In Barrelhouse Television Workshop, fiction writers look at the way we tell stories across media, the way those "fiction moves" work, and why they may or may not work in certain situations. And most importantly, they'll be making themselves feel real good about watching so much television.
Becky Barnard is Web Manager at Barrelhouse. She lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where she fights off cabin fever by reading, self-propelling various pieces of sporting equipment around the outdoors, and consuming pop culture. Also bourbon. She always is looking to make new weird Internet friends @beckybarnard.
Erin Fitzgerald is Online Editor at Barrelhouse, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her stories have appeared in fine publications such as Salt Hill, PANK, and the anthology Gigantic Worlds. She lives in Connecticut, and on Twitter as @gnomeloaf.
Dave Housley is one of the founding editors and all around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse. His third collection of short fiction, “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home,” was released in January 2015 by Dzanc Books. His previous collections are “Commercial Fiction” (Outpost 19) and “Ryan Seacrest is Famous” (Impetus Press, Dzanc Books eBook Reprint Series). Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at@housleydave.
Toni Jensen lives in Arkansas with a husband, child, dog, and many ants. Her first story collection, From the Hilltop, was published through the Native Storiers Series at the University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in journals and anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of the Southwest, and Best of the West: Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri. She follows the Oklahoma City Thunder like it’s her job, but it is not. She teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a Maryland-spawned, North Florida-bred writer currently residing in Jacksonville where he teaches high school English. He is the author of the story collection Broken Record Nostalgia and the co-founder of www.benchpointsblog.com, a sports blog. His fiction has appeared in Empty Sink Publishing and his tweets have been favorited by himself. When he was seven he shit himself at a water park and that's all the explanation you'll need. You can read other such nonsense @calebmsarvis.
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Louie, “Untitled.” (Season 5, Episode 5.)
Jane visits the doctor.
Caleb Michael Sarvis (CS): to start... What an episode we've chosen as our starting point!
Erin Fitzgerald (EF): I know, right? My notes say “I’d have an easier time talking about the Burger King chicken fries commercial that was just on.”
Becky Barnard (BB): Oh, yay, so it’s not just me! I loved the episode, but my notes go from straightforward comments about joke writing and general Charles Grodin fangirling to a confused mess in pretty short order. (My favorite note, incidentally, is “Ice cream dick?!?!?!” with three boxes around it.)
Dave Housley (DH): I had to watch it twice. I can confirm that it does not get any less weird on the second viewing!
Toni Jensen (TJ): I had to watch it three times. Still, my viewings mainly reaffirmed that A Clockwork Orange gives me nightmares and that Louie is in new territory--dark, scary, interesting, funny but Pamela-less territory.
Jane and Lily
BB: I loved Lily's post-sleepover breakdown of A Clockwork Orange. I remember that happening during a few sleepovers when I was that age - a friend's dad was a film buff, and we'd end up popping in one of his old movies after we went through whatever we had rented at Hollywood Video that week. That thing, where you discover that movies can be more than boy-meets-girl or funny-guy-falls-down or animated-animals-singing? That's such a great, huge discovery, and you feel so adult that you want to bond with your parents about your new, grown-up entertainment choices. You're still using a teenager's brain, though, so you focus more on the "ewwwwww" and less on the deeper meaning. So you motormouth like an idiot for a few minutes while your parents try to decide on the fly if it’s a big deal. Were you just exposed to a cultural touchstone, expanding your horizons? Or did some unattentive jerk parent just damage your fragile psyche?
The first time I remember this was after watching the original Night of the Living Dead. I’m sure there were others. But I also got better at filtering what, exactly, my parents needed to know and what would stay within the confines of my friend’s TV room. Scandalous sleepover movies are decent training for a lot of adulthood, honestly.
CS: Jane is probably my favorite character on Louie. She's far more perceptive and in tune than someone her age should be, always having the moments of shared wisdom that are absorbed by the audience but generally brushed over by the characters around her. Her exchange with the doctor ("sometimes I see electricity" "sounds like you need a glass of water") reminded me of the "Elevator" episodes in season 4. Somewhere in those, Jane gets in trouble at school and when Louis asks for an explanation, she goes on and on about how school is bad, the teachers don't know anything, and continues into a somewhat existential diatribe that ends with her zeroing on the real issue: no one would share the horse-spring on the playground.
Like fiction, Louie is keenly aware of how the toughest of situations usually have the simplest solutions (more on that below). Had Jane gotten her turn on the horse-spring she wouldn't have had a meltdown. Maybe the doctor is right, maybe all she really needed was a glass of water.
