People lie and steal and dick each other over all the time in real life. Since Louie is nothing if not a reflection of real life through a funhouse-mirror filter, bad things happen on the show too. However, the triptych of episodes that Louie began sketching out weeks ago, now fully revealed, contains more backstabbing, arch treachery and base meanness than anything else in the series' run.
These three episodes exist on the battle lines of a mercenary culture where every comic is out for himself and virtually nobody has anyone else's back. It's a place where trust comes with a "buyer beware" sticker and you have to constantly look over your shoulder. Is this what it's really like for entertainers: a zero-sum game where a friend's success comes at the expense of yours, so nobody is really rooting for each other?
It's kind of a bitter pill to swallow, but like the best episodes of the series – among the ranks of which "Late Show 3" counts high – it also comes with unexpected laughs and quiet grace. It turns out that the NBC executive played by Garry Marshall had nefarious reasons for turning Louie into a credible late show host, but it did happen. Louie succeeded. He looked great in his suit during a test drive of the show, he made topical jokes and Letterman-style meta-jokes like a pro, and he enjoyed some evocative masturbation-themed banter with Susan Sarandon. Even though it was ultimately all for naught, he did it. And there's something almost Thoreau-like in how much it means to Louie in the end just to have proven something to himself.
There was no way for Louie to truly succeed in the double bind the first two episodes set him up for, where either, A., he'd get the Letterman spot and no longer see his kids, or B., he'd lose the spot – possibly to Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld – and have to live with the uncertain future this whole debacle brought into contrast, tinged with fresh failure. The ending we ultimately got, however, found the best possible third option – exempting Louie from the responsibility of hosting a talk show, but with the knowledge that he was entirely capable of doing so.
Here are the most uncomfortable moments from last night's episode.
1) David Lynch is back in fine form this week, challenging Louie to just be funny on cue. He asks the 20-year veteran comedian if he has "any experience being funny." Lynch's commitment and stilted delivery is such that it's difficult to tell whether this is a misunderstanding, a surreal touch Louis C.K. put in, or if the character is being ultra-deadpan. Either way, Louie just can't bring himself to turn the funny up on cue, even though he literally does that for a living.
Yet when Lynch's executive, John Dahl, gives him an ultimatum, rather than spit out his act, Louie starts being relentlessly silly. "You're just a pencil penis parade," he sings – at which point my brain exploded – and then he starts shuffling around like a carnival geek while blowing raspberries and lifting up his shirt.
"You just bought yourself another week," Dahl says.
2) In the next Letterman hoop Louie has to jump through, his interviewing skills are put to the test. Louie must conduct a surprise interview with the studio's cleaning lady on a spartanly furnished, depressingly quiet set. If nothing else, Louie's stumbling here gives you an appreciation of how difficult Letterman's job is. Louie's line of questioning immediately brings back the cleaning lady's memory of her mother when she was eight years old . . . just before she died, the thought of which makes her burst into heavy sobs.
3) "Dick, dick, ass, shit . . . tits." That's Louie's string of epithets after failing to be funny into a mirror at home. What starts off as an uncomfortable moment ends up being totally heartening when Louie gets an impromptu visit from his daughters. The episode opened at the exact moment the girls realized their dad's accomplishment would mean seeing him a whole lot less, and this idea didn't sit well with them. However, now they've insisted on coming over and wishing Louie luck with a sign that says "Dad Night Live." They lean in and hug him from both sides, and our hero looks more touched than he's ever been. Cue the Rocky theme.
4. The long-prophesized Jerry Seinfeld cameo arrives next, and like Chris Rock before him, Seinfeld is here to sabotage his sometime friend in cold blood. Previous episodes mentioned that Seinfeld was interested in taking over for Letterman, but at a much higher cost than Louie. Now he's backstage before our hero's televised hosting attempt to tell him he needn't bother – the deal with Seinfeld is done. Only when the superstar comic tells our hero to keep the news secret does Louie realize this scans as a bluff (thanks to Dahl's third rule of show business: if someone asks you to keep a secret – the secret is a lie.) Our hero quickly goes from being a little relieved to having a head full of steam, and he decides to go out there and kill it.
5. Louie's circle of friends – Nick DiPaolo, Todd Barry and Jim Norton – surround him at a bar, all giving him props (well, Norton is actually quietly cursing him). Two harbingers of doom soon arrive, though: first in the form of Maria Menounos, delivering the news that Letterman will stay put for 10 more years; and then from boy-manager Doug, who says that CBS used Louie as a pawn to get Letterman's contract down by $2 million per year. Also, Letterman says that Louie is "dead" – banned from the show for life.
DiPaolo sees the bright side: "Hey, you took $20 million out of that asshole's pocket." Louie sees it too. He did it! He got out of a situation he wasn't sure he wanted to be in, and still proved himself in the process, even if it was just a ploy functioning at levels way above his pay grade. Walking over to the studio in a daze, Louie screams out "Hey, Letterman. I did it!" My DVR cut out before the very last second but I'm pretty sure it did so just as an exultant Louie is about to add, "Fuck you!"
Last Week's Recap: 'The Late Show With Louie'?