You can’t claim you weren’t warned.
In the lead up to today's release of his 1998 directorial debut, Louis C.K. has described the film as “pretty weird,” “particularly strange,” “a bizarre little indie film,” and “hard to watch.”
At points, Tomorrow Night is all of those things, ranging from cringeworthy to laugh-out-loud funny. The black and white movie is exactly the kind of dark, deadpan, over-the-top story you’d expect from a younger C.K., then an up-and-coming comedian and TV writer who had finally begged the funds and title to flex his creativity with a project that was completely his. In it, you’ll find an unpolished version of the comedy he’s now famous for since his celebrated FX show Louie, and brilliant cameos, ranging from a by-the-books FBI agent in American Hustle to the uptight cop love interest of Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation.
Now, the Internet age finally gets the slightly disturbing pleasure of viewing C.K.’s first foray into directing. Tomorrow Night was originally screened at Sundance and other film festivals, but was never actually released. Since then, C.K. says, it has been sitting on a shelf in its original film format. At noon on Wednesday, the hour-and-a-half movie was released on his website for $5, which gets you five downloads or three streaming opportunities and a personal request from C.K. not to “torrent” the flick because he’s “just some guy.”
The film centers around Charles, a bland, socially challenged, and crotchety-beyond-his-years proprietor of “Variety Photos,” who has a secret penchant for sitting in a bowl of ice cream while listening to blaring classical music. When he begins compulsively cleaning out his stock of unclaimed photos, calling customers and demanding they pick them up, he’s dragged into a series of uncomfortable encounters.
On Tuesday, C.K. and Jon Stewart reminisced about the budding comedian’s initial pitch for help with his passion project, in which he requested $5,000 from Stewart to tell the tale of “a guy who gets sexual gratification from sitting in a bowl of ice cream.” He had already run through all his personal funds, but luckily the request worked (a trumpet was also traded). “This is a movie,” C.K. reassured Stewart, who lamented his poor investment.
In parallel character story lines that intertwine as Charles sorts the photos, he’s sent into a failed romance with the swinging, loud-mouthed “Lola Vagina” (played by Heather Morgan, known as a cast member on the Dana Carvey Show), and a semi-successful marriage to Florence, an elderly woman with a maniacal, abusive husband.
When Florence introduces Willie—who finally arrives home clutching a sombrero and pinata after a detour to Tijuana—to their new adopted son, he gets a gun pulled on him at the dinner table.
C.K.’s surrealist take on reality surfaces every time Florence meets up to kvetch with her best friend, a frumpy, foul-mouthed drag queen with cat-eye glasses, a cigarette squeezed between two fingers, and nylons half-rolled up his legs. And some of the lines you can imagine coming straight from the director’s own mouth, like when Charles courts and wins over Florence with the deadpanned compliment, “I find your tidiness to be appealing.”
Tomorrow Night’s funniest moments feature Florence’s two sons: one, a simpleton named Willie who joined the army 20 years ago and was never heard from again thanks to a prank by his two army buddies, played by Steve Carell and a one-time SNL cast member Robert Smigel, who had been stashing the letters to his mother in a trash bin rather than mailing them. Carrell’s character cashes in on the actor’s incredible laugh-face, and is basically a malicious version of Brick, replete with a giddy, screeching cackle. “I’m starting to get worried guys, I mean, it’s been 20 years,” Willie tells the pranksters when his mom still hasn’t written.
Giving up on her son’s return, Florence and her new husband, Charles, adopt another child, “Clean,” a headphone-wearing, lollipop-sucking teen in a oversized puffy coat, who is given to the new couple during a hilariously apathetic meeting at the adoption agency.
“You should go to school,” Charles tells his new son at a family outing to watch Conan O’Brien playing himself as an unfunny comedian performing in front of a live NBC audience.
“Shut it man, I’ll kill you,” Clean replies.
When Florence introduces Willie, who finally arrives home clutching a sombrero and piñata after a detour to Tijuana, to their new adopted son, he gets a gun pulled on him at the dinner table.
Those bits, and a few others, are perfect—pitting outlandish situations in casual settings with bizarre and exaggerated characters, each of which was written specifically for its actor, according to C.K. (Which makes it all the more tragic that Poehler only has a fleeting, non-speaking cameo where she gets casually sprayed down by a street cleaner.) And he truly recruited a range. The now-well-known comedian Wanda Sykes pops in for a double-date scene, where stand-up pro J.B. Smoove, playing a dirty minded postman, smashes ice cream into a grateful waiter’s face. (“Thank you, sir!”)
But, be warned. For the entertaining gems in Tomorrow Night, the faint of heart must be willing to suffer through some bleak black and white weirdness. The comedian hasn’t been put off by opinion (IMDB has it rated 6/10) or rejection before. For C.K., it’s a 16-year-old dream to gift the public with his first project, come to fruition.
“I thought, ‘Someday I’ll just show it to everybody, one person at a time,’” he said in his Daily Show interview of realizing no one wanted to distribute it in 1998. “And that’s what I’m doing!”