Test Pilot #29: Lucky Louie
Debut date: June 11, 2006
Series legacy: Louis C.K.’s first major foray into television, and one that should be forgotten
For nearly a decade-and-a-half, HBO has been the biggest power player in the television industry. More than any other individual network or entity, HBO has shaped our perceptions of quality and complexity and perhaps most importantly, the cable giant has led the charge in raising culture’s expectations and evaluation of television as a storytelling medium. Though other networks have gained ground on HBO in recent years (most notably FX and AMC), the “not TV” network still remains the gold standard for A-level television.
But we aren’t here to celebrate HBO’s obvious and warranted successes. Instead, this theme hopes to explore five of HBO’s supposed missteps from the last handful of years. HBO programming takes risks, but these five series apparently didn’t take the proper ones or executed those risks improperly. Why did these series fail? What about these series made them incompatible with HBO’s (or its audience’s) expected level of quality? Are they even failures at all? The goal here is both to address these questions and pull forth some of the blemishes on the record that HBO has purposefully tried to whitewash in recent years. HBO might not be TV, but it also isn’t perfect.
Our fourth entry in our HBO theme is quite an interesting one. With the end of the year upon us, I have to imagine that a lot of people are going to be talking a lot about Louis C.K. and his FX series Louie, and for good reason. Louie is one of, if not the, most novel series on the air and its star-writer-director-editor-producer has grown into a great storyteller (I won’t use the a-word here). But before Louie and before C.K. had total control over the “greatest stand-up” throne, he made a multi-camera family sitcom for HBO. Lucky Louie hit pay cable airwaves in 2006 to middling reviews (though surprisingly solid ratings, which makes it the unfortunate inverse of C.K.’s FX endeavor, I guess) and its Honeymooners-riffing style and feel was quickly off the air by that fall.
It’s unquestionable that even in 2006, Louis C.K. was a comic powerhouse. He’d done a substantial amount of writing work in the film and television industries and had a few successful stand-up specials, something that certainly helped establish the relationship with HBO. And from all the interviews and soundbites I’ve seen him give since its failure, there’s no question that C.K. was committed to doing Lucky Louie and doing it with a very specific vision. Ultimately though, that was not to be and we’re here to discuss what really went wrong – with the series, with its placement on HBO and much more.
Joining me to discuss Lucky Louie and all things C.K. is regular TVS player, Les Chappell. You can find Les’ TV criticism over at his blog, A Helpless Compiler, and follow him on Twitter, where he’s usually promising to get a tattoo. Les is somewhat familiar with Lucky Louie, so let’s pretend that he’s a veteran viewer (as if that conceit still really exists anymore anyway, right?). Les, take it away:
There’s a lot of incredibly talented, incredibly funny people working in television during this so-called golden age of television, but if you had to give any of them an award for individual achievement it would have to be Louis C.K. As the creator of FX’s critically acclaimed Louie, C.K. has in two seasons essentially become the Harvey Pekar of cable television: a man who is deeply interested in the daily routines and tribulations of life and tries to figure them out by telling a story about them. And by virtue of the creative control he exercises over the series – writer, actor, director, producer, etc. – those stories are told uniquely through his experience, and the end result winds up being something hilarious, insightful, sad and beautiful all at the same time.
But with the resounding success of Louie, both in terms of its quality and critical attention, it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t C.K.’s first attempt to break into the television landscape. That first effort was Lucky Louie, which premiered on HBO in 2006. Lucky Louie didn’t fare as well as its successor – despite C.K.’s claims that the series was pulling in better ratings than Deadwood at the time, it received mixed critical responses and was canceled at the end of its first season. Both entities then went their separate ways, with HBO’s comedy moving into more bourgeoisie territory and C.K. throwing himself into honing his stand-up, and the series was largely forgotten by fans of both.
So now, revisiting it more than five years later, is it anything more than the blip on the radar it seemed to be at first glance? Well, it’s nowhere near as ambitious or wide-ranging a series as Louie is – in fact it’s quite the opposite in many respects – but Lucky Louie is certainly admirable in its dedication to the series it wants to be. It’s a program that’s trying to be old-fashioned and unconventional at the same time, and in the process manages to spike an interesting synthesis between the two. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s also a pretty funny series.
Once again, Louis C.K. is playing a fictionalized version of himself: in this case his “Louie” doppelganger is a part-time muffler shop employee whose life has reached a point where simply getting by has left him relatively numb. He spends his days arguing with his wife Kim (Pamela Adlon*), wasting time with his friends Mike and Rich (Mike Hagerty and Jim Norton) and trying to do the right thing for his daughter Lucy (Kelly Gould). Occasionally, he tries to find a way to improve his situation, but those efforts tend to complicate his baseline so much that he eventually decides it’s simply not worth the effort.
