Coincidentally, I was traveling for work last week when “The Road, Part 1” aired.
I mention this for two reasons. First, this is why I didn’t review that episode separately. Traveling always threatens to throw my review schedule disastrously out of whack, and Louie‘s season finale being a two-parter gave me a good excuse to put off writing about it until this week. (I might have done this anyway: history has shown that Louie multi-parters really do work better as a unit.)
But the second (and real) reason I’m bringing up my trip is this: I am an asshole when I travel.
I don’t mean to be, but I just can’t help it. Working from home, I have the unhealthy luxury of spending the vast majority of my life either alone or in the company of the one other human being I know I can always stand to be around. But, once a month or so, I am required to travel for work, and it never fails to bring out the absolute worst in me. Airports begin to seem like abattoirs, filling me with bitter despair for the placid stupidity of my fellow human beings. Meetings with colleagues fill me with inappropriate, disproportionate, impatient rage. Random encounters with strangers—no matter how harmless, no matter how friendly—become something to be avoided whenever possible, and something to be bitterly resented when not. I normally think of myself as a fairly sensitive, sympathetic guy, but when I’m traveling other people aren’t even people: they’re just annoyances, obstacles, things in my way.
The worst part is, I suspect I was probably lying just now when I said “I don’t mean to be” an asshole. I suspect that, deep down, I do. I think I feel entitled to be an asshole when I travel: it’s my armor against further inconvenience, and maybe, on some level, it’s also my passive-aggressive way to punish the world for insisting that I go forth into it.
I’ve said several times this season that Louie excels at making us uncomfortable, but I haven’t really discussed this particular weapon in Louis C.K.’s unsettling arsenal: recognition. Sometimes—often—Louie makes us uncomfortable because we relate, all too well, to the cringe-worthy behavior we’re seeing on-screen. Good comedy can provide us with a distraction, but great comedy—and Louie fits the bill—is more likely to provide a mirror.
So, needless to say, I related—in an uncomfortable way that almost made it difficult to enjoy—to nearly every moment in “The Road.” The resentment of small-talk, the almost total suspension of manners, the lowering standards of human decency, and even the pervasive, sub-conscious sense of superiority: these were all things I recognized. Louie does run into a few real jerks on his travels—the club owner (Richard Council) and his daughter (Zandi Holup), for example—but more often he encounters perfectly nice, friendly people like Mike the Driver (Devin Ratray). It doesn’t matter: nice or mean, helpful or un-, Louie’s reaction to each of these people is the same: I don’t want to deal with you.
What is brilliant about “The Road” is how it appears, on the surface, to be disconnected from the rest of the season. We expect a season finale to provide resolution, but “The Road” is slightly disorienting because it takes us away from the Louie that we’ve been watching all season: Louie being far from his children, and Pamela, and Bobby, and all his comedian friends in New York, makes it feel as if this story is somehow inconsequential, even unsatisfying. (And indeed, when Louie returns home to have a silly conversation with his daughter Jane at the end of “The Road,” it feels like the whole trip was just an inconsequential interlude in his real life.)
But “The Road” is actually dealing with a lot of the same issues that have obsessed the rest of this season, and one of the those themes is the demands and limitations of empathy. We’ve continually seen Louie plagued this season by people who wanted or needed something from him: Julianne in “Pot Luck,” Bart in “A La Carte,” Lenny in “Cop Story,” Bobby in “Bobby’s House,” and Barbara in “Untitled.” (In fact, I argued that the nightmarish “Awful Being” in “Untitled” mostly represented the emotional needs of other people.)
“The Road” is largely about the place where the obligations of empathy end. Louie mostly ended up—willingly or reluctantly—doing right by those people I listed above, but the further outside his circle Louie gets, the less responsibility he feels to make the effort with other human beings. An upset guy (Joshua Rivera) shows up at the motel looking for someone named Roger? “He’s dead,” Louie says, and slams the door. Louie’s annoyingly friendly—and obviously very lonely—driver wants to chat and hang out? Louie coldly shuts him down and makes him cry. A little girl (Laurel Griggs) is lost on the AirTrain at the airport? Louie tries to do the right thing and help, but when it becomes too much of a hassle he just washes his hands of the situation and goes about his business.
