never a bad thing.

And that point is just one of many examples of Louis C.K.’s incisive look at the world we live in.  True comedy is about looking at life on a deeper level, and Louie has an eye for some of the absurd things that hide in plain sight.  Things we’d do well to pay attention to from time to time.

He weaves some of the most brilliant insights I’ve ever heard seamlessly with the most vulgar language you can imagine.  His comedy is like electroshock therapy: a traumatic jolt to your senses that radically shifts the way you see the world.  It’s as irreverent as it is meaningful.  It’s kinda like (and get ready for some stretched logic here) Shakespeare.  Shakespeare laced deep societal insights in his plays while simultaneously employing cheap soap-opera style drama, explicit sexual situations, and basic dick and fart jokes to satisfy everyone watching.  The less educated and astute got their trashy base humor and drama, while the aristocrats got deeper philosophical observations to feast on.  Everyone was happy.  Here we are hundreds of years later, and Louis C.K. is doing the same thing.

The Bard of the new millennium

Louis C.K. says ridiculously offensive things.  But behind the bad words are a well intentioned person; a good person.  I know it’s paradoxical.  I’m not sure how he does it.  I’m not sure how someone can say the c-word several times in a bit, but never seem misogynistic.  I’m sure some people will only hear the filth, and I call those people short-sighted and overly sensitive.  And really, who needs them anyway? (I’m talking to you, B-Wal)

For the rest of us that appreciate the deeper thought process, we’ll hopefully have Louis C.K.’s voice around for a while.

Provided he heeds my brilliant advice.

Danny

dannygrantmusic@gmail.com

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