I'm not sure there's a drama on television—let alone another comedy—that can make me as tense and uncomfortable as Louie does. One of the reasons I wanted to write about the show this season is that I wanted to explore just exactly why Louie C.K. is the reigning champion of cringe, and "Cop Story"—easily the most uncomfortable episode of the season so far—is excellent fodder for that discussion.
Louis C.K. has promised a more "laugh-centric" season of Louie this year, but how many times you are likely to have laughed at "Cop Story" depends a great deal on how funny you find the potential awfulness of human interaction. This is probably a prerequisite for enjoying any episode of Louie, and when I look back at the series it is often the truly disturbing moments that stand out as pure, unforgettable genius. (The raw sexual weirdness in "Blueberries," the mounting parental terror in stories like "Halloween" and "Elevator, Part 1," and the entirety of "Bully" are just a few that come quickly to mind.)
Last week's episode included Louie's philosophy of being a comedian: you have to start with what makes you laugh. And, if you listen to C.K.'s commentaries on the Louie DVDs—which I highly recommend—you quickly realize that he himself doesn't consider these kinds of troubling scenes to be a departure from the jokes. They're not a detour into drama: these are things that really do make him laugh. C.K. seems to believe that comedy should make us uncomfortable, by probing at places in ourselves at which we're normally hesitant to look too closely.
That only works, of course, if the person doing the probing knows how to find the tender places, and at this Louis C.K. may not have an equal among living comedians. "Cop Story" excels at finding the real discomfort that can exist between two human beings, but I think its agenda is larger than that: it's also using a small, human-sized lens to explore some larger (and timely) societal issues—like police brutality—that do, and should, make all of us uncomfortable.
Like many of Louie's earlier episodes, "Cop Story" is structured as two one-act plays. Before we get to the larger and more complicated one, I want to talk quickly about the tiny play that opens the episode. It's only very tangentially related to the rest of "Cop Story," but it's an absolute gem of an encounter that is as smart and crisp as anything Louie has delivered.
The script is a marvel, and brilliantly executed by C.K. and guest-star Clara Wong. It's often been said that comedy is the art of the unexpected, and one of the things C.K. excels at is letting the prevailing winds of a scene change, forcing us to tack in slightly new directions. A Louie short-story never quite ends up where we think it's going to. In its short five-minute running time, this scene moves Louie—and us with him—from put-upon, to insulted, to self-righteous, to abashed, to admiring, and all the way to humble edification. There is so much happening here, and it's all drawn out through one of C.K.'s favorite devices: having Louie run into someone who speaks with total honesty. The owner of this little cookware boutique simply doesn't feel like selling Louie copper pots, for a lot of reasons: because she's closing up for the day; because she doesn't think he's serious about cooking; because she suspects he just wants attention from an attractive young Asian woman; because he's older, and not her target demographic; because she doesn't feel like walking him through the inevitable hand-holding of a major purchase; because she simply doesn't need his business.
All of this moves the scene, with stunning efficiency, through a gamut of issues. It's about gender dynamics. (He probably did, on some level, want to impress and interact with the attractive young owner). It's about racial exoticism. ("Whoa!" Louis says, and begins stammering desperately. "I didn't, I didn't, I didn't even know you were Asian! I didn't know you were Asian…I would have thought maybe you might be Welsh.") Mostly, of course, it's about the generation gap, as Louie starts with a patronizing lecture on good business practices—"So you have nothing to learn from thousands of years of human commerce?"—and moves to an offended feeling of dismissal. ("I will alert my entire generation that your generation needs nothing from us.")
But then it turns again—and it's impossible to overstate how careful and key Wong's performance is here—as she asks him if he's always so uncomfortable around young people, and he admits, sheepishly, that he is. Her speech then moves from vaguely insulting—"Because we're the future, and you don't belong in it…You have this deep down feeling that you don't matter anymore"—to strangely flattering and encouraging. "Do you have kids?…Doesn't it follow that, if you're a good parent, and your kids evolve, and are smarter than you, they're going to make you feel kind of dumb?" (As we saw in "Pot Luck"—when he told another parent his daughter was "better than you"—this is how Louie feels about his kids.) So the scene ends on a note that is quintessential Louie: both depressing and optimistic, both insulting and strangely empathetic. "So if you feel stupid around young people," the owner says cheerfully, "things are going good!"
The segment that gives "Cop Story" its title will remind Louie viewers most of the Season Two episode "Eddie," in which Louie spends an evening with an old—and thoroughly unpleasant—friend (Doug Stanhope). As with that episode, "Cop Story" sees Louie's natural empathy and decency compelling him to play along with another person's agenda long past the point where he wants to be doing so. And, as with "Eddie," Louie ultimately reaches the end of empathy, and decides he has to go home to his real life and get away from this toxic personality. I suspect that most of us have had encounters with old friends like the one Louie has in "Eddie," in which the fact that one person has simply outgrown the other lends a sad, tense, bitter undercurrent to the entire desperate exchange.