Mike the Driver’s story gets the bulk of the time in “The Road, Part 1,” but in some ways this last example is the more interesting one to me, because it echoes back throughout the series in interesting ways. What happens to the little girl is basically Louie’s nightmare as a parent: it’s what happened to Jane on the subway in last season’s “Elevator, Part 1,” and it threw him into an absolute panic as a father. The girl is supposed to be Turkish—at least according to the credits—but in her traditional Muslim hijab she also reminds us of the little Afghan girl Louie met at the end of Season Two’s “Duckling.” (Also, her incomprehensible chirping, and the way Louie herds her tiny movements, seem like they may be intentional callbacks to the titular waterfowl in that episode.) “Duckling” was one of the great episodes about empathy in Louie’s entire run: it began with Louie in fear of that foreign land and its people, and ended with him forging a sympathetic connection with the locals—a mutual recognition of humanity—and making a gift of the duckling to the Afghan child.
Here, however, this small helpless creature is the one scared and out of place in his country, and he can barely be bothered: as he does throughout “The Road,” Louie manages to offer the bare minimum that could be considered acceptable as a human being, and not one thing more. (A few minutes later he puts effort into retrieving his luggage—begging a security guard [Russell G. Jones] for help—that dwarfs any concern he showed for the lost child.)
The other character I think the little girl echoes is Amia, who Louie met (coincidentally) in the same episode in which Jane had her subway adventure, “Elevator, Part 1.” That, too, turned into a story about breaking down barriers between human beings, as Louie spent six episodes—the longest arc in the series’ history—forging a genuine connection with Amia across their total language barrier. Here, however, the little girl’s language is reduced to meaningless mewling sounds, representing Louie’s unwillingness to even make the effort to connect.
So “The Road” is about the suspension of empathy, the refusal to even attempt to connect with other human beings. We’ve seen Louie’s temptation towards a policy of emotional isolationism all season, as when he closed down Lenny’s confessions in “Cop Story,” and when he threw the blanket over Barbara in “Untitled.” In those instances, his conscience eventually got the better of him, but the fleeting human encounters in “The Road” do not allow time for that: Louie’s first instincts—to push other people away, and not get emotionally involved—are basically his only instincts here.
So yes, Louie is an asshole throughout “The Road.” But is that a bad thing? Unlike in “Untitled“—in which his guilty conscience plagued him with nightmares until he rectified his mistake—Louie’s selfishness and self-removal are never presented here as behavior that necessarily needs correcting. I’m not sure there’s a moral lesson here, so much as a simple reflection of reality: sometimes, you just have to shut down, and shut everybody else out.
There is also, I suspect, a simple refusal on the part of Louis C.K. to repeat himself. We hear hints of this in his speech to Mike. “I’ve seen the whole country, I’ve met all the people,” Louie says to the driver. “I’ve even met you, Mike, in a way.” Again, it’s both a completely relatable feeling and a completely shitty, dehumanizing thing to say: reducing other human beings to nothing more than types and tropes is basically the opposite of empathy. But it’s also one of those frequently occurring lines that can be read as a meta-commentary on Louie itself: Louie has done these sorts of stories before. The Season One episode “Travel Day/South,” for example, is the nicer version of “The Road,” in which a mellower, friendlier Louie encounters a host of characters, including the large gentleman he bonds with during a turbulent plane-ride, a strange pair of brother-and-sister groupies, and a kindly old highway patrolman who requests—and receives—a kiss on the mouth for his troubles.
“The Road” is deliberately not a repeat of “Travel Day/South,” or “Duckling,” or any of those other episodes: at the end of a season in which we’ve seen startling moments of intimacy and genuinely kind and empathetic moments, we get this season finale in which we are reminded that you simply can’t open yourself up to everyone. We’ve already seen the version of this story in which Louie feels bad for making Mike cry, and does something to make it up to him; here, Louie crushes Mike, and we just never see Mike again. Not every encounter Louie has is going to be a lesson in compassion or a revelation about the richness of humanity: life just isn’t like that. Sometimes, you have to just keep moving and not give a shit.
So let’s talk about a couple of meaningful encounters Louie does have in “The Road,” as I think these also speak to other themes we’ve seen this season.
