Louie, "The Road, Part 1" (Season 5, Episode 7): Barrelhouse Television Workshop

Today’s Panel

Myfanwy Collins lives in Massachusetts. Her latest novel is for young adults and called THE BOOK OF LANEY. For more information, please visit: www.myfanwycollis.com.

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.

Benjamin Woodard is a Senior Editor at Numero Cinq Magazine and is the Editor-in-Chief at Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. He writes fiction. Find him on Twitter @woodardwriter.

* * *

“The Road, Part 1”

Louie goes on the road

Dave Housley: This is the beginning of a series of episodes, based on the title at least (see what a close reader I am!), so it will be interesting to see where this goes from here. I think there’s a pretty strong theme in this one and it’s something to do with the question “what is a person’s responsibility to other people?” I keep going back to the word “obligation” What are our obligations to one another in various scenarios?

I especially loved the scenes with Mike the Limo Driver, who has all kinds of very sweet expectations for how he and Louie are going to interact, and Louie has a different understanding -- much less sweet and more businesslike (and probably realistic) -- of what their obligations are to one another. Mike wants to be buddies and hang out. He wants Louie to tell him about New York, and to take Louie to see Cincinnati. Louie just really wants to sit in the limo and be driven from one place to another. He only obligation he’s there to fulfill is his professional one. He understands what Mike wants from him but he just doesn’t want to do it. That’s not how Louie acts in the world.

My favorite part of the Mike section is when they’re first in the limo, and Mike is asking him about New York (and here, as an official resident of “Sarah Palin’s real America” here in central PA I have to say that it’s kind of a condescending portrayal of that midwestern earnestness), and Louie just doesn’t want to engage. He knows what Mike wants from him. He knows he can do it. He just. Doesn’t. Want to.

I love the moments in Louie where he’s wrestling with this exact thing -- the friction between what he knows the other person in the situation wants from him (emotionally or just in a practical sense) and what he really actually wants to do, which is mostly be left alone and remain kind of self-contained in the world. There’s a wonderful, awkward, very fraught hesitation and you can see that friction on his face. I love it. I really like it here, because, as he often does, he gives in and, however begrudgingly, gives the other person what he thinks they need.

Myfanwy Collins: I love what you say about obligation. I think that is spot on. I find it harder and harder as I age to give people just what they want from me in terms of interactions. Like Louie in this episode, I am 47. I can still be friendly and please people if I must, but I would rather not have to feel like I must. I want to be friendly because I feel like it and not because it is expected. Is this an age thing or a parenting thing or something about not feeling fully content within oneself? I don't know.

Oh, Mike! My heart hurt for him but also I wanted him to fuck off. Especially when he was being passive-aggressive in the car after the show when he was talking about the other comics. I so felt Louie's pain there. I thought it was maybe a bit over the top when Mike cried but otherwise I found his character flawlessly portrayed. We have all known a Mike, bless his heart, and most likely we have wounded him because we are evil and he is light and because we want solitude and he craves connection. Sorry, Mike!

I was also struck by setting and place in this episode. First, it was Louie's bachelor bedroom. It could be an okay bedroom if it were tidier but is so clearly perfunctory and sad. Over the unmade bed there is a smallish, square painting hung off center. This killed me. The painting was clearly purchased to hang in another room at another place and time. His bedroom is so unlike the rest of his place which is warm and a place his children can feel at home.

There is something here about identity also. His bedroom could belong to anyone. Also,I want to get to a place where it takes me five minutes to pack. And then coming back to it at the end when he essentially buys the identical bag and clothing again. He lacks an identity on the road. We all do.

The motel parking lot. Oy!!  The shopping carts. The horrible room. The facelessness. He does not exist there.

Caleb Michael Sarvis: What’s even more heartbreaking about this lack of identity is that he seems to have a clear established pattern for it. “Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sweating.” This episode has a clear rise in conflict and even though we are cringing as an audience, Louie just rolls with the punches through the end of the episode. I think that’s what stuck with me the most. There’s a “Ah, this again,” about it, giving it a different kind of weight. He even tells Mike (who refers to Bill Burr as "Billy" Burr), that he's "even met [him] before." There are elements that pulse with some broken hearted déjà vu, but more on that below.

