The pilot episode of Louie was about an incompetent school bus driver and an awkward first date. It was funny and clever, definitely off-kilter and unorthodox, but hardly something you’d proclaim to be a grand departure from contemporary comedic television. It wasn’t until around the eleventh episode of the first season, “God” (in which a young Louis defaces a crucifixion after being made to feel responsible for the death of Jesus), that the show began to take a consistently artistic, profound form — although it is worth noting that the “Poker” segment of the series’ second episode is monumentally heartrending. But even if you prefer the darker, less laughy episodes of Season 2 (as I do), there is definitely a charm and value in C.K.’s brand of odd situational comedy. His style of humor blends Larry David with psilocybin, merging “Isn’t it weird when…?” and “Wouldn’t it be weird if…?” situations, giving us an in depth look at the human world and the human mind. This week’s Louie borrows from the pages of Season One, thrusting our hero into a slew of uncomfortable encounters, played largely for the funny. Although we might now be inclined to scoff at episodes like this, saying, “This ain’t no Parker-Posey-on-the-roof,” remember: there was a time, pre-Tape Recorder, that this kind of shtick would have thrilled us to no end.
What is most interesting about this episode is its dedication to continuity — a rarity for this series. “IKEA/Piano Lessons” opens with Louis reluctantly reuniting with Delores (of the latter segment on the episode “Bummer/Blueberries,” in which she coerced Louis into a sexual encounter and then broke down crying en medias res), who first asks him to accompany her to therapy (a proposal that he rejects), and then to accompany her to IKEA (to which he agrees). Not to abuse the analogy, but the vignette plays out just like something out of an early Seinfeld. Louis and Dolores argue over the former’s lack of interest in picking out furniture; he spouts a monologue about the neutrality of rugs; the pair incurs the disapproval of a still-in-love young couple who vows “never to be like that.” But the Louisity permeates through this standard observational setup, giving the female party in the aforementioned young couple a name like Hasenpfeffer (a joke so odd that I had to rewind just to decipher what her boyfriend could have been calling her), and having Dolores break down in tears once again, simultaneously shoving Louis away and drawing him in to embrace her. There is a good deal of humane sadness to be derived from the scene, and even a bit of sweetness in the subsequent car ride, during which Louis tries to reassure Dolores about her choice of chairs (earning a rare smile from the poor woman), but all in all, the segment is on the lighter end of the spectrum.
Following is a short story bearing the misnomer title “Piano Lessons.” Things open rather gently for a Louie misadventure: 40-year-old Louis is trying to better himself by taking home piano lessons from a kindly, understanding teacher, who is very encouraging of his interest in the instrument. But then, about a minute or two into the story Louis gets a phone call: he has crabs. Maria Bramford, the comedian with whom C.K.’s character had a sexual encounter a few episodes back (“Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 1”), calls to inform him that one of them has given the other of them crabs; beyond being another impressive effort at the series vying for a more linear, consistent universe (an ideal that might well be expanded upon, as indicated by the title of the forthcoming episode “Looking for Liz”), this plucks Louis out of his pleasant piano lesson and thrusts him into the anything-but-pleasant pharmacy line at a local drug store. Although things go as well as can be expected for Louis himself, he witnesses an aging woman undergoing a hostile belittling and humiliation at the hands of a curt, impatient pharmacist, who demands she exclaim some very private information for the store employees and customers to hear. Again, the segment seems to base its being in the delivery of uncomfortable humor. It’s a pretty relatable, if not entirely imaginable, situation. One with a concept that feels even more familiar than the IKEA scene, and without the additional Louie charms of emotional breakdowns or people named Hasenpfeffer. Sorry to harp on that, but for some reason, it really sticks with me.
Finally, a rare third segment (although I believe it is meant to play into the chronology immediately following the conclusion of “Piano Lessons,” at which point Louis takes a shower): Louis pops on some late night TV to catch a circa-1980s broadcast of his old act… one that makes him cringe. Following, a routine by Sarah Silverman, from the same era. The jokes prompt a smile from Louis, who then decides to call up Silverman. Apparently, they’re very close friends, and seem to bond over very intimate, albeit tacit, commiseration over good days long gone. The scene is simple, and although the dialogue and affect delivered by Louis and Sarah seem to be intentionally trite at points, it’s a really sweet, really sad situation. Here are two people, home alone on their couches watching twenty-plus-year-old recordings of themselves just starting out in the comedy business, smiling and laughing together, but palpably, indestructibly sad.
Then, gears shift a bit, although the theme persists. While Louis and Silverman are chatting, they catch a 1980s Marc Maron take the stage on the comedy show, which prompts Louis to recall the feud he and old pal Marc had ten years back. Without much provocation, Louis comes to realize — out of thin air, so it seems — that he himself has been wrong all along, and that he has held a grudge against Marc for absolutely no reason. Skillfully, the show never reveals what the fight was actually about: only that Louis has come to recognize his fault in the matter. We cut to a scene of Louis entering a Marc’s apartment, present day, fumbling over his words in front of his former friend’s suppressed hostility. Louis stammers through what appears to be a sincere apology before Marc informs him that he has actually done this before. Five years ago, Louis came to Marc’s apartment, apologized for the fight, and then forgot about the entire ordeal, maintaining a lack of contact with the comedian. The revelation is easily the funniest bit in the episode, and the best example of Louis’ brand of observational comedy. It’s not the sort of shtick you’d catch glimpse of and chuckle at while shopping at IKEA or waiting in line at the pharmacy; it’s the kind of thing that focuses not on the mundane, but the inherent crappiness that makes up a portion of a human being. The selfish, deluded, horrible unaware state of being that just about all of us embody on occasion. Louis isn’t a particularly bad person, nor is he made out to be: he’s just a putz. He doesn’t mean to hurt anybody, but sometimes he does anyway. Because, like just about everybody else, he’s kind of an idiot. And sure, it’s sad and it’s a little cynical, but it’s also quite funny.
“IKEA/Piano Lessons” won’t impress to the degree that “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2” did. It seems that a handful of Louie episodes will have to pass before we can agree to stop letting that majestic piece of television define everything to come thereafter. But this week’s Louie channels a lot of different things. It makes fun of people in ways that only Louis C.K. can — their mundanity, their peculiarity, their seflishness, and their sorrow. All fertile grounds for comedy, especially when being handled by the masterful Louis.
Also, there’s a person in this episode named Hasenpfeffer. That’s an artistic triumph beyond any other.