Funny Man: Louis C.K.'s Pulled Punchlines

First as farce, then as tragedy.

By Micah HauserJune 16, 2014

Funny Man: Louis C.K.'s Pulled Punchlines

MANY CRITICS have grappled with Louie’s recent sexual misbehavior (for an in-depth primer, read Lili Loofbourow's excellent take). In "Elevator Part 5," Louie sleeps with Amia under pretenses you'd be hard pressed to describe as consensual. As he drags her inside the apartment while repeatedly intoning "no bye," the pained look on her face says it all. Sure, there's a language barrier, which explains the rudimentary grammar, but it's also no accident Louie sounds like a five-year-old. He's acting like one, and Amia knows it just as well as we do.

Though the situation with Amia could be excused by a (very) generous viewer, "Pamela Part 1" leaves any such grey area behind. Watching Louie chase Pamela around his apartment is frightening and believable, which in turn makes it all the more frightening. It's the kind of sexual assault rarely depicted on screen — no dark alleyways or unlit parking garages, just a man at home with a woman he's known for years. The scene shocks, and rightfully so.

But here's the thing: this kind of behavior is not foreign to Louie, nor is it a particularly recent development. We’ve seen it since day one, literally. Halfway through the pilot episode of the series, Louie grabs a woman and tries to smash his face into hers. They're on a first date and haven't even left her apartment building. The move bears uncanny resemblance to what occurs in "Pamela Part 1," Louie's hips thrust out as he leers over someone who's marshaled herself into a standing backbend to avoid his puckered lips.
As a show, Louie relishes the repeated trope — there are YouTube videos devoted to excavating the conceptual continuities throughout the series — and one of the most persistent is Louie's own rigorous pursuit of women against their will. Small incidences — for example, the repeated pestering of female bartenders and waitresses after his shows at the Comedy Cellar — are sprinkled between larger set pieces. The kernel of the joke remains the same — schlumpy dude tries and fails to make overtures to women who are out of his league — but tracking the chronology of these moments reveals not merely a repeated pattern, but a progression, a measurable tonal evolution. It's the difference between two forced kisses: purely comedic in the pilot, anything but in "Pamela Part 1."

Remember Tarese, from episode 10 of the first season? She's a cashier at a grocery store Louie frequents, and, as is the case with most women, he fantasizes about having sex with her. After failing to initiate conversation while checking out, Louie heads back into the store and picks out a bouquet of flowers, which he buys from Tarese and then tries to give to her. It's the kind of innocuous-seeming harassment women have to put up with on a daily basis; many would roll their eyes at any objection to the gesture: he was just trying to be nice. Right, but she was just trying to be at her job. Which is what she explains to her manager, who makes Louie return the flowers.

Undeterred, Louie then waits for her outside the store and follows her onto the subway. Tarese (and the audience) is subjected to a continuous stream of half-baked gambits and verbal diarrhea, periodically deflected ("Suck a dick, son."). The pursuit ends in Harlem, at the door of Tarese's apartment building — if she weren't so confident and Louie so inept, a downright scary situation. Her final repudiation is worth quoting in full: 

So what, you never been with a black girl before? You want to see what it's like to do it with a black girl? You see me everyday at the store, and you got it in your head, 'What would it be like to go to her neighborhood and have sex with her?' Is that it? Well, guess what? You don't get what you want. Not all the time.

Her words seem to make an impression on Louie, who looks rattled as she walks inside, leaving him and his aborted pick-up attempt on the stoop. But the gravity of the moment quickly evaporates, as an archetypal "fat black woman" leaves the building soon after. They're having sex in the very next scene, Louie smothered beneath her in a sort of visual punch line: the fantasy ends up bearing greater resemblance to a beating than sex. We are clearly still watching a comedy.

Now, back to that subway scene:

"Be part of the solution, not the pollution"

This is not the last time we see a white man rambling at a black woman on the subway. The shot is mirrored almost exactly in "Pamela Part 1." Louie is heading home after his set at the Cellar, and directly across from him a bespectacled Michael Kostroff pontificates at a black woman who, at first glance, appears to be his friend or co-worker. The reveal is that she's a complete stranger, which we see when she makes a hasty exit at the next stop and Kostroff continues to list his grievances to thin air. No "suck a dick, son" to be uttered in comedic relief — just an uncomfortable, possibly terrified, woman trying to avoid eye contact until she can remove herself from the situation. 
Louie is watching a version of what transpired during his subway ride with Tarese — in a way, Kostroff is "playing" Louie, the middle-aged white male bloviating at a clearly uninterested black woman. When the woman gets off the train, Louie sits in her seat, essentially subjecting himself to himself. And he grimaces. It's a point made frequently in his stand-up: women face a basically relentless barrage of male attention from the moment they step outside in the morning. Here, we see Louie observing firsthand the unfairness of this dynamic. It's a symbolic moment in which audience and protagonist jointly acknowledge a hyperbolized example of the way women often find themselves at the wrong end of a one-way dialogue.

This new version of the old subway scene could be read as a revision by Louis C.K., the creator, of his past joke. He shows us the same set piece, but sans humor. We can all pat ourselves on the back for being the kind of people who "get the joke" (that women are often unwillingly cornered by men), but this time the show doesn't let us off the hook. In the very next scene, Louie goes home and sexually assaults Pamela. What was it we were just laughing about? It's a brilliant illustration of the dangers of liberal complacency — awareness of inequality does not exonerate you. The sins we demonize in society often exist within us, tucked away, unnoticed. Showing the dark side of a previously lighthearted joke says a lot about the trajectory of Louis C.K.'s own politics. The last laugh, after all, is rarely funny.

The power of these examples from Season 4 derives from their violation of our expectations. We've become accustomed to hyperbole as the chief mechanism of comic delivery in Louie. The woman from the pilot whom he tries to kiss ends up escaping the date via helicopter; the pursuit of Tarese culminates with Louie getting pounded by a fat woman. These punch lines function like steam valves that blow off the seriousness of what has just transpired. In Season 4, he doesn't give us that satisfaction. There are no steam valves — just Louie grimacing at Kostroff on the subway, or grossly pumping his fists after Pamela escapes the apartment. 

Hyperbole purposefully overstates a position to more powerfully evoke its underpinnings. The trouble is that sometimes the exaggeration, the joke, ends up overshadowing the underlying sentiment. I'd bet that far more viewers recall that final sex scene than Tarese's monologue about white guys not always getting what they want. There's a point at which humor becomes irresponsible. In the past few episodes, Louis C.K. deconstructs (renounces?) hyperbole to force the audience to reckon with our own relation to humor. Laughter is a privilege, and it greatly depends on where you're sitting.


Micah Hauser is a writer living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Micah Hauser is a writer living in Los Angeles.


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