The first is a fantastic sequence set in a fleamarket, in which Louie—lured by the violin music that perhaps reminds him of both Jane and Amia—enters a tent to “Go Back in Time.” A mother and daughter (Connie Ray and Nadia Quinn) ask him to be the gentleman in their staged civil-war costume photo. Once again, Louie’s first instinct is to refuse, to simply not be a nice guy, and resist all contact with other human beings. But he changes his mind, and here I think the lure is not other people—he doesn’t try to get to know these women at all—but the opportunity to see himself differently.
Because there’s no denying Louie is in a rut, identity-wise. At the beginning of Part 1 we saw him packing his bag: six more or less identical sets of clothes. At the end of Part 1—after he has lost his luggage—we see him replace this standard uniform, once again just throwing black t-shirts and jeans into a new suitcase indistinguishable from every other. “I’m not going to change how I dress,” Louie tells the club owner, even when the guy threatens to fire him.
But just a few scenes later we get this scene of Louie seizing the opportunity to dress up as someone else. Louie might be losing his interest in meeting new people, but he has slowly been developing his interest in being new people. This scene is a deliberate variation on the role-playing scene in “Bobby’s House,” with key differences. There, Louie was emasculated, becoming Southern belle “Jornetha.” Here, he gets to be a Civil War era general, “Beauregard,” and the fun he has dancing and improvising with the two women—and the stall owner—is the only joy we see him have in these two episodes. For just a few moments, he gets to be someone else.
The other meaningful encounter, of course, is with his condo-mate Kenny (Jim Florentine), and it’s one of those exchanges at which Louie excels, in that it begins in one place and ends up somewhere completely unexpected.
Kenny is another human being that Louie just doesn’t want to deal with, and in fact he seems to incorporate elements of a lot of the male figures Louie has tried to avoid all season: he’s a “moron,” like Bobby; he’s an obnoxious alpha-male, like Lenny; he’s a “hack” comedian, like Bart and “Crazy Glasy.” This last is particularly important, since the nature of comedy—and Louie’s own sense of superiority about his own approach to the art form—has been a recurring theme all season. With his audience-pandering attitude, and his endless stream of lowest-common-denominator jokes about tits, dicks, and farts, Kenny is basically the anti-Louie.
But Kenny becomes a mirror for Louie, challenging him to see himself differently and to just try to be a different person once in a while. After Kenny follows Louie’s own, unsuccessful act with a cruel, crowd-pleasing impersonation of Louie, the two have it out, and Kenny delivers a devastating take-down:
“You know what? You’re a real bummer. I’ve worked all over the road, worked with everybody, but you’re just a drag. You are, man. Look, I tried to be nice to you…You’re too good for me, is that what it is? You’re better than me, because you’re a dad? You know, I got three kids, two are in college, and I’m a great dad. But you know what? I like to have fun. The two are not mutually exclusive…You’re totally unfriendly. I don’t even know what they call it where you’re from, but around the rest of the world, you’re an asshole.”
And the thing is, Kenny isn’t wrong. As we’ve said, Louie is an asshole throughout “The Road,” and it does come from thinking he’s better than Kenny, better than the places he has to stay and the clubs he has to play, better than his audience and everyone he encounters. We see this in how he approaches his sets, with complete disregard for his audience. (“It’s a pleasure to be here in Oklahoma,” he murmurs insincerely at the opening of his act, and the line gets a big cheer—but then Louie transitions directly into talking about New York, and things his audience can’t possibly relate to.) When the club owner—in recognition of the tepid response Louie is getting—reshuffles the program to give Kenny more stage-time, Louie’s only concern is the money. “Do I get paid the same?” he asks. “Then I don’t care.” “You should,” the club owner responds, and he’s right: Louie should care.
We’ve talked throughout about the meta-commentary on Louie itself, and particularly on last season’s artsier, less audience-pleasing approach. “The Road” seems like it may be a further exploration of that, and perhaps of some genuine issues Louis C.K. is working through in his approach to his career and his art form. This season began, remember, with his confession to his therapist that he was “a boring asshole,” and so there is synchronicity in how the season ends with that same observation from Kenny. “I just wanted to be good at it,” Louie tells Kenny now. “That’s all I ever wanted, was to be really, really, good. And I don’t know what happened.” What happened, Kenny responds, is that Louie tried to be good at it. “You see, somebody put it in your head, Oh, I gotta be a great comedian. That’s all you New York dudes…It’s not an art, stupid, it’s a bar trick.”
