Going the Distance- On Rocky, Comedy, and Rhythm
Like any stand-up comic who respects the art form, I simply stand back in awe, jaw agape, at what Louis CK does. He has truly taken the mantle of Woody Allen as our most relevant comic voice, not only as a stand up, and as a writer, but as a filmmaker as well. Bringing Woody Allen up with regard to Louis CK feels about right for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he is using Woody’s longtime editor, Susan Morse, as his editor/co-editor on the latest season of his FX show. Like Woody, CK’s early recorded stand up tends to focus on the melding of our reality with the absurd. There are direct parallels between films like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, SLEEPER and BANANAS, not to mention Woody’s brilliant stand up bit about the moose, and Louis CK’s early stand up with regards to topic and style. Really though, see Woody’s bit about the moose here. It’s hilarious- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmnLRVWgnXU You can look up Louis CK’s early stand up on YouTube quite easily to see the parallels. Okay, this range of clips doesn’t totally illustrate my point, but wow, look how young this dude looks here! Doesn’t this just make you smile and think he is just even more awesome?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwmRKJQr7WQ Well, I bring all this up, after the above digressions, to talk about the last three episodes of Louis CK’s brilliant show “Louie”, what they say about stand up comedy, humor, life, purpose, and just for fun, how they can be tied all the way back to the boxing film ROCKY, and one of Sylvester Stallone’s first appearances in a mainstream film, Woody Allen’s BANANAS. In fact, let’s start there. Notice early Sly, and early Woody, but also notice the camera work, the tone that wavers between genuine slapstick absurdity, and doc-style truth-telling cinema verite. Very “Louie”-esque right?
Well, this all came together in an amazing series of connections the past three or so weeks when Louis CK directly referenced ROCKY in his show, which was edited by Susan Morse. The episodes drew poignant parallels between boxing, comedy, family, and most importantly, finding one’s rhythm in life, so that they can build toward their next big endeavor.
Spoilers ahead for the few of you that are reading this. The last three penultimate episodes of this season (they function together as one long episode) directly referenced ROCKY in their use of story, theme, cinematography, music and tone. Louis is meant to be the underdog with a one in a million shot who has to compete against the beloved, well-known, and nearly god-like “undefeated champion”, in this instance personified by Jerry Seinfeld (and Jay Leno, and to an extent, Chris Rock), instead of Apollo Creed. And just how Rocky had his crusty world-weary trainer Micky, Louis has the amazing, unnerving “Jack”, played by David Lynch. Lynch plays the part brilliantly, but what makes his two episodes in the three episode arc especially fun for meta-analysts like me, is the fact that such a surreal, iconoclastic filmmaker, who has had such a clear and profound influence on Louis CK’s work as a writer and director, gets to play such a fun, mentor-like role for such a idiosyncratic persona as Louis.
Louis knows that he is not naturally up to the task. That his style, his “default” mode, is to cater to an admittedly large niche audience that is likely to “get” him, and wont require him to pander or figure out how to make new material work with a tamer approach. A new, wider audience, however, would absolutely bump him up into a new socio-economic bracket. It is what every comic is supposed to want. At the urging of his wife, his kids, and David Lynch’s Jack, he is told to really work for this. Break out of his comfort zone. Reach for something higher and realize his full potential. And with that, as in Rocky, Louie “trains”. He encounters many obstacles. When he gets to his final real audition, he has become a truly great talk show host. The execs love him and it is clear that he is in a new zone, expertly handling his duties without losing that which makes him unique. He has mastered himself by challenging himself and truly knowing his own internal “rhythm”. The three-episode arc ends perfectly, on a note echoing ROCKY, where like the famous fictional boxer, he ends up losing the match. Louis CK ends up not getting the show. Yet, there is still exhilaration. Both Rocky and Louie have won because they “went the distance” and proved to themselves that they are not just another bum from around the block. It may be a fleeting moment for the both of them, but it is an important one.
I think ROCKY, and boxing generally, serve as a perfect metaphor for what it is to be a stand up comic. Chris Rock, Louis CK’s best friend and real life mentor, talks about how his breakthrough stand up comedy set “Bring The Pain”, was forged as Chris Rock trained for the set in the same way a boxer would. Total focus, dedication, and finding his rhythm. It was sage advice because it resulted in what I consider the greatest stand up show ever recorded. It is the set that made me a stand up comedy fan for life, and inspired me years later to take the stage myself.
Louis CK himself, outside of the past few episodes of his show, has talked about how he actually boxes and trains like a fighter when prepping for his sets.
I have personally trained in boxing gyms and had a fascination with boxing all my life. Listening to Louie and Chris Rock, I completely agree with the both of them that being on stage and doing a set follows the rules of boxing to a tee. You have your material. Hopefully you have “trained” for your night by working it out in open mics or otherwise. Once you take the stage, you have your strategy. Just like boxing, you will undoubtedly take “hits”, whether from the audience, or your timing being a little off, or some other unforeseen factor. The natural instinct after taking any such hit is to flail wildly or to run away. But the best stand up comics, like the best boxers, learn to adapt to the constant resistance and keep their composure, sticking to their strategy, keeping their rhythm, or adjusting to a new one on the spot. It is easy to draw grand metaphors about life from just about anything. Because I like things to be easy, I wont fight the metaphor and simply say that stand up comedy, for the two and a half years I have been doing it, has given me the following- it has beaten me up, taught me a million things about writing and performance, and been a lot of fun too. Most of all, it continues to force me to really know myself, figure out my own rhythm, and present that to the world, all while taking the hits, and learning to not flail or run away. As someone who’s first film experiences revolved around the Rocky films, it feels like things have come full circle. I’ll write more later about specific stand up experiences. I’ll write about other stuff too. Till then, here is a cool picture of Richard Pryor.
Originally published at sk1stories.blogspot.com on August 6, 2015.