TV Review: Louie 3.11, “Late Show Part 2”
Will the Late Show job function as Louie’s ticket to comedy heaven or simply serve as his coffin?
The second installment of Louie’s “Late Show” arc can be summed up by the brief, seemingly random scene in which Jane, the younger of Louie’s two daughters, sees, as does Louie, that an elderly woman is stealing groceries and neglects her father’s restrained urgings to ignore the shoplifting, yelling loudly until the store security guard comes to apprehend the woman. Afterward, Jane says, “I did good, didn’t I?” Well, yes and no, Jane. Of course an innocent little girl seeing an adult break the rules will want to notify the proper authorities, but Louie, being the adult he is with a complex set of ethics, was in no rush to interfere with the shoplifter as I think most adults wouldn’t care if some poor old woman gets away with a few extra vegetables. However, generally stealing is wrong, just as selling out is, and although Louie attempts to overlook this truth, as he did the shoplifter, he knows it’s not right just as Jane knew stealing is wrong.
The cold open introduced what I think was the longest appearance thus far of Susan Kelechi Watson as Louie’s ex-wife, Janet. The two met because Louie wants to tell Janet about the possibility that he may become the new host of The Late Show and, as Janet ultimately realizes, Louie wants her to tell him he can’t become the new host because of his obligations to their kids. To Louie’s dismay, Janet emphatically supports this new endeavor of Louie’s saying, “Forget the kids…No one needs a father that much, the girls need a role model with a job,” and, “I’d hate to see what happens if you don’t make this happen.” I also really loved her, “Jerry Seinfeld – booo! He ain’t even that good. I mean, his show was good, but that was a long time ago.” It’s very easy to see here that Louie clearly has an external locus of control, he believes that ultimately outside forces have more sway over his future than he himself does, whereas Janet clearly possesses an internal locus of control, she believes each individual carries the most influence in shaping his or her life. She warns against Louie not making this happen as opposed to referring to the opportunity to host The Late Show, and join the ranks of conventional comedy institutions, a much coveted position, as something which is happening to Louie. Janet asks if Louie doesn’t go after the job then, “What was it all for?”
This question is really the crux of this entire “Late Show” saga. Throughout last episode and this one the Late Show gig has been framed as the culmination of Louie’s career, the prize at the end of the road. But as Louie is gaining increasing awareness of, he doesn’t fit as a traditional late night talk show host. And what I very much hope the bottom line will eventually be revealed as is the fact that the traditional late night talk show is a dead genre, a specter of a bygone era of television. Hell, even Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show, bearer of the torch first lit by Steve Allen in 1954 and later carried by Johnny Carson, describes the position as a kind of death sentence saying, “Don’t do it. Right now you’re the hip guy. That used to be me. But then you realize you’ve got to do fourteen minutes every night. Nobody’s hip every single night.”
As an example of the late night talk show genre’s expiration of relevance, one needs to look no further than Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show, an absurdist send up of the conventional late night talk show complete with various opening sequences of graphic, utter (and ultimately meaningless) destruction, occasionally existential monologues, a snarky co-host, celebrity impersonators instead of actual celebrities (most of the time), genuinely dangerous animal guests, and segments which have literally made small children cry. If The Eric Andre Show is a bit too avant-garde for you then you don’t have to look too far back for a tamer yet no less scathing satire of the genre than one of Adult Swim’s first successes, the brilliant Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. I don’t want to suggest it’s entirely impossible to ever make a relevant and entertaining talk show which isn’t an ironic parody, but it’s fair to say there’s virtually no evidence to the contrary. So why does Louie even want the job?
