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Jul. 22 2010 - 9:03 am | 1,408 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Is ‘Louie’ this generation’s ‘Seinfeld’?

Don’t you love it when journalists…OK, bloggers…throw out preposterous headlines in the form of a question, just to get you to click on the article and find out, inevitably, that the answer is a simple “No.”? Like “Is the Airbag the Most Dangerous Part of an Automobile?” No, no it isn’t. But thanks for making me think it might be and tricking me into reading two lame paragraphs. Or “Is Harry Potter Actually Communist Propaganda?!?” Nope. Just a book about wizards. But good effort. Well, you might think that comparing FX’s new show Louie, starring comedian Louis CK, to the historic brilliance of Seinfeld could easily qualify as one of these headlines. But…you’d be wrong.

Promotional Cast Photos: Decidedly Not Post-Modern

Seinfeld was the definitive sitcom of the 90’s, both in ratings and style. The dominant mode of the period – and yes, this is gonna sound snooty for a second – was post-modernism, and Seinfeld had that in spades. Irony, detachment, lack of meaning, collage, non-linear storytelling (think Pulp Fiction) – all post-modern. And all Seinfeld. I mean, they had a backwards episode for crying out loud. If that doesn’t show a disregard for meaning and the rules that came before, I don’t know what does. And writing a show that is proudly “about nothing”, well that’s post-modern, but to say that it’s about nothing while the characters are making their pilot Jerry, the show within the show that is actually a play on the show itself and is ALSO a show about nothing, well that might be the most post-modern thing ever.

Louie of course does none of these things, which is why the two shows are so alike. As Seinfeld typified the style of 90’s, Louie does the same for this period we’re in now…whatever the hell that is. It’s dark, a little sad, alternately extremely truthful and totally absurd, and hilarious. In fact, just about the only thing it has in common with Seinfeld is that its built around the greatest stand-up of its time. If you don’t know Louis CK, well then, you really should. He was the head writer of The Late Show with David Letterman during its prime and an original writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. And his stand-up is vicious. As evidence, watch his epic “Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” piece on Conan.

Hilarious, sure, but also great cultural criticism. Basically, as good as it gets. And it looks like his new FX show could be a weekly 30 minute installment of that goodness. It’s a little uneven at the moment, but it’s just finding it way – much like Seinfeld did in its first season. But – and this where the two shows meet – Louie has our national voice nailed. We don’t what the fuck is going on, the world is a mess, the economy is in the toilet that toilets use when they need to go to the bathroom, and we’re fighting, I think, six wars right now? Or, sorry, seven? But also, in all that, there’s hope. There’s the potential for improvement — an optimistic new President, and universal agreement that we’re all getting really tired of being in the crapper. We recognize things suck, and we’re really hoping for a turnaround. That’s Louis CK’s show, in a nutshell. Of course, he’s talking about trying to get laid even though he’s overweight and balding, about trying to raise two kids post-divorce, about trying to get his Doctor to stop joke diagnosing him with AIDS. But the style, the attitude, the voice, it’s all 2010 America.

That’s what our sitcoms should be now, because that’s the times we’re in. Complicated, sad, funny, and truthful. Frivolous, disposable comedy just doesn’t seem quite right anymore. Seinfeld was the show for that era, and hopefully, if FX gives it enough rope, Louie can be the show for this one.


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    I haven’t seen this show yet, so I’m curious to know if the people portrayed in it are as unrelentingly vile as the people in Seinfeld were. Seinfeld was imaginative and funny, sure, but the everyone it it- not just our four heroes (five, counting Newman), but everyone in NYC- was self-centered, selfish, egotistical, manipulative, treacherous, vain, rude, belligerent (or craven, or belligerent AND craven, like George Constanza); the list of character flaws stretches on, making the Big Apple look like Sodom after Lot left town. OK, maybe that was the 90’s, but after a while. the world of Seinfeld simply began to grate on my soul. Here’s hoping that the people of Louie aren’t as purely nasty as that.

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    Louie has the potential to be as revolutionary as Seinfeld but I don’t think either show define a generation. United for a half an hour of comedy, yes. Defining an era, not quite. Seinfeld broke rules (the way M*A*S*H* did, for example) and Louie seems to be poised to do the same. Each show opened doors for the next to push things further.

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    I love Louis CK and he is the personification of talent unbound, but it seems a tad early in the sitcom’s run to begin declaring grandiose status for his show.

    Stand-up is difficult to translate to a thirty minute format, which is why both Seinfeld and Louis CK just film themselves doing stand-up and put it in the show. The primary difference I see is that Seinfeld used the stand-up as pre-title lead in, whereas Louis CK incorporates his stand-up more substantively into the show, using the sketches to highlight the jokes.

    The obvious drawback is that it is easier over the long term to get laughs from characters than from commentary. By that I mean sitcoms traditionally formulate strong characters and get laughs by having the characters react to different situations, which is rather straight forward writing because you simply have to know your characters well. However, stand-up relies much more on commentary of the quirks and foibles of society and the human condition, which is much more specific and requires a good deal more creativity.

    Since Louis CK relies more heavily on stand-up as substance, his show has the potential to produce a more significant product, but the creativity engine is going to need quite a bit of steam.

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    I’m going to go the snarky route and say no, simply because Louie is actually funny. I do think his sitcoms are more or less doomed though, because they tie so much into his standup, and anyone who follows his routines already knows this material going into the show so they are basically just being treated to a more censored version of it.

  5. collapse expand

    Mr. Donovan,

    You wrote: “The dominant mode of the period – and yes, this is gonna sound snooty for a second – was post-modernism, and Seinfeld had that in spades. Irony, detachment, lack of meaning, collage, non-linear storytelling (think Pulp Fiction) – all post-modern. And all Seinfeld. I mean, they had a backwards episode for crying out loud. If that doesn’t show a disregard for meaning and the rules that came before, I don’t know what does. And writing a show that is proudly “about nothing”, well that’s post-modern..”

    I am not going to comment (very much)( on the fact that all of this “post-modern” stuff ever so “pre-modern”, just read “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” and you will see all of the above post-modernism elements on full display 250 years ago (one chapter consists of a single page which is entirely black). Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” completely ignores the standards that preceded it and followed it, there is no overall story but just a bunch of things that happen. Tolstoy himself said it is “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” I could add the novel “Dr. Zhivago”, the entire body French “New Wave” Cinema, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus as well (There was no named Monty Python, there was nothing flying (well, except sheep once), there was no circus, and it was sketch show with no punch lines).

    That said, I do not see why you say that this “post-modernism” is somehow emblematic of the 1990’s or some particular generation. Further, while “Seinfeld” itself was good show and I liked it, it was certainly popular enough, but I don’t see it as some how capturing the zeitgeist of the 1990’s in any particular way.

    Maybe I was too old, or too young, but it seemed to be nothing more than a good TV show that ended a while ago.

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    About Me

    Twitter: @b_donovan

    I am a writer, actor, and North Korean Dictator. Over the years though I've written for everything from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to Fox News to Chapelle's Show, and can be seen frequently on Vh1 making snide remarks at the expense of others. Recently I was the Head Writer of "Fair Game", a news and comedy show from Public Radio International. My interests range from news to sports to entertainment, so this blog should read kinda like the evening news, except funnier and with less Brian Williams. Fuck Brian Williams.

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