What all comedy writers can learn from watching “Louie”

B. O'MalleyLast updated: Screenwriting

blog_learn-screenwriting-from-louieScreenwriters:  Louis CK is your new dad.  I want you to let him move into your apartment, take over the couch, and let him eat whatever he wants out of the fridge.

Because he’s gonna teach you how to write comedy.

At Screenplay Readers, we get a lot of comedies. And a lot of scripts which their writers say are comedies, but when it comes to ranking on the Laugh-O-Meter, they fall flatter than a parking ticket at a funeral.

So what’s missing?  Why do so many comedy spec scripts fail so badly at, well, comedy?

Ask Louis CK.  He has a hit FX comedy show called, Louie (in case you’ve been living under building rubble.) If you haven’t seen any of the three seasons, get off your pimpled, unfunny ass and go do so.

Here’s the top three things all screenwriters need to learn from watching Louie:

Knock the walls down first…

Nobody reading a comedy script wants to be slapped in the face and told something is funny.  They want to just laugh. Yet many screenwriters, sadly,  are all-too-slap-happy.

Louis’ character on the show is a stand-up comic named Louie, and he’s loosely/closely based on Louis’ own life.  And like most good stand-up comics, Louie‘s comedy works because he makes it safe for us to laugh at him. But I wouldn’t be writing this if his show, Louie, was all about self deprecation. It only starts there.  Why?  So he can disarm us.

That is, he does a masterful sleight-of-hand job. (Ugh. I just typed “hand job.”  Sorry. Well, it is a blog post about Louis CK). The self-deprecation knocks down those little fences and walls of hesitation the audience brings with them by basically saying “Look, I’m a shlub.  I’m a lazy, over-masturbating, over-eating shlub,” and that gets the audience on board with him.

And by playing that self-deprecation just right, (and with a little aforementioned sleight of hand), he eliminates the gap between “performer-on-high” and “audience-member-down-low.”  He turns the tables. And we the audience?  We go with it. After that, we can laugh at anything he throws at us:  the gross, the vile, the hilariously improper.

Then he follows it up with foibles based on that shlub he’s painted for you.

But none of those foibles would be funny, or nearly as funny, if he didn’t mix in this repeated motif:

Louie the character isn’t walking out of his apartment seeking funny things.  Those funny things just happen.  To him.  And that’s key:  Funny things happen… to him.

So by self-deprecation, he simultaneously lets our guard down and plants the exposition required for us to see how hapless he is when things happen to him.  And the comedy is how he reacts.

Ask yourself this:  Are your characters walking out of their apartments looking for funny things to happen to them?  Or have you set them up well enough for us in the audience to be able to laugh when things simply happen to them?

Are your comic moments leaning too much on the absurdity of a situation?  Or do they stem from your character’s inherent defects or idiosyncracies?

Unlike a lot of shows (especially shows with studio audiences), Louie never holds up a sign and says “This is supposed to be funny, so you should laugh.”

Reality is brutal…

The comedy of Louie, and of all great stand-up comics, is comedy that forms an instant connection with the audience.  And the best way you can make that connection isn’t to smash watermelons or run around like a cartoon character; it’s to ground your comedy in reality.

Louis CK in his stand-up, and Louie on the show, both deal with kids.  Ex-wives. Awkward dates. Insane-yet-insanely-believable people.

For example – recently, Louie had a love interest pop up out of seemingly nowhere. For one or two episodes, that love interest bloomed and stirred shit up and grabbed Louie’s heart and made us like her for all the random, insane-yet-insanely-believable things she did.

And then she was gone. With no big explanation. With no backstory. With no pained exposition.

But you know why it worked? Because it felt real.

Louie’s comedian pal blasts into town in one episode. Defeated, appreciative but somewhat envious of Louie’s recent success, this character tells Louie he’s done – he’s gonna play one more show and then kill himself. And as you might imagine, what follows doesn’t play out like Abbott and Costello.

But those dark moments – those real moments – bring us closer to Louie and make us laugh harder because those moments keep Louie in the same reality that you and I are in. The audience.

By keeping his feet in the same reality as ours, he keeps our defenses down. There’s a line from an Oingo Boingo song that goes “This is not a sitcom…where everything’s alright…”  That lyric sums up the Louie comedic experience:  You can settle in and laugh harder because, just like life, you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, but you know for a fact it’s gonna be believable.

The cardinal comedy rule: If it bends…

Louis CK in his stand-up knows how to push it just far enough. Sometimes he’ll laugh at himself and you’ll realize he’s making shit up as he goes and it’s making him laugh.

Other times, you’ll see him laugh at himself and you can tell it’s prepared material  and he’s laughing ever so slightly here and there just to keep the audience coming along with him as he’s talking about some pretty raunchy stuff.

He’s a master of taking it just far enough.

And he doesn’t milk it.  Ever.

That is, if a joke or a motif works, and is working super well, he gets you to a loud, loud belly laugh, keeps you there for a few beats, but then always, always changes the subject and begins the rhythm anew.

Why does he do that?  If something’s working and making people laugh, why not just stay there?

Because, I suspect, Louie and Louis understand that by switching gears after those few big belly laughs, they’re doing two really vital things to keep people laughing:

a) They’re exuding confidence. “Got you laughing hard on that one, but to hell with it. We’re changing gears now, because I’ve got a lot more up my sleeve.

b) They’re taking a risk.  Moving from material you know makes people laugh to a new beat in your script or stand-up keeps people not only on the edge of their seats a little more, but garners the same sort of respect any performer gets when he’s up there without a net.

Taking your comedy to the bend point, without it breaking, is a difficult art. As screenwriters, we need that ability – that confidence – to be able to know when to shift gears comedically.

The other path, the one most writers seem to take, is a path of overbaked jokes and situations where it’s clear the writer is trying to hold up that sign that reads “See?  This is supposed to be funny.”

Do yourself a big comedy favor:

Watch Louie.  Disarm your audience, keep them with you by keeping it real, and learn to bend it without breaking it.

3 Comments on “What all comedy writers can learn from watching “Louie””

  1. Interesting post.

    “But those dark moments – those real moments – bring us closer to Louie and make us laugh harder because those moments keep Louie in the same reality that you and I are in. The audience.”

    I totally agree with this, and all 3 screenwriting tips.

    Even famous cartoons or animated comedy shows try to add a generous dose of reality into the scenes to make things more hilarious – and most of the time, this is what makes it click. Aspiring screenwriters should know that a creating link with everyday experiences does not only work with dramatic and romantic films and TV shows, this works well with comedy too.

  2. Thank you for a GREAT post! This will help me immensely as I write my comedy pilot. I’m a huge fan of Louie CK and his show.

    This post got me extra excited for the journey ahead!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *