Louis C.K. Picks Up Where Seinfeld Left Off

It's not true that Seinfeld was a show about nothing, says Haaretz's Alon Idan.

Alon Idan
Alon Idan
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It's not true that “Seinfeld” was a series about nothing. In fact, it was a series about a great many things, whose aim was divesting them of content. The concept of the “relationship,” for example, was punctured from every direction. The way Jerry found defects in every potential female partner cast the search for a perfect relationship in an absurd light; Elaine made a distinction between feelings and sexuality regarding partners, and ridiculed the traditional perception of the woman’s role in a relationship; George maintained a lengthy relationship which ended in death, thus dramatizing the hidden yearning of a man/woman to be rid of his/her partner.

“Seinfeld” deflated heavy, magnificent structures that had aged and were on the verge of collapse. This deflation was accomplished by means of semi-grotesque characters, sparkling cynicism and cruelty wrapped in laughter. It enabled a large audience of people − who usually refuse to acknowledge the collapse of the establishments within which they function − to identify with the Seinfeldian atmosphere. The major instrument of annihilation was, in this case, neurosis, injected into the concrete fortress of the “normal” bourgeoisie, who in response stood up and applauded its meltdown.

The question that remained unanswered after the departure of “Seinfeld” was what, in fact, we were left with. In other words, what should be done with all these voided, distorted structures, the heaped ruins of old concepts, which now looked like archaeological exhibits. When George’s fiancée dies from poisoning after licking too many wedding invitation envelopes, the metaphor is obvious: The woman brings on her own death by the obsessive attempt to realize a relationship; the man cannot bear a long-term commitment; the institution of marriage is dying, and so on.

But after the critique and the demolition job, after the catharsis that is achieved through the violence of the humor, what next? Where do we go from here? “Louie” is what’s left after the meltdown. True, the eponymous character is one type of result − male, white, divorced, urban, tending to put on weight, 40-something and seemingly a cliché of hegemony − but he’s really a collection of neuroses making their way through the world after everything has been demolished, roaming about without any real goal, trying to survive the hell of other people, dragging his feet on the way to the next day.

Still, he too will assuredly be depressing or wretched or grotesque or maybe fantastical, but not in the sense of white ponies and princesses with crowns, but rather in the sense of anxiety that will suddenly be manifested concretely in reality, or an obsession that will be repeated over and over with no explanation. “Louie” is what’s left after romance − an all-inclusive name for an illusion that cloaks various major concepts of any given period − falls apart, and exposes the large nothing that was at work behind the scenes. “Louie” is essentially loneliness.

“Seinfeld” was based on a gallery of characters. Besides Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, there were Newman, Uncle Leo, Bania, Sue Ellen Mischke, and Jerry’s and George’s parents. In other words, “Seinfeld” was a series that tore apart concepts but did it collectively. The togetherness offered considerable protection from the traumatic effect that was liable to be caused by the voiding of content. The “Seinfeld” viewer was able to laugh, because the nihilism that undermined everything left one thing solid and stable: the camaraderie itself, the friendship, the sharing.

Louie, though, is alone. Truly alone. And all the characters around him only throw his loneliness into greater relief. His daughters, too, are a monument to loneliness. And the random conversations, the dark stand-up spots, the girls who threaten to jump off the roof, the boy who has diarrhea in his bathtub and the young guys who threaten to beat him to a pulp − all are only a mirror of loneliness, a world of appearances that present variations of aloneness.

“Louie” is a series about loneliness and it’s aimed at lonely people. People unfamiliar with loneliness as a basic human condition will not be able to watch it; people who insist on filling every white space of life with color will not be able to laugh at it.

The aim of “Louie” − created and directed by stand-up comedian Louis C.K. − is to dramatize “alone,” transform it from a word into a feeling, from concept into concreteness. Louie moves along a never-ending axis of “alone,” only in order to shout out his loneliness and listen to the reverberating echo. It’s a claustrophobic series but is not aimed at people who suffer from claustrophobia. It’s aimed at people who are trapped inside self-awareness which has crushed their imagination, hope and belief, leaving them with a mirror that accompanies them everywhere and insists on calling itself “reality.”

It’s not the least bit funny, this thing, even when it actually is funny. There is nothing funny about being Louie. To be Louie is to be one in the world. One, only one. Without maybe, without almost, without approximately, without a wink − one. And to be Louie it’s necessary to take that “one” and look at it, feel it, smell it, taste it and afterward to fight it, kick it, spit at it, curse it, cry because of it, and then to inhale it, internalize it, accept it and get used to it. And maybe even love it a little, or at least not hate it, maybe only sometimes, when there is no choice, when there really is no choice.

This is not comedy with the aim of making people laugh. And it’s not tragedy, because the aim is not to depress. And it’s not drama, because the aim is not to tell a story. It’s nothing, just the reality of a lonely person. An “episode” might include two stories, one story, one-third of a story that’s part of a trilogy. It might include stand-up comedy bits, it might not.

The framework is flexible because there is no framework, only a desire to annul familiar forms, axioms − all the inventions that subvert the one-timeness of the one. Because one is not a pattern, not a replication, not a format and not an option for mass production. One is only one − hence its distinctiveness, hence its ordinariness.

C.K. insisted on not being broadcast in prime time. He insisted on writing, producing, directing, editing. He insisted on having control of the whole staff, because he knew that “staff” is a creature that wants to curry favor with the masses, that insists on filling spaces of silence, that insists on creating glue that connects individuals. He became a one-man show, because that’s the only way to make loneliness present, the only way to express one-timeness without someone from the side being tempted to inject shots of “togetherness” diluted with optimism, shots of clichés in the style of, “After all, in the end, we are all human beings.”

No, in the end we are not all human beings. In the end we are all one human being. In the end we are all a collection of ones, who insist on annulling their “oneness” in order not to jump out the window.

Louie insists on not annulling his oneness. He just lives with it. Wanders through the world alone, and that’s all. Maybe he will jump out the window one day, maybe not. For a person who’s trapped inside himself, it really makes no difference.

Louis C.K. in 'Louie.' He became a one-man show, because that’s the only way to make loneliness present.Credit: AP