Louis CK bent over backwards to tell us he was a creep

[Note: This is an excerpt from my book Creepiness, available wherever fine books are sold. I post it now mainly because I have been tempted to write something in response to the revelations about Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct, but realize I would not say anything I didn’t already say in this analysis.]

Louie has become known for stretching the boundaries of the sitcom format, telling stories of widely differing length and tone. In a given episode, one could just as easily see a series of short sketches or a segment from a multi-episode arc—or some combination of the two. This bold experimentation gave Louis C.K. a reputation as a true sitcom auteur, and by the time the show reached its third season, there was an emerging critical consensus that Louie was on pace to become one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. The cultural critic Chuck Klosterman even went so far as to claim that watching Louis C.K. hit his stride showed us what it must have felt like to witness the Beatles’ greatest achievements as they unfolded in real time. Truly, the man could do no wrong.

Hence all indications pointed toward the fourth season being an utter train wreck of narcissistic self-indulgence—and yet even the most pessimistic critic could not have predicted how bad it actually turned out to be in practice. Louie’s fraught relationships with women moved from being one theme among many to being the dominating concern. Even in earlier seasons he is often painfully awkward, as in an episode that portrays Louie trying and failing to break up with a woman who catches on to what’s happening and starts berating him for forcing her to pull the trigger on ending the relationship. In other cases, his awkwardness has crossed the boundary into outright creepiness. In the pilot, for instance, Louie creeps out a date with his stuttering and forced smile, inducing her to escape via helicopter.

In the fourth season, however, things have taken on a more sinister tone, emphasizing the anger and resentment that often roil beneath the “officially” nice surface in the obsessive structure. An ongoing disagreement about their daughters’ education leads Louie to become almost violently angry with his ex-wife on multiple occasions, and during one argument he walks over to an open window and screams until the sound fills all of New York City. In another episode, he completely flops when Jerry Seinfeld asks him to open for him at a benefit performance, but things turn around for Louie when a beautiful young model who loved his routine leaves the benefit early and all but abducts him, Manic Pixie-style, for a hook-up. After they have sex, she claims she wants to make him laugh and feels that tickling is her only option—but Louie turns out to be “violently ticklish” (in the words of his lawyer) and punches her in the face, fracturing her eye socket and permanently affecting her appearance.

The two incidents may seem to be worlds apart, but they actually both center on Louie’s insecurity as to his class status. His argument with his ex-wife stems from Louie’s insistence that their daughters attend public schools, where their bright and creative younger daughter has begun to act up out of boredom. Though they can afford private school, Louie wants to remain faithful to his working-class background and believes that private school will turn his daughters into entitled assholes. The fateful benefit performance is for an audience of rich assholes, and Louie’s customary black t-shirt turns out to be tragically out of place in the unexpectedly formal event. As Louie leaves the stage, he hears Jerry—widely known to be a multi-millionaire himself due to the phenomenal success of Seinfeld—getting considerable mileage from deriding Louie’s performance and lower-class appearance. In short, Louie has been wanting to punch a rich person for quite some time, and his aggression winds up getting unfortunately displaced onto the wealthy young woman who actually appreciates him. And in this displacement, the seeds of open creepiness have been sown.

The bulk of the rest of the season is structured around two other Manic Pixies. The first is Amia, a Hungarian woman (whom the blogger Sam Adams cleverly calls his “Magyar Pixie Dream Girl”) who is temporarily visiting America to help her elderly aunt (a resident in Louie’s building) pack up and return to her home country of Hungary. Amia (Eszter Balint, perhaps best known for her role as the neglected visitor in Jim Jarmusch’s film Stranger Than Paradise) speaks only a few words of English and yet they mostly manage to get along very well, making her a positive counterpoint to the ex-wife with whom he also cannot effectively communicate. The other Manic Pixie is Pamela (played by Pamela Adlon, a co-writer and producer on the show), a relentlessly sarcastic woman with whom Louie had previously had an intense platonic friendship that he had very much wanted to shift into a romantic mode.

Pamela had previously broken Louie’s heart when she left town to try reconciling with her ex-husband for the sake of their son. In this season, she shows up out of nowhere, kicking Louie while he’s leaning over to reach a low shelf in a store. Subsequently, she announces that she’s willing to try the romantic relationship that Louie had so badly wanted, but Louie—visibly seething with resentment and anger and barely able to speak—refuses, claiming he’s in a relationship. He can only be referring to Amia, with whom he has gone on one date, and he proceeds to make good on his excuse by badgering her into an ongoing relationship. She at first seems to refuse, given the short time she will be staying in the US, and Louie again displaces his anger, fleeing to his apartment and destroying a piano with a baseball bat out of frustration. When she and her aunt (who is acting as translator) come to the door to clarify Amia’s intention, Louie is breathing heavily and holding a baseball bat—but despite this terrifying apparition, Amia agrees to a second date.

For a time, Louie seems quite happy with their temporary, platonic attachment, particularly given how good Amia is with his daughters. When his ex-wife, his friends, and even Amia’s aunt all mock him for failing to “seal the deal” by having sex, however, he strongly pressures her to consummate the relationship, and she consents, despite her obvious reluctance. After this point, a cloud hovers over their relationship, and their lack of a common language becomes an obstacle rather than a charming novelty.