Louie admits, finally, that he loves fart jokes. “Farts are hilarious,” he concedes. “They make a little toot noise, and they come out of your asshole, and they smell bad. Every fart is funny.” And in fact we have seen throughout Louie that C.K. does, indeed, love fart jokes, and shit jokes, and dick jokes: the tension between low- and high-brow humor has always been one of the key elements of the series. Season Two’s “Pregnant” was one long set-up for a fart joke, for example, and this season’s “A La Carte” began with a prolonged joke about Louie shitting his pants.
But those episodes were not only about those things: “Pregnant” was an emotional and poignant story about concern and community, which just happened to be punctuated by a massive breaking of wind. “A La Carte” juxtaposed its shit-humor with brilliant relationship observations and ruminations on the nature of comedy itself. The balance may be tricky to strike sometimes, and I can believe that C.K. may occasionally feel torn between the pressure to do more crowd-friendly material and the higher calling of his more artistic ambitions, but as far as I’m concerned he’s doing nearly everything right. An occasional reminder to get out of his head, take himself less seriously, and enjoy a good fart joke is probably a good thing, but I have to think that no one watching this show would want Louie to be more like Kenny.
Nor—thankfully—do I believe for a moment Louis C.K. has any intention of doing so. This is Louie’s show, and—in unexpected fashion—he gets the last word in his argument with Kenny. Louie can (and should) take a break from high-brow humor to indulge in a poop joke once in a while, but Kenny lives in a poop joke, and he ultimately dies in one, cracking his head open after attempting an “upper-decker.” (Is that really a thing?) Kenny may have made people laugh with easy jokes, and he may even have had a few useful observations for Louie, but—in keeping with the rest of the episode—there’s not a lot of empathy spared on Kenny, even in death. Louie is shocked, but he doesn’t seem to be particularly upset, or to feel particularly guilty. The club owner does blame him, of course: “I am never hiring you again,” the guy says, when he learns Kenny is dead. Louie has literally been the death of bad, crowd-pleasing comedy.
And more power to him. Kenny may have been right about Louie sometimes being an asshole, but Louie was right too. “Kenny, you’re a hack,” Louie had said. “You’re a moron, and you’re barely a comedian. You’re a disgrace to the art form.” Comedy is an art form, not a bar trick, and the greatest artists in the medium have been those—like Bruce, and Pryor, and Carlin—who could switch between high- and low-brow on a dime and find startling truth in both.
Louis C.K. is one of those guys. He is a great comedian, and each rich, surprising season of Louie has found new ways to prove that comedy is indeed an art.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Legendary comedian Steven Wright—who has also been touring with Louis C.K. recently—is co-credited for the story Part 2. (If it’s funny to imagine Louie rooming with a guy like Kenny on the road, just try to imagine Wright in that scenario.)
- Louie laying out his clothing needs: “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Sweating.”
- As I mentioned in my first review this season, C.K.’s deal with the FX network was to give up big bucks in exchange for creative freedom. So Louie’s line here to his pubescent agent (Edward Gelbinovich) is basically a guiding principle of the show, and a pretty good motto for life: “I would rather make less money and live less shitty.”
- “You lied about Roger, man. He’s not dead, he’s right there.”
- The name “Jizzy Buns” is a classic, low-brow Louis C.K. joke. And I love the way Louie was actually thinking about getting the “hot pour” before he discovered the clerk (Anya Krawcheck) was—somewhat cruelly—only kidding.
- Tiny moments of random strangeness are one of the delights of Louie. I liked the idea that ground crews have to pull bullets out of the belly of nearly every plane that lands, and I love the throwaway gags in the background of scenes, like the “sleeping” airport traveler who turns out to have passed away unnoticed in the waiting area.
- “Hey, don’t knock the fart jokes,” Kenny says. “Those are my babies. Those are my fart babies.”
- “His name was Bashbush…Blackbottom, uh, Blackbottompit,” Louie tells Jane, of his Civil War alter-ego. “He shot the last shot of the Civil War, and he missed. So, that’s why they quit the war, because it was such a bad shot.”
- It was a short season, and I’m already beginning to miss Louie. As I’m sure I’ve made shamelessly clear, I fucking love this show, which holds a permanent place in my pantheon of the greatest series of all time. I’m hoping to find a nice big slot in my schedule soon to go back and write about Louie from the beginning, so watch this space. Until then, thanks for reading.