Well, despite Louie not truly fitting the mold, we watch him go after the job, his undertaking being guided by Jack Dahl, a kind of talk show host coach/trainer, complete with stopwatch and outdated cue cards (I love how Louie “graduated” from a Nixon joke to a Reagan joke). Dahl (“It’s pronounced, ‘Dahl.’ ‘Dahl?’ ‘Dahl.’”) is played quite well by the infamous auteur David Lynch and considering his resume, I’d have expected a lot more surrealism in this episode than the amusing post credit exchange we eventually get to see or the laugh track to Dahl’s model performance that’s only heard when looking through the studio camera. Ultimately though, C.K. made a solid call in not letting a single guest star over-influence the style of what is his first three part arc. Lynch need not be in a red room or hold a severed ear to be effective, as demonstrated by his pitch-perfect deadpan performance as the weary entertainment veteran. Among the many harsh truths Dahl lays down on Louie, the most poignant of them all was his criticism that, “Comedy is all about timing, son.”
This is a pertinent claim in that time is a huge factor in Louie’s decision making process. Will he have enough time for his kids? Is he past his prime? Is this his last chance? Is this the moment for which he’s been waiting his whole career? Will the Late Show job function as Louie’s ticket to comedy heaven or simply serve as his coffin?
C.K. made a smart move by showing Louie’s conversation with his friend Chris Rock immediately after his phone call with Jay Leno. By doing so, the contrast between the two stars’ advice is made even starker. In the episode’s punch to Louie’s balls climax we come to find that there’s a very distinct possibility that Rock has actually gone behind Louie’s back to try contending for the Late Show spot, making his declarations of the late night wars, “Wars,” as Rock emphasizes, and his warnings that, “Everybody’s out to get you,” and, “Watch your back,” seem quite sinister in hindsight.
Seemingly picked back up a bit by Rock’s Machiavellian support, Louie goes for round two with Dahl and even tries standing up for himself by refusing to wear a suit like every other late night talk show host since the beginning of time. This small rebellion is completely ignored, however, and possibly answered with a beating, well, an indirect one anyway. Featuring the last in a string of excellent guest appearances in “Late Show Part 2” is the scene at the boxing gym with Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire fame (“Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit,”) serving as Alfonse, the boxing coach instructed to whip Louie into shape. And boy, does he get whipped alright. Seeing Louie react to the news that night of Rock’s potential betrayal while icing his newly acquired black eye was a perfect touch and a great way to close out the episode.
On the whole, “Part 2” is another triumphant episode of Louie to add to the series’ already impressive record, however, as I mentioned earlier, it’s just a little difficult to sympathize with Louie’s conflict here entirely. The man who is arguably the top comedian on the planet right now struggling to come to terms with what is clearly shaping up to be a false and hollow opportunity which would most likely hurt more than it would help is a conflict not easily sold. I definitely appreciate the faux behind the scenes look into how C.K. perceives the choice he’s made to either pander to those that might help him find quick, mainstream success or forge his own path (I think we all know which choice C.K. has actually made), and the exploration of this is expertly executed, but it almost seems beside the point. “Screw The Late Show, Louie!” the audience wants to yell at their TV sets, “You’re so clearly better than this!” But lest we fans forget that C.K. hasn’t always enjoyed the success he does now and I think he’d be the first to agree that for all the talent, skill, and wisdom he possesses, blind, random luck has had as much to with his rise as anything else and so his debacle of whether to sell out for the relatively easy win versus working on your own terms albeit in relative squalor is still a very significant one.
All in all there’s a lot to love here: meta-satire which is as hilarious as it is somber (Louie telling Doug to leave the cue card when they first leave Dahl’s office struck me as a small but hysterical moment), inspired performances, tight, efficient writing, an excellent set of guest appearances, a clear and effective tone and atmosphere, a little bit of surrealism, and even an exciting cliffhanger. Though the story’s conflict doesn’t necessarily generate as much tension as some other, more easily believable plots, it’s a crucial one to the whole of Louie’s artistic perspective and one that I’m very happy to watch play out. Next week is the exciting conclusion to the “Late Show” storyline and should include the appearance of Jerry “Even Steven” Seinfeld.
And now, I leave you with some special images from the seven most soul-crushing moments of the episode as provided by uproxx.com.