Of the viewers of this episode of Louie, I fall into what is decidedly the minority camp of people far more interested in Doug Stanhope than in Louis CK (which is not to say that Louis CK isn’t a very funny and talented man-Louie has been consistently one of the best shows on TV since its debut last year.) Despite a couple missteps, mostly in the unnecessary and distracting flashback sequences, I would rank Eddie as the best episode yet produced of Louie, only challenged by the earlier episode wherein Louie attempts to buy a house far outside his price range.
The initial round of write-ups have, for someone like myself who has followed Stanhope’s career for a number of years now, been disappointing and ill-informed. Take for example the write-up offered by Todd Vanderwerff at The Onion AV Club on the episode. He first positions Stanhope as a foil to show some alternate route that Louie could’ve taken in his stand-up.
“Eddie” is just the latest “dark” episode of this show, an episode that is about a rather cautionary tale of what might have happened to Louie if he was less talented or less hungry or less… whatever.
This, to someone unfamiliar with the recent dark turns in Stanhope’s work, is a reasonable point to try to argue. Certainly CK’s positioning of Stanhope as fictional character, something he hasn’t done with any of the other stand-up guest appearances on the show, would seem to support this. By not making Stanhope have to be Stanhope, Louie can take some liberties with the character. The scene where “Eddie” berates a rightfully offended liquor store clerk definitely doesn’t seem true to the Stanhope who says regarding a Subway employee on the track “Subway Breakfast” off Deadbeat Hero:
“…you’re just programmed to do this. So I don’t want to give him shit, I mean he’s got enough shit in his life. He’s gotta wear a paper hat and ‘I’m a sandwich artist’ polo shirt and frat guys give him shit all day long.”
But Vanderwerff takes the fictionalization too far as a part of his analysis, when he makes claims about “Eddie”‘s stand-up material.
“He proves that by getting up at the open mic and telling jokes that are legitimately amusing. But he doesn’t really have a personal stamp. He’s funny, but he’s not funny enough.”
This observation could possibly be salvaged if it weren’t for the fact that the jokes Stanhope tells in “Eddie” are in fact Stanhope’s jokes. The point about not having a personal stamp is ludicrous as well, as though a clear line can’t be drawn between the Eddie/Stanhope who later in the episode laments losing the desire for anything and the man onstage declaring his utter distaste with the sexual act and revulsion at his own bodily functions.
The suicide element is also something very much ingrained into Stanhope’s act as well. I remember a particularly poignant and tragic performance Stanhope gave at Caroline’s in NYC two years ago. I went to the Sunday show and can only imagine how intense the Friday and Saturday shows had been. Stanhope was distraught and disillusioned by the suicide of a fan who’d decided to go to a show the previous week as his last act before killing himself. Stanhope, at the tail end of weekend long bender, gave what he considered a substandard show, only to find out about the fan’s suicide after the fact. He exhorted the bewildered crowd of upper-class Manhattanites sprinkled with Stanhope die-hards to tell him if they were going to commit suicide. “If I’d known I would’ve tried harder and given a better show!” he proclaimed with an inextricable mixture of gallows humor, aggressive disdain, and regret.
He then went on to condemn the crowd. “Normally when I talk in a bit about ‘you’ I mean some person out there, this time I mean you specifically, you in the audience. You’re the people I can’t stand.”* The audience’s lack of desire to latch onto the sporadic punchlines he offered out like baited traps played into it all, and the cumulative effect was one of the most powerful performances I’d ever seen. No one was innocent of the fatal mediocrity. I walked home alone after the show profoundly distraught and worried Doug Stanhope was going to kill himself. It wasn’t any of my business, but I felt some confused need to act. I wrote out dozens of half-finished letters in my 19 year-old head trying to mount an argument to convince him not to do it, only to become frustrated and give up. He had conjured a well of feelings rendered so life-like and unrelenting I felt grateful in some uncomfortable way to have been witness to it.
Which brings us back to last night’s episode of Louie. In confronting the parasuicidal elements of the Stanhope persona and recontextualizing them in a social setting in stead of as a stand-up performance, CK clarifies and suggests an entirely new set of interior possibilities in Stanhope. Stanhope’s performance suggests these as well; he amuses himself repeatedly in the episode by being outright hostile to people and seeing their angry response. Yet it seems possible that this is merely Stanhope’s own way of seeking truth; he sees the possibility for some genuine interaction or moment lying beneath the perceived facade of manners and respectability. By forcing an emotionally charged situation, he briefly glimpses a life much stranger and more charged than the one he feels trapped in.
When “Eddie” proposes his plan to kill himself to Louie, Stanhope the performer skirts around the reality of the situation, and laughs repeatedly, amused. CK the director wisely never offers closure as to whether Eddie kills himself, and it leaves open the possibility that Eddie was in fact simply manufacturing the scenario out of a desire to get a genuine response from Louie on what the purpose of life is. This is similar to extremity of Stanhope’s work as a stand-up-if the stakes don’t seem real and threatening, the audience doesn’t take the question posed as being necessary and urgent. When the audience (or adjacent performer in the case of Louie) is pushed into a performative lapse, some new and fresh response must be concocted. Stanhope here is the lost fifth child at Passover, who asks the question “Why must this night be the same as all other nights?”
*These are garbled paraphrasings from two year old memories, and should be taken with a grain of salt as to phrasing and word choice.