EF: Louis CK’s “writing trick” with children -- in his comedy, on this show, and in this episode -- is to employ brutal honesty from all sides. We all walk around with the notion that children are fundamentally innocent, and he pokes that from different directions, sometimes simultaneously. Matching the brutally honest physician (Charles Grodin, whose character seems more and less childlike than his predecessor Ricky Gervais -- sorry, I never remember character names, someone else feel free to swap them in if you do) with that honesty makes so much sense. The “short story tricks” with the girls are always what remind me of other literature. The waiting room scene, Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” A couple of weeks ago, when Louie crapped his pants and Lily just absolutely broke down? I’m still not sure why, but all I could think of was Chekhov.
DH: They’ve gotten really lucky with those actors, haven’t they? Both of those girls are pretty amazing, and they’ve definitely gotten better over time. I think you’re right, Erin, that his trick is having the kids deliver brutal honesty. They’re pretty realistic kids, most of the time, and they tend to call him on his bullshit, which is wonderful.
I think he does a really interesting thing with Jane in this one, because the kind of things she’s saying are pretty close to maybe the kinds of things the character Louie might be thinking, or the worldview of the show in general. Or, it’s aligned with the worldview -- in the same ballpark. So you get this double-effect out of that, where she’s saying it and it’s kind of crazy and weird and scary, but he’s watching her say it and he’s kind of uncomfortable and familiar with it at the same time. He doesn’t stop her or freak out -- my son is 9 and if he expressed a desire to not exist any more, however poetically, it would freak me out. But I think this way of thinking isn’t so removed from what Louie might be thinking at any given moment, so he’s more annoyed that the doctor isn’t going to check her heart and look in her ears than he is freaked out by Jane’s little existential crisis.
I also really loved the dynamic between Charles Grodin as the doctor, and Louie and Jane. He’s kind of alpha dogging Louie by only paying attention to Jane, but he doesn’t really pay attention to her, in that he just kind of rolls with what she’s saying, too. “I think you need a glass of water” is either the wisest, most baller reaction to a young child relating a wish to not exist, or a totally batshit lack of attention. Loved it.
TJ: What I love I love most about the doctor’s office scene with Jane is how I feel I’m the only one who’s paying attention to Jane. I want to know why she’s sweating inside her face, what she means, more particularly, about the electrons. The way the scene is set up to have us viewing Louie and Charles Grodin having a moment--but then there’s Jane, who’s having a moment all by herself. It’s compelling.
Louie’s Dreams/Dreams in Fiction
CS: I really enjoyed the initial scene with the mom (name?) and the fish tank. When she's crying and Louis just says "I don't really know you that well, so I think this should be a private matter" and topping it off by covering her up (covering up problems?) was so much fun. What made it even better was its return and its consequence. His dreams are ironic considering he was worried about Lily's exposure to ACO. Using the sleepover as a central cause for all his worries (the movie and the fish tank started there) was a simple fiction move I enjoyed. I like the choice to take him back. The guilt seemed a little random, but maybe I'm missing something there.
The dream sequences were bad ass though. So real I don't even know how I would write those on paper.
DH: I usually hate dream stuff. It just seems too easy and too hard at the same time. I liked the dreams here, although I also could have done with maybe fifty percent less. When I do fiction workshops, I have a thing where I like to talk about the specific role of each thing in a story. So my schtick is basically: if there is a thing in a short story, that thing has to have a purpose. That’s actually one of the things I like about short fiction -- I’m simple and my brain can understand that idea. More on that below. The other thing I do sometimes is break down each of those elements and actually make a chart of how much space they occupy in the story, literally how many pages or what percentage of the story is given over to this one thing. I think it’s a good way to understand that idea of how everything in a story has to carry some water, and do so as efficiently as possible. If you see a car on that chart that’s 40% of the story and it’s not doing 40% of the work of the story, you have an idea where to cut. So for Louie last night, that would break down something like this, and this is a not accurate and based on my shitty memory, and I’m also too lazy to actually look up the run-time of that episode, so let’s say this is out of 25 minutes:
Jane at the doctor: 3 minutes
Sleepover pickup: 2 minutes
Dreams: 15 minutes
Waking time at comedy club: 4 minutes
Helping that woman from the sleepover: 1 minute
Even recognizing that that little breakdown is probably wildly inaccurate, there were a lot of dreams! And they took up a lot of the episode. It was a pretty great episode, but I did get the feeling that maybe he was just having fun making those dreams, especially the more surreal ones at the end, and the function of those dreams could have been delivered in less space. Even taking into account the idea that part of the thing that’s happening with the dreams is literally that they keep on happening, and it’s building on itself and he’s getting worse and worse, I think he could have cut a little.