*Louie fans will no doubt find it disconcerting to witness Adlon – whose Pamela is the object of Louie’s unrequited affection – here in a committed relationship with C.K.’s character and (reluctantly) pushing him for sex. Though her distaste for much of his behavior meshes well with the later series’ characterization.
Louie as a character spends his time trying to get by on the bare minimum, and looking at the series’ format you could be forgiven for thinking Lucky Louie was trying to do the same. While Louie completely bucks the format of traditional sitcoms (a typical “episode” there is a hodgepodge of stand-up comedy and short films) Lucky Louie is almost startlingly assertive in how traditionally it’s set up. It’s shot multi-camera, on videotape, in front of a live studio audience with a laugh track – essentially the checklist of what not to do most showrunners seem to use when making a comedy these days. And in its appearance it comes across as somewhat cheap, using sets so static it could never masquerade as shooting on anything other than a sound stage – C.K. and executive producer Mike Royce* discuss on the pilot’s commentary track that Louie and Kim’s apartment was literally built using a blueprint from The Honeymooners.
*Royce is of course familiar as the EP of Everybody Loves Raymond and Men of A Certain Age, so he’s in a good position to govern a series about a henpecked husband and middle-aged angst.
But once the pilot starts, it quickly dispenses with any indication that it’s a regurgitation of generic sitcom elements. What starts out as a simple game of Louie’s daughter asking “why?” turns existential, after Louie’s answers go to admitting that he was high all the time in high school, meditating on the death of manufacturing jobs in America and finally stopping her endless questions with the admittance “Because God is dead, and we’re alone.” From there, we move to plots revolving around Kim catching Louie masturbating in the closet (“Jessica Simpson? Really?” “I’m not jerking off to her music.”), often heated discussions of having a second child on their limited means (“We have to raise $50 to be broke!”), and Louie’s cringe-worthy efforts to cultivate “black friends” in his new neighbors.
And in these plot elements, we see exactly what makes Lucky Louie as experimental in its own right as Louie: it’s a series committed to the aesthetic of Norman Lear sitcoms but that marries them with the unapologetic tone of C.K.’s standup. This is a sitcom that will set its scenes in bottom-rung locations like check cashing stores and inner-city parks, have characters slap uncooked steak to simulate sex acts, and replace the olden catchphrases of “Bang, zoom – straight to the moon” with “I’m gonna fuck your tits off.” The creative choice appears to have been that if you’re going to make an old format interesting, you push the envelope as far as possible, making a broadcast-style series that could never air on a broadcast network.
So does the experiment work? For the most part yes, largely on the strength of the script by C.K. As he says in the commentary track, the goal was to write “basic folk saying clumsy, crude things to each other… that’s how people talk. To me, that’s what writing dialogue is – not about the writer sounding so clever.” And it meets that goal, succeeding in spite of – or possibly because – none of the performances are particularly memorable starting out. Neither Louie, Kim or any of their friends feel exaggerated for effect, they’re just people hashing out their issues, and the lines that are funny are funny because of characters being pushed to extremes or uncomfortable behavior. (My personal favorite being part of Louie’s rant to Kim that they can’t afford another child: “My dick is too aware that your pussy is a chamber of financial ruin!”)
Also, for a series by a comedian, it’s much better than other series are at integrating parts of their routine. Louie’s complaints to Mike about having missed at least one opportunity to get out of the marriage (“I could have left!”) sounds very much like a piece of a longer stand-up act, but is presented in a way that feels like every day bitching as opposed to playing to an audience. And an anecdote to his neighbor Walter* about how he’s worried about Lucy not understanding race because she doesn’t know any black people feels very rooted in real-world experience, one that could easily serve as a jump-off point to one of C.K.’s cutting routines on race relations.
*Walter is played by Jerry Minor, known for stints on Mr. Show and Saturday Night Live but most recently recognizable as the Greendale custodian on Community. His deadpan reactions to Louie’s increasingly desperate friendship efforts provide some of the episode’s biggest laughs.
The final element that makes it work comes from how well the series embraces its multi-camera aspects. Adlon’s episode commentary compares it to community theater, pointing out they did the entire series start to finish twice a week in front of a live audience, and purposely told the audience not to exaggerate their laughter if they didn’t think a joke was funny. As such, there’s a more organic feeling to the laughter, and by extension the performances, even if the quiet is more pronounced when jokes don’t quite work. Unlike Whitney, where the laugh track sounds purposely played up to mask failed punchlines, this brushes up against what Todd VanDerWerff meant when he talked about how the format can “create entertainment that wasn’t quite a stage play, but not quite a movie either.”
