Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham Lay Claim to a Classic Legacy

Lena Dunham Louis C.K. Emmy Writer

Emmy-nommed actor-directors tread in footsteps of comedy greats

At first glance, this year’s slate of laffer helmers seems to be a distinctly modern bunch. Nominated series “Girls,” “Glee,” “Louie,” “Modern Family” and “30 Rock” confirm the ascendancy of single-camera comedy, while the contenders signal breakthroughs in a category traditionally dominated by white males. For the first, time three women (Beth McCarthy-Miller, Gail Mancuso and Lena Dunham) and an African-American (Paris Barclay) have been drafted into the fray. Only lonely Louis C.K. — and lonely is a posture he’s not unfamiliar with — stands up for the old demographic.

Even more modern is the presence, for the second year in a row, of not one but two do-it-yourself helmers. Not since Alan Alda racked up nine nominations for “MASH” has a sitcom star been acknowledged for directing himself. Yet 30 years later, both Dunham and C.K. have repeated the coup of making it to the nominees’ short list.

Some would credit these actor-helmers’ double act as a manifestation of yet another hot trend, the YouTube phenom. The shaky, edgy Gotham of “Girls” and “Louie” looks like the ad-hoc work of art-minded civilians whose cinematic vision of their world is just a handheld away. (C.K. even edits his episodes himself; he’d probably be directly uploading them with a hashtag and “like” request if he could.)

Seen in another light, however, what C.K. and Dunham are pulling off is part of one of Hollywood’s most venerable traditions. Starting in the silent era, such comics as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton found within themselves the soul of the impresario. After years of answering to faceless hacks at the helm, they stepped up to turn themselves into masters of single-camera production, realizing they could both make funny and be funny to achieve truly personal expression.

This year’s nominated quintet all did groundbreaking service, and televised comedy never looked or sounded cooler. But while watching Dunham’s bemused waif or C.K.’s desperate Lothario going through their paces, it’s particularly touching to recognize they’re also standing there behind the camera, steering the action in a happy throwback to the days when film comedy was young.

Comedy Series Writing and Directing Emmys By The Numbers

9 – Noms for Louis C.K. this year – most ever for individual in a single year

22 – Most comedy series writing Emmys for a network (CBS)

13 – Most writing noms ever for a comedy series (“30 Rock,” “Cheers” and “The Larry Sanders Show”)

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  1. Sam says:

    Louis CK hasn’t edited his episodes since Season 1. So it’s hard to take your article with authority when it’s working on outdated information.

  2. G. Jardoness says:

    Perhaps, just perhaps, you’re crediting these programs with higher motives and better attributes then they deserve or even sought.

    These shows are primarily cost-effective. Single-camera tours of the befuddled, dysfunctional, self-inflicted train-wrecks filled with apprehension, recriminations, and nervous laughter. Iconic, torch-passing, reminiscent, or innovative they are not. On pay and basic cable, they can be more vulgar or violent or explicit, and fool some of the people some of the time, that they’re divining truth with a grimy realism and pretentious edginess, which only promises to be followed by certain disaster… And these scripted reality shows serve only to allow its viewers to laugh at their misery without remorse and revel in their comeuppance with glee.

  3. Steve says:

    I don’t like lumping Louis with Lena, even if they are nominated in the same category. He got here by working hard for twenty years and she got here by having rich parents and no shame.

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