Benjamin Woodard: Yes, obligation and identity: the two facets of humanity that most of us struggle with our entire lives. The man pounding on Louie’s motel room door was a great small nod to both of these ideas: he’s looking for someone, yet Louie is pissed off to the point of refusing to not only oblige the man’s concern, but to express any care or hospitality at all.

Also, Mike’s tears could have been a bit much, but as Louie is methodically shutting him down/breaking his heart, CK includes a great little flourish: the red light that illuminates Mike’s face. To actually see this man slowly change as a person, to see his expression turn as Louie pushes back against the idea of obligation, was fantastic. And, of course the choice of red just increased the negative emotion and made his tears all that more disturbing. I’d love for Mike to turn up again, down the road, only far less friendly.

Louie’s lack of personal identity filtered through the most for me during the long airport sequence that took up the episode’s second half. His luggage is the lone piece of himself that he’s carrying along on tour--symbolism!!--no matter how small. And the fact that he first leaves the bag on the tram while trying to help the girl, and then has no way of identifying it with the hazardous materials officers, reinforces this “faceless” persona that Louie has while fulfilling the obligation of performing on the road. The luggage is non-descript to the point of becoming practically invisible to its owner, who himself feels invisible without his home, his family, his everyday life.

Toni Jensen: Along the lines of obligation and identity, the part of this episode that interested me the most wasn’t so much Mike and his poignant/awful tears, but the section with Louie and the girl in the hijab and what follows. Louie feels an obligation to help the girl, which is a great insertion of his own daughters or the idea of his daughters into the narrative. But then once the girl runs off, he gets right back on the train--he abandons the girl and the cause. The look on his face here really works. He has a smirk and a light in his eyes for the first time in the episode because something unusual has happened and he’s met it without fulfilling his obligation.

The moment when he boards the plane, after watching his suitcase being blown up, is similar in its tone and focus, too. The man who drives him around the airport seems both to be fulfilling his role but also to be enjoying it, especially when he gets to point out the guys digging bullets out of the planes. Louie then gets driven over to the plane, gets to board as an individual, a “special” person, someone singled out and unusual, someone with a singular identity. And the look on his face here, too, is much more invigorated than in the first scenes with Mike or even when he’s doing his comedy act. I love this character development--that he’s only fully alive when he’s either not totally fulfilling his obligations or when he’s being singled out or made to feel special.

* * *

The Larger Story

DH: Last week we were talking a bit about how each episode of Louie can be broken down and “workshopped” in the way we’re doing here, but there’s also the larger arc at play as well, and each of these episodes really are connected, so a season works in the same way a novel-in-stories works. What connective tissue are you seeing in this episode?

MC: Immediately after watching, I can’t even read anything yet or speak or know or form anything coherent. I am just feeling, which is what I do. Not necessarily helpful in a workshop setting. I have to keep stopping this episode every few minutes/seconds from dying from the cringy-ness of it. It is so UP CLOSE. UGH. I feel all of the most hateful/beautiful parts of myself within it. I am in the fetal position as I watch. This is one of those that if you have ever, ever, ever even in the most joyful way traveled for work you will relate to. The good and the bad.

CS: For me, some of the connective tissue comes from this weird patterned repetition, or the broken hearted déjà vu as I called it before. Like Myfanwy mentioned above, his apartment is almost too tidy. He packs with a particular rhythm, and even includes "sweating," because he knows it's going to happen. The Jizzy Buns stand seemed like a piece of flash fiction that happened to call back to a joke from his stand up routine in which he calls the icing at Cinnabon "the hot cum." Then there's the scene with the young girl abandoned on the AirTrain which immediately reminded me of the time Jane jumped off the subway. I think as fans we're supposed to feel that same "Oh I've been here before" cringe that Louie does.

MC: Broken hearted déjà vu is such a great description! I hadn't put together those pieces but now that you said it, yes. The cinnamon bun, the child on the train. And then how everyone else is completely disinterested. It is almost like a dream. The child runs away and he gets back on another train. I knew he had left his bag. I loved the scene with him and the security guy. Also, do people really shoot at planes?

