Long before Anchorman and the American Office, Steve Carell played Mail Room Guy without Glasses. And long before Parks and Recreation and the Golden Globes, Amy Poehler was Woman Sprayed with Hose. Now superstars of comedy with Hollywood at their feet, both had their first, minor film roles in Tomorrow Night, alongside another comedy titan of the future, Louis C.K.
Tomorrow Night is C.K's first film. He wrote it, directed it and took a cameo as a store owner who sprays Poehler with that hose. Shot in gorgeous black and white on 16mm film, it is the absurdist story of a misanthropic camera shop owner who has a secret fetish involving ice cream. C.K. made it in 1998 with $20,000 of his own money and donations from his more successful friends in comedy Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and Denis Leary.
It screened at the Sundance film festival that year but was never released. Over the next decade and a half, which saw C.K. go from jobbing stand-up and Jerry Seinfeld's support act to 25-times Emmy-nominated star of his own television show, Louie with parts in films like American Hustle and Blue Jasmine, his debut film sat in a canister at home.
Until this week, when C.K. released Tomorrow Night online, selling it for $5 a go on his website. This is, famously, the C.K. way. In 2011 he uploaded his fourth stand-up special, Live at the Beacon Theatre, to his website and sold it directly to fans for $5 a time; in 12 hours he made a quarter of a million dollars. He did the same again in 2012 and made $4.5m in 45 hours. In 2013, Forbes named him the fifth highest-earning comedian with $16m to his name.
At this point, C.K. could probably put an iPhone video of him reading the dictionary online and make a million. Tomorrow Night is not simply a money-spinner, though. It is far too odd for that. At almost 90 minutes, it is a series of lushly shot, deadpan, surreal encounters, some more amusing and more explicit than others, between Charles (Chuck Sklar) and his eccentric customers, including local floozy Lola Vagina and a pensioner called Florence. As well as offering early glimpses of talents such as Carell (a highlight as the maniacal mailman), Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Rick Shapiro, Todd Barry and Conan O'Brien (playing himself), it is an insight into the long evolution of Louis C.K.
Fans of Louie will recognise the distinctive font on the film's title card for a start, not to mention the riffs on a small man in a big city, weird sexual peccadilloes and human cruelty. The influence of Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch is clear. In fact, C.K. has been making films like this since he was 17 years old. A trawl on YouTube turns up Hello There, the tragic tale of a voiceless office drone; Ugly Revenge, a surreal Western set in modern-day Manhattan also starring Poehler; and Ice Cream a 13-minute anti-romance which screened at Sundance and landed him his first job on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, among many others.
With Tomorrow Night, another piece of his comedy history slots into place. Putting one's juvenilia up for scrutiny is a risky business but 16 years on, C.K. is still proud of his passion project and fans will enjoy looking for signs of his future greatness and preoccupations in the eccentric tale. In the past, the comedian has said that if he made $8m from downloads, he would use the cash to fund a film. So this early effort is surely worth a look, if only to help him on his way to making a follow-up as soon as possible.
No one comperes to surreal Smith
A good compere can make even the dullest and most protracted awards ceremony go with a swing, which is why Arthur Smith (above) has become a popular regular host for the Critics' Circle theatre awards. Resplendent in a silver onesie, the gruff comedian came up with lots of bons mots between the prizes this week, pondering Dr Johnson's famous quote about a play being "worth seeing, but not worth going to see", finding out whether any of the assembled critics had ever been arrested (the Telegraph's man had, for drunk and disorderly), and telling the audience "the living are just the dead on holiday". All comperes should take a leaf out of his refreshingly surreal book.
WHAT I WATCHED THIS WEEK
At the Vaults under Waterloo Station. A smart, philosophical hour, which freewheels from love to padded bras, feminism to spiders – her best stand-up show yet.
On Crackle.com. Tina Fey was a rare female guest on Seinfeld's 'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee' and although she revealed that she cannot drive, the journey was a sparky and enjoyable as expected.
The Trip to Italy
At last, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite for another road trip. In this clip from the upcoming series, they trade impressions of 'The Dark Knight Rises', including their unintelligible Batmans and Banes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=930-WGuRJu0.