TJ: Dave, I think we should sometime have a simple-off. Your reasons are the same reasons I enjoy short fiction. Yes, I feel like some of the dreamy dreams are too indulgent, sure. I did want a little more cutting to Louie’s life. But given the last episodes, I’m more forgiving of the indulgence. Poor Pamela-less Louie. We’ve seen his potential future in the “Cop Story” episode, and though we know Louie could never end up as Lenny, I found it oddly touching that Louie doesn’t seem to know this, at least not entirely--which gets me to dreams in fiction.
I’m more indulgent of the use of dreams in visual mediums, I guess, because these dream bits strewn together help create Louie’s character in this moment for me. In a short story, though, I would be wondering, longing after the throughline. I think a writer gets away with a lot less time afforded to dreams in short fiction--because the visual isn’t there to lure us.
CS: I agree with both of you, but I'm still unsure whether there's a clear cut connection between the doctor, the sleepover, the dreams and the comedy club. I understand the guilt manifesting itself in dreams and that his daughters are probably tougher than he is, but the comedy club piece seems a little random. More on that below. Guilt is a common go-to for short fiction, it gives us reason to tell the story, but I'm still unsure why Louie feels guilty in the first place, so much that it manifests into nightmares.
BB: There were two final twists during the end credits that added to the surreality of this episode. First, and hopefully this only happened to me, a giant spider the size of a quarter came out from behind my TV screen and crawled over Louis' face. I honestly felt like the Matrix glitched a little to cause that.
And second, the dreamy, old-timey song with the following lyrics:
I dreamed of little monsters crawling on my leg.
I fear they'll come again if I go to bed.
I wish something else would be in my dreams.
Here come those little monsters crawling up my leg.
I dream of dying babies, and why do they smile?
I hate those dying babies. Why don't they just die?
Their smiling faces give me diarrhea.
Please die, you dying babies, in my diarrhea.
My dreams. My dreams. My dreams....
The Bee Joke / Stealing Material
TJ: This was, hands down, my favorite part of the episode. Louie is so vulnerable when he’s missing his material, his brown jacket. He wants so much to put forward his righteous indignation at having his material stolen, but he doesn’t--not quite. It’s the “not quite” that interests me most. This is the best part of this show, for me--how I expect extreme behavior in some moments and get moderation. How some moments seem to call for moderation (a walk home from the grocery store, for example) and then, kapow--Louie’s taking a dump on the sidewalk. It’s so, so rare to be truly surprised by narrative. But the turns of this narrative continue to surprise me.
DH: It’s kind of a miracle that a popular TV show can be so consistently surprising. That’s probably one of the main reasons we all love this show. I can’t really think of another narrative (non-sketch) show, other than maybe Broad City, where you literally don’t know what might happen next.
I really liked the joke-stealing part, too. It’s actually not a very good joke, right? Which they demonstrate when Jon Glaser (getting up there on the all time list of secondary character actors: Jeremy Jamm on Parks and Rec, Hannah’s neighbor with the knit cap in Girls) tries to tell the other comic about the joke, and it totally falls flat. I love how, after Louie confronts him, Glaser is like, “it was your bit and now I’m doing it!” and he just doesn’t respond the way Louie wants him to, the way I think comics would respond in that situation, where stealing somebody’s material is really a big deal. This is another reason I don’t really dig the dream situation -- this is a really interesting thing, but since it happens in the dream, I kind of write it off as another weird thing that happened in the dream.
CS: I'm glad you offered his real name because I was just going to refer to him as Councilman Jamm and go from there - especially since Louie gets Jammed! here. It's not only a bad joke, but Glaser actually butchers it and makes it worse (and people laugh more) which I think is representative of Louie's opinion of comedy. He never resorts to antics, yet other comics are probably more popular than him. Maybe it falls into the dream sequences because it's always a worry of his. I don't know, I'm just trying to connect the dots here. Any other thoughts?
How does this work?
DH: I kind of want to break down the elements of the episode, same way I would do a story, and talk about their function, if you guys don’t mind. I think some of the pieces are pretty easy to figure out, but I’m interested in Jane’s role in this one, or, the purpose of the two scenes in the beginning: the doctor scene, which we talked about above, and the very brief incident in the supermarket where she gets upset about the lobsters in the grocery store and Louie kind of blows her off (“they’re meat”).
