11 Louie: A Role Model When It Counts

Will Zurier

Louis C.K. is a renaissance man when it comes to television. A comedian, writer, producer, editor, and actor, Louis C.K. has walked many of the different roads that lead to television success. In 2010, C.K. got his break when Louie was picked up by FX. Written by C.K. himself, “Louie may be best described as short films, since several episodes are divided into two unrelated segments with distinct storylines that actively avoid the traditional three-act structure” (Kunze, 59). Louie is a dynamic and groundbreaking show in the way it follows C.K.’s struggles as a single father. Louie is different from the typical construction of the single father seen throughout many sitcoms; his single parenting is a product of divorce, he does not have a strong supporting family or enlist other help while dealing with the difficulties of bringing up two kids on his own, and as such the show emulates his real life triumphs and tribulations in all aspects of adulthood. This unique and authentic situation makes Louie a compelling and realistic character; he chooses to put a spotlight not only on his parental role but also his love life and workplace struggles, which are not mutually exclusive events. Throughout Louie, we can see C.K. emerge as an unlikely role model—maybe not as a husband or an ex-boyfriend—but as a father.

In 2006, C.K. arrived on the situational comedy scene with his show Lucky Louie. In the show, C.K. played the role of a blue-collar man who is married with a daughter. It ran twelve episodes on HBO before being cancelled that same year. Peter C. Kunze attempts to figure out why Lucky Louie may have failed back in 2006 in his piece, “Fatherhood, Feminism, And Failure In Louis C.K.’s Comedy.” Writes Kunze, “It can be difficult to assess why the series failed, but one noticeable disconnect between Louis C.K.’s stand-up and the sitcom is the lack of authenticity” (Kunze 59). C.K. is a single father; when he attempted to stray from his reality in Lucky Louie, he was unable to capture his true emotions. Seeing Louie as a strong parental role model comes from the true-to-life scenario for Louis C.K. contextualized by his own realities as a person and a single parent.

Louie seems to evade the common trends that Judy Kutulas brings to the reader’s attention in her piece on family dynamics throughout sitcom history. Louie is a dynamic and groundbreaking show because it represents the synthesis of many of the attributes and tendencies of several shows mentioned throughout the piece, such as The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond, and My Three Sons. C.K. is a baby boomer and exhibits many characteristics attributed to that generation in his eponymous role in Louie. C.K. has a tumultuous relationship with his mother in real life and on the show. He characterizes her as being selfish and claims that her lack of presence in C.K.’s childhood led to his strong independence as an adult. The baby boomers are also known as the “me generation,” which Louie embodies by continuing to work on the comedy circuit, even though the hours are detrimental to his health and wellbeing. Louie also demonstrates the desire to have it all that is common among baby boomers; chasing success by night on the comedy circuit and striving to be an admirable father to his daughters by day. Although his atypical working hours are not good for his health, they enable him to spend time with his daughters during the day, a role traditionally occupied in sitcoms by a Cleaver-esque mother.

In her chapter, Kutulas writes that Homer Simpson “bears little resemblance to any 1950s fathers” (Kutulas 63). This observation is even more true of Louie. In fact, he bears little resemblance to any fathers throughout the entirety of sitcom history. In an interview conducted by Mary Dalton, Kutulas argues, “We’ve always done a lot of dad families without moms…That form I think is typical because then it lets you have dad try to figure out mom’s role and somehow that’s hysterical…” (Dalton/Kutulas). Although there have been many single father households on TV, there are few as complex and difficult as the one seen on Louie. Louie must look after two young daughters, who are completely dependent on him. The older daughter is not old enough to help Louie to take care of her younger sister. They both need him all the time. He must balance his unpredictable work schedule with his children’s more routine schedule, and he has no reliable or consistent support to help him along the way. With such a fragile situation, one might question how this man is going to balance these issues when he can barely take care of himself. This tension is what makes Louie an entertaining and powerful series. It is the fact that he is willing to jeopardize his own emotional health and sanity to be present and a strong role model in his children’s life no matter how difficult it may be.

A single father household is not uncommon in sitcom history; its roots date back to My Three Sons (1960-72), and this narrative pattern has been a constant motif to this day. It is the single-father through means of divorce that makes Louie an unusual show, however. “The divorced single father really does not enter the sitcom world until relatively short-lived Hello, Larry (1979-80) and more successfully in Silver Spoons (1982-86), Blossom (1990-95), and, later, Two and a Half Men. (2003-)” (Kunze 59). Though the divorced single-father sitcom pool is fairly small, what makes Louie unique among his predecessors is his distressed financial situation and practically nonexistent support network. Louie’s situation within the show highlights the odd duality of his identities as an individual and a father – everything is imbued with the added significance of his daughters’ dependency on him. While this context puts Louie in uncharted waters, the sheer plausibility of the situation is what gives the show’s audience a means of relating to it.

