The other night my friend and I were discussing the nature of comedy after watching Louie and he mentioned how for him the element of surprise is crucial to the funniest bits he’s seen. Each of the stories in “Barney/Never” prominently used what can be considered elements of surprise as catalysts for the stories’ climaxes. Part of what distinguishes these moments in “Barney/Never” from mere shock comedy though are the worlds of context which are built around these moments giving them emotional weight and personal resonance. Well, for the most part anyway.
In the case of the “Barney” segment, that gravity was evident from the very first scene which was a departure from the usual opening credits of Louie emerging from the subway and getting a slice of pizza before descending into the Comedy Cellar during Ian Lloyd’s rendition of Hot Chocolate’s 1973 hit “Brother Louie”. This episode also didn’t include any stand-up. Instead, there was a striking long shot of Louie walking through a graveyard in the rain with what sounded like a cello replacing the funky blues track. This may sound overly somber, but the atmosphere so deftly established by C.K. made the laugh shared outside Barney’s favorite strip club, Sweet Charity, by him and Robin Williams, the only other attendant of the funeral for which Louie is in the graveyard, so relieving and contagious. The WTF expressions of Louie and Robin as they watched the strip club employees – from the dancers to the DJ and bouncer – all very visibly grieve over a man Louie describes as, “The biggest piece of shit I ever knew,” were absolutely priceless.
Seeing how effective a meditation on mortality C.K. can do in just eight minutes should really silence anyone who doesn’t expect C.K. to move on to a very promising film career. By sandwiching a hilarious moment two people share when they each come to the same socially irreverent conclusion between two instances of vulnerable honesty, when Robin and Louie agree on how depressing and disturbing the thought of no one showing up to someone’s funeral is, even someone for whom Louie, “felt nothing when he died,” and the pair agreeing to attend each others’ funeral, whoever dies first, C.K. illustrates how thin the line between comedy and tragedy really is. The seamlessness between transitions within the range from authentic existential contemplation to genuine belly laughs is nothing short of astounding.
The rest of the episode, “Never”, wasn’t as heavy on the heady issues, but definitely had just as many, if not more, laughs generated from moments of chaotic spontaneity. Of course as soon as Louie and Lilly, his oldest daughter, make plans to spend the rest of the day together just the two of them, a mother appeals to Louie to have him watch her son, named Never – consider that for a moment – because the mother has to abscond to have surgery to “have her vagina removed.” And no, I don’t mean a hysterectomy. Lilly tries to protest, foreshadowing what a mess Louie will have to clean up before the day is over and as Louie attempts to address this objection, Never kicks things off like an O.G. by pushing a carriage with a baby inside headlong into traffic, setting off a chain reaction that nearly resulted in an explosion of Michael Bay proportions. That in addition to the raw meat bowl (apparently if he eats anything else he’ll “die”), the rug getting tossed out the window and subsequently stolen (I love that there were two dudes immediately available to take the rug away as soon as it fell), and of course the bath tub fiasco (kudos for using the word “diarrhea” as a verb), makes quite the series of events which are as random as they are unfortunate.
These events though are anchored by the final exchange between Louie and Never, whose trail of destruction appears to come not from a place of anger so much as one of confusion and a lack of structure. Indeed, just before his mother warns Louie that Never is on a carbon-free diet, what I’m almost positive is a clever jab at diet fads, she tells Louie that, “I don’t say ‘no’ to him.” Anyone familiar with C.K.’s stand-up knows how seriously he takes his responsibilities as a parent, not simply in terms of feeding and clothing his children, as so many fathers seem to think is the extent of their duties as a parent, but in terms of what type of person one shapes his or her child into. This is evident in the episode when Louie reaches out to the clearly troubled Never by very generously offering him the opportunity to talk should the boy ever feel the need as well as informs him that not only does the kid “wreck everything” but that his mom is severely wrong about how “every choice I make is okay because I love myself”. I love how Louie is genuinely attempting to be truly helpful to the kid by being so brutally honest, something someone probably should’ve attempted with Barney, the intolerable comedy club owner, when he was just a young, smelly kid.
Another moment of being a bit too truthful was found during Louie’s radio interview with the Kansas City DJs whose dialogue I’m pretty sure the audience isn’t meant to fully comprehend, making Louie’s ready-made responses that much funnier. I don’t know, I guess it depends on the city in which one lives, but if a comedian called my hometown the “worst city in all of North America, including Mexico and Canada,” and it actually is a bit of “a shithole”, I’d be cracking up with laughter and appreciation for the hyperbole. But I completely understand why it more than likely wouldn’t actually go over well and the fact that it didn’t and Louie publicly insulted the city in an interview which was meant to boost ticket sales in that city worked very well within the episode as dead-on satire of the obnoxious morning radio shows that plague FM stations across the U.S. I also love anytime we get to see Louie’s unusually young looking agent, Doug, whose youthful appearance very humorously belies the cut and dry efficacy of his style of conducting business.
In addition to the incomparable Robin Williams, another accomplished stand-up comedian with the rare pedigree of an impressive film career (it seems that for just about every RV there’s a One Hour Photo), there were a ton of other guest appearances made by comedians. Jay Oakerson, who had a guest appearance as a very impatient man in the series premiere of Louie, played the mournful strip club DJ. I almost missed Artie Lang in a very small but nonetheless attention grabbing role as the Paul Revere of gas tanker truck explosions. The jackass morning radio show hosts Louie speaks with in Kansas City were played with a great sense of humor by his old friends Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia of Opie and Anthony fame, along with fellow comedian/radio personalities Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. Though it’s difficult to even notice Schumer’s appearance, it’s a big moment for her as apparently C.K., Norton, and Opie and Anthony are among her idols. JB Smoove lent his immense talent for sarcasm to the closing credits scene as a gravedigger struggling with international diplomacy. It’s really great to see C.K. including so many of his peers because nepotism can be totally heart warming when it’s used for good, which in this case it absolutely was. Plus, there’s something about seeing all my favorite performers work together, as if they’re all friends who do nothing but hang out and make good art.
I discussed the use of contrast and spontaneity in my review of the last episode of Louie and it seems “Barney/Never” is another example of how well these strategies work for C.K. Even with the somewhat morose poignancy of the first segment, the light-heartedness of “Barney/Never” is a welcomed change of pace after the last three episodes of Louie. Not that I’m not a huge admirer of those episodes, as I’m sure I’ve made fairly obvious, but it’s nice to be reminded that C.K. is just as capable of making Louie episodes which are funny without being wrapped up in complex ideas as he is making those episodes which are. Either way the series continues to raise the bar for comedians and filmmakers alike, not to mention the entire medium of television, and “Barney/Never” is a shining example of why that is.