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.
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.
LOUIE, “SLEEPOVER” (SEASON 5, EPISODE 6)
JANE HAS SOME FRIENDS OVER.
Caleb Michael Sarvis (CS): Before we get into categories, I wanted to talk about the narrative structure of this episode. Establishing and building conflict in a frame as small as a single sleepover was very short story and I enjoyed how he handled the rising action... Up until the end, but more on that later.
Erin Fitzgerald (EF): I really enjoyed the design of having “artificial” stories on both ends of this episode. And that the acting in both of them was...well....the best word I can come up with right now is “off.”
Dave Housley (DH): This was a weird one. Maybe even weirder in some ways than last week’s epic bad dream bogeyman episode. Okay, not weirder than that, but still, Louie seems like the only show on television that might have an episode like this, which seemed to me like four or five smaller pieces that may or may not be related, and may or may not add up to much of a whole. It felt to me like a lesser story in a collection, one where I can recognize the writer and the writer’s moves, but they don’t add up to as much as they do in some other stories. If this season of Louie is Pastoralia, this episode was maybe “The End of Firpo in the World.”
Toni Jensen (TJ): I also liked the very short story possibilities of the sleepover frame, but then I think what we get, instead, is a bridge novel chapter: not so much full story, not so much rising action chapter, even. So a chapter that’s a bridge between past and future elements but also has some forward plot with Bobby (maybe) and with Pamela’s texts and calls (hooray!).
So I am a simple person, as I said last week, and I like to look at each element in a story and try to figure out what it’s function is in the story. This week we had:
- The play with Lilly
- Sleepover with Afghanistan and Tranquilitee and the gang
- Phone sex with Pamela
- Getting Bobby out of jail
I guess I’m having a hard time seeing how these are connected, and I didn’t feel like they added up to much of a whole. Louie is trying to understand these smart, challenging, weird women in his life, but other than that I kind of felt like this one was a bunch of stuff that happened that didn’t really add up to a whole.
That said, it’s amazing that he has the creative control to do an episode like that. I can’t really think of a precedent. Again, Broad City is the only narrative show I can think of that might be able to do something that different from the status quo, and that’s one of the reasons we love Louie.
I don’t know whether it really “matters” that they didn’t add up for me, but it’s gotten me thinking about how this works when it does work -- when a piece of writing takes that modular form, where they may not seem interconnected, and then (when it works) at the end they kind of magically lock together. Or they seem like they start off in different places and move toward one another as the piece goes on. I think I see this more in essay format than short stories. Anyway, when that works, what it is that’s working necessarily? Did you think this episode was missing that central thing that magically makes the pieces lock together at the end?
Myfanwy Collins (MC): This episode seems to be all about fact/fiction.
The conversation between Louie and Jane as a prime example:
“What is raped?”
“It’s a financial thing.”
I mean that is not true but how do you answer that question when your child asks it? I dread my child asking me that. He should have found a way to answer it appropriately but that would be too television. Saying it’s a “financial thing,” is something one comes up with in the moment and it’s also not entirely untrue because it is partly about power (or lack thereof) and financial things are about power too.
So the structure to me seems to be about these dueling fact/fiction threads. Are Shasta’s parents divorcing or not? Why was Bobby arrested? His story was made up but it was also another version of the truth. Like a fairytale.
I also really appreciate how much butter Louie uses to make grilled cheese sandwiches.
The phone sex plays the fact/fiction/fantasy thing out. Or the aborted phone sex. And how Louie at first wants to tell Pamela that no, he is not okay and then he just says, dogs instead. No one is telling the truth here. Everyone is covering shit up and trying to be funny, or charming, or unchallenging instead of saying what they want or need. The play, the phone sex, the divorcing/not divorcing parents, Bobby.
And then the bit at the end with Louie and Bobby and the yogurt. The fact/fiction thread again. What we think we know versus what is real. Where does yogurt come from? I mean. Really. Bobby! It’s like a story you hear as a kid and you believe and you pass on until it becomes real to you. So maybe one day Jane will pass on the story of how her uncle was arrested during her tenth birthday party sleepover and how they got him out of jail. And the old lady. And the sandwich. And the goat. We all mythologize our pasts like this. They most likely resemble the worst or the rosiest version of reality.
So this episode, to me, is about storytelling and the shortcomings of it and the power of it. The lines slicing through what happened, what we believed happened, and what we want others to believe happened.
DH: That is a really good point. You’re right. I didn’t really see it initially, but all of these pieces definitely do have to do with fact/fiction. One thing that’s interesting is I think the format of a television show is probably more like a book of connected stories than it is like a novel or a collection of stories. Louie is the only show I can think of that’s sometimes like a standalone short story (last week’s episode, for instance), but there is also a longer arc that’s usually happening, and bringing Pamela back keeps that longer storyline going.