In Silver Spoons, the father is excessively wealthy, and in Two and a Half Men, the father is somewhat financially strapped but takes advantage of his brother’s wealth to ease the burden of raising his child. Both sitcoms use household staff members to help them to deal with the task of raising children on their own. In the pilot episode of Louie, Louie discusses the issues of sending his kids to public school:

I go to my daughter’s school to volunteer sometimes. My daughter goes to a public school, and I volunteer not because I’m a good person, but because you have to, because nobody works there… So, my job as a volunteer is to stand there usually near my daughter, so I can be with her…

Unlike the shows mentioned above, Louie does not have help or the means to send his daughters to private school. Louie is a role model as a father because he takes time out of his own life to make a less-than-optimal situation better for his daughters by spending quality time with them. Without any financial or family safety nets, Louie shows how being a single father is a full time job, and he does so in an admirable fashion.

In 1980, a research study conducted by Australian psychologist Michelle Garnett found that “single fathers had less difficulty with becoming a single father than they did with becoming a separated person” (Russel 352). The semi-autobiographical context in which Louie is written gives the viewer an honest look into the true emotions that C.K. feels on a daily basis. In the Louie episode entitled “Dog Pound,” viewers are able to see his actual struggles with everyday life when his children are not around. During this episode, Louie’s children go to their mother’s for the weekend, which inherently makes Louie depressed. Planning to work out, he ultimately winds up eating ice cream, smoking weed with his obnoxious neighbor, and adopting a dog that dies the second it enters his home. This view of Louie’s life is something that is unfamiliar in other sitcoms revolving around a single father. When his children return from their mother’s house, he proceeds to tell them that he had a good weekend, shielding them from the depths of his sadness. We are able to understand this unique crossover from Louis C.K. to Louie in this revelation from an interview C.K. had with Terry Gross on NPR:

I’m a person who tends to fall into depression and sleep a lot and eat a lot. I can’t really do that ‘cause my kids are with me and there’s nobody there to cover for me, so at 6 in the morning they’re at my bed, ready to seize life. And I just can’t go back to sleep. (NPR)

As we can see from both this interview and “Dog Pound,” C.K. is the opposite of a role model when his children are not around. When they are with him, however, they bring out his best qualities and propel him to be a better man throughout the process. If only by default, the presence of Louie’s kids allows him to tap into a side of himself that he otherwise cannot access, and the divorced single father trope becomes transformed into one of an unlikely hero – even if the hero racks up more defeats than victories.

Louie is able to teach his girls invaluable lessons through his strong demeanor, a façade he feels compelled to put on since he desperately wants to feel more masculine. In “Longitudinal of Divorce on the Quality of the Father-Child Relationship,” an article published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, a research study shows that “When comparing divorced and married fathers, for example, we see that married fathers have more parental opportunities than do divorced fathers” (Arendell 1995). Louie attempts to be as fatherly as possible around his children because his “parental opportunities” are limited, albeit less limited than the traditional divorced father. Louie tries to embody the fatherly role every chance he gets, and viewers cannot always tell if he is doing this to save his daughters or himself. In the episode “Back,” Louie and his two daughters, Jane and Lily, have a discussion over who should carry a backpack on the trip home from school:

Jane: Daddy, my backpack is too heavy. Can you carry it for me pleaseeee?

Louie: No, I would never do that to you.

Jane: Do what?

Louie: Take your burden away from you.

Jane: Daddy, that’s not taking, it’s helping.

Louie: No, it’s not. Because, see, it would deprive you of your growth and development.

Jane: No! But Daddy!

Louie: If I don’t help you and you struggle, then you get stronger.

Jane: Noooo!

Louie: By doing more than you believe you can do you put yourself in a moment of doubt and pain.

Lily: Here, just give it to me!

This quick argument on the walk home from school between Louie and his daughters deftly exemplifies how Louie is able to find and utilize parental opportunities even when it masks his own shortcomings. Through a simple subject such as carrying a heavy backpack, Louie is able to teach his daughters about responsibility and persistence while simultaneously allowing himself to be lazy. When examining the dialogue between them, we can see that Louie attempts to insert no less than five different valuable lessons during their short walk because he has limited time to teach his girls proper values and life lessons. Even though his efforts to teach Jane a lesson are thwarted by his older daughter, Louie is able to retain a manly image throughout the exchange. Louie is a role model because he attempts to teach his daughters valuable life lessons in the limited time they have together, even in the face of his own vastly flawed existence. Louie is not with his girls all the time because he shares custody with his ex-wife, but when he is with them, he excels at seizing “parental opportunities.”

