The line between comedy and tragedy is dangerously thin – that’s what can make comedy exciting. One way to determine comedy greatness is how close it comes to stepping over that line.
Louis C.K’s entire professional life is based on dancing close to the line, but this time, has he gone gone too far over that line?
Louis C.K. has teamed with actor Zach Galifianakis and “Portlandia” co-creator Jonathan Krisel to create “Baskets,” a dark, quirky sitcom about a second-rate rodeo clown who can’t catch a break. The show premieres Thursday on FX.
Cut from the same tear-soaked cloth as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Buster Keaton and Jackie Gleason’s the Poor Soul, Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) has only one goal in life and that is to be a great clown in the tradition of great French clowns. He goes to Paris to study but since he doesn’t speak a word of French, the lessons are lost on him. He hadn’t thought that part out, it seems.
Back in the states, he finally gets a job as a clown in a broken down rodeo in Bakersfield. There isn’t much competition for the job: Virtually anyone can get hired because the rodeo owner doesn’t expect them to stick around too long anyway. Baskets does stick around, mostly because he needs the money and has nowhere else to go.
He does have a wife, sort of: He’s married a gorgeous but cold-hearted French woman (Sabina Sciubba) who only wants to get a green card and her hands on whatever piddling amount of money Baskets may have from time to time.
Meeting Chip’s family makes it clear why he’s such a loser. His twin brother Dale (also played by Galifianakis – get it? Chip and Dale?) runs a local community college and is his mother’s favorite. Mama is a piece of work reminiscent of Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” and also played by a male in drag: The comic Louie Anderson, who is hilarious. Mrs. Baskets believes that whatever your heart’s desire, you’ll find it at Costco. She also has no respect for Chip’s line of work and constantly nags him that he’d have more job security and a real future if he worked at Arby’s.
One day, Chip crashes his Vespa and has to file an insurance claim. This leads to his meeting with Martha (Martha Kelly), his insurance agent. She’s what you’d call a plain woman with a deadpan expression and speaks with no inflection whatsoever in her voice. She has a cast on one wrist, but never explains how she got it. Chip doesn’t ask. He’s so subsumed in his own misery he doesn’t even notice that Martha is spending more and more time with him, going way beyond what anyone would expect from an insurance agent as she willingly squires him to and from work, then to his mother’s house and even to the motel where Penelope is living.
Inevitably, perhaps, Martha becomes far more interesting than Chip and only slightly funnier than Mrs. Baskets. Kelly’s performance is simply a knockout and the cliche is true in this case: You miss her desperately every minute she’s not on screen.
Galifianakis is entirely convincing as the sad sack rodeo clown, but even if you didn’t know Louis C.K. co-created “Baskets,” you’d hear his voice every time Galifianakis opens his mouth. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but you very well may wish you were listening to “Louie” rather than an imitation.
“Baskets” is bold and it is courageous, but it doesn’t really work. It’s not that a TV comedy has to offer wall to wall belly laughs, but unrelenting bleakness with the minor relief of a few scattered bits of dry humor – no matter how much it may aspire to a neo-Beckettian level – ends up being more bemusing than amusing.
“Baskets” airs at 10 p.m. Thursday on FX