Read Part 1, on the fraught expectations around reexamining the artistic works of bad people, here.
“There were some changes in how certain shows are classified this year. For example, Orange is the New Black is now technically a drama, while Louie is now technically jazz.”
– Andy Samberg, 2015 Emmys Opening Monologue
The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism. It’s hard to say why, though I have some theories: a lack of historical literacy, particularly with younger critics; an increase in critics, especially reviewers and recappers, using broad language and easy shorthand due to the punishing deadlines demanded by a hectic 24/7 online publishing environment; a growing tendency towards a mindset of critic-as-advocate in a crowded pop culture marketplace, which encourages critics to overstate the virtues of works of art they want to support in the hopes it will persuade more of their audience to give them a shot. Probably there are other reasons, but I like my theories because of all the first-hand evidence I have. I’ve called movies and TV shows innovative out of ignorance, expedience and a desperate want to convince other people to like the things I like so I have someone to talk about them with. Sometimes the truth – that something is “merely” fresh, interesting or novel – can seem a bit lacklustre. But “innovative” is a word with some heft behind it: not just new, but so new it represents a major break with the old way of doing things.
But artistic innovation is rare, and only gets rarer the longer a medium is around. Every medium has its limits, and while its early days will be a flurry of invention as artists create the basic vocabulary of material, structure, form, etc. eventually most things an artist can possibly do with paint on canvas or light on film will have already been done. Irmin Roberts, an uncredited second-unit cameraman (or cinematographer, sources vary), invented the dolly-zoom in 1957 during the making of Vertigo, and that was the first and last time a dolly-zoom was innovative. People have used them in new and interesting ways since then – the reverse dolly-zoom from Goodfellas melts my face off to this day – but it was innovative once. It opened up the medium to new possibilities once.
Maybe this seems pedantic, and it would be if “innovative” was a perfect synonym for “fresh” and “new” and “original”, but the concept of innovation is an extremely loaded one. It’s no surprise the term has grown in use over the last few decades given the valorisation of “innovation” spread by Silicon Valley and its pantheon of “visionary geniuses”, each as mythical as the last. But it’s exactly in that source we should see the danger in throwing it around so loosely. Technological innovations are constantly credited in the public imagination to people who did not create them, treated as the breakthroughs of singularly brilliant minds whose sole role, very often, was owning the companies where the workers who actually created the innovations were working at the time. Even to credit those workers is usually too simplistic, because their breakthroughs are frequently just the final step in a years- or even decades-long process of inquiry, research, design, testing, etc. that likely involved dozens if not hundreds of people who deserve recognition for their contributions. But they don’t get it. Even the one who makes that final jump doesn’t get it. Irmin Roberts invented the dolly-zoom and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism, and it wigs me out. It’s such a bold claim to make: not just something you’ve never seen before, but something no one has ever seen before. And even when you’ve correctly identified something as innovative, if you’re not careful, you can credit it in such a way as to bury the contributions of people without whom it would not exist. It’s not a word to be used lightly, not when criticism is often where the history of an art form – or at least the dominant narrative of that history – is written.
Let’s talk about Louie.
Louie debuted on FX on June 29, 2010 and quickly became one of the most acclaimed TV shows of all time. It aired five seasons, won a bunch of awards, then went on extended hiatus in 2015 while Louis CK focused on other projects. Critics fell over themselves to proclaim Louie one of the greatest TV shows of all time, one of the most ambitious and innovative works to ever grace the small screen with its divine presence. Louis CK was already among the most acclaimed stand-ups in history, and soon he became the auteur par excellence of sitcoms. His reign lasted the bones of a decade before he was exposed as a serial sexual predator by the New York Times, thus beginning a long, arduous process of unpacking how the worship of his genius may have contributed to the climate in which he was able to hurt so many women for so long without consequence (as detailed in part one).
