Over the course of his FX show Louie, the comedian, writer and actor Louis C.K. wrote two beautiful obituaries for Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, respectively, probably without knowing it.
Starring as a version of himself in the show that he also writes and directs, the character Louie navigates a New York City made absurdly funny by a parade of strange happenings punctuated by intermittent drop-ins from tragically neurotic send-ups of “single moms in the city” as well as believable real-life portrayals of world-famous comedians including Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Marc Maron all playing themselves. With the death of Williams a month ago and the passing of Rivers this week, I rewatched the episodes guest starring the comedic icons and was struck by how succinctly C.K. captures two sides of the stand-up comic archetype. In Williams, C.K. focuses on the unassuming, almost shy presence that counters the volcano of energy that performers must bring to the stage. And in Rivers, C.K. gives his audience a representation of the pure and gracious perseverance that keeps artists plugging away at their craft because making people laugh is not a job as Joan tells Louie, “it’s a calling.”
After watching the documentary about Rivers, A Piece of Work, C.K. was inspired to invite Rivers on his show. The episode in which she co-stars is about Louie doing a crummy gig in the lounge of a Trump casino and then quitting because he breaks the rules, which include saying the “f-word,” “disparaging gambling” and “disparaging the owner of the casino.” During his last night at the resort, Louie catches Rivers performing at the casino theater and heads backstage to tell the grande dame how great her routine was. Rivers admits to knowing who Louie is, tells him that he’s funny and then invites him up to her suite “to talk shop.”
In Joan’s luxurious accommodations filled with overstuffed white couches and flowing with flowers, Louie tells the old pro with the paralyzed face that he quit the hotel job. Joan is mortified in that way that old school folks are when a young whippersnapper sprays entitlement on them like a self-righteous skunk. To clear the fog between Louie’s ears, Joan informs her less mature colleague that she has been in show business for a “million and two years” and the one thing that she’s learned is that you “never quit.” The passion and eloquence of her speech, dripping with a love of craft even more profound than Joan’s love of plastic surgery, which Rivers and C.K. wrote together, induces Louie to kiss Joan and though she is freaked out at first, she agrees to take him to bed.
Though Louie and Robin Williams don’t sleep together in the episode where the latter appears, the meeting of the two comedians is rife with intimacy. The only two mourners at the burial of a scumbag comedy club owner who is interred in a coffin likened to an “Ikea box,” Williams joins C.K. at a diner afterward where the two swap stories about the dead man, admitting that the idea of a funeral with no one present gave them both nightmares. Having aired their true feelings the comics recall how the deceased douche always tried to get comedians to accompany him to a strip club called “Sweet Charity.” In honor of the dead man neither of them liked, the unlikely pair go to the club where after Louie breaks the news to the staff, the strippers are reduced to puddles of tears and the DJ plays a tribute song. After Louie and a bearded Williams, dressed inconspicuously like a well-appointed wealthy man over the hump of middle-age, leave the club, the two break into laughter and shake hands, promising that they will attend the other’s funeral depending on who dies first.
Now, the deaths of Williams and Rivers alike have produced waves of mourners irrespective of how few of us have said our goodbyes formally. And though most of us knew neither larger than life personality personally, C.K. gave his audience an intensely personal glimpse of both celebrities that told us much more about the lives of comics than it did Williams and Rivers as individuals. By putting Williams in the context of death and Rivers in the thrust of life, C.K. presents us with the aspects of the human impulse behind art: souls too heavy with pain to go on and souls too buoyant to give up. Rivers and Williams will be sorely missed not only because they made us laugh, but because comedians more importantly make us forget our problems by sharing their problems with us. The side of Williams and Rivers that C.K. highlighted wasn’t just about comics doing their jobs. Rather it was about comics being genuinely decent human beings.