NEW YORK -- In even the uniquely unvarnished, autobiographical world of "Louie," an hour-long episode that tenderly draws together Middle East war zones and ducklings is a particular accomplishment.
Thursday night's "Louie," the FX series written, directed by and starring comedian Louis C.K., was a marvel for any number of reasons. It was the first hour-long "Louie"; the first to credit Louis C.K.'s 6-year-old daughter, Mary Louise, for a story idea; and with a budget of $500,000 (nearly twice the show's relatively threadbare budget), its most expensive.
In the episode, titled "Duckling," Louie's daughters sneak a pet duckling into his luggage before he travels to Iraq and Afghanistan on a USO tour. In the Middle East, he secretly cares for the duckling while having a moving experience performing stand-up for soldiers and, in the show's touching conclusion, meeting Afghan farmers.
A remarkable hour of television in its breadth, it was surely the most ambitious "Louie." Most telling, perhaps, is that its normally self-critical creator actually allows for some modicum of satisfaction.
"I sat and watched it air last night and I don't ever do that," Louis C.K. said by phone Friday, interrupting his preparations for Hurricane Irene to reflect on the episode. "I was very emotional about having gotten it done, that we actually did it. It seemed like an impossibility."
Much of the episode took inspiration from Louis C.K.'s 2008 Sergeant Major of the Army Tour to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, an experience that resonated for the 43-year-old comedian. Country singer and former U.S. Army Ranger Keni Thomas and cheerleader Lilly Robbins were on the tour, and both have significant roles as themselves in the "Louie" episode.
Though he considers himself a pacifist and politically anti-war, he admires soldiers and their sense of duty.
"The Army is kind of an amazing organization when you let yourself be submerged into it," says Louis C.K. "They're just highly professional people and decent. I guess decency is something I reach out to because I'm not decent."
The trip also fascinated his two daughters, who shortly thereafter took care of ducklings as part of a school project. Mary Louise suggested her father make an episode that combined the two, with Louie bringing a duckling to Afghanistan.
The logistical complications were considerable. First, they tried to shoot the show while on a USO tour, but that proved impossible. With the Army's help, they then looked at shooting at Fort Bliss in Texas. When that, too, didn't work out, they finally settled on shooting in the desert of Santa Clarita, Calif.
"There was a bunch of times where we thought we weren't going to be able to do it," says Louis C.K. "Sheer force of will is what made it happen."
Still, the task seemed enormous for a show that rarely strays from modest Manhattan settings and which Louis C.K. edits himself at his apartment. A week after wrapping the second season of "Louie," the crew went to California for the four-day, helicopter-filled shoot.
Photojournalist Tim Hetherington and filmmaker Sebastian Junger (who together made the Afghanistan war documentary "Restrepo") briefly consulted on the project. When Hetherington, a friend of "Louie" producer Blair Breard, was killed by mortar shells in Libya in April, a renewed conviction took hold.
"I said to Blair, `We're going to do this stupid episode and we're going to dedicate it to Tim,'" says Louis C.K., who followed through on the promise. "Because, to him, you get the story no matter what. We have to do the same thing: We've got to get the story. And we're not even being shot at. If he can do it under fire, we can do it under pressure."
Near the end of "Duckling," a tense moment between soldiers (mostly played by former military) and Afghan farmers (played by Afghani immigrants), is alleviated when Louie falls chasing his duckling.
The daunting journey – both for the character of Louie on the show and for Louis C.K. making it – ends with the irresistible, cross-cultural comedy of the pratfall, a comic's peace sign.