TV Watch: As the season finale of "The Comedians" airs, some thoughts on it, "Maron" (new episode tonight), "Louie," and "HAPPYish"
Plus Marc Maron on podcasting the president
(And a note on the nuttitude of Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito)
Do you suppose it's a coincidence that a bacon feast has been arranged on the set of The Billy and Josh Show while the bacon-fiendish Josh is on a juice cleanse? Billy knows!
This special edition of "TV Watch" has been slotted in at this unusual time so that nobody can claim they didn't have advance warning -- even if only by a few hours -- of tonight's hour-long season finale of The Comedians, on FX, featuring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as characters called, by amazing coincidence, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, as well as tonight's new episode of Maron, on IFC, featuring, by the same amazing coincidence, comedian-podcaster Marc Maron playing a comedian-podcaster named Marc Maron. At least where I live they're both on at 10pm, yet another reason to celebrate the DVR.
[Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's 6-3 vote of confidence in the ACA subsidies will just have to wait, the way the Court likes to make us wait. I had something else planned, but I'll probably have something to say at 7pm PT/10pm PT, if only to register admiration for the consistency of the "3" -- Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito -- who demonstrated, as if any demonstration was needed, that even in a case that had no legal foundation whatsoever, they still have no difficulty signing onto the crackpottiest position made available to them.]
For a while now I've been wanting to write about this curious Thursday late-prime-time ghetto of what I was provisionally calling "cranky old white men," in half-hour comedies that also include's FX's Louie, which recently concluded a really strong fifth season, though at eight episodes significantly shorter than the earlier 13- or 14-episode seasons. For those eight weeks it aired back to back with The Comedians, meaning that for those eight weeks FX was putting on one classy hour of comedy.
I don't suppose "crankly old white men" would have been entirely fair age-wise. Louie at 47 (is it my imagination that we heard that age a lot this season?) isn't exactly "old," and Marc Maron, only a year or two past 50, isn't either, leaving only Billy Crystal, and he's paired with the ostentatiously "young" Josh Gad, who seemingly good-naturedly allows himself to be pilloried for his youngness, and general ineptitude. But in our culture, 47 and 51 or 52 really are old, and it really seems to me that we have a subgenre of sorts, featuring the kind of whiny old white guys on whom it seems to be perpetually open season in current cultural commentary. I would note that that we also have a lot of Jews here -- Marc, Billy, Josh. I assume Louie isn't, but I don't care enough to research it. It would probably also be unfair to point out that none of these shows are on HBO, or even Showtime.
"IS EVERYTHING ON THIS PLANET ASS-FUCKING BACKWARDS?"
"And that is where we get our wisdom today": Advertising headhunter Dani (a sparkling Ellen Barkin) commiserates with beleaguered creative director Thom (Steve Coogan) on Showtime's HAPPYish. The "Jonathan" Dani refers to is Thom's boss, and her fuckbuddy -- even in this remarkable cast a standout performance by Bradley Whitford. The dazzling writing, so utterly believable and yet word for word so brilliantly etched that I keep wanting to write it all down to savor, is by series creator-producer-writer Shalom Auslander.
In truth, I can't really tell you (or myself) how good these three shows are. I'm just astonished to find three shows that are watchable. I've written before about my sense of the bottom falling out of TV, and pretty much stopped writing about it, because I figure everybody else seems well enough satisfied with this Golden Age of TV we're living in. I'm a little buoyed not that I've belatedly discovered Showtime's HAPPYish, just in time for its season finale, upcoming on Sunday. I had tried to watch a couple of episodes when I was watching Nurse Jackie in real time and it came on afterwards, and I just didn't take to it. Somehow I drifted into the last couple of episodes -- the ones preceding the finale, that is -- and started to get to know the characters, and then, since the whole thing is up on On Demand, I binge-watched the whole shebang. I think of it now as the show that asks the question "Is everything on this planet ass-fucking backwards?" It's a show that not only starts from the premise that the world is full of assholes, and is run by and for assholes, but includes the understanding that merely sneering at the assholes doesn't make you better than them. But that's another piece for another time.
My suspicion is that all four of these shows are actually really good. But right now I'll settle for "watchable." Remember that I'm not one of those TV snobs who's all the time saying how there's nothing to watch on the tube. At least until recently, I couldn't find enough time to watch all the things I wanted to. And what I find most frightening is that the real crap isn't coming from the major broadcast networks, although the major-network crap has certainly been getting crappier. No, the real crap is the very stuff on cable that all the "serious" TV critics are pointing to as the new era of "quality" television. Building on the breakthroughs of shows like Oz and The Sopranos and The Wire and Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Sex and the City and Nurse Jackie, the cable programming honchos are giving us a lot of shows that look like real shows but are, well, crap. I mean, Game of Thrones? True Detective? All the AMC shows except MM and BB? Really now!