On both the commentary tracks and interviews in subsequent years, C.K. usually sounds wistful when talking about the series’ cancellation and how much fun everyone had while making it. After watching the pilot, it’s not hard to share in that feeling – certainly C.K.’s stand-up and Louie go much farther and funnier than anything Lucky Louie does, but there’s something about this early effort that makes it oddly endearing. We might never get to see where he would’ve taken it with more seasons to play with the format, but in its experimental context it’s still a funny and at times inspired series.
And now, my take on the Lucky Louie pilot offering:
Les makes the argument above that Lucky Louie is not totally dissimilar from Louie because it too is quite committed to being experimental. While I see the point he is making and perhaps even somewhat agree with the assertion that 2006 Louis C.K. dedicating himself to upholding the framework, mise en scene and atmosphere of The Honeymooners is interesting in theory, there’s very little of that supposed experimentation or interest that I actually took away from my viewing of Lucky Louie’s initial episode. There is something sort of novel about a contemporary series trying to evoke the charms – for better or for worse – of something so foundational to television and it history, but in the pilot stage, Lucky Louie never steps past that initial idea of novelty.
Relatedly, I also agree that Lucky Louie feels like a series made with care and purpose by a very specific mind. There are bits of C.K.’s mid-aughts stand-up material, particularly his feelings on marriage and just having kids, which come through in this pilot (again, without coming off as completely lifted, as Les so nicely points out). Nevertheless, much of that care, purpose, ideology or perspective gets watered down by the rigidity of the format. No matter how personal Lucky Louie was to its namesake, this is still a multi-camera sitcom about families shot before a live studio audience.
There’s very little wiggle room in the style for much complexity (visually or narratively) and because of that, this pilot often comes off exactly how you might guess a HBO multi-camera series would come off: Typical storyline, characters, framework, etc., but just with cursing. If you dialed down the vulgarity just a bit, this could fit right alongside Two and a Half Men on CBS’ Monday night comedy block. That’s not necessarily an out-and-out criticism of this pilot or the form as a whole, but I’ll tell you this: It’s also not a compliment.
Obviously, watching Lucky Louie in 2011 is a much different experience than it would have been in 2006, mostly because of Louie’s existence. It’s challenging not to compare the two series, as different as they may be, particularly in regard to C.K.’s work. Although Louie often puts its star into sequences that are tonally dissonant and even uncomfortable and he handles himself well with those sequences, I would still posit that C.K. isn’t really “an actor.” I think he’s wonderful in his FX series, but that series is so tailored to his strengths and so “real,” for the lack of a better word, that it’s hard to completely take what C.K.’s doing there and call it acting.
Lucky Louie, however, asks C.K. to be the kind of dolt that Tim Allen or Kevin James plays with such expert precision. Sure, this fictionalized version of Louie isn’t as dumb as a Typical Sitcom Dad, but he isn’t far off either. The inherent structure of the multi-camera comedy (set-up, punchline, repeat) doesn’t put Louie in a position to do the things he does best. C.K.’s really adept at using his eyes and his face to express complex emotions and he’s much better at being the joke than telling them in the structure of a television episode. Obviously, Louie’s a great comedian, but what makes him great is that he’s a storyteller first and that kind of approach carries over to Louie. Lucky Louie, on the other hand, asks him to be a rapid-delivery joke machine and that’s just not the kind of performer he is (at least now).
Moreover, though Lucky Louie and Louie might be hotly committed to things, the differences in what they are actually committed to make all the differences. Lucky Louie feels like a series dedicated to upholding the integrity of a style and of a form. That’s fine, but that requires the story to be at least somewhat secondary, or at least not as innovative or complex. Conversely, Louie is a series fundamentally interested in stories. Those stories regularly come in different shapes and sizes, each with their own forms and stylistic flourishes, but the stories is still paramount. I’m not necessarily here to attack the multi-camera form (more on that in a second), but it seems to me that Louis C.K. is infinitely more comfortable – and definitely more successful – in a looser, creatively stimulating environment. C.K. is a very creative guy, he doesn’t exactly work in the Lucky Louie form.
Ultimately, it feels like to me that it’s much easier to go back and give Lucky Louie the benefit of the doubt now that we know something like Louie exists. I am not trying to suggest Les’ more positive feelings about the pilot and the subsequent episodes he’s seen are untrue or wrong, but I do think it is harder to separate the current with the past, especially when both are so wrapped up in Louie C.K.’s mind. Now that we know C.K. got divorced, we can see even more why the stories of Lucky Louie were supremely relevant and personal to him at the time. Now that we know he is not only a great comic mind, but also a tremendous storyteller, it is much easier to suggest more about experimentation or personal visions.
