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'Louie': Getting older

July 6, 2010 | 11:30 pm

 Getting older is a tough one to bear. I realize what I'm saying to you won't shock most of you. After all, we all get older, slowly but surely, and eventually, we realize that things are never going to magically reverse. We're not going to keep getting to live the years from 18 to 25 over and over and over. And that means responsibility and taking care of yourself and not doing the stuff that was so fun when you were that age. Now, granted, as you get older, all of this stuff starts to seem way more appealing. I'm only 29, and I can already see the appeal of a Saturday night where you go to bed before midnight and increasingly think my 23-year-old friend's desire to cram his night full of as much activity as possible seems vaguely horrifying. But it's still there. The sense that everything is going downhill. I have no idea what I'm going to be like when I'm standing on the edge of 50. Probably insufferable.

Tonight's episode of "Louie," "Dr. Ben/Nick" attaches a loose theme to both of its vignettes: aging. Louie talks about this a bit in one of the episode's stand-up bits, where he discusses how there's never going to be a year of his life where he looks and feels better than he did the year before, now that he's 42. He's probably right, and that's a remarkably depressing notion, but Louie (Louis C.K., doing some of his own stand-up) makes it amusing through imagining his brain as a computer that needs to reload its program every morning and takes longer and longer to do so because there's always more stuff filling it up. It's a funny segment, yes, and it crystallizes what the show's approach to the world is going to be: Let's take a look at some pretty unappealing stuff that most TV shows wouldn't come within 10 feet of, and let's see if we can't make that stuff funny.

The first segment (after a short stand-up bit where Louie argues that the way to be happy with your body is to want a terrible body) features Ricky Gervais, and that's always a nice thing. Gervais and C.K. worked together on the coulda-been-great but still very good "The Invention of Lying" last year. I don't know if they're friends or if Gervais is just repaying C.K. a favor, but the scene featuring Gervais as "Dr. Ben" is hysterical. Gervais has kind of gotten typecast for playing clueless idiots since playing David Brent in the original "The Office," but that's probably because he's so darn good at it. It's easy to see Dr. Ben as yet another David Brent ripoff, but the whole segment is so funny that it doesn't really matter where the character came from. It's just two funny guys riffing off each other, one of them letting another be absolutely murderous in his descriptions of the first's flabby, aging body.

Dr. Ben, see, is kind of a joker. When he first examines Louie, he announces solemnly that he has AIDS, followed immediately by cracking up in laughter. You can likely imagine where things go from there, based entirely on the actors involved and the kind of show this is, but the scene is filled with so many great moments (and most of them consisting of unprintable, absolutely filthy humor) that it takes on a kind of momentum of its own, like the best sketch comedy. It definitely feels like the whole story is going somewhere, and even though Dr. Ben is kind of a one-joke character, it's great to see him come back at the end, seem to give Louie serious news, then revert to his one joke again. There's something weirdly endearing about the predictability in this kind of comedy -- a show like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" thrives on it, for example -- and Dr. Ben is a great example.

Really, though, one thing I'm impressed with in "Louie" is the way C.K. is willing to make himself the straight man. Sure, he gets in a good joke around the edges, and he has the stand-up bits to strike back at the lunacy of the world, but for the most part, this is a show about a world that mercilessly, mercilessly mocks the title character. On most shows created as showcase vehicles for a stand-up comedian, that comedian gets to be the hero of the story. The shows that allow that comedian to be the butt of the joke as often as not -- think of, say, "Seinfeld" or even "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- are the shows that tend to be successful both creatively and in the ratings. Nobody wants to watch a show about a guy who has no flaws. Comedy is about laughing at flaws, sometimes in others, but usually in ourselves. Louie, as presented here, is ALL flaws, and that makes him easier to identify with and laugh with.

The second segment, "Nick," starts out in a very different comedic playing field. Louie's comedian friend Nick goes on stage to deliver his set and starts off with a series of jokes that make fun of Barack Obama, making his audience uncomfortable. (At the same time, Louie is having a frank discussion with two waitresses about the tipping habits of black people, one that ends in a slightly too predictable fashion, but there you have it.) After Nick bombs, he lashes out to Louie while having a post-show drink, and the two get into a serious argument -- laced with jokes -- about Republicans vs. Democrats, Nick taking the former side and Louie the latter. The argument gets so heated that the two begin to physically fight. Louie injures Nick's hand, and it's here that the episode returns to its main theme.

At the hospital, waiting for Nick's hand to get fixed, the two talk about how Nick's marriage, while not falling apart exactly, has hit a kind of plateau. The two rarely make love. They're tired as often as not. They don't have kids, and they're staring at 30-50 years of watching each other slowly fall apart. It's a grim, scary notion, and Nick doesn't know how to improve any of it. Again, the conversation is funny but laced with the kind of sadness that makes the show more than just a laugh riot. Everything Nick is saying is accurate, and the only way to keep from weeping at it is to laugh at it. It's the same with Louie's closing story about his cousin from the country meeting a homeless person at the bus terminal. She wants to help, but Louie and his New York City friends have learned to not pay attention. It's often easier to just ignore the big, glaring problems than acknowledge them. The only rational response to looking something like aging directly in the eye is to cry or laugh. "Louie" takes the latter route, mostly, but it works so well because the former route is just a few steps off the path we're on.

Other thoughts:

  • * "I know what's wrong with you. AIDS."
  • * "There's never gonna be a year of my life that's better than the one before. That's never gonna happen."
  • * "We got here, and the Indians were, like, 'Hi," and we were, like, 'Hey, can we have everything?' "
  • * "I'm sure you did better at the Nazi youth rally."

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

Photo: Louis C.K. writes, directs, stars in and edits every episode of "Louie." When does he sleep? Credit: FX.

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