“Louie” Wins by Losing

Comic Louis C.K. starts the new season of his dark, innovative TV comedy coming off a series of triumphs that’s made him what he dreads most: a success.

Louis C.K., perennially uncomfortable in his own skin, looked more pained than usual as he won trophy after trophy at The Comedy Awards in April. “This is stupid, now,” he said during his fourth and final acceptance speech of the night. “I hate this, now, I hate this. It’s like a f------ nightmare to keep getting this f------ thing over and over again.”

Since the second season of innovative TV comedy "Louie" ended last September, the once-cult comic with the dark outlook has shined over and over again. He made a financial killing – and artistic statement – by selling his latest stand-up show online for $5. In addition to the quartet of Comedy Awards, he won a Grammy and a Webby Award. Woody Allen cast C.K. in his next movie – a neurotic’s dream pairing with as much promise for laughs as potential for disappointment.

With the new season of “Louie” set to start Thursday on FX, the cynical C.K. has become perhaps what he dreads most: a success.

Sure, we’re guessing he likes the money and, on some level, the acclaim and the attention after more than two decades in show business. But the perks may be outweighed by the pressure C.K. is likely feeling to keep topping himself.

That’s no small concern for a man whose comedy often is driven by small concerns. In 2010, after season one of “Louie,” we found ourselves asking, how could he beat this? The show's initial outing proved a heavy sigh of fresh air that upended sitcom conventions, with C.K. playing a stark version himself as a comic and divorced dad mired in a seemingly permanent low-grade depression (“I know too much about life to have any optimism,” he declared early on).

Season two, though, lived up to our great expectations, ranking less laugh-out-loud funny than the previous year's batch of episodes but more intriguing and satisfying. C.K. deftly bounded from the surreal (a panhandler gets pulled off the street only to be replaced by another) to the bitter (a beloved elderly aunt reveals herself as a vile racist in her dying breaths) to the sweet (an hour-long Afghanistan-set episode that turned on a stowaway duckling hidden in C.K.'s bag by his younger daughter).

“Louie” has benefitted from a sense of unpredictability and wild shifts in tone from week to week. But the bulk of C.K.’s TV success stems from the same approach he takes to stand-up: he’s brutally honest – and always hardest on himself. As writer, director and star, he is “Louie.” He’s preserved his vision by keeping tight creative control, down to picking the brooding jazz soundtrack, a very Woody-like move. It’s telling that when C.K. decided to give up editing duties for the latest season, he hired Allen’s former longtime editor, Susan B. Morse.

C.K.’s public persona, amid all the accolades, remains fatalistic. Faced with a five-word limit for his acceptance speech for his person-of-the-year Webby, the man who sees life in his forties as the beginning of the end chose: “When I die, bye-bye.”

We’re hoping “Louie” has a lot more life in it. Go here to check out a promo – an obvious homage to Allen’s “Manhattan” – that we’ll take as a sign of another strong season to come from a comic who wins as he loses.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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