The most surprising thing about last night’s Louie is that, with the show winding down its fifth season, C.K. went this long without doing an episode about being a “road comic.” His job has always been a part of the show, obviously, and has even been the focus (as far as Louie has a focus) of a few episodes, but most of the time, the show acts as though a New York stand-up could make his living just working in New York. And even at the monster level he’s at in real life, Louie couldn’t do that. Comics have to go out into the world. In “The Road: Part I,” he shows us a trip to do a one-nighter in Cincinnati—but, at the end of the day, it could be any trip to anywhere. They’re all the same; the name of the city changes, but it’s all The Road.
If you’re enough of a comedy geek (guilty), you’ll recognize a lot of the touchstones he visits here: the ugly, slushy motel he’s staying at (oh, those motel bedspreads); the mentions of the comedy condo at his next stop; the progression of airports and airplanes (that slam on the knee from the drink cart may be the most relatable thing I’ve seen on television this year). And then there’s the driver, “Mike” the driver, awkward and puppy-doggish, in awe of the visiting comic, hanging on his every word, wanting to hear about his life, and ultimately, hoping to become his friend.
The mixture of sympathy and exasperation conjured up by this character—in both the writing and the playing—is tremendous. Both elements are forceful; neither outweighs the other. But the way Louie the writer allows Louie the character to deal with Mike says much about the bleakness of the episode (and of the series, while we’re at it). In their first chat, from the airport to the motel, they make small talk (“I’ve never been to New York”), and it’s awkward, and Louie engages him as best his can before finally, politely, telling him he doesn’t wanna talk. But he clearly actually hurts Mike’s feelings, and holds to his request for silence for roughly a second and a half before indulging him.
But when the scene comes back around a little while later, it goes differently. Mike tries to lead Louie into asking him for a tour of the town, so they can hang out like other road comics have (“And he was nice! Like, really nice guy”), and Louie’s hostility finally gets the best of him. He explains that going out on the road is “like going to the toilet, it’s something that I have to do,” that he’s different from the other road comics, because “I’m 47 years old, I’ve been doing this for I don’t even know how long anymore, and the road is not for me like an adventure, okay? It’s like, I’ve seen it.” Again, as in the ride from the airport, he is apologetic for his brusqueness—“I don’t mean that to be unfriendly or insulting… so I’m sorry if that’s a bummer for you, or disappointing”—but this time, he doesn’t back down from it, and in the darkness of the scene, we can see that he’s made the guy cry. And then he goes to a commercial.
In some ways, the scene is part of CK’s continuing fascination with the difficulty of grown men trying to relate to each other (see also a couple seasons back, “Cop Story” a few weeks ago). But it says a lot about Louie, who will often grit his teeth and muddle through such interactions, that he can’t make himself be nice here. It’s nothing against Mike. He just hates the road, where every city and every club and every motel and every grinning driver is the same, and he says so.
To that end, the airport action of the last act provides a list a glimmer of hope. It’s not that any of the events reach a desired outcome; he’s embarrassed by his lust for the joke “hot pour bun” at “JizzyBuns” (a scene inspired by a great bit about Cinnabon from his Chewed Up special), he doesn’t help the lost girl find her family (she wanders off while the callbox is crackling at him unintelligibly), and he doesn’t get his lost bag back. But he at least has an adventure, taking a ried on the tarmac and hearing a story about bullets in the bottom of planes.
And that adventure breaks the monotony—this is not just another afternoon spent slogging through an airport. But the break doesn’t last long. He buys a new suitcase; he buys some new clothes. (Nice touch: the centerpiece of his work wardrobe purchase is several black shirts.) And then, as he packs them into the suitcase the moment they’re purchased, he does the same days-travelling count-out (“Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, sweating”) that he did in the opening moments of the show, narrative circularity doubling as a dramatization of the same damn routine.
(And, as a footnote, let us mark the episode’s inevitable uncomfortable subtext moment, on exposing and covering one’s private parts: “We cover all our favorite stuff. Cover it! It’s really important that you cover it!”)