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

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

Lena Dunham Louis C.K. Emmy Writer

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”)