What happens to the veteran comics who don't make it? Or the ones who do, but never reach the tipping point where their star goes supernova? One piece of career advice that comedians and other performers often receive is not to have a Plan B, forcing them to work at their craft as though their very lives depend on it (because with no In Case of Emergency plan, they kind of do). Unfortunately, when your Plan A is in the entertainment industry and you don't make it all the way, there's no dignified retirement package. And that's when things get pretty scary.
"You're on the back nine of your career," the (fictional) chairman of CBS tells 44-year old Louie on last night's episode. "Except for once in a while getting an hour special on cable, I think maybe you peaked five years ago, and now you're waiting around wondering if something's gonna happen before it gets embarrassing." Later he adds, "In 10 years, you're going to be teaching comedy at a community college to support your kids."
This is the fate that Louis C.K. might have been facing in real life if he hadn't undergone a mid-to-late career renaissance four or five years ago, becoming arguably the most relevant and respected comedian working today – a trailblazer who gets TV deals and distribution models named after him. We won't be seeing C.K. teaching comedy at community college any time soon, but it is an interesting thought exercise to realize it might have gone that way. Last night's episode was a stark reminder that the show takes place in a world where that hasn't happened yet, and where it isn't by any means a foregone conclusion.
Here are the most uncomfortable moments:
1) We open with a lingering shot of the marquee at the Improv in L.A. Carlos Mencia and Bill Burr are two of the names performing there soon besides Louie. The reason Louie's out of his Comedy Cellar comfort zone turns out to be he has a gig on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Ross Mark, Leno's producer (playing himself here), has compliments for Louie's set at the Improv afterward, but then he clues the comic in to the fact that he might get bumped. Tom Cruise is the featured guest on Louie's episode, and Jay is surprising him with a motorcycle.
We're all aware of Louie's stature in the comedy community at this point. He's got it. It's his time. It has been for years now, and his trajectory is still steadily rise-over-run. It takes a bit of cognitive dissonance, then, to imagine him sweating the idea of getting bumped from The Tonight Show, as he does here. This show consistently plays with the dual realities of the character vs. its star, however, so it's easy to go along for this ride.
2) After we're set up to believe this episode is going to hinge on whether Louie gets bumped by Tom Cruise or not, the show goes in a completely different direction, something that should feel familiar from, I don't know, every episode, pretty much. It turns out Cruise isn't going to be on the show. We get a brief glimpse into the Hollywood window when a cameo-ing Leno shushes Ross Mark for revealing that the reason Cruise isn't coming on the show is because he hates surprises. With Cruise gone, though, Louie has to step up and sit on the couch, rather than do the four-minute set Ross approved the previous night.
When Louie sounds uncertain if he's ready, Leno offers, "You're a comic. Ever flown on an airplane? You got airplane stories." This is a direct reference to the "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy" bit the comic actually told on Conan in 2009. The YouTube clip of that couch segment went viral, amassing well over six million hits – something we find out is about to be mirrored on the show. Before that can happen, though, we see an image of Louie backstage being poked and prodded by hair and makeup working at DEFCON 1 to get him ready for air during Leno's introduction, and he couldn't look more worried.
3) The next morning, housekeeping wakes him up by calling to inquire if Louie wants their services, even though he had a Do Not Disturb sign out. "This is the opposite of what you're supposed to do," he says. It's an awkward facet of modern redundancy that feels like something Louie (either in the show or in real life) might talk about onstage.
4) Now awake, Louie has several missed calls from his boy-agent, Doug. The Leno appearance went viral, just like the bit did in real life. Louis C.K. has mined a lot of material from his real-life for the show before, from the Dane Cook beef to the recent Marc Maron moment, and those are only some of the things we know about! Maybe Melissa Leo really did force him to go down on her one time – we'll never know. Anyway, now Louie has a meeting at CBS in an hour, which, as the comic points out in an aside, doesn't even leave him time to jerk off.
The last time on the show that Louie had a shot to tell Hollywood his ideas, it was in season two's "Ellie" episode, wherein a creative executive liked what she heard from Louie, until he actually pitched his movie ideas. Perhaps this time he'll learn only to proffer ideas that aren't so bleak. (In the Ellie episode, he spoke of a movie premise, wherein a man starts out with almost nothing, and then loses the almost.)
When Louie and his agent are nervously awaiting entry into an unspecified office for the sudden meeting, it occurs to both that they have no idea who they are there to see. When Doug the agent asks the executive assistant whose office it is, she completely ignores him and then he and Louie just have to sort of sit there, stewing, and take it. Young actor Edward Gelbinovich deserves a special shout-out here for his portrayal of Doug, with his Milhouse Van Houten glasses-and-brows combo. He takes a lot of abuse this episode and gets to flex his particular brand of Panic Face multiple times.
5) Inside the office, finally, it turns out they are there to see the chairman of CBS, beautifully played by Garry Marshall, who's still got it. The unnamed chairman, after making Louie and Doug sign confidentiality agreements, reveals that David Letterman is retiring and his job is up for grabs, and that Louie has a shot at it. This is amazing news, obviously, but in the course of explaining why Louie might be right for the job, Marshall's chairman also dwells a lot on what else he might have going on in his life. As mentioned in the opening of this recap, he brutally assesses the alternative history of Louie in the most gloomy way possible: "You're circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit." Since last night's episode was the first of a three-parter, we'll have to wait until next week to see whether this shot at the Letterman spot takes place within that failure-orbit or not.
Last week: Desperately Seeking Louie