One thing that might be interesting is watching how these episode plays into that longer story arc, the interconnected story, with the fact/fiction theme and also the choice to break POV (see Caleb’s note below) and give the viewer some information about Pamela that Louie doesn’t have, which I think will make things especially awkward and cringeworthy for all of us (which is to say, awesome).
* * * *
CS: I'm curious as to the message behind the this opening play. He went out of his way to include Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Matthew Broderick and Michael Cera and created this montage of what's supposed to be a tremendous performance. I'll admit, I was sucked in by the star power, so much that I spent the rest of the episode wondering when it would pop up again. "Beware the man who declares himself honest," "get out of your own head, will ya," and "I wish I was dead." They may have been purposefully angsty to make the scene with Lily mean something, but I almost wish it had been a different episode. I was surprised by the turn taken in the debate over the phone, and I enjoyed that, but where's the call back? Was it an emotional set up? Are the feelings supposed to resonate throughout the rest of the episode?
EF: For me, this is one of those workshops where I have to check myself because I have a daughter around Lilly’s age, so most of my first thoughts are “This is so true because in my experience....” Honestly, how useful is that? I really appreciate how the show nails children’s ages, though. Just one example: that Lilly presents a solid, thought-provoking defense in keeping her phone, but simultaneously isn’t mature enough to understand how crying can work. The tween/early teen demographic gets distorted or glossed over or ignored in so many other creative forms. Because it’s complicated like that -- growth doesn’t happen all at once. I love that the show is never afraid to take that on.
MC: This show portrays children so well. It is probably the best there is in showing the reality of children and their emotional lives right now. My kid is younger than Lilly but I can see us having a similar interaction at some point. I liked how she was so lucid about describing how she appreciates art on more than one level. Her description was amazing. She taught me something and reminded me to trust my child to make the right choices. Why do we not trust them? Well, OKAY. I know there are reasons why and I certainly shouldn’t have been trusted but sometimes they can just be pretty great.
TJ: The “oh, yes, this is how girls that age are” moment for me is the police station and the cab. They are a force--the police force cannot even begin to deal with this force. The cabbie won’t be left alone with it, this collective frenzy of girls. It’s the best narrative moment of the show for me, by far--when Louie turns to the girls, all sleepy on the floor, and says they’re all going to the station. It’s the O’Henry story structure--the unexpected rise in action after what you think has been the high point. The beginning of the episode (the play, the almost-divorced mom drop off, Pamela) forces my narrative expectations toward one of these women being the answer to the problem that is Bobby in jail. Instead, the action rises further, and Louie hauls the girl power to free Bobby. And then the camera pans around to show the faces of all present at the station. It’s a spectacular O’Henry-style moment.
* * * * *
JANE, SHASTA, AFGHANISTAN, TRANQUILITY, PIZZA, ICE CREAM
CS: This was my favorite part of the episode because there was a real narrative arc in play. Louie has to watch over nine… maybe twelve ten-year-old girls all by himself? One of them is a child of divorce? Jane is demanding a sundae station at the last minute? The tension was there and the events the followed made sense a surprised me a bit here and there. If I’m working in a traditional workshop setting, my things that worked would go as follows:
- When Pamela asks if he is okay, he responds “No,” then “Yes,” then “Dogs.” I really enjoyed that little bit of hesitation and calculation in his response. It felt real to me. Most of us would probably have sent either a lie or something like “fnoiwhaffkjh9h” but I appreciated that he went with dogs, because what else was he supposed to say? “Yes” would be a fuck you of sorts, “No” would be pathetic. “Dogs” was a perfect short story response.
- The phone call that led to phone sex that was interrupted by the nine/twelve girls. I was laughing in fear as he pushed his dresser in front of the door. Excellent decision in terms of rising action. The stakes were HIGH. When the girls started chanting and banging on his door, my heart hurt for him. Then at the end, when Pamela has a significant other waiting for her on the other side of her door… well I’ll have more on that below.
Things that didn’t work for me?
- The scene where he “reveals” the little girls divorce seemed a little played out and predictable to me. He could’ve revealed that was adopted and still wouldn’t have worked, especially since it didn’t really pay off until a closing moment. Comedic relief, sure, but I thought this was a poor decision on Louie’s part.
- The stakes were SO HIGH when he placed the dresser in front of his bedroom door that the payoff (the girls interrupting him) could’ve been a little.. more. Maybe the girls cut each other’s hair (Parks n Rec did this when Ron had to watch Diane’s girls) or they glue two of them together? I don’t know, but when you leave children unsupervised and have placed an obstacle between you and them, something else needs to bring that obstacle to life. I wanted to hear a scream, watch Louie struggle to hang up, and then struggle to get out of his own bedroom.