I'm sure there are parallel dynamics in friendships among women, but I would say there are elements of certain kinds of male friendship that Louis C.K. absolutely nails throughout the series: insecurity masked as macho posturing; affection channeled through insults and violence; the constant jockeying for power and position that often expresses itself in (frequently homophobic and/or emasculating) peer pressure and denigration. This is the focus of the Season One episode "Dr. Ben/Nick," in which Ben (Ricky Gervais) carries the cruel and hilariously inappropriate dynamics of friendship into his professional role as Louie's physician, and in which Louie's relationship with poker-buddy Nick (Nick DePaolo) suddenly erupts into the realization that these two old friends probably don't even like each other. Another favorite recurring character is Todd (Todd Barry), whose entire relationship with Louie is to viciously insult and berate him. The waves of belittlement that flow from Todd are so familiar that Louie doesn't even hear them, let alone react to them: it's just the accepted language of their friendship.
But "Cop Story" is treading slightly different ground, in two important ways. The first is that Lenny (Michael Rapaport) is not really an old friend: Louie barely knew this guy—Lenny once dated Louie's sister—and we can safely assume that Louie never liked him. This is not a chance encounter that brings up old baggage: this is—like "Blueberries" was—Louie accidentally falling into the swirling black hole of someone else's emotional need.
Rapaport has made a pretty good career out of playing this type of guy—I'm particular fond of his turn in Beautiful Girls—and his performance is excellent here. Lenny is friendly, and gregarious, and upbeat, and completely and insufferably obnoxious. The key to the role—both as written and as performed—is Lenny's awareness of his unlikability, and how his manic attempts to compensate for it just make the problem worse. Lenny's life would no doubt be easier if he could just stop trying so hard, but he never will. He is an asshole, and he knows he's an asshole, and he's dancing so desperately on the lip of a bottomless chasm of solitude and self-loathing that he doesn't dare stop for a moment.
And—as I have done, and will continue to do—I have to point out how good Louis C.K.'s acting is as well. Off the stage, Louie is not a particularly verbal person, and so we are left to read so much of his reactions and emotions in his face and physicality. From the second he encounters Lenny, we know exactly how Louie feels, and we understand the complex cocktail of emotions—fear, loathing, sympathy, superiority—that build to such a boiling point as the evening progresses. (My favorite touch—it made me laugh every time—is the slight wincing that Louie does whenever Lenny hugs him.)
Louie is a good guy—he doesn't want to hurt Lenny's feelings—but goodness has its limits. The scene in which Louie finally tells Lenny why he doesn't want to hang out with him is the well-earned climax of the episode. ("Jesus Christ, Lenny, it can't be that big a surprise to you that someone's having a hard time being around you," Louie says. "You insulted me about 30 times tonight, you don't give a shit what I have to say…I can't let myself be around someone who's physically hurting me every two minutes.")
But for me the key moment in their relationship has already come and gone earlier. In the bar, there is a beautifully measured moment in which Lenny is opening up about his feelings about women. Lenny does so in typically obnoxious fashion—insulting Louie for being "below average," and complaining about how women have all the power because "they're the ones with the pussies"—but he reaches a genuine and raw moment of emotional vulnerability. "Sometimes it just makes me feel bad," he says. "Sometimes I feel really bad."
That chasm he lives on has opened up, and we can see Louie recognize it for what it is, recognize how deep it obviously goes—and then begin backing immediately away from its edge. "Well, so, uh…How do you like being a cop?" he asks, switching into small-talk mode. We see Lenny, too, immediately recognize what has just happened. "What?" Lenny asks in disbelief: he has tossed his heart on the bar, and Louie—understandably, but somewhat cruelly—has tossed it right back. Wherever the obligation to feel sympathy for another human being begins and ends, Louie—at this point—makes a conscious decision that it doesn't obligate him to venture into these dark and murky waters with Lenny.
The other way in which "Cop Story" differs from the usual Louie tale of emotional awkwardness, of course, is in its political undertones. Louie doesn't generally do politics in any explicit way—C.K.'s realm is the personal—but I don't think that Lenny's being a cop is an accident. It would be impossible to watch "Cop Story" in a vacuum, after a year in which police brutality has finally risen to the top of our social consciousness. And it's impossible to think that Louis C.K. didn't have this in mind when he created this character: so many details point to a larger agenda for "Cop Story," from its title, to the mock "stop-and-frisk" that begins their encounter, to Lenny's constant penchant for violence, to his carelessness with his gun, to his refusal to accept any responsibility for his actions. (We even hear—in fleeting montages—snippets of Lenny boasting about his expertise at brutalizing suspects.)
