‘Louie’ Season 5 Episode 2 Recap: “A la Carte”

For a show about a stand-up comic, and with frequent inserts of its protagonist doing that job, Louie doesn’t often delve deep into stand-up comedy itself; as on Seinfeld, comedy is our title character’s job, and the particulars of that job are of only a passing interest, as in any workplace sitcom. But occasionally, Louie goes into the weeds: on the first-season “Heckler” episode (see title), in last year’s “Model” (where our hero badly bungles opening for, wouldn’t ya know it, Jerry Seinfeld at a charity function), and on last night’s “A la Carte,” an episode easily read as Louie’s take on the current vogue of “confessional comedy.”

That’s not the primary topic of the episode, though; the title and the bulk of the screen time goes to a quick update on Louie’s relationship with Pamela (Pamela Adlon, who supplements her usual producer credit with one for co-writing the story on this episode). When we last left the problematic pair, at the end of season four, they had come to something of a sweet stalemate; she wasn’t going to become the cooing lovey-dovey partner he seems to need (though that’s far from what he likes about her), and he wasn’t going to just shut off the elemental neediness of his own personality (though that certainly seems to be something she likes about him).

At the end of that episode, Pamela asks Louie, “Can this just be okay,” and their centerpiece restaurant conversation amounts, basically, to “Well, can it?” Prompted by his proposal that they move in together—one he frames as off-the-cuff, and one that’s clearly anything but—Pamela first changes the subject, then fires back hard for ruining their fun (“Do you like fun?”) and trying to put a conventional framework around their “Whatever-y/couple/sex thing.”

Their final agreement, of settling (for now, anyway) on an “a la carte” situation where he can, as she puts it, “stick your dick in a bunch of lady’s strange-holes” is the result of the kind of awkward, candid, truthful, and slightly painful dialogue that Louie has always done well; it also marks yet another instance of C.K.’s utter and sometimes hilarious disregard for narrative continuity. The pay-off of last week’s episode, one situated directly between these two state-of-the-Pamela-relationship stories, concerned him sticking his dick in a lady’s strange-hole; like his housing, his income level, his payout to the model, or even (early on) the physical appearance of his kids, he’s not concerned with how the pieces fit together. Was his sexual encounter with the surrogate removed from this continuity? Maybe. Is he lying to Pamela about exclusivity? Maybe. Does it actually matter? Not really.

What’s more important about the scene is how, even when his own character is positioned as the devil’s advocate, it conforms to his essentially cynical view of romance. “Do all roads have to lead to ruin?” she asks pointedly, and her response to his proposal is blunt: “I do know if we move in together, nobody’s gonna love anybody anymore, guaranteed.” As a writer and comedian, Louie’s worldview is informed by a personal life that’s been at the center of his work; his first show and first few specials were about being married, while the more recent specials and this second series were about being divorced. On his last special Oh My God, he goes so far as to call getting divorced “the best part” of marriage; “marriage is just like a larva stage for true happiness, which is divorce!” he insists.

That kind of candor, whether about sex, relationships, or (most memorably) his kids put C.K. at the forefront of the stand-up’s movement—in the works since the ‘90s “alt-comedy” craze, but particularly prevalent these days—towards naked confession onstage. In the episode’s B-plot, he comes face to face with the worst offshoot of that craze: comedy-free confession. Hosting, under duress, an open mic (the club owner’s stern admonishment, “Don’t put two girls on in a row,” works like last week’s anti-vaxxer line: an issue-acknowledging quick jab, at the end of a scene, to a terrible person) he’s implored by a young comic to watch and critique his act, which goes from the promising opening “I’d like to tell you about my childhood, even though it was very painful” to “My mother would beat me for urinating in my bed.”

“I don’t know that those were really jokes,” he tells the poor kid, and the dialogue they share over late-night coffee plays like a conversation about theory versus execution in comedy. “In comedy, you’re supposed to tell the truth,” the young comic insists, to which Louie replies “But it has to be f—“ The fact that he stops himself says it all; he can’t believe that he actually has to clarify that comedy has to be funny, and not just true. Some might say that Louie needed to re-learn that lesson himself after his not-exactly-a-laugh-riot fourth season, and the fact that he opens himself up to that criticism says a lot about how non-dogmatic he is about this stuff. That, and the episode’s priceless ending, which just goes to show how valuable a funny voice can be.