November 9, 2010
Sometimes You Have to Fight to Be a Man…Or to Keep a Lady Interestedby Arthur Smith
We have all had the unpleasant experience of sitting in a movie theater and suffering through some loudmouth making a nuisance of himself, chattering into his cell phone or making dumb remarks about the film. What is the appropriate response? On the one hand, it is completely within your rights to ask the offender to keep it down. On the other hand, the world is full of violent maniacs, and your polite request could be met with a punch in the face.
An episode of Louis C.K.’s sui generis new series Louie dealt with this conundrum in a scene that, for me, stands as one of the most uncomfortably tense, emotionally complicated, and relatably real moments I’ve ever seen on television. In the episode, Louie is having a good time on a first date (a vanishingly rare occurrence), sharing easy banter with a woman in a donut shop. A rowdy group of high school boys enters, making conversation impossible, and Louie firmly and politely asks them to keep it down. Then everything goes to hell.
One of the young toughs saunters over to Louie’s table and, in a remarkably controlled performance that clearly indicates the sociopathic menace behind his exaggeratedly polite manner, engages Louie and his date in a grotesque parody of friendly chat, smiling boyishly as he makes it clear that he would dearly love to take Louie outside and beat him mercilessly; he never stops smiling or changes his inflection as he displays the scabbed knuckles that, he explains, are the result of a similar encounter a few days earlier, in which he smashed a man’s teeth and put him in the hospital.
Throughout the exchange, the tension mounts excruciatingly as Louie tries to preserve his masculine dignity while avoiding a physical confrontation. The boy seizes on this and makes Louie beg him to spare him a beating. Satisfied, the boy leaves the couple alone, smirking contemptuously at Louie’s humiliation. Amazingly, the scene becomes even more painful as Louie, justifying his actions—he has kids to think about—realizes that his formerly smitten date has begun to recoil from him. He presses the issue, and the woman admits that, while she rationally understands that accepting the boy’s challenge would have been a stupid mistake, she nonetheless finds his placating behavior a complete turn-off. “My brain is telling me you’re a great guy,” she explains, “but my chemistry is telling me you’re a loser.”
She has the good grace to feel bad about it, and Louie feebly asserts himself by saying that women like her “are the reason there are wars,” but the damage is done. What might have been a rewarding relationship has been doomed by five minutes of a teenager acting like a jackass and millions of years of biological imperative. Everybody loses.
Louie is hysterically funny, but this scene is played as straight drama and is devastatingly effective. With not a trace of self-importance it gets at some very ugly truths about the human condition, those hard-wired attitudes that defy rationality, civility, progressive politics, and uncomfortably reminds us that we are essentially animals, and that our finer natures, our ideals, can be very tenuous propositions indeed. That all of this happens in about four minutes in the middle of raunchy comedy show is remarkable and a testament to the artistic vitality and risk-taking in this golden age of TV we are currently experiencing.
We’re lucky, Louie, to have you on the tube doing your thing.
Watch a clip of Louis C.K. explaining how he creates Louie, at a recent Paley Center event.
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Arthur Smith worked in a film archive and failed to earn a living as a professional musician before joining the Paley Center in 1997. He’s not bitter, but has unhealthy fixations on tweedy clothing and Marvel comics.Interests:
60s Pop Music, Comedy, Comic Books, Great and/or Terrible Movies, and Exotic Brunettes
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