Louis CK’s Emmy win Sunday for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy cemented his rise from relative obscurity to America’s most cherished comic voice. The win for the episode “Pregnant,” which aired last year as part of his critically acclaimed F/X series, Louie, topped other beloved shows like Parks and Recreation and Community. The Emmy also came just a few days after the final episode of a three-part series called “Late Show,” which exemplified what Louie does best: take tired themes from other, more traditional comedies, like middle age or relations between the sexes and spin them so they feel more real, more human, and subsequently funnier. With these episodes, CK faced down the familiar terrain of American men's fear of maturity but ended up in a very different place than most sitcoms.
The three-part episode involved a complex story line in which Louie, the fictionalized alter ego of CK who is also a stand-up comedian, is offered a chance to audition to replace David Letterman as the host of CBS’s The Late Show. Louie has to then run a gauntlet of people telling him that he needs to suck it up and act like an adult, from his ex-wife and studio executives, played by Garry Marshall and David Lynch. Louie goes through a series of incredibly uncomfortable moments that include learning how to mimic the glib self-confidence of a TV host and trying to lose some weight so he looks the part. He doesn’t get the gig—it turns out that CBS was simply using Louie to push Letterman to accept a lower salary—but the series ends on a triumphant note all the same. Louie realizes that even though he didn’t get the job, he deserved to get it. As a friend on the show tells his character, he forced Letterman to bring his asking price down by millions of dollars. Knowing this about himself, that he can change and grow, ends up mattering more than actually achieving the trappings of success.
What made the episodes stand out was that they subverted a popular theme that runs throughout comedy that holds that, for men, at least, living up to adult responsibilities and enjoying life are at odds. It’s a conceit repeated in some of the most profitable sitcoms and movies. Knocked Up grossed nearly $150 million domestically telling the story of a slacker who has to give up his fun-loving life for domestic squabbles and a cubicle job, with only his sense of moral decency to sustain him. The Hangover and its popular sequel stem from the premise that men can only have real fun if sprung from the tedious world of women and work. Popular sitcoms from Everybody Loves Raymond to Two and a Half Men portray men that, left to their own devices, prefer to avoid adult responsibilities and suffer mightily when pushed, often by women, to take them on. This season, NBC is hanging its hopes on yet another sitcom, Guys With Kids, that takes it as a given that adult responsibility is male Kryptonite.
In CK’s hands, the opportunity to audition to host The Late Show initially reads like any other comedy foisting adult responsibility on a reluctant man. This entire season, Louie has been a character in stasis, stuck in a routine of comedy gigs and bad dates without making any plans for the next big step in life. After getting this opportunity thrown at him, Louie continues the slacker act, slouching like a naughty child in his meetings with CBS executives. He freaks out at the thought of having to wear a suit. There’s even the requisite scene where his stern ex-wife tells him he has to do this, because he’s not getting any younger and the life of a stand-up won’t last forever. It seems it’s heading toward the same conclusion—that adulthood is a drag, but you have to do it anyway—that we all know so well from other comedies.
Suddenly, things take a dramatic turn in “Late Night, Part Three.” After an encounter with Jerry Seinfeld, his competition for the job, Louie stops whining and dives headfirst into the role of a late-night host, wearing his suit with pride and joking with guests like he was born to do exactly this. Even after he finds out that he didn’t get the gig, his sense of accomplishment at pulling off the audition drives him out into the street triumphantly yelling, “I did it!” and “Fuck you, Letterman!” Instead of being another sitcom about another reluctant man-child growing up, it’s suddenly the story of Rocky, where challenging yourself and growing into a better man invigorates and excites.
What Louie—and the audience—realizes in that moment is that contrary to the bleak attitudes of Judd Apatow movies and Everybody Loves Raymond, maturing isn’t about leaving the fun years of your life behind for a grim, joyless march to the grave. On the contrary, what reinvigorates Louie, if only for this episode, is the realization that one can continually be changing and growing, and that process can be fun. That suit and tie your younger self rejected now make you feel spiffy and self-confident. Sitting behind a desk doesn’t have to represent capitulation; in some cases it means you now have power.
Most important, the “Late Show” series understood something that many other dudely comedies miss. What Louie realizes in these episodes is that in reality, the job as host of The Late Show would actually give him a lot of power. Louis CK has mined this field before, mocking those who live in denial of how much power white male privilege gives them, such as in his classic stand-up bit where he jokes about being white, “If it was an option, I’d re-up every year.” In these episodes, however, he moves beyond silly jokes and pushes his alter ego to stop self-pitying and enjoy what it means to have these kinds of opportunities pushed in your direction. He may not have the job, but merely having the chance to prove himself is treated as exactly the rare privilege that it is. It makes every other sitcom dad glowering at his nagging wife look ungrateful even on the Mitt Romney scale.
What does all this mean for the show going forward? Interesting things, let's hope. Louie’s audience, which grew to 1.4 million viewers this season, has followed Louie for three seasons as he drifts through existence, occasionally finding inspiration but often falling back into a state of mild depression. With next week’s finale, we’ll see if these episodes represent a move more in the direction of Louie taking ownership over his own life. Clearly, he’s realized that you can have a lot of fun on the way.