In a now-infamous quote from 1993, NBA superstar Charles Barkley said, “I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” In many ways, this quote applies to the version of C.K. that comes across in Louie. Louie is not the idealized version of what a single father should look like, but he uses what he has to provide for himself and his family. Just as Barkley developed a bad boy image on the court to play off of the more polished personalities of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, C.K.’s portrayal of himself in Louie stands in stark contrast to Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and a number of other comedians who play themselves on the show. At the risk of his own self-image and mental health, C.K. provides viewers with a version of himself that invites criticism. The crucial disconnect that C.K. papers over so skillfully is that he receives the royalty checks that Louie doesn’t receive within the show; his shortcomings are monetized in a meaningful way that supports his children. We only hate Louie for things he does and says on the screen, but the man he is outside of this construct paints a more wholesome and role model-worthy picture.

This dichotomy between his persona on-screen and off-screen feeds into another point of discussion in considering whether or not Louie is worthy of being considered a sitcom role model – the separation of the artist from the art. Every day, hundreds of writers pour thousands of words into columns on beleaguered, misunderstood, and often loathsome geniuses such as Kanye West and Woody Allen. Can we separate their artistic brilliance from their immense fallibility as people? And in the case of Louie, to what extent can we do that when the art is a complete extension of the artist himself? Woody Allen may have roles in his movies that hit close to home, but nobody is quite like C.K. in terms of devastatingly authentic self-deprecation. Consequently, it becomes difficult for an audience to distinguish Louie’s shortcomings as a character from C.K.’s shortcomings as a man – especially because so many of these shortcomings exist on both sides of the coin. Despite all of his problematic traits, Louie maintains an everyman mentality that endears him to his daughters and his viewers, and they root him on, no matter what the horrible consequences will inevitably be.

Louie creates a divorced, single father character with limited resources and support, which breaks the mold of the typical single-father construct in sitcoms. Due its semi-autobiographical nature, viewers are able to see the writer’s true emotion and passion throughout the show. If there is one simple takeaway to be had, it is that Louie is unabashedly Louie. This often manifests in his problematic tendencies – his depression, his inability to maintain a relationship, his laziness – but also can be seen through his devotion to his family and his craft, despite the overarching sense that all is lost. Louie is a character that has wholeheartedly dedicated himself to going down with the ship, even if the ship’s sinking is mostly his fault. To make matters worse, he does not have the support of family or the financial resources that could help make his difficult life easier, yet he still finds a way to overcome the everyday parenting obstacles in order to become a strong role model for his two young girls. Much of the show’s world is the direct outcome of a man who is hopelessly stuck in his ways, many of which are bad and some of which are good. Yet, Louie’s role model status comes from his negative traits – as we watch this flawed, broken person venture out into a cold, unfeeling city to protect his family, we are reminded of some critical aspect of humanity that Jerry Seinfeld and Homer Simpson don’t get close to. Louie clearly has his downfalls, but being a father is not one of them. To put it in Barkley’s terms, we may not want C.K. raising our kids, but he sure can dunk.

Will Zurier is a Senior at Wake Forest University from the Upper West Side of NYC. He is an Economics major and an Environmental Studies minor.

Works Cited

Arendell, T. Fathers and divorce, Sage Publications, 1995.

Gross, Terry. “Louis C.K. on Life and Standup: ‘I live in service for my kids’”. NPR, 2015, Radio.

Kutulas, Judy. “Who Rules the Roost?: Sitcom Family Dynamics from the Cleavers to Modern Family.” The Sitcom Reader, Second Edition: America Re-Viewed, Still Skewed, edited by Mary Dalton and Laura Linder, State University of New York Press, 2016, pp. 45-69 (Kindle).

Kunze, Peter. “Fatherhood, Feminism, and Failure in Louis C.K.’s Comedy.” Pops in Pop Culture, edited by Elizabeth Podnicks, Palgrave McMillan, 2016, pp. 51-56.

Russel. “Fatherhood in Australia.” The Father’s Role, edited by Michael E. Lamb, Laurence Earlbaum Associates, 1987, pp. 331-360.

Shapiro, Adam. “Effects of Divorce on the Quality of the Father-Child Relationship and on Fathers’ Psychological Well-Being.” Journal of Marriage and Family, National Council on Family Relations, 1999, pp. 397-408. http://www.jstor.org/stable/353757


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Culture and the Sitcom: Student Essays Copyright © 2017 by Will Zurier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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