DH: Broken Hearted Deja Vu is totally the name of my band! I think we’re a Dire Straits cover band, but we only do the slow songs, none of that “Money for Nothing” bullshit. Also a great call on that feeling: broken hearted deja vu really captures the vibe of this episode and so many others. One of the things I love about Louie is that feeling, and I think it’s very much a middle-aged feeling, of angst and acceptance, if that makes any sense. That feeling of slogging through another day and trying your best and understanding that that’s pretty much as good as it’s going to get. That’s what being a grown up is, right? Or maybe I’m just a little hungover this morning.

I also think that theme of obligation is a pretty strong current through this season. A lot of the storylines have been about obligation: the mom who wanted Louie to move the fish tank, the call from Bobby in jail when Louie has a house full of little girls, even Jane freaking out about the lobsters in the supermarket. All of those stories were teasing out that idea, I think, of what our obligations are in the world, and how much we care about them. Do we care enough to worry about the lobsters in the supermarket? Do we care enough to suck it up and tell the driver about New York City, even though we just want to sit in silence and play with our phones?

CS: This is very true, this sense of obligation, and though I'm younger (I'm 24), I can still feel myself caring less about certain things if only because I won't survive unless I do. I'm going to have to run through this season one more time as soon as it's finished so I can experience it as one complete picture. I imagine "The Road" episodes are going to parallel the penultimate episode of Mad Men with this theme of "Do what we have to do to get home." He told the one guy that Roger was dead just to get him out if his face. That was so funny but so fucked up too.

DH: Funny and fucked up, too, is kind of the thing with this episode. In the airport scene, right as he’s realizing he left his luggage on the train (I think), there’s something happening in the background that’s really interesting and I think plays into this same theme: there’s a guy sleeping and this woman comes up to wake him up, but he doesn’t wake up. She shakes him and you get the sense that maybe he’s dead, and then Louie walks out of the scene.

CS: The PA announcer also says, “Now serving customers who are dying or afraid.”

TJ: This episode has more of a standard narrative arc in many ways than the past few episodes. The Road Trip premise provides the arc somewhat, sure, but the move from the dull/everyday to the more engaged or heightened moments follows the standard plot arc, too: inciting incidents 1)Mike + tears + obligation=Louie’s annoyance and partial compliance/resignation and 2) Louie’s agent and the awful motel and, again, Louie’s annoyance and partial compliance/resignation. And then the plot moves along accordingly with more small incidents and irritations. So I have to admit, until the girl at the airport and the lost bag (and hooray for guys digging bullets out of planes!), I was a little bored. Middle-aged ennui has a place in this show, absolutely, but it can’t be the driving narrative thread. The addition of strangeness and how Louie can’t or won’t avoid it--how he revels in it and then comes alive--seems to be what drives the narrative toward the end and through the whole season so far. I get that we need the sad repetition of the beginning to move us toward something else, but I still was getting both a little bored and a little worried. Where are the weirdos? More importantly--where is Louie’s usual rendering of the everyday as very strange? Very sad is just very sad; whereas very strange is very compelling (for me, at least). I also was worried (like Dave) that the show was going to fall off the cliff into that super boring idea that nothing interesting happens in the middle of the country, only in New York. The show’s later moments with the girl, the blown up luggage, the absurdity of the Jizzy Buns breathed life into the staleness of the routine. Louie got his semi-swagger back. And hooray for that.

BW: I agree on the need for strange in Louie. That’s one of the elements that threads the whole series together. Without the off-kilter moments, the show just doesn’t feel right. I’m glad it picked up in the second half with, as mentioned, the Jizzy Buns, the bullets, the dead guy(?) in the background, the bomb squad.

But this gets me thinking about the perhaps deliberateness of this structure (first half = straight, second half = odd). Everything in the airport has this dreamlike quality: Louie encounters something unusual, the unusual thing occurs, and then he moves on. None of these scenes end up meaning much, outside of the occasional callback to earlier incidents in previous episodes/seasons, yet they help him get from point A to B. And maybe this is all meant to feel a little hazy. The episode’s first half is very concrete. He is in a new spot, stuck doing a show. This is the “real” world. But the airport, this is the place of limbo. Yes, he has flights to catch (another obligation), but there’s less reality here. Anything can happen.