"I'm telling you that it hurt, and you don't get to deny that," Louie says, when he finally calls Lenny out on his violence. "You don't get to decide that it didn't." And Lenny immediately switches into the mode that is familiar to us all by now from these stories of police brutality and other forms of racial and sexual oppression: playing the victim by blaming the victim. "How about you hurting me?" Lenny bellows back. "What you're saying is hurting me right now. How do you think that makes me feel?" This is right on point, and absolutely relevant to the current climate of debate, in which pointing out brutality is often characterized as a brutal attack; accusing someone of racism is considered a worse offense than racist actions; the refusal to tolerate intolerance is equated with intolerance itself.
I don't mean to suggest that "Cop Story" is one giant political allegory, and—if it were—it would be slightly problematic for rich, white, male Louis C.K. to equate himself with the victims. But that subtext is there, explored the only way Louie himself can explore it, and distilled from a societal level into a deeply personal one.
(This, after all, is how Louie deals with politics: by boiling it down to the level of people being dicks. In the Season One episode "Dentist/Tarese," Louie had a dream sequence in which he confronted Osama bin Laden. "That wasn't nice," Louie tells bin Laden and his fellow jihadists, about 9/11. "Would you want anybody to do a 9/11-y thing to you?" In the dream, Osama has never looked at it like that before—"Basically, you're saying we're assholes," he says—and, having shown it to them in that light, Louie has effectively talked them out of being terrorists. The world doesn't work like that, of course, but there's a feeling in Louie that it should work like that: just don't be an asshole.)
Louie is not the kind of show that would attempt to make generalizations about all cops, or attempt to address the systemic and institutional foundations of police brutality. (Though one could argue that the scene in which Louie fumbles the gun in front of six or eight oblivious cops might be a nod in that larger direction.) Rather, I think "Cop Story" offers small-scale, street-level, human-sized observations. For all of us who have wondered about the mentality of cops who do such horrible things, Louie offers one possible answer in a portrait of one such man: some cops are just assholes, and they're assholes in a very small, very relatable, very human way. Lenny is a horrible human being, but he's not a larger-than-life monster. In fact, he's barely human-sized at all: he's actually an overgrown, emotionally crippled, not terribly bright child whom no one likes, who just happens to have been given license to carry a gun. One can think of Lenny with a gun and have no trouble imagining how it could end terribly badly.
And that gun, as we see in the final act, is the entire source of his power, the total symbol of his ego and self-worth, the thing onto which his entire identity is projected. He's nothing without it: when he loses it, he falls apart completely, reduced to the scared, quivering man-baby he has been inside all along.
This kind of commentary is a very tricky and delicate line to walk, of course. Does humanizing a problem mean excusing it? Louie doesn't like Lenny: there is sympathy for him, but it's limited. Even at the end of the episode, Louie is still fairly disgusted with this idiot man-child. But he also gives him back the gun: it's an act of kindness on a personal level, but probably a disastrous mistake on a societal level. If we want to take the allegory too far—and I'm not sure we should—shouldn't we find the symbolism of Louie's putting a gun back in this man's hands to be deeply troubling? Isn't it a sign that our sympathy for perpetrators of violence may, in the long run, just contribute to and perpetuate the problem?
On the other hand, there is value in these questions, and in the way the entire episode looks sideways at the issue—and its possible causes—through a very human lens. As always, there is so much going on here, and so much worth thinking about, that I am amazed at what C.K. can accomplish in 22 minutes. There is the issue of how men like Lenny feel the world is squeezing them out (which is where the second-half of the episode crosses over with the opening scene). There is the issue of the American romance with guns as a symbol of self-worth and authority, and how that cowboy mentality feeds into the problem of police brutality. Mostly, there is an awareness that the lack of sympathy itself is the fundamental problem—one of Louie's complaints about Lenny is that he does not listen to him, or care about his life—and a bedrock belief that the only solutions may lie in empathy, and connection, and a mutual recognition of humanity. Lenny is an asshole, but Louie chooses not to be.
The tag for this episode seems such a throw-away that C.K. and Rapaport actually break character before it's over, but it's also a lovely note on which to end Lenny's story. Following Louie's act of sympathy and kindness, we see Lenny taking a knitting lesson from Louie. This brutal avatar of oblivious, violent masculinity is both embracing his feminine side and listening to—learning from–someone else. It's not much, but perhaps it's a start.