In today’s age of viral celebrity all it takes is one really good (or really notorious) thing and almost anyone can be a household name overnight. Even someone who’s been working the stage for most of their life can suddenly find themselves getting the kinds of offers they might have dreamed of, but never truly thought they’d see in their lifetime. In this week’s first part of ‘The Late Show’ we see Louie get the chance of a lifetime. Is it the big break he’s been waiting for, or an indecent proposal that he should refuse before Hollywood chews our hero up and spits him out?
The episode opens to Louie performing his routine at a club in California and it’s one of the better comedy bits the show’s had this year. His topics range from the privilege of American children having to be told what war is to the utter insanity involved in consumerism particularly in having to read Amazon reviews from fellow consumers just to assure what you’re getting is really the best of its kind. It goes well and we learn that this was a test bit so that Louie could nail down his routine for an upcoming appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Leno’s producer assures Louie everything will go well but he should be made aware that the first guest is Tom Cruise so he may go over.
Expecting the worst in life is Louie’s main mode of existence. Even when he’s backstage being fitted for his mic pack he’s anxiously exclaiming to his agent Doug that he just knows he’s going to get bumped and the whole trip will be for nothing. Instead, Louie learns that Tom Cruise canceled and now he’s the only guest on the program. Quite the turn of events and Louie has no choice but to just go with it. I love how we didn’t actually get to see the apparently brilliant set from Louie as this episode (and the show really) isn’t about his actual talent as a comic but instead the situations he finds himself in due to the attention his talent garners.
When the scene opens on Louie passed out on his hotel bed there’s immediately a feeling that he didn’t do well. It’s one of the joys of watching Louie is that Louis C.K.’s writing expertly manages to put the mind of the audience in Louie’s own frame of mind—he expects the worse and so do we. So when he’s thrust into a whirlwind of having to drag himself out of bed, make himself presentable and show up at the offices of CBS it’s easy to assume that the meeting won’t go well either.
After a visit from a lawyer and a pair of non-disclosure confidentiality agreements are signed by Louie and Doug, a Les Moonves stand-in (played in a surprise cameo by Garry Marshall) lays it all on the line: Letterman’s retiring, are you interested in hosting The Late Show? For many people this is the kind of thing that anyone dreams about reaching in the heights of their career. Louie understandably isn’t immediately enthused with the idea claiming that he’s ‘not that guy’. But here’s where this episode really earns its place as one of the best this season, the head of CBS knows exactly well that Louie’s not that kind of guy.
There are parts of this episode that really evoke the career of a certain other ginger comedian who was also plucked from obscurity long to host a late night show and then was given the chance to go even further in that career all to his detriment when things later fell apart. People may even have been a little surprised that the basis of this episode’s plot-line is that Louie performed so well on The Tonight Show of all places—thinking perhaps he’s just more of a Conan guy in general. Well that may be true to a point, but there’s this prominence that The Tonight Show still holds to the traditional system of television and of comedians. It would have been harder to go along with things if he would have had a really good set anywhere else than on Leno’s show (no matter what anyone thinks of Leno himself).
It’s ultimately the truth of the offer that really sticks to Louie and to the viewer. The Moonves type explains to Louie that he’s giving him basically the chance to have that one last grab for the brass ring even if he’s being set up to fail. He’s giving him a chance to change his life, make a decent paycheck, and get out of the clubs with all the constant touring that comes with that lifestyle. It was a harsh dose of reality as he explained to Louie that they’ll go through the motions and if he’s a hit well, of course the network will be proud to have him. But if he’s not then they’ll just get Jerry Seinfeld like they want to anyway, (but don’t want to spend the money upfront for him when they could try this and maybe get lucky). It’s win-win for the network no matter what and for Louie, it’s sort of a win-not quite lose depending on how he views it. He’d still make more doing a failed show for a while than he would going out on tour for an entire year even and with his kids to think about it’s not so easy to turn this down even if the whole opportunity seems to be built on Louie’s eventual failure.
This is going to be a three part episode so it seems that Louie may take the offer but at what real cost? It’s going to be interesting to see how the show’s take on grooming a blue-collar comic from Massachusetts into the kind of guy whose face is on billboards and bus ads touting his new gig taking over for a legend. I’m sure most of you remember how this kind of thing turned out for Conan O’Brien after all. Just like Conan there’s a real integrity involved with Louie that’s probably going to cause his ‘downfall’, but maybe we’ll end the season with Louie achieving a different kind of fame just as O’Brien managed to do. Just because he’s been told he’s circling the drain of failure and he’s already peaked doesn’t make it so, and I can’t wait to see what the show does with the ideas they’ve brought up in this episode in the next two installments.