Of the many human intricacies deftly tackled by Louie, the subject of conquest was set aside and earmarked for “Late Show, Pt. 3”. On paper, CK failed his quest: the show went neither to him nor Seinfeld—Louie, and presumably Jerry, had something shiny dangled in front of them by a manipulative network exec in order to lower the pricetag on re-signing David Letterman (by a cool 20 million). Worse yet, CK’s attempt now precludes him from ever being a guest on the Late Show. However, as a smiling Louie shouts up at the marquee on the Ed Sullivan Theater, “I did it! Hey Letterman, F*$k you!” and walks away towards the all-enveloping lightshow of Times Square, we know that he has won. Louie has succeeded in a conquest of self: the Late Show gig was his golden fleece, but the real prize was a reminder of his ability to beat back discomfort and the fear of failure. And to assuage our suspicions that this victory will only be a temporary peak among the interminable valleys of Louie’s self-image, “Late Show, Pt. 3” closes with a sequence of Louie still in the boxing ring. “Jab, uppercut,” his trailer demands over heroic trumpets, and Louie fulfills those demands, not yet a champion, but with the passion of a true contender.
“Late Show, Pt. 3” wears all this on its surface, with a very un-Louie lack of subtlety or artifice. We know that Louie gets to a place of comfort by the episode’s end; the subtlety lies in what he lets go of to get there.
In my own limited experience with standup comedy hitting some of New York City’s less reputable open mics, there’s a curious thing that happens when expectation and reality misalign. Hinged on a few flimsy but hopeful convictions—“I think I’m funny, I think people will like this”—when a bit falls flat, many amateur comics fall into a very public fight or flight response, lashing out (at themselves or the audience of six to eight people nice enough to stick around). The weaker a comic’s ego, the uglier the meltdown, and the more prolonged the silence becomes.
I’ve done it. I’ve seen plenty of other people do it. It’s one of the most uncomfortable things you can watch another human being do. It’s a reaction couched in the fear of failing too early and observing your dreams become stillborn. It’s a resistance to the fact that a group of strangers doesn’t owe you a damn thing.
The first half of “Late Show, Pt. 3” shows Louie exhibiting the tell-tale signs of this misplaced indignation. “If you wanna get a big thing in life, you gotta make a big effort, you gotta try hard, you gotta do things you’re not used to doing,” CK explains to his daughters. He’s trying to teach them a simplified life lesson about determination, but it’s one he seems to believe. In actuality, what he needs to do is show he’s capable—the movers and shakers could care less about how much labor he puts in as long as he has the skills they need. Even though he’s been headlining packed houses full of true blue fans for over a decade, Louie is back down to open mic 101 without knowing it. He needs to impress some very powerful and very discerning strangers with his qualifications in a very small frame of time.
The meeting in Jack Dahl’s office drives this thesis home when it’s revealed that Mr. Dahl had no idea Louie was a comedian. Louie’s understandable incredulity (at being mistaken for a newsman) is countered by Dahl’s gambit: “Make me laugh. Go! Funny. 3. 2. 1. Funny!” Louie resists, afraid his material might not translate off-stage, or that the lunatic producer who made him read Nixon jokes might not “get” his more modern sensibilities. In reality, Dahl doesn’t want to laugh—he wants to see that Louie is capable of flipping the switch between person and persona at will. The meeting is essentially a four-minute mic, with Dahl urging a non-responsive Louie to perform, and flipping the red light to signal the last 30 seconds on-stage with the words, “Last chance and then we’re really done. Done and done…Make me laugh on the count of 3. 1, 2—”.
Dahl never gets to 3. Amateur syndrome kicks in: Louie turn towards Dahl, pointing an accusatory finger and says, “You know what your problem is—,” angry that this crazy old man doesn’t treat him like the successful comic he is, angry at having to live up to the a performer’s essential role of “Entertain me, now,” angry that the incongruousness of the way he though things were and the reality of the situation.
He stops himself from launching into a tirade against his audience of one. In that moment of peak stress, Louie receives his quiet epiphany and quickly transitions to a high, sing-songy voice, dancing buffoonishly, blowing raspberries between the words “pencil,” “penis,” and “parade,” lifting his shirt to reveal the weight he hasn’t lost. He earns another week in Dahl’s good graces, and later on manages to kill in front of the test audience.
Although nearly every episode of the series offers up some challenge to make Louie feel inadequate—usually by highlighting his ineptitude with women—he’s able to absorb these blows with the polished armor of self-loathing, each failure helping to prove and reprove his helplessness to himself. But comedy remains his unassailably redeeming quality, the bastion he clings to for survival. Throughout the “Late Show” arc, that bastion falls under siege, and Louie comes out stronger by being forced to protect it. It’s no accident Dahl makes Louie practice without an audience, or that he doesn’t laugh after the pencil penis routine: that horrible silence is what weeds the amateurs from the professionals. Louie is no longer seeking approval from strangers—or angry when he doesn’t receive it—he’s confidant that he can “show the funny” when he needs to, and that confidence becomes infectious in front of an audience. Fulfilling and subverting the daringness but puerility of the motorcycle he buys in the first episode of this season, Louie has mentally conquered his fears (a few of them, at least) and graduated to a higher plane of emotional adulthood.
However, this sudden and drastic path towards self-improvement will undoubtedly cause tension in his existing relationships with friends and fellow comics who will be made uncomfortable by having to reassess who their Louie has become.
Guest post by Bryan Menegus, who blogs here.