I first watched Louie in November 2016, a year into its hiatus. I’d already been aware of the accusations against Louis CK for some time, but I was very insistent about the whole idea of “separating the art from the artist” at the time and, as an aspiring critic, it felt like something I needed to watch if I wanted to understand modern television. I enjoyed Louie, but after reading so many critics wax poetic about its innovation and influence – this singular masterpiece of comedy against which all other modern sitcoms must be judged, because it was inconceivable that any sitcom after Louie could exist outside a dialogue with Louie – I was underwhelmed. So many of its alleged innovations were old hat or at least exaggerated, and while I could see its influence on later shows I’d already watched, it was hardly so totalising a presence in the history of sitcoms as I’d been led to believe.
Nothing in this essay should be taken to mean Louie isn’t a great show. It is a great show, even if I’m not sure I could ever stand to watch it again. But there’s a serious mismatch between Louie, the TV show, and Louie, the idea of the show as it exists in the critical discourse. I don’t think that mismatch was born out of malice or incompetence. Several critics I respect and admire, like Emily Nussbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, Emily VanDerWerff and Jesse David Fox, have contributed to what I consider the myth of Louie’s innovation and influence, but they’re all very good critics, I just think they’re wrong. It should also go without saying that I think Louie is, or certainly was at the time, a quite singular and original work of television, possibly even a revolutionary one, and that it has obviously had some influence on television. I simply object to how much innovation and influence has been attributed to it, because I think it’s incorrect and ahistorical.
It is undoubtedly true that many things about Louie were unprecedented in television history. It was the first sitcom in a genre that some now call the “sadcom”, ostensible comedies that often lack a lot of jokes and focus more on dramatic storytelling. CK’s production deal with FX was unprecedented – he had virtually complete creative control and didn’t have to take notes from the network, the TV equivalent of having final cut on a movie. And while many sitcoms before it portrayed a fictionalised version of their comedian lead (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm are the obvious examples, but I Love Lucy arguably beat them to it), at least at the time, Louie seemed to set new standards in brutal and often uncomfortable honesty about its star, frequently portraying him in an unflattering light.
However, I’d like you to consider a thought experiment.
Suppose some brilliant team of scientists and engineers invents a tire that never loses its tread. It’s one of the most revolutionary developments in the history of vehicle engineering, and it’s adopted quickly in the automotive industry. Cars, trucks, vans, tractors, buses, jeeps and motorcycles with everlasting treads become commonplace – it even spreads to bicycles and ride-on lawnmowers.
But, for some reason, even though there are no practical reasons not to do so, the aircraft industry just doesn’t get on board. It doesn’t matter why: for our purposes, all that matters is that everlasting treads remain absent from airplanes and helicopters, even as they become extremely common on all other kinds of vehicles with tires. The engineers beg their bosses to let them start building aircraft with the new tires, but every CEO of every aerospace manufacturer is dead set against them. Decades after their widespread adoption by every other kind of vehicle manufacturer, some hotshot sales executive at one of the smaller companies is promoted to CEO. Most of the engineers expect it to be a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, but one of them is a stubborn prick who just won’t give up on asking, so he meets with the new CEO and tells him it’s unacceptable the industry just won’t let engineers do something that every other vehicle manufacturer does. The CEO is won over and tells the engineer to go make an airplane with everlasting treads. The first new model is rolled out within a year. No one has ever seen a plane like it.
Here’s the question: is that plane innovative? Are that engineer or that CEO innovators?
Obviously not. They’re late adopters of something already common in other industries. The only way you could call this innovative is if you assume no one else had thought to put the tires on a plane, or if you view aerospace engineering as an entirely discrete field, unrelated to all other kinds of vehicle engineering. But that’s just not true, and it’s just not true that many of the “innovations” credited to Louie are innovations as opposed to things that had never been permitted in the television industry before. Introspective joke-light dramedy was well-established in independent filmmaking decades before Louie brought it to the small screen, and plenty of reviews cite the obvious influence of indie movies on the show. CK’s level of creative control was unprecedented in TV history, but many film directors have enjoyed final cut on their movies. There are dozens of fictionalised autobiographical films that shine an unflattering light on their director or writer, from All That Jazz to Postcards from the Edge to Almost Famous. Louie may well be the first TV show to do those things, but unless you view that as evidence that no one else had ever thought to do those things before, it’s unreasonable to call Louie innovative in at least these regards.