For now, knowing how easy, relatively speaking, it is to catch up these days on previously aired TV shows, what with cable repeats, On Demand, and DVD, I some brief notes about The Comedians and Maron, while there are still new episodes to come in the current seasons, and some longer notes about Louie. Actually, I thought I was going to confine myself to brief notes about all three, but I started writing about Louie, and that turned out to be not such a brief note.
After the firing of a series of directors (starting, amusingly, with Larry Charles, one of the actual show's actual creators and exec producers as well as lead director), the head writer of The Billy and Josh Show, Mitch (Matt Oberg), has been pressed into service as "interim" director, and for once Billy (Billy Crystal) and Josh (Josh Gad) are in agreement -- they're not thrilled.
I wrote optimistically about The Comedians at the start of the 13-episode run, and I have to say I've been well pleased with what's followed. Thanks to strong casting and writing, much mileage has been gotten from the premise: that for Billy Crystal to get back onto series TV, having pitched a sketch-comedy show to FX in which he plays all the major roles, male and female, Tracey Ullman-style, he has to accept a forced pairing with the schlemielish young Josh Gad.
It really is a terrific cast, for whom it must be a treat to write. There's producer Kristen (Stephnie Weir), everyone's punching bag, and clearly not for the first time in a life chockful of outsize horribleness that leaves her perpetually an ungentle touch away from breakdown. And there's the voluptuous production assistant Esme (Megan Ferguson), for whom one might feel sympathy for her inglorious job if she actually did her job. And there's head writer Mitch (Matt Oberg), who -- as we see in the above clip -- has created an image of his life in his own mind that bears hardly any relation to how anyone else sees him, least of all in his perpetual illusion that he has a shot at Esme. Then there the series irregulars, notably (as I mentioned before) the great Denis O'Hare as Denis the FX president, an inspired amalgam of frighteningness and cloddishness into which I imagine Denis has poured any number of suits he's known in his years in the business, and the always-radiant Dana Delany as Billy's wife Julie.
I looked at nearly all the clips of the show that FX has posted, and it looks to me as if they've searched out the show's unfunniest stretches, or in some case bits that don't really represent the show ripped out of context.
There aren't many more dramatic examples of How Network TV Sucks than the contrast between FX's Louie and Lucky Louie, the strained, awkward, kind of creepy sitcom of which Louis CK did nine episodes for HBO in 2006-07. Lucky Louie wasn't the worst thing ever put on TV, but it wasn't very funny, or interesting, and never offered much of an answer to the question of why it was on the air, beyond the fact that somebody at HBO (yes, in this parable HBO plays the role of Big Bad Network) had the idea planted in his/her head that it could be a good idea to have Louis CK do a show for them. Well, it could have been a good idea, but this show sure wasn't.
After what must have been a bruising experience, Louie dusted himself off and came back with Louie, produced for FX on a shoestring budget, with Louie doing all the jobs on the show that one person could handle. Wikipedia quotes Louie saying --
I went [to Hollywood] and I had other networks offering me a lot of money to do a pilot, and I got this call from FX and they said 'Well, we can't offer you a lot of money, but if you do the show for us, you can have a lot of fun.' He was offering me $200,000 as the budget for the whole pilot and I was like 'So, what do I get paid?' and he was like 'No, that's the whole thing, $200,000...' I said 'Look, the only way I'm doing this is if you give me the $200,000 -- wire it to me in New York -- and I'll give you a show. But I'm not pitching it, and I'm not writing a script and sending it to you first.(It seems impossible, by the way, to say whether "CK," Louie's own professional shortening of his tongue-twisting family name, is properly spelled "CK" or "C.K.," since usage is split in his performing credits and products as well as on his own website.)
The first season aired in 2010, and it was good -- original, funny, often harsh, and humanly interesting.
In Part 1 of "The Road," the two-part Louie Season 5 finale, Louie gets embroiled in a lonely act of Good Samaritan-ship on the shuttle train to his airport terminal, then discovers --
The format resembles the original Seinfeld Chronicles: giving us the imagined life of a standup comic of the same name as the star, blending samples of his standup act with, well, scenes from the life. But that's just a format -- and we remember that Seinfeld actually shed the format along with the Chronicles name, abandoning the standup segments. They're integral to Louie, because what Louie does as a comic is a crucial part of who Louie is and why -- a guy who has spent his life trying to entertain audiences by giving them bits of truth about the way we live our lives. A guy who isn't pretty and doesn't have easy answers to life's questions and has absorbed a lot of hurt, and managed to recycle it into a wry, carefully crafted reflection of the struggle to get through the day, the month, and the year with a little pleasure, a little companionship, and a little dignity.
