How ‘Louie’ Gets Single Dads Right

KC Bailey/FX

There are times when watching TV can be like listening to your drunken uncle during Thanksgiving dinner – everything and everyone gets reduced to stereotypes. Heavy people will do anything for a cheeseburger. Neighbors are nosy or wacky. Senior citizens are slow and forgetful.

As a single father of two teenagers, I’ve seen first hand how easy it is for people to turn divorced dads into stereotypes. We’re either the selfish jerk ignoring his kids or the Disneyland Dad offering emotional bribes to win his kids’ affection

So I suppose I should be grateful for the way TV has portrayed single dads over the years. From Bill Bixby (The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father) to Ben Cartwright (Bonanza) to Tony Micelli (Who’s The Boss?) to Ned Flanders (The Simpsons), they are routinely kind gentlemen who seem to have done well for themselves. But as flattering as these takes can be, they don’t exactly reflect reality.

“Single moms [on TV] don’t get patted on the back for making dinner or doing laundry, but single dads are seen as somehow incapable of … doing those tasks,” says Jim O’Kane, a single father himself who runs, a website dedicated to solo fathers throughout television history.

About 8 percent of U.S. households are headed by a single dad, and most of them live normal lives, getting their kids to school, braiding hair, making meals. While O’Kane can appreciate the way TV tends to portray single dads as having “a sense of nobility,” he quickly adds that “I kind of want to say, ‘Stop praising us! How incapable do you think we really are?’ It would really help us all if shows were more realistic about what single dads’ lives are like.”

Which is why Louis C.K. has become the patron saint for single fathers everywhere.

Plenty of things may go wrong for him in his semi-autobiographical FX series Louie, but the one thing he never seems to fail at is taking care of his two young daughters, Lily (Hadley Delaney) and Jane (Ursula Parket). In previous seasons, he’s had to contend with such real divorced parental traumas as not knowing how to help his girls adjust to seeing him date and searching for his youngest daughter when she disappears in a crowded subway. Season 5 opened with Louie trying to impress the other parents at a school potluck. The show’s details ring true, from the practical clothes his daughters wear to the homework-friendly accessibility of the kitchen table.

“Not only does he play a divorced father of two, he is a divorced father of two,” Louie executive producer Blair Breard explains. “The episodes are certainly inspired by his real life because the comedy comes from reality. It’s very important to Louis to show his character helping his girls get dressed for school, pack their lunches, take them to school. He doesn’t just want to be the dopey dad who orders pizza to feed his kids because he can’t cook.” (In fact, his character makes fried chicken for the school potluck using the same recipe Louis uses at home.)

The same idea has colored the comedian’s stand-up routine over the years. In an interview with NPR he explained:

“When you’re a father in a marriage, you sort of become the mother’s assistant. And you sort of get a list from her every day and you run down the list and it feels very much like a chore. And a lot of fathers live very much in avoidance, and they sit on the toilet. Or they say ‘Oh honey, it took me 40 minutes to go to the post office.’ And they just sort of sit in the driveway and heave a big sigh—’Oh, I have to go back in.’ But then once you take it out on your own … you have to take it all on. And you sort of activate male skills that you didn’t know you could apply to fatherhood.”

“Louie is the best father on TV, no question. It’s just thrilling to see,” says Tony Danza, who played a single dad himself on Who’s The Boss? He took his role as Tony Micelli seriously.

“Every time you go out there to do a show, you want to not only make people laugh but also give them something to think about,” Danza says of his days on Who’s The Boss? “So when you’re raising a teen daughter on TV like I was, you have to show other parents out there how to raise her right. I wanted to idealize the notion of what a father can be, to be a better dad on TV than I am in real life.”

Whether it was Alan Harper (Two And A Half Men) or Maxwell Sheffield (The Nanny), single dad plot lines have often followed a typical pattern. Well-off dad tries to teach child a life lesson. Said lesson backfires. Hired help/best friend/possible new love interest saves the day. But shows like Louie strive to let the dads figure things out themselves.

“There are tens of thousands of divorced dads sharing custody and facing the same issues Louie faces,” says Breard. “They’re over 40 and want to start dating but also want to be part of their children’s lives. They’re not 25 anymore. They’re not goofy guys. They’re just normal, responsible people who tell me all the time, ‘Oh my gosh, I finally see someone like me on TV thanks to your show.'”

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