“In comedy you’re supposed to tell the truth, right?” a young comic (played by real-life standup Nate Fernald) asks Louie (Louis C.K.). Obviously it’s a question that C.K. has thought about before. Two episodes into season 5 of Louie, this fledgling comedian has just finished a painfully unfunny stand-up routine about his abusive childhood, and he wants Louie’s advice on how it went. So Louie gives it to him: Yeah, telling the truth figures into comedy, but you have to start with what’s funny to you.
That’s not the response you might expect from C.K., whose show excels at anti-comedy and truth-telling. Take Louie’s showdown with Dane Cook, or his debate with Rick Crom over a certain homophobic slur: Both were poignant scenes inspired by things that happened in real life. So it’s a little surprising that season 5 focuses so much on what’s funny to C.K., who has described it as “more laugh-centric” and less dramatic than season 4. Certainly the comedy is broader. Louie tries not to soil himself while he rushes around, searching for a public toilet. He fantasizes about a woman’s giant breasts. He gets beaten up by a woman, and people mock him for it. He might earn a few more laughs with moments like these, but they’re pretty traditional jokes, and they feel worthy of C.K.’s original voice only when he twists them into something more unsettling: As it turns out, the people who give him the hardest time for getting punched by a woman are all female.
C.K. has always made great comedy by undercutting his own privilege as a semi-famous white dude, and he’s equally talented at exploring how less privileged groups, like women and minorities, work against their own interests. The funniest moment of the season’s first four episodes comes when a store owner refuses to take Louie’s money because she doesn’t want to serve customers who “want their egos stroked by a young Asian clerk.” You have to hear the whole speech, but it’s a brilliant jab at over-entitled millennials. Or maybe it’s a shot at middle-aged poseurs. It depends on whose side you take.
Even in a “laugh-centric” season that should appeal to a slightly bigger audience, it’s not the jokes that stick with you. Episode 3 is my favorite: It follows a long night in which Louie goes out with his sister’s depressed ex-boyfriend (Michael Rapaport) and just cannot shake him. It’s an uncomfortably funny riff on the limits of compassion. And it’s also devastating. You’re supposed to tell the truth in comedy. Just make sure the truth hurts. B+