Our Two Dads
Eric Hynes on Louie (episode: “Pregnant”) and Kramer vs. Kramer
When comparing one television episode to a feature film, it’s tempting to see differences of form as indicative of differences in quality. Such as that the longer duration of a movie allows for greater depth, or that the succinctness of a half-hour show engenders more incisive comedy. But when both the movie and show in question are exemplars of their forms—the feature-length domestic drama and the single-camera situational comedy, for our purposes—it’s more enlightening to consider what each form affords or doesn’t, and how each can mine a subject for different, rather than greater, truths.
The five-time 1979 Academy Award–winner Kramer vs. Kramer and two-time Emmy-winner Louie both center on the lives of divorced dads, both of whom live in modest-sized, middle-class Manhattan apartments. But while the former is a 105-minute standalone feature, the latter is an episodic series, thus far comprising three seasons of thirteen (roughly) 21-minute installments. For all of its attention to its characters’ daily specificities, Kramer vs. Kramer focused a wider lens onto the rise of divorce in late 70s America, with accompanying challenges of single parenthood, newly engaged fatherhood, and battles for child custody. Meanwhile, for all of its airtime hours, Louie is more microscopic, often dedicating episodes to quotidian quandaries and personal embarrassments, inviting its audience to relate to events on a more anecdotal, intimate scale. Thirty-five years after Kramer vs. Kramer, single fatherhood isn’t as style-section topical as it once was, freeing Louie to be as much about itself—its beleaguered protagonist, miniature truths, and wounded humanist philosophies—as about any kind of trend in parenthood. The sitcom format helps it be so, just as the feature-length film engenders narratives of gathering force, of potent declaration.
In an early, justly famous scene in Robert Benton’s best picture Oscar-winner, Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) oversleeps the morning after his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), has walked out on him and their seven-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry). Unfamiliar with Billy’s morning rituals and scrambling to leave for work, he soldiers through with self-deceiving enthusiasm, multi-tasking French toast preparations, which he sells as an adventure to the increasingly morose Billy. Then a large shell shard drops into the eggs; having chosen a mug instead of a bowl, Ted has to fold the bread in half in order to dunk it into the batter; turning his back to the stovetop to dump about a quarter-pound’s worth of coffee grounds into the French press, he lets the toast singe black, filling their compact galley kitchen with smoke. But the burnt toast breaks the spell, prompting Ted to shout, “God damn her.” He’s not ready for this. He’s not prepared to parent alone, not even for one meal, one morning.
All of this will be echoed in the film’s penultimate scene, set 90 minutes and 16 months later. Via one thrillingly understated long take, in the same kitchen and shot from the same angle by DP Nestor Almendros (as masterfully adept in a cramped NYC apartment as during magic hour on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven), Ted and Billy make French toast together like paired skaters—one fetches eggs while the other pulls down a proper bowl; one whips while the other preps the stove; one coats the bread while the other drops slices on the skillet. Domesticity hasn’t just been achieved—it’s become lovingly synchronous. They do it all silently, melancholically, resigned to the fact that things are about to change again: Ted has lost an acrimonious custody battle with Joanna. (While radical in its time for honoring the challenges of single fatherhood, it’s nevertheless diagrammatically scolding of mothers who might entertain happiness outside of motherhood. And though Streep does her best to balance the scales of sympathy in the final act, the film never affords Joanna such a developmental frame, or anything like Ted’s balancing of work and home lives, thus making her last-second capitulation less about complication than justice, and our relief.)
Thanks to those 90 minutes in between, we come to see how Ted has evolved as a parent. The second cooking scene is earned by dozens of trial-by-parenting sequences that precede it: Ted hustling out of work to pick Billy up from school; Ted compromising a fast-track advertising career to prioritize Billy; Ted properly punishing Billy for being “a little shit”; Ted and Billy playing and working together, and talking through impossibly difficult family matters. It’s a character and relationship arc to which the feature length is ideally suited (and within which Hoffman, here at his most physically naturalistic and spectrally emotive, is perfectly cast).
By contrast, a 21-minute episode of Louie hasn’t the space to trace that kind of arc —not without resorting to montage shorthand, and sacrificing the gathering weight and empathy that Hoffman earns through an accumulation of integral moments. Rather than span time or flesh out a narrative, Louie relies upon both brevity and the episodic form to dwell on just a few moments that vibrate beyond themselves, and to express truths about parenting born of stability rather than change.