They ultimately reconcile just before Amia leaves, so that Louie can believe he ultimately did right by her. The viewer might think so, too, since the show provides no subtitles for her Hungarian dialogue. In a subtitled compilation of Amia’s scenes posted on YouTube by the website Slate, however, Amia’s actual dialogue tells the story of a woman who is initially flattered but feels increasingly badgered and even bullied. From this perspective, we can see that in the end she chooses to placate Louie with a sentimental send-off rather than risk a confrontation—mercifully refraining from puncturing Louie’s fantasy that she had always been saying just what he wanted to hear.

This relationship may seem to be charming and fun at points, but it begins on a decidedly creepy note. Louie first meets Amia’s aunt when she is stuck between floors on the elevator and is in urgent need of medication. He goes to her apartment to get her medicine, but forgets to return her keys. Hence he returns to her apartment and, believing it to be empty when she does not answer the door, winds up walking in on Amia, who is sleeping on the couch—and wakes up to find Louie hovering over her, Burger King-style. She screams and pushes him away, insisting he leave immediately. Later, like a good creepy neighbor, he delivers a thoughtful gift basket to the aunt in what turns out to be a pretext for seeing Amia again. Amia is not home at that time, but Louie later sees her in the lobby and pesters her into going out to eat with him—immediately.

It’s appropriate, then, that a relationship that begins with Louie as a creepy home invader would end with Amia indulging his creepy delusions about the nature of their relationship. And in between, the viewer is faced with the same question as all of Louie’s friends and acquaintances: what is he getting out of this strange relationship? What does he want? The realization that it’s an elaborate ploy to justify putting off Pamela does not answer the question so much as redouble it. Why not just tell Pamela he can’t get past the frustration she caused him? Why involve Amia at all? What is he thinking?

When Amia leaves town, Louie resumes his friendship with Pamela. At one point, she volunteers to watch his kids when his normal sitter cancels on short notice, and when Louie comes home, he reprises two creepy incidents from his relationship with Amia. First, he tries to gently awaken Pamela much as he did Amia in their first unfortunate meeting. Though Pamela is not frightened, she is just as aggressive toward him, sarcastically telling him that she’s awake and so he should “stop jerking off.” As she starts to leave, Louie makes sexual advances, which Pamela strongly resists, going so far as to tell him that he’s attempting to rape her. Nonetheless, he persists, blocks her way from leaving the apartment, and won’t let her go until she “consents” to at least kiss him. As she flees the scene, we see Louie’s giddy smile at what he believes to be a romantic triumph.

After this episode aired, most critics (myself included) were willing to give Louie the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had long incorporated pro-feminist bits into his comedy routines—one of which he reprised in the very episode in which he attempts to rape Pamela. Surely he was playing some kind of long game whereby he would ultimately show all the Nice Guys in the world how delusional and destructive they could be.

But alas: it was not to be. In retrospect, the pro-feminist sentiments appear to be the show’s own obsessive ritual disavowal of the deeply misogynistic storyline that plays out as Louie and Pamela finally get together. After an elaborately planned date, Louie chooses the more subtle path of emotional blackmail to push her to have sex, threatening to break off their friendship unless she makes good on her offer of a romantic relationship—an offer that, once made, is apparently valid for all time in Louie’s mind. Once they become a couple, he is continually petulant and moody, insisting on sex, then insisting that she express her affection in certain stereotyped ways, then deriding her for trying to manipulate him with sex. After waiting so long, it seems, Louie is simply entitled to whatever kind of relationship he wants, even as he becomes less and less attractive and fun. The yawning gap between what he’s offering and what he’s demanding reinforces the creepiness of his ongoing manipulation. It’s as though he’s trying to punish her for dating him.

Despite all this, Pamela seems to be in it for the long haul, and after a particularly intense fight, she engages a kind of “nuclear option” to get him back. During their earlier platonic phase, Pamela had once opened the door to a sexual encounter, casually asking him if he wanted to take a bath with her. Unable to process what she was saying due to his sexual frustration, he turned her down—and then belatedly realized what he’d done, prompting a primal scream. Now Pamela gives him a chance to redeem that moment by inviting him to join her in the tub. Here again, Louie is touchy and irritable, as well as insecure about taking off his shirt, something he has “strategically” avoided in their previous sexual encounters. She is fully accepting of his body in all its obese glory, and after he gets in the tub, she confesses that she can’t bring herself to express her feelings in the usual ways.

Overall, this is the most thorough-going narcissistic wish-fulfillment imaginable, and the episodes in which it unfolds are almost unbearably creepy to watch. (Indeed, I only forced myself to do so because I was in the midst of writing this book and knew it would fit perfectly.) It’s hard to read these final episodes as anything but a confirmation that Louie’s rape attempt, while tactless, was fundamentally justified—Louie really did understand what the emotionally stunted Pamela wanted better than she did.

I have noted previously that the Manic Pixie fantasy is fundamentally perverse in structure, as the Manic Pixie character appears as a pervert who allows the Nice Guy to indulge all his contradictory impulses. In this season, Louie redoubles this effect, becoming the aggressive Manic Pixie to his own Manic Pixies, or in other words, he cuts out the middle pixie and becomes the redeeming pervert himself. Like Walter White, he asserts his manhood for all to see—immediately introducing both Amia and Pamela to both his family and his comedy peers—and he even appears nude in the final episode, quite literally showing Pamela his dick (while the audience must content itself with his bare buttocks). As in the case of Walter White, a disturbing number of male viewers continued to identify with Louie even as he became a creep—but what is creepiest of all to me is that I can’t tell whether, as with Breaking Bad, that creepy overinvestment on the part of the viewers was an unfortunate accident or an explicit goal.

 

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