The more likely explanation why no one had done these things before is that no one in a position of power let them. Even now, in the age of streaming, power in the television industry is extremely concentrated, far more so than in the film industry. It always has been. There isn’t really an indie television scene because distribution on official channels has traditionally been considered part of the definition of the medium. Obviously, the Internet has made distinctions like this a lot more slippery: CK’s series Horace and Pete was distributed on his personal website yet received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series (Laurie Metcalf) and Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series (Gina Sansom). Why is a talk show on YouTube like Good Mythical Morning, UNHhhh or Some More News considered a web series, but a talk show on Netflix is a “real” TV show? It’s pretty confounding. (And then you find out about the term “video podcast” and your brain starts to dribble slowly out your nose.) But television, as it’s classically and popularly understood, is the stuff on television networks and, more recently, on certain streaming services. If you’re an indie filmmaker who doesn’t want to answer to studios, there are ways around them, albeit ones that don’t pay well. If you want to make a television show without answering to a network or streaming service, that’s entirely at their discretion: creative freedom on television has historically been more constrained and contingent as a result. Louie may be the first show to bring an indie dramedy tone to television, the first show whose creator had final cut, the first show to be so brutally, introspectively autobiographical. But there’s no way in hell Louis CK was the first person to think of doing those things on television, let alone the first person to ask.
Also, he was a sexual predator who lied about being one for decades, so the show’s much-touted warts-and-all honesty was a fiction regardless. The idea that any work of art could be innovatively “honest” about its creator is based on the assumption its audience is in a position to tell whether they’re telling the truth or not. Among the many lessons we should take from the recent outings of multiple artists as sexual predators is that we cannot. When you take away the presumed personal “honesty” of his work, much of the content seems even less innovative than it already wasn’t[i]. There is still a lot of stuff in Louie that, for example, probes masculinity and misogyny in interesting ways, like “So Did the Fat Lady”, an episode where Louie expects praise and gratitude for dating a fat woman (Sarah Baker), who tears him apart in a monologue that’s probably just a smidge too long. But, divorced from the idea that it’s criticising Louis CK’s own personal attitudes toward fat women, it’s hardly a new critique. Women have been making it for decades. In fact, if you consider it in the context of its creator’s actual crimes – which was my first impression of the show since I watched it after hearing the rumours of his assaults – the gentleman doth protest too much. He might have an actress deliver the scathing rant to his fictional self, but CK wrote that rant, decided to direct it at his fictional self and told Sarah Baker how to say it. It’s still kind of self-effacing, but it’s also kind of self-impressed. “Look at me and how conscious and critical I am of my poor attitudes toward fat women! I’m a feminist hero!”
Beyond the conditions of its production, three major elements of Louie are most commonly cited as innovative: its lack of strong continuity, with several episodes blatantly contradicting each other; its surrealism, particularly how it integrates its surrealist and realist elements; and its variable approach to length and structure, with (usually earlier) episodes that are basically just a series of vignettes and (increasingly, as the show went on) multi-part episodes that function almost like miniseries within a series sitting side by side. Its length and structure are genuinely innovative, but praise of them lacks vital context. Its surrealism is fairly original for the genre, but exists within an established tradition. But its continuity is not innovative at all, and it blows my mind that anyone thinks otherwise.
