I’m crouched in a dining room in Washington Heights, watching a man get ready to masturbate. Louis C.K., the stand-up comic who is the star and creator of the FX sitcom Louie, slumps in an orange lounge chair. His knees are spread, his pants pushed down to his ankles. With his laptop propped open, he mimes the requisite jerky motions below his waist, rolling his head from side to side. The camera rolls with him, making Louis’s image bob like a cork on a wave.
It’s a surreal effect that Louis C.K. (short for Szekely) has been experimenting with, although so far he’s not sure if it will come across as funny or just strange. Still, the shoot’s going well. Later, he’ll edit in other scenes, sequences in which the sexual fantasy goes crazily awry: The hot woman he’s fixated on will make anatomically impossible sexual demands; a bystander will chime in; and eventually, Louie will resort to fantasizing about an old favorite, a TV actress from the seventies. (They need to contact her people for permission to use her name, Louis tells me during a break.)
After he calls “cut,” Louis tugs up his pants and uses the same laptop to watch clips of actresses auditioning to play the woman in his fantasy, as crew members circle around him, adjusting the lights. “She’s completely wrong,” he tells his executive producer, Blair Breard, snapping one window shut. Another is a “walking orgasm,” but not funny. He laughs at an elderly man’s line-reading of “American women are very liberated.” Now and then he glances up, offering brief commands. “Stop messing with the lighting,” he says. “It’s fine! Come on. You’ve got something good here.”
Television showrunners are notorious multitaskers, with the most successful able to toggle easily between the roles of CEO and auteur. But Louis’s work on Louie requires a whole different level of personal oversight. The show is based on his life. Louis is the director. He’s also the only writer, the sole editor (he no longer shares duties with the co-editor he had last season), not to mention the person who oversees music (when the music guy’s budget ran out, he decided to do it himself). He also hired his own casting team: Last season, he turned down FX’s offer to help out and doesn’t inform them about casting in advance. But perhaps the most unusual aspect of the show is that Louis C.K. gets no notes from the network during filming, no script approval—an unheard-of “Louis C.K. deal” that has made him the envy of comics and TV writers alike. It’s a situation Louis is not taking for granted.
“No one on the planet Earth has what I have right now,” he says in his trademark tone—a deadpan delivery that somehow manages to sound at once bleak and exhilarated. “No one ever has. And I don’t know that I ever will again.”
Like HBO and Showtime before it, FX has spent the past few seasons branding itself as a cable channel. This season, it’s canceled two excellent but low-rated dramas—Terriers and Lights Out—and won attention for a third, Justified. But the network’s greatest success has been with comedies. There’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, an anarchic ensemble now in its sixth season. There’s Archer, an animated satire of James Bond masculinity, and The League, a shaggy-dude ensemble. And finally, there’s Louie, which amounts to a radical experiment with TV production, one that, unlike the majority of radical television experiments, has not only completed one season but also been renewed for a second. (The season premiere airs June 23.)
Louie is part of a wave of innovation in TV comedy, with writers who aim to explode the sitcom in much the same way The Wire blew up the police procedural. And yet the series—which won critical raves and the requisite tiny cabal of super-fans—differs in one major respect from fast-talking peers like 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation (on which Louis appeared). Those shows are the product of the traditional sitcom-production technique of spitballing collaboration, with competitive writers’ rooms and improv-ready ensembles. Louie is the sitcom passed through a narrow and powerful prism—the itchy, irascible brain of Louis C.K.
Like the show’s creator, Louie’s protagonist is a recently divorced father of two, a comic who does stand-up at the Comedy Cellar and Carolines. The episodes are punctuated by excerpts of these outrageous club routines, the same ones that have made Louis C.K. a sellout headliner. It’s a role that might sound familiar, given the current rash of rancorous divorced men on television, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Hung, Californication, and Men of a Certain Age. Louie also has clear antecedents in comic-centered sitcoms from Roseanne to Seinfeld. And yet the series, which is scored to jazz, with black-and-white imagery and a surreal spirit, feels like nothing else on TV. At times, it suggests early Woody Allen with a scatological streak. Episodes glide unexpectedly from filthy to poignant, alternately cinematic and what Louis calls “balls funny.” There’s little continuity: In one episode, Louie’s mother is a narcissist; in another, a nurturer. Louis himself is the continuity: his jittery consciousness, floating through the aftermath of divorce, which operates as a kind of second adolescence, this time complicated by kids and the fear of death.