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'Louie': The passion of Louis C.K.

August 31, 2010 | 11:30 pm

LOUIE__0574  When I was a kid, I went to a church camp affiliated with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christian church I attended. The camp was mostly fun and games, a chance to get a bunch of kids into the great outdoors and occasionally read to them from the Bible, but one night, some of the camp leaders put on a skit where they laid out in graphic detail just how Jesus was tortured and crucified, then turned around and implicated every single one of us kids in his death. It was a deeply emotional and shattering moment for me, since I was only 10, after all, and it was obviously intended to be such a moment, designed to burrow down into all of our psyches and root around for a while. Regardless of whether you think the basic message imparted to us was true or not, the whole thing was vaguely horrifying and not exactly the sort of thing you'd want to be displaying to kids that young.

I had all but forgotten about this moment (but for the occasional, passing thought about it 'round Easter-time), but tonight's episode of "Louie," another fine and funny half-hour for the show and one that was all the more daring for barely featuring series mastermind Louis C.K., brought that memory screaming back. I had no idea that this was a common thing to expose kids of that age to in other Christian faiths, but Louie's Catholic school education, at least, featured this as a major part of little Louie's religious upbringing. Was it horrifying? Yes, especially as it was even more graphic than anything I was exposed to. Was it strangely hilarious? Even more so, for how easily it rode the line between outright horror at what the kids were being exposed to and laughter at the sheer awkwardness of the situation.

Looking deeply into the suffering of Christ is a central tenet of many Christian faiths. There are two sides to this coin. On one side, there's the sense that reflecting on all that Christ suffered for the sins of mankind can be a good way to appreciate even more what he did for humanity. On the other side, there can be a sick fascination with the all the gory details. Not all Christians have both sides of this coin. Some genuinely contemplate these ideas as a way to grow stronger in their faith. Some only have the sick fascination and have yet to discover really gory horror films. But I, at least, alternated between sad compassion for Jesus and sickened fascination with all he went through (mostly because I hadn't discovered horror films yet). This episode of "Louie" suggests that C.K., at least, was right there with me in wanting to look away in shame and yet unable to look away entirely.

This is another episode that takes up most of its time with one storyline. There's a short vignette at the beginning where Louie enters a seedy restroom and sees a hole cut in the wall at just the right height with a crude label reading "Heaven" and an arrow pointing to it. Louie ignores the hole, but the other guy in the bathroom with him decides to utilize it. And why not? The hole says "Heaven," right? At least, that's what he tells Louie, who alternates between horror and fascination. It's a funny little parable, if you will, about the perils of faith. If you have enough faith, you might get immeasurable reward. But it's just as likely that you'll get nothing or searing pain. It's the central question of faith: Do you believe in something because you hope for a reward? Or do you believe in it for its own ends? 

The stand-up bits in this episode are very funny as well, particularly Louie's recounting of the story of Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac from the book of Genesis. The whole routine -- which posits that God was drunk the night he commanded Abraham to do this and later states that God, at least in the Old Testament, is like a really bad girlfriend -- is deeply sacrilegious, but it's also hilarious. (I suspect most of the "Louie" audience won't feel too bad about laughing along with the guy.) The whole tone of the segment is about realizing that some of the things you believed in childhood are kind of silly, when you think about them as an adult, and Louie's jocularity about the whole thing makes it hard to dislike him, even if what you think he's saying is awful.

But the bulk of the episode is taken up by the longest flashback to young Louie's life yet. Louie and one of his friends are joking around in a religion class, and when the nun teaching the class hears them making noise, she concludes that they're not serious about the suffering of their lord and savior. Naturally, she decides to call in a local doctor, who presents a horrifying description of Christ's wounds from his torture and crucifixion, complete with an object lesson where he all but dares Louie to drive a nail into his friend's wrist. It's excruciatingly horrifying, but it's also somehow very funny. Why is this guy telling these kids this awful stuff? And why are we also being forced to watch?

The essence of cringe humor is the ability of the camera to not look away when all the audience wants to do is leave the room. In real life, if you're in an uncomfortable situation, it's often fairly easy to extricate yourself. On TV or in a movie, the screen is always on, and the audience is forced to keep looking at what's happening. "Louie" has made good use of this quality in its humor, but it has rarely managed the trick as well as it does here. The doctor's presentation goes on and on and on, that cruel little smile on his face, and the kids initially riveted but twisting more and more toward horror. It almost seems like the doctor revels entirely in sick fascination over these details, and when the storyline concludes with Louie racing into the church after a nightmare to tear the nails out of the figure of Christ on the crucifix, it seems like the only logical response to the situation.

The storyline concludes with a pretty sweet scene between Louie and his mother, who tells him that he doesn't need to feel guilty for the crucifixion, no matter what the nuns and the doctor tell him. It's clear that the grown-up Louie has absorbed her attitudes toward religion, which she's deeply suspicious of, but I wonder if the scene doesn't cut a little too much against what we've seen of Louie's mother in an earlier episode, where she's an angry old woman whom Louie has little time for. Here, she seems much kinder. I get that people contain multitudes, but it sure seems like this scene contradicts earlier ones.

In the end, though, "God" is another very funny episode of "Louie," and a great way to send the show into its hour-long finale next week. With all of the other subjects the series has tackled so far, it was obvious that it would eventually get to religion, and I like the show's hyper-specific, very Catholic take on the subject. "Louie" is best when it's expressing its central character's specific point of view, and "God" was full of moments that did exactly that.

Some other thoughts:

 

  • * It's sort of hard to believe the season is already almost over and we'll have to wait for next summer for more episodes after next week, but them's the breaks.
  • * "It was a huge pumpkin! What was I gonna say?"
  • * "That is bananas!"

 

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Louis C.K. directs tonight's episode of "Louie," "God." (Credit: FX)

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