Strong continuity in sitcoms is a very recent development, historically speaking. The examples given in most criticism of how Louie eschews continuity – different actors playing the same character at different times or the same actors portraying different characters, how Louie’s mother is portrayed as cold and withholding in one episode and warm and nurturing in another, members of Louie’s family, like his niece, being introduced and then written out of continuity – were very commonplace for most of the genre’s lifetime, so common it’s often used as a joke and commented on.
Richard Schaal played four different characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and two further characters on its spin-offs Phyllis and Rhoda. Becky Conner on Roseanne was played by two different actresses, Lecy Goranson and Sarah Chalke, over the course of the show’s run. Judy Winslow, the youngest daughter in the titular family of Family Matters, was abruptly written out of the show in season four when the actress asked for a raise, and her parents explicitly say they only have two children for the rest of the show. George Jefferson had a brother called Henry on All in the Family, then describes himself as an only child for most of the spin-off show, only for his brother’s son to appear in the fifth season. Donna in That ‘70s Show had two separate sisters introduced and then written out, which is made fun of in the season two finale when the narrator asks whatever happened to her sister Tina. And, of course, there’s probably the most famous example, Chuck Cunningham from Happy Days, who walked upstairs halfway through the second season, never to return.
It’s only in the last couple of decades, as heavy serialisation became more dominant in television storytelling, that sitcoms have developed strong continuities. Louie definitely bucked the trend by deciding not to bother with continuity if it got in the way of telling the story of a given episode, but it’s not innovative, it’s a deeply traditional turn.
Louie’s surrealism is a lot more specific and idiosyncratic, but it’s not unprecedented. Surrealism in sitcoms arises from an observable importation of surrealism from sketch comedy, where it’s always been far more common because the core of sketch comedy is setting up an odd scenario and then seeing it through to its often-illogical conclusion. Monty Python are probably the most influential surrealist sketch comedians of all time, and the line from their work to surrealism in sitcoms is short. Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted in 1969 and ran until 1974, after which they released three films of new material, Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983). (Their first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, reused sketches from the first two series of Flying Circus). The Goodies, a British comedy show that debuted in 1970 and ran until 1982, blurred the lines between sketch and sitcom, with the main characters hiring themselves out for bizarre odd jobs that were used as a jumping-off point for off-the-wall sketch scenarios. The Young Ones is a British sitcom that debuted in 1982 and ran for two series. Like any other sitcom, it had a main cast who appeared in every episode playing the same characters, but rather than mixing the structures of sketches and sitcoms, it mixed their comedic logic. The characters got decapitated on train journeys, had nuclear bombs fall into their living room, and travelled through time. Plenty of surreal sitcoms in the interim predate Louie – The Drew Carey Show, NewsRadio, Strangers with Candy, Scrubs, Bored to Death, Community and Father Ted, to name a few – though they never reached Louie’s level of prestige and acclaim.
Louie is part of a distinct surrealist heritage within the history of sitcoms, but obviously it has its own voice, with strains of magical realism, the fantasy-adjacent literary genre in which supernatural events occur but aren’t treated as astonishing breaks from reality. The novels of Gabriel García Márquez are the most famous works of magical realism: chapter sixteen of One Hundred Years of Solitude begins with the line “It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days” and even as the rain destroys the town, it’s treated as an inconvenience everyone in the town must learn to adapt to, rather than an apocalyptic event. The purest example in Louie is probably when Louie gets attacked by a homeless man, who falls into the street and gets decapitated by a truck, on the way to a date. He barely reacts to the gruesome, graphic death of the man who attacked him, but when he meets his date, who he doesn’t like and who doesn’t like him, he gradually starts to rant about how fucked-up it is to waste time on pointless experiences like this when death could strike at any minute. His date actually finds his honesty attractive, but when he tells her about the death of the homeless man, she calls him fucked-up for watching someone get decapitated in front of his eyes and then just carrying on with his plans for the evening. The way the episode sort of doubles over itself, first having Louie no-sell what should be a traumatic experience, then letting it slowly bubble up to the surface as an emotional realisation, then undercutting it by reasserting the context of that emotional realisation to highlight how it’s still a massive underreaction, is brilliant and uniquely Louie.
