The most memorable sequence in Louis CK’s movie Tomorrow Night—made in 1998 but released only last month, through his own website—begins with its otherwise stern and icily repressed hero, played by Chuck Sklar, in a suit of neat pajamas carefully scooping curled waves of ice cream into a large silver dish. He places this dish on a wooden upright chair. Then, removing his pajama trousers, he lowers himself with a sigh of ecstasy into the heap of soft cold gelato. Such sadness, such laughter! And then you see spurts of liquid vanilla splash onto his parquet floor. Such gruesomeness!
To those, like me, who already love the acidic digressions of Louis CK’s comedy, where a storyline or thought process is suddenly interrupted by random material, this scene is roughly what you might expect from his early work. Although the mismatched seriousness even of that simple category early work only goes to demonstrate one obvious truth: it is no easy thing, thinking about the comical. And this is especially true when thinking about this strange movie, Tomorrow Night.
Until a few years ago, Louis CK was most famous for his stand-up routines. These routines were notable for their frank, memoiristic vibe—centered on the everyday anxieties of being an unhappy husband, and then a divorced father—and for the strange loops and cul-de-sacs into which he let his imagination wander. At the same time, he was trying other projects: a movie, Pootie Tang, and a sitcom, Lucky Louie. Then, in 2010, he made Louie—the show that made him famous. The nature of this show is definitely strange: each twenty-minute episode is generally divided into two unrelated sitcom plots, in which Louis CK plays a version of himself, interspersed with clips of him performing at the Comedy Cellar. And yet on a whim an episode might become a dream, or a plotline might be extended over three episodes—or the stand-up routines might in some way derive from or comment on the sitcom plots they interrupt.
No doubt, when looking at the cast list, the excited fan might think that Tomorrow Night—written, produced, and directed by Louis CK—would be a similar zany funfest, with its cameos and future stars. And it’s true, there they all are, looking happy and caffeinated: Steve Carrell and Robert Smigel, Todd Barry and JB Smoove, and even a glimpsed Amy Poehler, being blithely hosed down by Louis CK himself in a three-second scene as she walks past Myers of Keswick. But this movie is also a surprise. Even the most passionate fan of Louis CK is, I think, not going to adore every moment of this ninety-minute movie. It’s not, let’s say, as funny as a fan might expect. Its constant atmosphere is strangely arthouse and European, filmed in bleached black and white, with a melancholy instrumental score by Neal Sugarman. Its opening shot is of a rubber frog, on its back in a sidewalk gutter, in the rain.
And so the belated iPadding viewer is therefore forced into a kind of double vision: this film is interesting not so much in itself, as for the strange, funhouse relationship it sets up with the inspired energy of Louis CK’s more recent schlubby, surreal comedy: the way in which this early work is both visible and not visible in his, how to put this?—mature phase.
I mean, that sequence with the ice cream: it is sparkling, and comical, and desolate. But how much more replete with comic self-harm and self-exposure than this masturbatory scene is the famous joke from one of Louis CK’s later stand-up routines: “You can figure out how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11th you masturbated—like how long you waited? And for me it was between the two buildings going down…” Or even, to consider the seemingly more innocuous theme of ice-cream, a moment in the first episode of Louie’s third series—where Louie in the Hudson Diner is in the mute, anxious process of breaking up with his girlfriend April (played by a tough, heartbroken Gaby Hoffman), or more precisely being broken up with, because he cannot bring himself to do it. A plate of pie and ice cream that he had ordered before she arrived is then delivered to him. Surreptitiously, he begins to eat it. Please don’t eat that ice cream right now, says April. So he pauses. Throughout the scene, as April is forced to break up with herself, the ice cream remains there, while Louie looks at it, as if it represents pure pleasure—beyond all the infinite difficulties of conversations with other people. The magnetized, neurotic quivers of Louie’s spoon toward the impossible solace of that ice cream are both more comic and more terrible than the scene in Tomorrow Night: the ice cream is now not just a prop out of outlandish farce, but part of a much more melancholy, everyday, self-incriminating technique.
In other words, this movie Tomorrow Night represents Louis CK’s provenance. It makes the sofa-bound viewer consider a constant artistic problem: How does a voice become a voice? And there are perhaps two elements to Tomorrow Night that offer a possible answer. There’s the plot—which manages by a series of dreamlike maneuvers to corral its characters into gruesome situations. Our masturbating hero, Charles Brown, after a failed date with a girl called Lola Vagina, ends up marrying an old woman called Florence, because of the orderly beauty of her housekeeping, and adopting a sullen teenager called Clean. And there are the details that are pure surreal digression: like that deadpan way in which Louis CK, hosing down the sidewalk, also hoses down passing pedestrians, with no comment from anyone. No one in this miniature sequence is ever seen again.
That combination of the gruesome and the surreal, the uncomfortable and the fleeting, is something that still marks the style of Louis CK’s comedy. But the obvious fact that this film takes place within a single fictional world—however warped that world might seem—also made me wonder if his true originality was to realize that his love of discontinuity, of moments where reality is unbelievable, or unsatisfactory, could be applied to the structure of a TV show as well.
In 1998, he had his stand-up; and this movie. The major development was to see in his show Louie that if he played a character apparently based closely on himself, then he could do two things at once – both the frank memoir of his stand-up, and the dreamlike oddness of his fictions. In Louie, he created something that looks like a TV show-à-clef but in fact is no such thing, signalled in that slippage from Louis to Louie. It’s much more fluid and more crazy—a craziness signaled in the lovely way some characters in Louie are played by more than one actor. A character, in Louie, can have more than one character.
That love of discontinuity has even extended to the casting in Louie, the highpoint of which was toward the end of the third season, where the film-maker David Lynch played a trainer provided by CBS helping Louie in his bid to replace Letterman on the Late Show. For Lynch is so famous that at no point was it possible for the fiction to be purely fictional. The fact of it being a show could never be forgotten. And as I watched Tomorrow Night, so many of whose actors are now celebrated, and considered Louis CK’s love of deadpan casting, I wondered for a moment if this was therefore all a joke—if in fact this movie was a sustained, ninety-minute pastiche, an experiment in what Louis CK’s early work might look like.
But of course, no: this movie is for real. To watch the young Steve Carrell with the older Steve Carrell in mind is just a natural effect of time. If Tomorrow Night creates such double vision and disturbance, it’s just another proof that the discontinuity and strangeness that marks Louis CK’s comic, casual art is—like the best art—not just virtuosic, but gruesomely (and brilliantly) true.