Still though, I’m not sure much of that comes through in the text itself. Like I mentioned, this pilot definitely has a point of view that comes from its star’s stand-up, but really only in certain moments does that actually shine through completely. Lucky Louie is, without question, a representative of multi-camera sitcoms in most eras. Only with a few F-bombs.
This leads me to two questions I wanted to pose and try to address before we close the book on Lucky Louie:
1.) Why would HBO want to pick this up to begin with?
Clearly, this isn’t one we can really ever answer. HBO orders pilots of a lot of things that we never actually hear about or see and there’s no question that they quickly moved away from this series after its first season (even after they had ordered scripts for a possible season two). Off the top of my head, I can think of a few reasons why the network would want to do Lucky Louie. First, HBO had a pre-existing relationship with C.K. from his specials, and also had a relationship with Mike Royce (Raymond was co-produced by HBO). Nothing wrong with wanting to be in business with talented people who you already know are talented.
Secondly, and more importantly, I think HBO saw it as an opportunity to put their “Not TV” spin on a classic television staple in the multi-camera sitcom. If there is one thing we know about HBO, it is that they enjoy taking big genres, tropes or forms and mixing them up just enough that they come out the other end looking majestic and all quality television-like. They did it with the mob drama (The Sopranos), the western (Deadwood), the police drama (The Wire), the romantic comedy (Sex and the City) and their doing it now with the fantasy drama (Game of Thrones). There are more examples. This is a thing that HBO does. Making “TV” “better” and then calling it “Not TV” is the perfect way to separate yourself, perception-wise.
Thus, it makes total sense why HBO would do Lucky Louie. The multi-camera sitcom is a foundational form of the medium and HBO brass was surely compelled by putting it through their brand and development filter. In theory, I think HBO taking on a multi-camera comedy is a really great idea. But in execution? Not so much. This is partially because HBO’s comedy development has been very good for ages and they perhaps don’t know how to pick or improve middling projects (despite all the talent in the world). But the biggest problem with HBO doing a multi-camera comedy that holds true to all the elements of the form is that there isn’t much else to do after that. Again, you can add F-words. And boobs. This leads into my next question:
2.) How do you, either narratively or stylistically, change a multi-camera comedy or make it innovative, while still holding true to the pillars of the form?
Like I mentioned, I don’t necessarily want to take down multi-camera comedies. If your comedy is funny and treats the characters with some respect, I will like it, no matter how many cameras are used. I might have preferential feelings towards the single-camera comedies, but that is mostly a byproduct of the era in which I started paying attention to television on a critical level. Nevertheless, I’m a bit perplexed at how you can do a multi-camera comedy, shot before a legitimate live studio audience (like Lucky Louie was) and not end up with the kind of pilot this produced.
Sure, Lucky Louie could have been funnier or a bit more complicated on a character level, but there’s not a lot I can think of that would work narratively, stylistically or even on that character level that you could do to make this “Not TV.” Of all the forms we have and have had, it feels like the multi-camera sitcom is the most “TV” of them all. Making it “Not TV” is perhaps impossible.
How I Met Your Mother definitely shook up the narrative approach within the form’s stylistic rigidity, but it also had a somewhat unique shooting process and eventually dropped the live studio audience all together. Production on that series takes place on a completely empty soundstage and small bits of old laugh track are added in. Those laughs aren’t even coming from people who watched that episode, they were probably recorded in like 2005.* The point is, if you substantially alter one element of the traditional multi-camera formula, you likely have to make other changes and stop being a representative of the fundamental version of the form. That is not a problem, but it is a reality.
*The laugh track/studio audience debate is a very curious one. Check out Joe Adalian’s New York Magazine piece on the different uses in contemporary television.
Therefore, I am not entirely sure what HBO’s intent was with Lucky Louie. I guess making going back to the multi-camera sitcom’s roots is one way to create not “TV” in the contemporary era. And I guess making the funniest, wittiest multi-camera comedy on television would have gone a long way as well.* Still though, it seems like Lucky Louie was always destined to be a failure, artist intention or not. The multi-camera sitcom is so paradoxically not what HBO does that even HBO’s embracing of that paradox in hopes of making it untrue and proving their ultimate development or marketing prowess can’t truly be believed. Some things are just tailor-made for “TV,” it seems.
* Perhaps HBO expected Lucky Louie to be more like a satirical take on the form?
Conclusions on legacy: More interesting in light of C.K.’s recent achievements, but still fairly forgettable
Want more of Les and I discussing the Lucky Louie pilot? Well, you’re in luck! We recorded a somewhat brief (barely over 40 minutes) conversation about the pilot, comparisons to Louie and more. Check that out below.