I think one of the things that scene does is highlight the way you lose some of that sensitivity over time, as you grow up, and get numb to those kinds of things. Or most of us do, at least. There’s a connection to how he reacts to the woman at the sleepover, I think: he’s embarrassed and empathetic, but he’s too busy to really get involved. It’s a private matter. It’s also an impossible burden to carry the pain of everybody you bump up against, or to really feel for the lobsters in the grocery store.
The first scene, though: I love it, but I don’t have it’s function sussed out very well. It puts him in a different place, maybe, where he’s hearing some of these thoughts come out of his sweet little daughter’s mouth, so maybe it sets the stage. It establishes the world of the story, in that it’s kind of off-kilter -- it’s the real world and it’s also this heightened, slightly “off” place, too. I’d be interested in your thoughts about how that scene works in the story, though: what is its purpose in the story?
CS: I think its purpose comes from the question I posed earlier. The guilt he feels is what drives the episode, but it seems random and displaced. I enjoyed the scene with the lobsters and Jane's objection to their treatment, but it seems like it's there only to bridge the sleepover and the dream sequences. I'm sure the connection makes sense to Louis the writer, but it feels a little forced there.
Louie the character is more pessimist than realist, I believe, and perhaps thats where the guilt comes from. That's no attitude to show your kids. Maybe the scene worked to set up this existential sort of debate that he fights throughout the episode. The moral of "Untitled" seems to be that it's simply better to do good and be nice even if there isn't a real reason to. Hearing Jane wrestle with these issues probably makes Louie reevaluate himself as a role model. When I was a kid, maybe 8 or 9, my dad was backing out of our spot at the grocery store when an older woman in a wheelchair and her nanny came out of the store with a cart full of groceries. My dad parked the car again, got out and helped them for no other reason than it seemed like they needed it. I'll never forget that and maybe Louie feels like his daughters need to see good in the world, and that's why helping that lady with the fish tank gives him peace.
Did my own memory just crack the episode??
How do we do that in fiction?
BB: Louis CK writes, directs, stars in, and edits every episode of Louie. Wearing all of the hats probably feels familiar to most fiction writers. In your own writing, how do you move from one job to another? Do you think CK has an area that he could/should outsource?
DH: First off, I think Louis CK is a genius and I’m just a guy who writes short stories based on television commercials. I also have no idea how difficult it is to do what he does and do it so well. That said, I would think editing would be the one piece that would be hardest to do well, the function that it would be hardest to do yourself, on your own project, no matter what it is, really. I know that’s the hardest thing to learn to do when you start writing. Or it was for me. You have to really call bullshit on yourself, cut out things you love, or that crack you up, or that you just really dug writing, if they don’t work for whatever reason. The whole kill your darlings deal.
There’s a tension there: he does everything himself, and that means he can do some really daring, amazing, weird television. When it’s working, it’s really the best. It also means there’s nobody there to push back, second guess, trim or cut or clarify. This is why I loved the first three Wes Anderson movies and really hated the ones I’ve seen since then. I really think that guy needs somebody to push back, some friction that brings story and character to the forefront, because those recent movies, to me, are pretty and silly and vacant. Hot take! Come at me, internet! I know you want to.
When I’ve worked with editors who really do push back, who work really hard to make a story as good as it can be, that’s been a really great experience across the board. They might force you to cut, or to work through you were kind of wimping out on, to do what you can to make the story as good as possible. I think Louie generally does a really great job with that. The show generally feels really tight, like the efficient little engine that is a short story. That’s why I think it lends itself so well to this discussion. That’s also why the dreams dragged for me a little in this past episode -- it was the one time I thought he maybe could have benefitted from that tension you get working with an editor.
TJ: I would have supported the editing out of at least one segment with that creepy, bald, not-quite-human guy or with the brother. Sure, I support this so I can sleep better. But also, like in fiction, what’s gained by the patterns set forward in those segments? Why do we need them repeated? What do we learn about Louie through these repetitions? The show is so short (like short fiction, maybe--like short short fiction, for sure) that each repetition has to add something to where we’re going, to the collective whole or narrative arc, other than just yuck and awe. I did feel like a few of those moments were mostly yuck and awe.
CS: The show is probably much more like short-short fiction than the usual short story, that's why the episodes that have multiple parts end up telling the best story. There's a reason "Elevators" parts 1 through 3 have stuck with me and it's probably because he had more room to do what he wanted to do. Editing is probably the consensus choice for what he should work on here. Kevin Moffett told me that he believed some writers write with paintbrushes and others with scalpels, and he said this because I have a habit of putting a shit ton into my first drafts (scalpel) rather than starting small and expanding (paint brush). I think Louie may have the same issue, and maybe he should fight for a few hour long episodes so he can fully flush out what he's got going on paper.