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`This or nothing'

Louis CK banks on getting `Lucky' with his polarizing new show.

July 15, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

THE comedian Louis CK leans back in a chauffeured sedan inching along the Hollywood Freeway and watches the other cars stuck in neutral. He has just taped "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and now, whiskey in hand, is trying to focus on the unthinkable. What if "Lucky Louie," the new HBO series the veteran comic considers the most important project of his life, stalls?

Some of his favorite projects (say, the critically maligned movie "Pootie Tang," which he wrote and directed) have failed on a grand scale. Eventually, after severe shock and depression, he has always managed to recover, he says. His latest show, though, is as divisive as few others before it have been. Audiences -- and critics -- have voiced wildly mixed opinions on "Lucky Louie," now entering its sixth week.

But CK can't think about that right now.

With six remaining episodes yet to air, he is pouring himself into an additional eight scripts that HBO has commissioned but hasn't yet committed to producing.

"I don't care about the other way it could go. This is it, this or nothing," CK says. "I have to be totally suicidal about it. There is no failure for this show. I have to assume this thing is what I will do for years to come."

It helps that CK (a somewhat phonetic version of his surname, Szekely) is pumped by his performance on "Leno": an intense, profane riff about his toddler that won big laughs from an initially unresponsive audience. At the moment, it looks like it could all work out.

"Lucky Louie," a Sunday night experiment in a network-style family sitcom format for HBO, has attracted relatively small -- and declining -- ratings along with some visceral reactions from arbiters of television comedy.

The number of viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, averaged 1.6 million for the premiere and dropped to 1.5 million the second week, 1.3 million the third and 1.2 million the fourth. That meant the show finished third behind "Entourage" and "Deadwood," which showed similar week-to-week declines on HBO's Sunday night. Over the same four weeks, "Entourage" declined from 2.8 to 2 million, and Deadwood from 2.5 to 1.7 million.

Viewer comments about "Lucky Louie" on various TV websites have called it "brutally honest" and "one of the only shows out there that people can relate to," with people predicting Emmys. Then there were those who said "please take it off immediately" and "shocked that a show on HBO could be this bad," and predicted it would be canceled by August.

Half loved the live audience laughs, the coarse "real life" vulgarities, the nudity; the rest hated them.

And they were just echoing the critics: "A show so vile, it makes you think the company's arrogant" (USA Today). "The comedy is nifty, light and kind" (New York Times).

Barbara Walters, on "The View," called the show "unbelievably raunchy and racist." She asked fellow panelists, "Are there no boundaries?"

For now, though, HBO stands behind it. "We're looking for it to keep building over time," says Carolyn Strauss, HBO's president of entertainment. "It's keeping with our mandate, working with really talented people with a point of view." Plus, she says, "it really makes me laugh."

If nothing else, says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular television at Syracuse University, "Lucky Louie" is a "fascinating experiment."

In form, it hews closely to situations mined as far back as "The Honeymooners" and "The Life of Riley" -- the husband frittering away the couple's rent money, the wife trying to change her husband's eating habits. But in content, Thompson says, it's able to use the "full palette of American language" and sexual content far beyond the reach of network television.

"Lucky Louie," though, has a gentle quality and more tenderness than, say, "Everybody Loves Raymond," which, he says, could be mean-spirited at times.

For his part, CK calls the show "stripped-down, funny theater." He plays a smart, frustrated part-time mechanic whose down-and-dirty fights with his wife, a smart, full-time nurse, center on money, sex and parenting. They have unsexy "married" sex, with their T-shirts on. Secret activities involving cake or magazines occur in the closet.

The show is about 70% there now, CK says. And he should know. He also helped launch "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," "The Chris Rock Show" and "The Dana Carvey Show," as well as three relatively unsuccessful pilots based, like "Lucky Louie," on his own life.

Building a show is like putting a water pump in a car, he says. Except that when a car starts clunking, you can turn it off and figure out what's wrong. A show has to be fixed while it's still moving.

"People are going to be writing stories saying this car is loud and horrible, these people don't know what they're doing. And you go, 'Yes, I know, I'm sorry, but I swear to God it's going to be quiet in a minute.' "

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