* * * 

Writer Moves: The Road Trip

DH: The road trip is a total writer move. I’ve heard it said before that if you’re not sure how to structure your novel, make it a road trip and there you go, structure in place. How do you think the road trip functions as a story or novel element? How do you think Louie CK the writer is doing with it so far?

CS: I like that he's in the air rather than actually on the road. Airports are a clusterfuck of potential conflict and traveling by air sort of forces Louie to be around people rather than alone, which I like. This also allows for the different stops to be "chapters" or pieces of a larger collection. I think as a writer he's doing fine so far, though I wished we could have gotten a sense of the big picture issue. Last week's episode gives me the sense that this is really about Pamela... But is it? Maybe Part 2 will enlighten us, but I feel like Part 1 was missing that revelation.

MC: There is something about air travel that is so humbling. All of it is unnatural and sad. I am an airplane crier (not every time, but on long flights, transatlantic and whatnot). I feel very close to death. And airports are weird. Both exciting and horrific. If you are traveling for fun, there is the potential to have your soul crushed at an airport. If you are traveling for work, you are most probably annoyed. Basically though you are cattle, moving through the gates to your demise.

What is the expression? Where ever you go, there you are?

Louie knows this already. He has completely internalized it. He cannot escape himself and so he has given up trying. The only time he smiles is when he is on stage. Other than that he could be anyone, anywhere. I am not answering your question but, yes, I do feel like he is using this structure well. I like getting out of the tension and comfort of the city and I am so looking forward to the next episode and the condo. The potential for shenanigans is great.

DH: I noticed the thing about him only smiling onstage, too. I think that was really well done. He opens up. He can turn it on, and he knows he can, which makes the reticence with Mike even more significant, I think.

I love it when you say “he can’t escape himself,” because I think one of the real functions of the road trip here is to put him in a situation where he’s alone. If the girls were with him, the Mike interaction becomes a completely different thing. If Pamela was with him, her ability to (wonderfully, casually, brutally, humorously) deflect would have put Mike off and also put everybody as ease, somehow. Louie alone makes all of these interactions, even with the Jizzy Buns woman, just fraught with awkward meaning.

CS: Exactly, if he weren't alone he wouldn't have almost ordered the nonexistent "hot pour." That was a heavy moment for me, because he felt obligated, if you will, to order the worst possible thing.

MC: He so wanted the hot pour, didn’t he? It was written all over his face. It was another moment when his veneer cracked and we were able to see his humanity. Same when he noticed the little girl alone. He had fear on his face.

BW: Hell, I wanted the hot pour!

TJ: He absolutely did want the hot pour! I was so grateful for this insertion of strangeness into the mundane. The best road trip stories all have those moments. I do think this episode can be viewed as missing Pamela (and his daughters), in some ways. Pamela often is the vehicle for the insertion of strangeness into the storylines, and if it’s not Pamela, it’s one daughter or the other. The lost girl at the airport and then the deadpan Jizzy Buns woman insert the idea of Louie’s daughters and Pamela into the narrative really well. What is Pamela if she’s not deadpan and hilarious and absurd? What are his girls if not shrieking and causing havoc? I liked very much this bit of home on the road, and I hope it continues.

BW: Structurally, Louie always does a fine job of subverting expected narrative tropes, and this episode decently prodded the “road trip” expectations. Of course, there are the weird moments that we all anticipate while traveling, but Louie refused to have that “thinking of home” element that so often crops up in road stories. The only time he interacts with home is to complain to Doug. And, as Toni points out, the inclusion of the lost girl and the Jizzy Buns woman as surrogates for Louie’s girls and Pamela also helps the narrative from dipping into nostalgia. The truth is, Louie has been at this so long that a road trip holds no adventure. And whereas the road trip genre tends to place a huge amount of emphasis on the destination, here, do we even know what waits for Louie at the end of the line? I suppose we’ll find out next week, but I don’t know if Louis CK really cares. It’s all about the journey.