For something that is technically a comedy, “Louie” can be awfully intense. All of the episodes are funny, some of them are poignant, and most of them leave me with that heavy pit in my stomach that comes from the knowledge that humans are complex, terrible, fascinating creatures. There is endless comedy to be mined from this, and Louis C.K. is the best miner around.
“Louie” is a (perhaps loosely) fictionalized account of Louis C.K.’s life as a stand-up comedian and dad in New York City, and yet it somehow produced the most effective episode of TV about our troops in Afghanistan that I’ve seen. (The episode was even placed at No. 3 on Time’s list of the Top Ten TV Episodes of 2011.) Titled “Duckling”, the episode follows Louie’s USO experience when he travels to Afghanistan to do stand-up for the troops.
At some point, he discovers that his daughter put a duckling in his luggage for good luck. (It was his daughter’s turn at school to care of the class duckling). Throughout the episode, Louie struggles to keep the duckling safely hidden, until he and a few soldiers encounter a group of armed Afghanis. There’s some heated shouting and angry misunderstandings — until Louie’s duckling escapes from his bag, to the delight of everyone watching.
In “Louie”, situations speak for themselves. Louie rarely has to explain what he’s thinking or what the message is supposed to be. “Duckling” is all the more powerful because of this. In fact, Louie doesn’t actually say a whole lot in the hour-long episode, beyond his stand-up act and brief exchanges with other performers. Instead, much is inferred by his body language, facial expressions and the sheer tension of the circumstances. He seems to be humbled by the experience, at times shaken, and yet he retains the same old normal-guy qualities that make him so relatable — talking about his own body issues in his act and hitting on one of the young USO performers. It all seems so normal and real (like most “Louie” episodes), that when things turn dangerous, we feel a genuine fear along with Louie. Of course, we’re pretty sure he’ll survive the episode, but the duckling’s future is not nearly so certain. It ratchets up the tension of an already-tense situation.
In Afghanistan, Louie isn’t as much of a celebrity as he is, say, in New York City. The troops are glad to have some laughs, but Louie himself seems humble in front of them. He gets to leave that place after a short time; he gets to go back to his two little girls. It’s cool that he goes over there to perform, but it’s clear that his sacrifices are different than those of the uniformed men and women who make up his audience. Interesting that this dark FX comedy is able to provide such a reverent view of the work our troops are doing in Afghanistan.
The episode is obviously about the war, but it’s not about fighting. It’s about the simplest ways in which we connect to other human beings, and the inherent peace within those simple connections. It’s about the unifying power of comedy, and the beauty of watching a group of people from different cultures, who don’t even speak the same language, laugh together at the sight of a grown man running around after a duckling.