In the season two premiere of Louie, 43-year-old single dad Louie (Louis CK) prepares dinner for his nine- and five-year-old daughters. Via an elegantly constructed montage, he’s shown smashing, peeling, and cutting garlic, delicately slicing through cold chicken, cracking eggs and battering cutlets. He pauses to demand that his eldest daughter, Lilly (Hadley Delany), start her homework, his exasperation shifting to weary appreciation when she relents. Then he expertly undresses a section of mango to make a wholesome fruit pop, a chef-worthy touch that’s undersold by his lumbering into the living room with a dishrag over his shoulder to gift it to Lilly. Both the food preparation and the yelling at Lilly communicate the same thing: these things happen all the time. Louie’s inept at neither cooking nor disciplining. He’s not struggling to parent. He’s got this. So when young Jane (Ursula Parker) marches into the kitchen to complain about Lilly getting preferential treatment, Louie’s lecture about life not being fair isn’t about whether he’s made a parenting mistake—it’s about the impossibilities of parenting, full stop.
I don’t make the comparison to assert that he’s a better dad than Ted, or that he didn’t initially struggle as a single father. It’s that this is who Louie is now (and close to who Louie was at the beginning of the series). When his pregnant sister, Gretchen (Rusty Schwimmer), comes to visit a bit later in the episode, she casts back to a less secure time. “You’re really doing the dad thing for real. Seriously Louie, some of us didn’t know if you would show up for this,” she says during a late-night talk. We can imagine an unseen earlier sequence like Kramer vs. Kramer’s French toast debacle, in which Louie’s kitchen—a near-match to Ted’s galley (as well as to efficiency kitchens throughout Woody Allen’s New York filmography)—erupts in plumes of flour and exasperation. But such scenes are past being relevant, belonging to a time when he was new at this and not mid-stride—part of what the character has lived through, not how we see, or have ever seen him live.
When, in the episode’s cold opening, Jane taunts Louie with unfavorable comparisons to mom’s cooking, it comes across less as the acting out of a wounded child of divorce, and more as evidence of the blithe malice of which all children are capable. Likewise, the subsequent cooking montage plays less as Louie trying to prove himself, and more as an objective refutation of Jane’s petty assertion. Starting here, rather than with the unsteady doggie-paddling of the recent divorcee, allows us to go deeper into the now, to explore aspects of Louie’s parenthood beyond whether he’s good or bad at it, or whether he’s compromising himself or his daughters unduly because of their broken family. He’s clearly adept, and his daughters seem fine with the situation; now what?
Despite, or because of, its 104 minutes, Kramer vs. Kramer has limited time to dedicate to any one aspect of or stage in Ted’s progression from absent to ardent parent. Furthermore, these are unmistakably stages in, rather than slices of, life. The feature film is exceptionally effective at tracing movement and development, at dramatizing and helping us to make self-contained sense of journeys from there to here, then to now, who he was to who he’s become. By contrast, this episode of Louie starts, and stays, in the here and now. Except for rare digressions into multiple-episode story cycles (season three’s Parker Posey and David Letterman–replacement storylines, for example), Louie episodes are self-contained. The show even calls attention to this fact, especially when Louie’s sister shows up: over the years, several different actresses, playing different people with different life circumstances, have assumed this character. While not as terminal or disposable or sound-studio-artificial as episodes of Seinfeld, Louie does harness the power of the single sit, single episode sitcom. (And like early episodes of Seinfeld, the show interweaves and punctuates real-life scenes with clips from the protagonist’s stand-up act). Louie is never just about selling a joke or a series of observationally motivated jokes, but it does effectively adhere to the rhythm, the build up and release, the present-tenseness of a joke. Louis CK is a very different comedian than Jerry Seinfeld, and has much bigger ideas in mind (even when he mines small-bore observations, he does so to address the prevailing necessity, rather than marinate in the existential absence, of morals and ethics), but their differences are not largely of form. A more soap operatic approach to the sitcom, in the vein of, say, Friends, or, clearly dating myself here, Anything but Love, can serve a more ambitious arc, but such plotting, while often gratifying for viewers, renders characters into hybrid creatures who are simultaneously evolving and dependably fixed, getting new jobs and starting new relationships while rehashing the catch phrases, personality ticks, and 21-minute conflict resolution efficiencies that keep them locked into the world of the sitcom.
That aforementioned late-night conversation between Louie and Gretchen might be the series’ peak in terms of familial warmth and contentment, for not only is Louie’s excellent parenting affirmed, but moments later the siblings movingly high-five over their mutual resilience in the face of emotional trauma. Because all moments of gratification must be quickly and comically redressed in Louie’s world, what follows is a sustained, five-minute build to a punchline that is both mutually humiliating and literally deflating. Those five minutes also happen to account for one of the most perceptive, moving, enveloping, hilarious, and terrifying sequences I’ve yet seen on either television or film.
