by Joshua Gaskell
By Louis C.K.
3 Arts Entertainment, Pig Newton, Inc., and FX Productions for FX
Monday, 5th May 2014
Louis C.K. is a superb vignettist. Louie is a sitcom, not a sketch-show, yet many of its best scenes work precisely because they are not lashing the hide of a careering plot, urging it on to the ad-break cliff-hanger; rather, they are discreet, full of character, and exist for the acute observations they contain. The first such scene in the new season shows Louie being woken by noisy binmen outside his window. They get gradually louder and more raucous, tossing bins around for the sake of it, until eventually – introducing a non-naturalistic turn, at least in this episode – they burst into Louie’s bedroom and smash it to bits.* One of the appealing things about Louis/Louie is that he has very little political self-consciousness: here he has a gripe, and the fact that it’s with working-class men isn’t going to stop him voicing it.
There is, of course, a plot of sorts. (Even Seinfeld was never really a show about nothing, just nothing much.) Louie is playing cards with his friends, and the conversation resolves upon the subject of masturbation. In an exchange as plain-spoken as Larry David’s ‘Contest’ is dextrously euphemistic, Louie’s friend Jim Norton explains, ‘I hold the vibrator against the shaft and then I slowly rotate it against the balls’. This sends a curious Louie to a sex-shop, where he puts his back out pointing at a vibrator, and a pained Louie thence to a doctor (Charles Grodin). Continuing the non-naturalistic turn, the doctor does his own plain-speaking, a darkly funny diagnosis of back pain:
The back isn’t done evolving yet. You see, the spine is a row of vertebrae that was designed to be horizontal, and people came along and used it vertical. It wasn’t meant for that, so the discs get all floppy, swollen, pop out left, pop out right. It could take another twenty thousand years to get straight. Until then it’s gonna keep hurting. […] It’s an engineering design problem; it’s a misallocation. We were given a clothes-line and we’re using it as a flagpole. […] Use your back as it was intended: walk around on your hands and feet. Or accept the fact that your back is going to hurt sometimes. Be very grateful for the moments that it doesn’t. Every second spent without back pain is a lucky second. String enough of those lucky seconds together and you have a lucky minute.
Lucky Louis, huh? But on his way out the receptionist (Susan Blommaert) suggests a device that might help: ‘rub it all over your upper-back, lower-… wherever you can reach’. (Yes, it’s a humble vibrator.)
The back pain plot is a reflection on ageing, a theme Louie also addresses in the stand-up sections. At the beginning of the episode he describes how for a whole year he thought he was forty-four when in fact he was forty-five. But by the end he’s tacking away from the oh-fuck-I’m-forty stuff and instead focusing on how slowly time seems to pass:
Life is short. A lotta people are fond of saying that. […] And it is: life is short if, er, you’re a child who died. […] At forty-six it’s not short any more. It’s long, man.†
I think this is a typical Louis C.K. joke: on the surface it’s mildly shocking and a little cruel, but beneath that there’s honesty and, dare I say, wisdom.‡ The full proverb is art is long and life is short, which, in English, goes back to Chaucer: ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne’. Perhaps Louie’s life feels long because he’s spent so much of it learning his craft. In any case, he has, and from this side of the TV it seems to have been worth it. He’s appealing because his observations about his own psyche are subtle, and at their best they outdo straight satire by being honester and putting more on the line. Jonathan Swift wrote that ‘Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own’; but Louie’s whole shtik is to detail exactly how and why it’s his face in the glass.
* On non-naturalism, see also the texting drone who bumps into Louie at the café and who Louie steers away without comment.
† Cf. Henry Miller’s letter to Lawrence Durrell, 1959: ‘Ah, Larry, it isn’t that life is so short, it’s that it’s everlasting!’
‡ Watching his stand-up specials it sometimes feels like the audience is just laughing at the shock-value, but here there’s no such distraction.