MC: My favorite part of this that Pamela finds out that he wants to have phone sex with her while all of those kids are in the apartment (because that is gross but also so funny and real in relation to fantasy vs. reality, fact vs.fiction).
The kids are one. They are just this child-blob that is ten-year-old girl sleepover. I think I may still be traumatised by my own sleepovers at that age. It’s just too much obnoxious energy and that is captured perfectly. It’s not unlike the jail cell that Bobby is in. Bobby’s experience sort of mirrors Louie’s actually.
The sundae station! Oy! Poor Louie. I love that Jane tried to pull that on him. She is just such an excellent handful of a kid. The idea of sundae station in your home represents some sort of Martha Stewart/Target commercial ideal of what your life is actually like. Jane knows her dad is not a sundae station guy but she wants to present that reality to her friends.
TJ: The sundae station as conflict really is perfect. I’m sorry for Louie, no matter how he handles the conflict because either A) you’re the jerk who can’t pull off your kid’s ridiculous, last-minute request, or B) you’re the jerk who hustles to pull off your kid’s ridiculous, last-minute request. Either way, he has my total sympathy, which works great for the less sympathetic moments: dresser in front of the door, for example--hilarious, but not sympathetic.
* * * * *
CS: I thought the initial introduction of Bobby into the storyline was great. More conflict, more tension. How is he going to pick his brother up and handle all of these girls? Again, it raised the stakes and when we get to the police station, Louie is told to wait which is the worst thing you could tell him there. It’d be much better to hear “You can’t bail him out now” than “you’ll just have to wait.” ------ but then he’s bailed out (no pun intended) by the girls and their obnoxious ways. It just felt like a drop off and too sudden of a release to me. So much that I was checked out in that car ride and wasn’t all that interested in Bobby’s story of his “arrest.” This was my least favorite part of the episode because at least the beginning was interesting to me.
MC: I love that Bobby’s story is shown in an old-timey silent film way. It is immediately to be distrusted then. And then when you learn the reality behind his story (the goat! She gave me a goat! Ahhhh!). The goat lives in the subway now. So Bobby’s happy ending becomes this fairytale about an old lady and a goat. Everything in this episode becomes allegory.
* * * * *
POINT OF VIEW
CS: The show breaks Louie’s point of view every now and then, and it’s usually purposeful, but I know in a short fiction workshop it’d be something we addressed as an issue. That moment when Pamela hangs up on Louie and we hear the voice of another man outside her door, that is outside Louie’s perspective and I was just wondering… is that okay? Does he pull it off? It works for dramatic effect, but as writers are we going to let him off the hook for that?
DH: That’s a really interesting point! Does the show do that very often? It’s something you generally don’t notice on TV and movies. Or, I don’t, at least. But Louie has such a specific point of view that it is noticeable when that POV switches. So now Louie CK the writer of the show has done something we talk about in fiction workshops, which is he’s given the audience information the protagonist doesn’t have. That might give us a little distance between us and protagonist Louie, a bit more of a remove. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. It also could create some ironic distance moving forward, at least for a little while, with Louie having one really hopeful view of what’s up with Pamela and the audience having another, since we know she was making that call from some dude’s house. If they head in that direction -- hopefully, kinda sorta happy Louie thinking that Pamela is coming back, making hopeful romantic gestures -- it’s just going to be the saddest, most awkward thing now. So maybe that choice is a good one. Any movement of Louie toward Pamela now is just going to be super fraught and cringy for us, and generally, on this show, I think that’s a good thing.
MC: That point, with the other man’s voice, was really jarring for me. I was pulled back in by seeing the obvious affection for Louie still on Pamela’s face. That she had that look, drew me back to Louie. I felt myself very much within that moment and I hated that fucker on the other side of the door. This was honestly the most fun ever! Thank you! :)
TJ: The narrative arc of the Pamela/Louie texts and calls works for me in that it establishes Pamela cares about Louie and is lying to him, and now we all know something Louis doesn’t. When she first says she’s in her living room, legs crossed, and she’s clearly in a bathroom, I’m super happy to have both a possible reconciliation and conflict. Then, the man’s voice. It’s so interesting for future episodes because we are not very often privy to information that Louie doesn’t have. We usually see and feel as he does (like at the play when we see and feel his idea that Lily is texting). So I’m the most interested in the possibility of this small bit of roving point of view, moving forward into other episodes...which is what a good bridge chapter in a novel is supposed to do.
DH: I think that’s a great way to look at this episode. Most likely a bridge episode that introduces some themes -- the fact/fiction thing that I totally missed and thankfully Myfanwy didn’t -- and also this idea that we know more than Louie does about Pamela, and the “writer move” of the little POV shift. Will be interesting to see how this plays out.