Probably the most distinct and notable aspect of Louie, and the most genuinely innovative, is how it structures its episodes. Early episodes in particular used a vignette structure, telling two or three largely unconnected stories, while later seasons tell multi-part stories. Season four is almost entirely multi-part stories: six episodes (“Elevator”) are dedicated to a romance storyline between Louie and his neighbour’s niece, Amia, three episodes (“Pamela”) to Louie’s relationship with his friend and recurring love interest Pamela (played by CK’s long-time collaborator Pamela Adlon), while the two-part “Into the Woods” runs an hour and a half with ad breaks. Neither is innovative on its own. The vignette structure is reminiscent of sketch shows, but with a consistent main character, with antecedents in stuff like Mr. Bean, and lots of sitcoms before Louie have vignette episodes, like The Simpsons’ “Trilogy of Error” or Frasier’s “Three Valentines”. Multi-parters are a sitcom staple, particularly since the rise of single-camera shows, with their greater emphasis on serial storytelling, like Scrubs’ “My Screw Up”/“My Tormented Mentor”, or the various It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia two-parters.
What makes Louie’s use of these structures innovative is its range and its lack of a base format. Most sitcoms have a basic episode structure, with vignette episodes and multi-parters as special variations on the formula, but Louie has no formula – it doesn’t even do a non-vignette episode until halfway through its first season. When it introduced multi-parters in season three, it came out of nowhere given its established lack of continuity to that point, but two-parters like “Daddy’s Girlfriend” were an established convention of the genre and even three-parters like “Late Night” weren’t unheard-of. But in season four, with the six-part “Elevator”, Louie went much further, essentially doing an entire miniseries within an existing show. It’s an extraordinary bit of television and something that was, as far as I can tell, a truly revolutionary new development in the medium. And what really cements it is that it wasn’t a sign of creeping serialisation, it wasn’t the show changing its format. Louie didn’t give up on vignette episodes, and its fifth season actually dialled back the multi-parters to a single two-part finale. Louie broke new ground, holding the two together and remaining cohesive as a series even while eschewing format and varying so wildly in its structure. I’m perfectly happy to call it innovative in that regard.
But only on one condition.
Another antecedent for Louie’s use of a vignette structure is cartoons. When animated shorts like Looney Tunes were first broadcast on television, they were packaged together in groups of two or three, to fit half-hour time slots. When animated series, especially children’s series, started to be made for television, they largely maintained the structure: the first was Hannah-Barbera’s The Huckleberry Hound Show, which usually consisted of one short each for Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Pixie & Dixie and Mr. Jinks. Later, the two or three segments would increasingly feature the same characters, and now the standard distribution for children’s cartoons on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and The Disney Channel is two ten-minute episodes back-to-back. The three-short format is an important artistic predecessor of sketch/sitcom hybrids like The Goodies and Mr. Bean, or, more recently, Snuff Box, and a key part of the heritage that Louie draws from. (Cartoons are also a major part of the heritage of surrealism, far too much to even go into here.) It’s therefore appropriate that, contemporaneously with Louie, a kids’ cartoon was making similar innovations in structure.
Adventure Time is an animated childrens’ fantasy series, created by Pendleton Ward. It debuted on Cartoon Network in April 2010, just a couple of months before Louie. The main characters are a human boy called Finn (Jeremy Shada) and his adoptive brother Jake (John DiMaggio), a shape-shifting dog, and initially follows them on purely episodic adventures, broadcast in the modern two-short format, as they defend the Land of Ooo from various evil threats. It has a deep cast, from secondary protagonists like Princess Bubblegum, ruler of the Candy Kingdom, and Marceline the Vampire Queen to the tertiary cast of Ooo residents, as well as recurring antagonists like the Ice King (who becomes more sympathetic and heroic over the course of the series) and the Lich. In addition to airing in the two-short format, it has several vignette episodes, most notably the “Graybles” series which present contemporary events in Ooo from the perspective of an alien in the distant future called Cuber. Over time, it became more serialised, with relationship arcs, long-term conflicts, a deepening mythology and two-parters like “Mortal Folly”/“Mortal Recoil” and “Incendium”/“Hot to the Touch”, but it varied with a similar unpredictability to Louie between stand-alone adventures and multi-part stories. And in its seventh, eighth and ninth seasons it did three miniseries within the show – Stakes, Islands and Elements – just as Louie did with “Elevator”.
