When Louis CK's series Louie debuted on American cable channel FX last year it sent shock waves across the comedic community. The question on the lips of his comedian contemporaries was this - how the hell did Louis do it?
Louie is one of the weirdest, darkest and most uncompromising television shows to have ever been broadcast on American television; it's also one of the funniest, although some episodes stretch the definition of a comedy programme to breaking point (the infamous 'God' episode being a good case in point).
Louie's originality stems from a unique commissioning deal from broadcasting network FX: after turning in a successful pilot, Louis asked for the series budget to be granted to him upfront (an extremely low amount for a television series), so he could then go away and write, produce, direct, edit and star in each episode, bringing them in at or under budget, with the proviso that there would be no notes or interference from the network with regards to its final content. In an unprecedented move, FX agreed, granting CK probably the greatest amount of creative autonomy of any showrunner outside of England, where there is more of a history of television 'auteurs'.
The deal has been the subject of much debate amongst comics, all of whom would clearly kill for an arrangement that would allow them similar creative freedom. Put simply though, there is no other comedian on the planet capable of pulling off a series like Louie the way that CK did, who combines one the most incisive comic minds on the planet with an almost prodigious technical ability. In a fantastic and illuminating recent WTF podcast, Ck reveals that he would spend hours at school in the AV room taking apart and experimenting with equipment, and longtime friend and fellow standup Marc Maron recalls being with Louis when he found an abandoned computer in the street, before watching wih incredulity as he took it home and nonchalantly fixed it back up to scratch.
CK's natural affinity for the technical aspects of production led to the making experimental short films alongside his standup career for many years, including Ice Cream, the subject of this week's Short Friday.
The tone of Ice Cream very much remains in the shorts found in Louie, even if it's significantly less profane than most of his later work. It also demonstrates the kind of artistry and style CK is able to wring out of a tiny budget, something which must have been a big factor in the decision-making of the FX bosses.
While he clearly has a unique comic sensibility, there are two big influences on CK's film work that are made particularly clear in Ice Cream. There are several parallels with Eraserhead - Rick Shapiro's protagonist character is essentially la combination between Henry Spencer in Lynch's movie and Louis CK's standup persona, and the awkward, ugly and surrealistic quality that Lynch brings to relationships and family life is definitely present - at time Ice Cream feels like an extended version of the famous Eraserhead dinner scene. Also, like that film, Ice Cream is essentiallya simple and moving story about fear of parenthood piled underneath huge swathes of strangeness.
The other big influence present on Ice Cream is Putney Swope, the brilliantly weird 1960 advertising satire from Robert Downey Sr. CK acknowledges the huge impact his original viewing of Putney Swope had on him as film-maker, making him realise the potential of the form, including he claims the notion that, "nothing even really has to make any sense."
The aggressively obtuse non-sequiturs of Putney Swope have become a recurring theme in all of CkKs work, and they're particularly prevalent here - like the shoplifter at the start, the man collapsing in the tunnel, and the mariachi band at the end. The cumulative effect of all these unexplained beats is one of unease, but they're also undeniably and innately hilarious.
Watching Ice Cream it's easy to see why FX went out on such a limb for Louis CK - it's a funny, disturbing, and ultimately quite affecting piece of work that demonstrates a film-maker in complete command of his vision.
Oh, and he's also one of the best stand ups in the world. So there's that.