Is Louis C.K. hoaxing us?
By now, you’ve probably watched “Back,” the season premiere of Louie. (And if you haven’t, go watch it before we spoil things for you.) And you know that the highlight of the episode is the frank, funny discussion about masturbation that Louie shares with other comedians, including Sarah Silverman, Rick Crom, Nick DiPaolo, Jim Norton, and William Stephenson, at a poker table. (Norton, who recently spoke to me on Entertainment Weekly’s SiriusXM radio show TV Editor’s Hour, says the scene was inspired by the long-running real-life weekly poker games that Stephenson plays with other comedians, and he notes that the Louie scene was partly improvised.) Most of it is too dirty to quote here, but suffice to say that Norton confesses more about his proclivities than most men would admit, and there’s a line about Batman that almost made me shoot seltzer out my nose, like a clown. Also, it ends with Louie disappearing behind a closed door, holding a back massager, and it’s clear that he’s not planning on massaging his back.
Now, you might assume that C.K. wouldn’t want critics to spoil either of these scenes in their reviews. After all, when FX sends out screeners of new Louie episodes to the press, they often come with notes requesting that critics refrain from writing about certain details until after the episode has already aired. (That’s why I waited until after the premiere to publish this post.) But what was the request for “Back”? Written in red type on the press release were the following words: “Please do not write about the scene with the garbage men.”
Which garbage men? You’d be forgiven for forgetting: The premiere begins with Louie sleeping while sanitary workers empty the trash — loudly — outside his window. Suddenly, as if in a dream, they break in through Louie’s window and bang trash can lids above his head. It’s a decent joke: When you’re trying to sleep and a garbage truck rolls by, it does sound like it’s right there inside your bedroom. But of all the crazy things that happen in this episode, this is hardly the one that needs an embargo.
At first, I wondered if this was a case where the show’s creator isn’t the best judge of what constitutes a “spoiler” in his work. (This happens all the time with Mad Men. Does anyone except for Matt Weiner really care if we know ahead of time what year the next season takes place? Unless a TARDIS lands at Sterling Cooper & Partners, it was going to be 1969 eventually!) But C.K. is too clever for that. It’s also possible that he’s working some reverse psychology here: Telling critics not to write about the garbage men will probably make them want to write about the garbage men, thereby diverting attention away from the more memorable scenes that he really doesn’t want to spoil. (See also: Don’t think about elephants.) But I don’t think so. It feels like this is a test to see if critics are paying attention.
Let me explain: Surrealism has always been a major part of C.K.’s work. Just check out his early short films, or the David Lynch episode from season 3, or even the pilot of Louie, where C.K. leans in to kiss his date and she makes a sudden getaway via helicopter. There’s a lot of dream imagery in season 4 (even the trailer is Fellini-esque), and I’ve argued that it’s all part of what makes Louie so brilliant: The show often takes the type of mundane, familiar moment that fuels so much observational comedy — in this case, garbage men are so loud! — and pushes it so far past its rational outcome, it ends up challenging the idea that the “naturalism” we love from comedians is any less of a false construction than surrealism. What if the scenes he’s embargoed from reviews are just part of a similar joke? Maybe he’s taking the most mundane part of creating his show — sending out the press release — and making the logic so counter-intuitive (why would you write about the garbage men when there’s a whole episode of crazy masturbation quotes?) that the very art of criticism itself seems absurd?
Then again, my co-worker Ray Rahman says he thought the garbage men scene was the best thing in the episode. So maybe I’m the only one who’s messing with your head. Either way, Louis C.K.’s reverse psychology just got the best of me. Here I am, writing an entire post about garbage men.