06.27.12

Charlie Sheen’s ‘Anger Management’ & Louis C.K.’s ‘Louie’: Comedy Clash

Tabloid fodder Charlie Sheen returns to TV with FX’s lazy Anger Management, which feels out of place on the cable network, particularly when it sits beside FX’s more experimental and daring fare. Jace Lacob compares Sheen’s new show with Louis C.K.’s Louie, which returns for a third season on Thursday. Plus, Michael Ware on Sheen's last stand.

Charlie Sheen returns to television with FX’s  Anger Management, beginning Thursday.

If that statement fills you with dread, we’re simpatico in our TV-comedy leanings. Putting aside the fact that Sheen is a thug with a penchant for substance abuse and violence against women, Anger Management—developed by Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show) and based on the 2003 Jack Nicholson film—is toxically mediocre.

Sheen plays a variation on himself: a womanizer named Charlie who derailed his career with a public flameout. (We need not rehash the specifics of his departure from Two and a Half Men and the loopy publicity engine he stoked during his live concert tour and frequent TMZ interviews.) In Anger Management, the fictional Charlie Goodson ended his baseball career by trying to break a bat over his knee. Now he helps people with their own rage problems!

Anger Management, which FX acquired from Debmar-Mercury (the production company that bestowed Tyler Perry's House of Payne upon the world), feels entirely out of place on the network. In general, FX has had a holy mission of developing edgy, provocative, and original fare. On the comedy side, the cable network funneled its offbeat vision into the delightfully oddball It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the raunchy animated comedy Archer, surrealist Wilfred, and Louis C.K.’s exceptional Louie, which returns for its third season on the same night that Anger Management begins its run.

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Watch Newsweek light Charlie Sheen on fire.

Louie and Anger Management couldn’t be more different from each other, despite the fact that both shows revolve around a middle-aged white guy dealing with middle-aged white-guy problems. (It’s worth noting, however, that Louie C.K.’s paternal grandmother was Mexican, and he lived in Mexico City until he was seven.) While comedy firefly Louie emits a decidedly incandescent indie feel, Anger Management feels like it rolled out of the same factory that continues to mass-produce Two and a Half Men.

The juxtaposition of Louie and Anger Management, airing on the same night on FX, is head-scratching. These two shows cannot compare to one another on any level. For a network that has been so brave and experimental with its comedy development, Anger Management feels like a creative misstep. Below are five examples of the inherent differences between Louie and Anger Management.

SUBJECT

Both shows feature a fictionalized version of their lead actor. While Anger Management stars Sheen as a Sheen-esque blowhard, Louie stars Louie C.K. as a divorced single dad who works as a stand-up comic. Both revolve largely around the familial, romantic, and professional concerns of the two men, but the similarities end there. Anger Management finds Charlie working as a therapist with a specialization in, well, anger management. The show follows him to various group-therapy sessions—one in his home composed entirely of Caucasians and another in a prison that is more ethnically diverse—and as he deals with his materialistic ex-wife, Jennifer (Shawnee Smith); his sexually adventurous therapist best friend, Kate (Selma Blair); and his daughter, Emma (Daniela Bobadilla).

Like most traditional sitcoms, Anger Management attempts to mine the premise’s enforced situation for humor. In this case, the attempts to find comedy stem from within the eclectic group of sad sacks and rage cases in Charlie’s therapy groups and to the similar issues in Charlie’s own life. But because of this, the show itself has a rigid structure that can’t change significantly: Charlie, like his patients, has to remain locked into the same traumas for the course of the show. Because real-life therapy often takes years or even a lifetime, this setup might appear to be perfect for a sitcom, but the show’s handling of the psychological issues is shallow at best.

Louie follows no similar pattern. In fact, its premise is entirely open-ended. The show’s installments can take place anywhere (he travels to Miami this season and spends an entire episode walking the streets of Manhattan) and at any time. The narrative is a malleable, living thing, following Louie as he goes about his daily life—going to gigs; raising his kids; dealing with friends, lovers, relatives, or neighbors. Lessons are learned, and change is attempted. What we see here is a man as a work in progress.

