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Louie CK's 1998 film Tomorrow Night: a portrait of the comedian in black and white

Louis CK's early film Tomorrow Night has been made available for $5 on the comedian's website - and it's well worth checking out.

Louis CK on set with Robert Smigel and Steve Carrell.

This week, the comedian Louis CK made available on his website for the cost of $5 his little-seen first feature, Tomorrow Night, which he wrote and directed in 1998, but which has never been released. It has, he says, “been sitting in storage in film cans for 15 years. No one has ever seen it. There are no tapes of it or even clips of it anywhere.” If its relative obscurity and negligible price suggest the whiff of the bargain bin, that is dispelled within minutes by the technical expertise and the deadpan sensibility which makes it consistent with his innovative FX sitcom Louie (the fourth series of which will arrive later this year). Here is the statement which subscribers to Louis CK’s website received this week:

I made this movie, meaning I wrote and directed it, back in 1998. I was a struggling comedian and TV writer at the time and I pulled together my savings and some of my fiends [sic] money to make this movie on black and white 16mm film… Tomorrow Night is a bizarre little indie film and it gets pretty weird.  It was a labor of love for me.  It’s how I learned to direct and there are some wonderful performances in it…  [It]  screened at the Sundance film festival as well as other festivals from Seattle to Sweden. But it never got distribution. Any black and white movie is tricky to get a market for and this one is particularly strange… The sound is the original Mono mix which is fitting for the style of the film. Be prepared to sit through people dialling rotary phones, which takes a while. The pace is sometimes slow and deliberate. Sometimes crazy. But it’s exactly the movie I wanted to make and I'm proud of it. I'm putting it on my website with the hopes that I can continue this way of distributing stuff. I’d also like to pay back some of the people who helped me finance the film… I’d also like to make a profit from it so I can use the proceeds to make a new movie and release that on my website as well. Wouldn’t that be something?

It would indeed if the results are anywhere near this good. In a way, I’m glad Tomorrow Night hasn’t seen the light of day until now. Had it been released shortly after it was made, there is a danger it would have got lumped together with films with which it is superficially similar — comic black-and-white US indie oddities like Kevin Smith’s Clerks or Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup — and therefore overlooked. It’s a far stranger picture than either of those, closer in texture and tone (though not subject matter) to early Coen brothers or David Lynch, with a hint of Woody Allen.

The main focus is on the withdrawn, taciturn manager of a camera store, Charles (Chuck Sklar) and his underdeveloped romantic life. First he dates a customer, Lola Vagina (Heather Morgan). “Is your name Lola Vagina?” he asks. “I’m Lola,” she whoops. “And this is my…” Well, you get the picture. An uncomfortably raucous double date with the postman and his girlfriend (played by JB Smoove and Wanda Sykes, both best known now from Curb Your Enthusiasm) only reinforces his need for solitude. The evening ends weirdly when Lola takes Charles home to meet her husband. The big lug wants to know whether Charles going to have sex with Lola because he sure as hell doesn’t want to.

The movie has a pretty warped idea of relationships. Lola slaps and screams at her husband but he sits there impassively. A mild-mannered woman is verbally abused by her own husband, who keeps her a virtual prisoner. She hasn’t heard from her son, a soldier, for 20 years. Why doesn’t he write, she wonders? In fact, he does, but two wags in the mail room throw his letters away. (One of those pranksters is played by a pre-fame Steve Carell, whose performance consists of wicked laughs and splendid bug-eyed gurning.) Meanwhile, Charles gets his kicks squishing his buttocks in a bowl of ice cream each night. “Particularly strange”, Louis CK called it. He’s not wrong.

But it is strangely intoxicating. The arbitrary fatalities and surreal non-sequiturs that viewers of Louie have come to expect are here in abundance. A man hoses down the customers passing the pavement outside his shop; a pack of dogs attacks a gambler on his way home from a profitable day at the bookmakers. By the time Charles finds himself married to an elderly woman and adopting a gun-toting thug to form an unusual family unit, an alternative reality has been established, the bizarre neutralised. It’s the same combination of the profane and the blasé which makes Louis CK’s stand-up routines so mesmerising. I recommend you watch it tonight. Or tomorrow night.