According to Louis CK, the secret to getting your way in a negotiation is to genuinely not care whether you get what you want or not. It was this carefree ambivalence that led to FX handing over an unprecedented level of control to the Hungarian/Mexican Bostonite for his incredible show Louie and could well lead to a whole new breed of television auteurism.
In what will almost certainly go down in TV folklore as a landmark deal, Louis Szekely (CK for short) agreed to do the show on the basis that the money to make it was wired directly to his account, that he wouldn’t have to pitch to anyone and he wouldn’t have to tell anyone what the show was about. What might have initially seemed like a pretty divaish set of demands born out of a frustration for the traditional TV processes, has led however, to one of the most exhilaratingly unique television experiences of all time.
Unburdened of the traditional constraints of US television, Szekely was free to retain complete ownership of his show and, with the help of a longstanding interest and background in filmmaking, has shouldered the responsibility of writing, directing, editing and starring in every brilliantly crafted episode since it began in 2010.
This level of control takes auteur theory to a whole new level. The history of cinema is littered with great writer/directors. From established veterans Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, Terence Malick and Gus Van Sant to the newer wave of Kelly Reichardt, Rian Johnson and Steve McQueen, their ownership of their art from conception to production has led to some of the all-time great movies. TV however, has never really had an equivalent. Even great “individually-led” shows such as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm have had co-writers and directors to share the burdens of the creative process.
You only need to watch one episode of Louie for the benefits of this level of control to be immediately apparent. Playing out more as a series of short films interspersed with stand-up than a traditional show, it is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, broad and intelligent, surreal and gritty. No other “comedy” show could turn the broad, relatable situation of preparing for a date into an existential look at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nature of life by showing a hobo being decapitated after being hit by a truck. No other “comedy” show could do an entirely straight episode about the bleak defeat of confronting a suicidal friend. No other “comedy” show could get away with lurching from the over the top silliness of Ricky Gervais’ obnoxious doctor (a cameo FX had no idea was happening until they saw the episode incidentally) to the crushing loneliness of being a single-father with shared custody of his kids.
It’s the freedom of individual creativity that allows for such a masterfully put together work of art. Szekely spent time as a writer for Conan O’Brian in his younger days and had his own experience of working with a more traditional team of writers on his short-lived HBO series Lucky Louie. These experiences made him well aware of the pitfalls of what he calls “comedy by consensus”. We’re all too familiar with the shortcomings of so many regular TV sit-coms. Every joke is over-written to the point of destruction and the very nature of having a permanent cast too often leads to scenes which only exist so that regular characters have something to do.
Louie, however has none of these problems. Imagine the set-piece where Louie, so horrified by how badly his date is going, leaps into a nearby helicopter and flees the scene ever getting through a writer’s meeting. It would have been shot down in flames before it ever got off the ground (the idea that is, not the helicopter). And far from having to give his cast something to do, Louie goes as far as having the same actress play his date and his mother in different episodes and has two different girls playing his daughter. The character of Louie will have a brother one episode who is never seen again. His ex-wife, who is unseen for the majority of the series, turns out to be a black woman despite his children being played by blonde-haired, blue-eyed actresses. Because who cares? We don’t watch TV for continuity, we watch it to be entertained, challenged, made to laugh, made to cry and to escape the mundanity of everyday life. Louie, through the single-minded vision of it’s creator is the first show in a very, very long time that can genuinely say it does all of those things and more.
Louie returns on May 5th and I’ll hopefully be writing about each episode as it airs.