FORMAT

Anger Management sticks to the usual multi-cam setup you would expect: standing sets, a live studio audience, multiple cameras, laugh track, setup-punchline-laugh. Likely, this format is Sheen’s comfort zone, after starring in nearly 200 episodes of Two and a Half Men. It’s entirely episodic and intentionally repetitive, lazy situational comedy writ large. Ten episodes of the show were initially ordered by FX, but if the ratings reach a certain threshold, it will trigger an immediate order of an additional 90 episodes. (Yes, you read that correctly: 90 episodes, the same strategy employed by Debmar-Mercury with its Tyler Perry comedies like House of Payne and Meet the Browns.) That feels inherently manufactured, creating a setting wherein episodes are churned out, assembly-line style.

In contrast, Louie is written, directed, and was once edited by Louis C.K. (Worth noting: Former Woody Allen collaborator Susan E. Morse has taken over editing duties on Season 3.) There’s a decidedly handmade quality to the show, which mixes vignette-style storytelling with segments from Louie’s stand-up. These expletive-laden stand-up routines often connect thematically to the story or stories. Each episode can contain individual stories, sometimes related, or sometimes disconnected entirely. Continuity is lax: some actors play several characters; other roles are portrayed by multiple actors. Louie might be forced to care for his 13-year-old niece, whose mother has been forcibly institutionalized, in one episode; in the next, she’s not mentioned again. There’s an impressionistic quality to Louie as well, one that connects to the works of Woody Allen and the avant-garde films of the 1970s. While the installments are largely contemporary, occasionally the show will veer into Louie’s past, giving the viewer a glimpse of the comedian as a young man or a child. Black-and-white montages, set to retro music, give the piece a timeless air, rendering the impression of time itself as something fluid and yielding.

HUMOR

Anger Management begins with a “meta” joke about Sheen’s firing from Two and a Half Men that is so soul-crushingly on the nose and obvious that it isn’t at all brave. It sets the tone for the rest of the pilot episode, a schlocky collection of tired tropes and telegraphed setups. Louie, on the other hand, shifts effortlessly between outright humor, comedy of the uncomfortable, and pitch-black satire.

Naturally, there are a lot of risqué elements in both shows. The usual jokes crop up almost immediately within Anger Management—the wink, wink, nudge, nudge ethos embraced by Two and a Half Men and its ilk. But it’s a puerile and obvious handling of the subject matters—whether sex, masturbation, infidelity, divorce, etc.—rather than a sophisticated exploration of universal experience. Louie (and Louis C.K. in general) relishes the opportunity to bare his soul in pursuit of the joke. No topic is off limits, no matter how embarrassing, taboo, or disturbing. A gag about needing reading glasses to see his penis during masturbation is a rumination on aging and mortality, not a penis joke. An awkward setup with a brusque woman (Melissa Leo, in a jaw-dropping level of commitment) unexpectedly devolves into a date-rape scenario.

Whereas Charlie is presented as a suave womanizer, prone to Olympic-level sex with his girlfriend, Louie is presented as a poor schlub who has lost his mojo—his sex life is humiliating and/or unfulfilling. If Anger Management is about the afterglow, Louie is about self-loathing. And yet there’s something aspirational about the truth embedded within Louie: we should all try to be as brave and self-effacing as he is here. One fixates upon the semi-nude forms of its stars; the other is truly naked.

FATHERHOOD

In Anger Management, we’re treated to the sight of Sheen playing a father, but the show doesn’t treat this as its main focal point. His style of parenting is to joke that the pile of clothes in his teenage daughter’s room will eventually move to college… and Emma’s clear pattern of OCD issues is played more for laughs than sympathy. When Charlie sees her attempting to lock the front door repeatedly—in front of the therapy-session participants—it’s a clear sign that Emma is stressed, but the show tiptoes around any real breakthroughs, indulging in the worst kind of pop psychology. Likewise, when his ex-wife’s new boyfriend (played by Brian Austin Green) insists that Emma doesn’t need to go to college, the confrontation between the two escalates into near-violence, with Charlie ready to pummel his rival with a table lamp before Emma interrupts. The clear insistence on the part of the writers that the mere fact of Charlie having a daughter would somehow soften him is so wrongheaded that it’s laughable. Look, it’s Charlie Sheen surrounded by women! He has a daughter! And so does Sheen in real life. It doesn’t render his alleged crimes against the women in his life any less egregious or appalling because he’s suddenly giving pep talks to an actress playing his kid.