Stakes, the first miniseries, focused on the backstory of Marceline and her conflict in the present day with a group of evil vampires she killed in order to become the Vampire Queen. It aired about a year after “Elevator”, but it was probably in development around the same time given how long most animated series take to produce an episode (a typical Adventure Time episode, for example, takes just under a year). There are differences, obviously. Adventure Time didn’t have a regular format, but it did develop a strong continuity over the course of its run, and while Louie’s multi-parters usually had no grounding in the established world of the show (because it mostly had none), Adventure Time’s miniseries pulled the trigger on long-standing plot issues: how Marceline became the Vampire Queen, Finn’s search for evidence of other surviving humans, and the millennia-old mythos of the four primordial elements of Ooo (fire, ice, candy and slime). But the structural innovation is fundamentally the same and blew up conventional notions of television storytelling in the same way. I’m happy to call Louie’s approach to structure innovative, but only if Adventure Time is given its due for making the same innovations at the same time.
We tend to cordon off animated and live-action comedy as if one doesn’t influence the other, or as if animation is only inspired by live-action, and never the other way around. But that’s obviously not true and it’s just unbelievable to think so when The Simpsons is one of the most iconic and influential sitcoms of the past thirty years. I appreciate this might seem like a weird tangent for an article that’s ostensibly about deconstructing the inaccurate history around Louie, but it goes to the very deepest issues with how critics have written about it. I do not deny at all that Louie is an influential show, or that Louis CK is an influential artist. Louie’s magical realism-inflected surrealism lives on in Atlanta’s invisible car joke and black Justin Bieber. Its quick, jerky camera pans and long night-time walks are a direct influence on the visual style of Fleabag. It was a major inspiration for Girls and Transparent, among other so-called “sadcoms”.
But its influence, and CK’s, has been wildly overstated to the exclusion of other works and artists. It grinds my gears when I read articles like Jesse David Fox’s “The Best Comedian-Auteur TV Shows in the Post-Louie Era, Ranked” that present Louie as if it was a completely radical break from the old creator-led sitcoms like Seinfeld that only permitted them to work within the conventions of the genre (Fox’s description, not mine), as if there weren’t intermediate shows. It’s not true. Curb Your Enthusiasm beat Louie to the “middle-aged comedian plays an unflattering version of himself” punch by over a decade. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was an FX sitcom that traded a typical per-episode budget for more creative control years before Louie. What of Comedy Central and Adult Swim series like Delocated and Stella and Childrens Hospital and Strangers with Candy and The Sarah Silverman Program and Michael & Michael Have Issues? Fox describes his article as “a story about a byproduct of America’s Second Comedy Boom”, but skips over the entire pre-Louie output of Comedy Central and Adult Swim?
The auteurist lens of Fox’s article points to one of the most corrosive ideas underpinning the myth of Louie and of Louis CK: the worship of the individual genius. Part of the hype of Louie was always that it could be claimed as the singular work of one brilliant man. CK directed every episode, wrote all but a handful on his own, edited it solo for most of its run, and while he shared production duties with Adlon among others, the buck stopped with him, creatively speaking. But even with a show that hewed so close to the auteurist ideal, CK had collaborators. He had Adlon, who he’s called his only true collaborator. Cinematographer Paul Koestner, a frequent but not exclusive CK crew member, shot all but one episode. Woody Allen’s former editor Susan E. Morse worked on the show’s third and best season. CK wasn’t the show’s production designer, art director or set designer, he didn’t write its music or run its sound department. He wasn’t the stunt choreographer, makeup artist or costume designer.