I don't know anything about Louis CK's life, so I don't know how similar the TV Louie's life is, and I don't care. What I'm invited to watch is the character he's putting on the screen. I assume the two Louies have important things in common, like the degree of caring for their professional craft and for having some kind of fulfilllment in their personal life. The TV Louie is a divorced dad of two girls, sharing custody with his ex-wife, and there clearly isn't anything more important in his life than his kids, and one of the things Louie the show does really beautifully as well as amusingly is to document what a complicated, mystifying, punishing process parenting is. Another thing the show does beautifully is to make real, and sometimes painful as well as sometimes funny, the basic human need for the warmth of romantic companionship -- and, yes, sex, fully understanding that Louie at 47 isn't likely to be any woman's idea of Prince Charming. He's clearly never gotten over his ex, and never gets over the sting of the apparent ease with which she's gotten on with her life, missing him, yes, a little, but getting on with her life. That sting, of course, is compounded by his halting efforts to get on with his.
As regards the professional craft, the TV Louie has the distinction of having achieved a certain status in his work, the bone-wearying profession of traveling the four corners of the country getting behind a microphone and making people laugh. He's not what we might think of as a "star," but he makes a living, and most of those zillions of comics and would-be comics traveling those same circuits have at least a nominal sense of his standing in the business. The many comics who are his friends rather than just acquaintances have the respect born of understanding how hard it is to make a living that way and to do so according to the standard he sets for himself.
I know I didn't properly appreciate the earlier seasons of Louie. I often didn't feel like watching the episodes as they stacked up on the DVR. But I usually enjoyed as well as admired them when I finally watched, though I have the distinct feeling that I may have simply erased an entire season. A lot of that, I think, had to do with finding the right viewing angle for the show, lining up its sensibilities with mine. I suspect that those earlier seasons would make an interesting binge-watching experience, as I noticed myself keeping up with this just-completed season more attentively and more satisfyingly, and a lot of the time being blown away by it, in particular by the two-part season-ender, "The Road," which depicts just that: Louie on the road, and having a hard time of it, the knocks coming more regularly and harder, until finally an easy-way-out comic he has no respect for, and who has no respect for him, seems actually to make him question everything he believes about this job, makes him wonder whether he's been fooling himself, making the job harder when all the audiences want is for someone to give them laughs, and the cheaper the better.
WHICH LEAVES MARON
Yeah, out of context this looks kind of like a conventional TV bit, but I think you get at least some of the distinctly Maron-ish touches.
I've written a number of times about how Marc Maron established himself as one of my heroes during the all-too-brief but ever-so-glorious run of Air America Radio's brilliant morning show Morning Sedition. The TV Marc we've been meeting in Maron for three seasons now is pretty familiar from the many years of all sorts of comedy he's been doing in a career that, like Louis CK's, has all the hallmarks of success in this grueling profession except the rewards. Of course for Marc we have the added, or perhaps central, element of the thinly veiled rage, the self-loathing, and the large measure of assholitude.
In Maron too we see Marc both at work -- in comedy clubs and of course in the garage from which he famously does his podcasts -- and at what passes for play, standing up to life and getting beaten back down. Again, it's taken me awhile to align the mental antennae, but this season I've been finding the mind meld easier and the shows more fun -- though again I'm guessing that the change is more in me than in the show.
Look who's come to Marc's garage!
It was the president's own preference to do Marc's WTF podcast in its native habitat, Marc's garage. As we'll see, there was heavy Secret Service presence, which may or may not account for Marc's cats being sequestered in a bedroom. They weren't happy.
Mere hours after the podcast on Friday, Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air got Marc to talk about the experience.
Here are some samples, from the Fresh Air website (link above):
On the White House reaching out
I'm like, "What do I do, do I go to Washington? Do I go to his hotel? What happens?" And [my producer] Brendan says, "They said they want to do it at the garage." I'm like, "That's insane! The president is just going to come over to my house? My two bedroom, one bathroom house and sit in my broken-down garage?" It's where everybody [who I interview] sits, it is the place where [the podcast] happens, but I couldn't even wrap my brain around it.
On cleaning up the garage for the president
I have a lot of clutter on the desk and the Secret Service certainly helped me with that. I have like a pocketknife on my desk; I have half a hammer, like this weird hammer that's broken ... they were like, "Yeah, the knife and the hammer gotta go."
On the safety precautions that were taken
There was a sniper on the roof next door. ... There was a bunch of LAPD on the periphery, down at the bottom of the hill that I live on. ... There were Secret Service people all over the place, and that's how it went. There was a Secret Service guy behind me during the interview who I didn't see at all. I was so intent on focusing on the president.
To hear the podcast itself --
Visit the WTF with Marc Maron website.