Like Sheen’s Charlie, Louie C.K.’s character is also divorced and also a father—he has two young daughters—but unlike in Anger Management, the female characters are not props in a middle-aged man’s orbit. Just as it depicts the mundane experiences of parenting—preparing dinner, making a smoothie, ordering his kids to brush their teeth—Louie also captures the joys and gut-punches of fatherhood, such as when his youngest daughter tells him, matter of factly, that she loves her mother more than she loves him. As a palpable look of anguish spills over Louie’s face, he gulps and accepts this statement. And then, as she walks away, he gives her the finger. Brutal? Absolutely, but where Anger Management spins stale jokes that circle around hard truths, Louie rips open a jugular every time, presenting a portrait of modern male-hood that is far more nuanced and bleak.

WOMEN

It is with its handling of women that the two shows become hugely at odds with each other. Anger Management’s second episode (“Charlie and the Slumpbuster”), far more offensive than its vapid pilot, revolves around its portrayal of an ugly woman (Reno 911!’s Kerri Kenney) with whom Charlie had slept with years before in order to end a batting slump he was in during his baseball career. After tracking him down and posing as a new patient, her stalkerlike behavior is rewarded when Charlie is forced to pretend to date her in order to prove to his daughter that he doesn’t value women only on their looks.

Yet this is precisely the message that the show reinforces over and over again, presenting Kenney’s character—who has since undergone extensive plastic surgery and lost weight in an effort to make herself more palatable to Charlie—as something grotesque and debased, likened to the “Loch Ness Monster” and “Bigfoot.” The more pathetic she becomes, the more Anger Management presents her as an object of ridicule for both Charlie and the audience. (Sheen’s own terrifying fright mask of a face isn’t mentioned at all.) It’s a shockingly casual display of misogyny and female objectification masquerading as humor. Charlie’s revulsion is played up for laughs, his faux romance—egged on by Charlie’s ex-wife Jennifer—intended to disturb.

Blair’s Kate, said to be the only therapist that Charlie trusts, willingly throws away her professionalism and morality to continue to have sex with Charlie, even as she “treats” him. She’s said to be brilliant, but we’re shown no examples of her intelligence, just her sex drive. The other major female character, Noureen DeWulf’s Lacey, joins Charlie’s all-male therapy group after she shot her boyfriend “in the balls,” as she loves to repeatedly remind us. Her aggressive nature, along with her penchant for testicle-related violence, doesn’t make Lacey in any way progressive or modern, particularly when juxtaposed with her insistence that Charlie check out her ass.

On Louie, the object of his affection is his best friend, Pamela (Pamela Adlon), a single mother whose dark sarcasm and bitter nature find a kindred spirit in Louie. Adlon, who starred with Louis C.K. on his short-lived HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, is gorgeous but not perhaps in the most conventional sense. She’s not six feet tall or blonde; rather, her beauty is complemented by her fiery wit. Here, humor is perhaps the most attractive proposition. While Louie is willing to go to some crazy lengths in pursuit of sex (including driving with a stranger to New Jersey), his heart truly belongs to his best friend.

In Season 3, Louie finds a new love interest in a bookshop employee played by indie queen Parker Posey; their meeting and first date unfold over two episodes (“Daddy’s Girlfriend,” parts one and two) and present an adult view of romance and sex. As they careen through the streets of Manhattan, issues of life and death arise, luscious appetizers are eaten, and the two begin that age-old dance not as hunter and prey, but as scarred equals, both veterans of the dating trenches. And because these encounters aren’t as expected as they are for Sheen/Charlie, there is a certain magic to them, and a sense that Louie, for all of his heartache and impotent rage, is indeed lucky.