Hundreds of people worked on Louie and it’s not just that CK couldn’t have done it without them, practically speaking, they had input. Pamela Adlon is the clearest example: she and CK created Better Things, starring Adlon and based on her life, after Louie went on hiatus. CK produced it, directed the pilot, co-wrote most of the first two seasons with Adlon and wrote more episodes solo than she did (particularly in the second season, as she became the show’s sole director). When he was exposed as a predator, FX cancelled their production deal with him and Adlon cut ties with him (and Dave Becky, their mutual manager), hiring four new people to fill out her writers’ room. CK got a lot of credit in reviews of the first two seasons of Better Things, and, to be fair, more than any of the shows that followed Louie, it’s creative DNA is very apparent: Better Things, especially in its first season, has a vignette-y episode structure.
But, to be even more fair, Better Things shows CK’s influence only as much as it reveals Adlon’s influence on Louie. Gender ambiguity and sexual fluidity have been a big thematic preoccupation of Better Things, only more so since CK was ousted. Its third season features a will-they-won’t-they between Adlon’s ostensibly straight character, Sam, and a woman that’s riveting in how it explores the tension between her denial about being attracted to a woman and her efforts to flirt super hard with her. Though the uncertain gender identity of Sam’s middle child, Frankie, is a feature of the first two seasons, it really comes to the fore in the third. Looking back on Louie, it’s hard not to think of the season five episode “Bobby’s House”, in which Pamela puts makeup on Louie and then initiates a cross-dressing roleplay. CK has sole writing credit on it, but Adlon’s influence as a collaborator seems clear and should prompt us to think similarly about Better Things and other shows branded with the auteur label, to work to credit the input of Adlon’s collaborators, like her editors Debra F. Simone, Sarah Lucky and Janet Weiberg, or cinematographer Paul Koestner, again. The people in the credits are not just interchangeable drones, cogs in the machine of a lone genius, they’re creative people with their own ideas and points of view. The dolly-zoom was invented by an uncredited second-unit cameraman!
I’ve had so many frustrations for so long with the critical discourse around Louie, like how often CK’s first show, Lucky Louie, is erased even from the narrative of his singular genius, because it’s a multi-cam about poor people, not a single-cam about a rich guy. But the narrative of his singular genius is definitely the worst, because it casts a shadow not just over Louie, but over sitcoms as a whole. CK had direct creative influence on two post-Louie shows by other artists, Baskets and Better Things, but he’s the spectre that haunts the sadcom in critical writing. We’re thankfully starting to see that fade away since his exposure as a sexual predator, but we can’t just destroy the myth of Louis CK, we need to destroy the myth of the visionary creator he occupied, or we’re just gonna keep filling it with other creators and continuing to erase the contributions of their collaborators and antecedents in favour of an unjustly and inaccurately simplified history of television, which has always been and always will be a fundamentally collaborative art form with deep, rich traditions that don’t deserve to be overlooked.
Fuck Louis CK.
[i] I’ll probably write more thoroughly about how we value “honesty” and “authenticity” from artists at a later date, but it’s somewhat tangential to the issue at hand. In the meantime, there are several interesting articles out there about CK’s “honesty” schtick in light of his outing as predator, including two by Jesse David Fox and David Sims. For more far-reaching examinations of the topic, particularly in the context of social media, I’d recommend the following video essays, which you should watch in listed order: Shannon Strucci’s “Fake Friends Episode Two: Parasocial Hell”, Lindsay Ellis’s “YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!)” and Abigail Thorn’s “YouTube: Art or Reality?”.
3 thoughts on “Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 2”