Louie wakes to the sound of Gretchen howling bloody murder from the living room, complaining of stomach pain and demanding to be taken to the hospital lest she lose her unborn child. But what about the kids? The answer comes via a knock on the door: a gay couple from down the hall who’ve heard the clamor and are offering to help. But who are these people? They may be neighbors, but this being New York, and Louie being a blinkered New Yorker, he’s clearly never seen them before. One offers to stay with the kids, the other to accompany Louie and Gretchen to the hospital. Louie’s a human rock in a hard place—his sister is in trauma, but how can he leave his daughters with this stranger? It’s a single parent’s nightmare, and there’s no good solution. Somewhere between a good Samaritan, an oracle, and a straight-talker worthy of Louie himself, the elder, smoothly Spanish-accented neighbor (Yul Vazquez, making as strong an impression as can be made during the time it takes an 80s rock guitarist to complete a solo) cuts through the panic and indecision. “Brother, do not let your sister die from pain or lose her baby because you are awkward with strangers,” he says. “You have to think fast and make the right choice. Let’s go.” They do, hailing a cab and bum-rushing the ER until a team surrounds the still screaming Gretchen, who only stops when she lets out a loud, sustained, and relieving fart. Everyone disperses. Emergency over. Scene.
Gretchen’s false alarm nevertheless leads to a true revelation for Louie, who realizes that even though he’s doing just fine as a single dad, it’s important to have, as Vazquez says, “neighbors—people that are not in your family to help you when you need it.” It evokes aphoristic, “it takes a village” notions that can feel especially relevant in big cities with their complex and fractured families, and more particularly to New York, where lives can be changed, saved, or made momentarily magical by encounters with wild circumstance and seemingly shocking, though ultimately rather common, generosity. Needless to say, the show again cuts against such sincerity with a stand-up bit about middle-aged male friendship that gleefully gutters into a riff on rim jobs, but the sequence with the neighbors lingers in the mind. The episode is comprised of about six jokes unveiled in succession, but it’s the moments of poignancy—Louie’s parental dedication, Louie and Gretchen’s high five, the neighbors saving the day, and Louie’s teary acknowledgment of it—that really register, and furthermore give the stand-up bits an emotional, real-world weight. The jokes come from somewhere sincere, which the sarcasm and profanity of their execution don’t negate but rather, like a kid masking a crush with a punch, confirm.
There’s an analogue to this sequence in Kramer vs. Kramer, but it takes over an hour to surface—compared to the twelve-minute mark in Louie. Ted and his neighbor and confidante Margaret (Jane Alexander) are talking on a bench as their kids play on a Central Park jungle gym. Margaret rises to mind Billy, but is briefly lost in conversation as he suddenly falls hard to the ground. Ted, who’s proved to himself (and us) that he can hack this single parenting thing, is now confronted with the horrific reality that his son has been gravely injured on his own watch. In one breathless tracking shot that any New Yorker can measure alongside, Almendros follows Ted, with Billy limply and wimperingly cradled in his arms, as he sprints eastward from the Park, across Fifth and Madison and Park avenues, stopping traffic without ever breaking stride and not slowing until he runs into the ER. He holds Billy throughout the examination and stitches—he’s not about to let Billy go through anything without his dad at his side—then finally puts him safely to bed. He finds Margaret in the kitchen washing dishes and crying, and he counters her professions of guilt with a request that she take care of his son if anything should happen to him. She’s stunned by the turnaround, but we aren’t. We’ve seen, over the course of the film, how loving a person, friend, and mother Margaret is. This incident hasn’t revealed anything about her suitability as a guardian, nor has it shown us anything we didn’t already know about Ted’s suitability as a father.
It took us over an hour, but we’re finally at a point in the film where a scene can have its own internal drama, where it can make us feel dread and panic and empathy and adoration without those feelings fundamentally changing what we think of characters that have already become fully realized in our minds. Not coincidentally, it’s also the scene that feels most present tense, most eternally, anytime New York, the scene in which Hoffman’s simultaneously panicked and confident comportment has the most in common with CK’s, the scene that could most easily to be followed by a stand-up bit in which Hoffman riffs on rim jobs without dulling the impact of what we’ve just seen. Instead Ted pats Margaret on the butt and gives her a hard time about how badly she’s drying the dishes, and she responds by half-hugging his shoulder. They’re far from freshly acquainted neighbors, but the interaction does rhyme with how the Louie sequence resolves. In both cases, these are essential relationships for which there’s no name or rules. It takes being an adult in the city—being a single dad or instinctively caring neighbor or geographically imposed, upstairs-downstairs latchkey guardian or confidante or secret soul mate or friend—to know that you don’t always know who or what you need to get by.
One form is a big enough boat to contain that kind of truth, while the other is custom made for it. The former can travel further, containing and accomplishing much more, but as a ship with miles to cover it can lull us with a requisite rise and fall, a hastening through trials towards arrival. Meanwhile the latter is like a ferry, covering a short and often overly familiar distance while also captivating and suspending us for a time that’s practically outside of time. One drives, the other floats. One is about travel, the other about being in transit. And we can’t get anywhere without both.