Louis C.K.'s 'Horace and Pete': A Show Unspoiled by Expectations

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Louis C.K. appears onstage at Comedy Central's "Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs" at the Beacon Theater on Feb. 28, 2015 in New York.Credit: AP

He’s done it again. First he managed to change our views about the potential and value of the sitcom-standup TV series – from “laugh and forget it” into “an existential rumination about the world we live in and mostly wonder WTF!” Now he singlehandedly changes the way we liaise with the screen, be it a TV set, PC, tablet or smartphone.

He is Louis C.K., he of the “Louie” FX comedy series in which he plays essentially himself (a divorced father of two girls, a standup comedian who wanders through life eternally perplexed and darkly funny). And he explains what he has done and is still doing, and why he does it that way.

But first things first: He is writing, producing, directing and marketing a new series called “Horace and Pete,” to be watched on a screen (once we used to call it TV, but the nature of this beast changes as I write). It’s about an Irish bar in Brooklyn that has been in existence since 1916, now owned and run by Horace (Louis himself), and Pete (Steve Buscemi) of the current generation, which is being run into the ground partly because of the habit of the former Pete (a wonderfully grumpy and most politically incorrect Alan Alda) of offering patrons, old and new, drinks on the house. James Poniewoznik in his review in The New York Times came up with a brilliant description of the result (based on episode one and augmented by episode two): “a ‘Cheers’ spec script by Eugene O’Neill: a snapshot of a family – and a country – suffering a hangover decades in the making.”

There is a lot to be said about the story as it unfolds and about the characters trapped within it, bound by strings of tangled family ties: Horace’s sister (Edie Falco); the last, third wife (Jessica Lange) of the last generation’s Horace, who died without leaving a will; Horace’s estranged and corpulent daughter (Aidy Bryant) and the bar’s alcoholic regular customers. But there is much more to be said about the way the viewers – and yours truly – are finding it and finding out about it.

Suddenly, on January 30, an e-mail landed in my inbox: “Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.”, with a link address. As I had purchased a Louis C.K. show that way before, I clicked the link, and had to log in. Having forgotten the password, I clicked on the link he had prepared for the likes of me, which resulted in an e-mail telling me: “Apparently you forgot your password? Ok, so here’s your new one, stupid: “moron.ticb8”.

So, you see, the whole thing is very personal, even to the point of the standup comedian insulting the viewer – i.e. making me a part of the show – as part of the routine. It is not me turning the set on at a specified time, being pumped up with expectations based on a PR campaign for a new series that strives for big numbers. Louis himself explains it best (in an e-mail offering me the second episode, this time for $2): “Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeling that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.”

Misplaced souls

The experience, all 67 minutes of it, is quite something. The action takes place in the bar itself, with regulars and newcomers mingling, wandering in and out, with each encounter providing yet another bit of sad, odd and yet inevitable bit of information about the place and its misplaced souls and sentiments. Part of the action moves to Horace’s rooms above the bar, where he (in episode two, which got to me while I was still watching episode one) converses freely, with expletives most decidedly undeleted, with the female object of his own erotic fantasies. She is his late (and hated) father’s third wife (played by Lange, who at the same time is being courted by someone in the bar below). BTW, the booze at the bar is diluted (half of it is water, but the regular alcoholics on bar stools don’t mind), and cocktails are not served.

Louis has done it before, marketing and distributing his specials and selling tickets for his shows on the site, cutting out all the middlemen, so to speak. And as he notified those who bought episode one: “The response to episode one has been great so far and there are more coming. We are making them now and having a lot of fun doing it.” And, by the way, the show is very topical, with one of the female characters raising her glass and stating “Hillary Clinton is a c—t,” and another proposing that Trump be elected in order to let him bring the farce the U.S. has become to its conclusion.

He also explains his pricing system, and he is too good a comedian for me to paraphrase him, so I quote: “So why the dirty fuckballs did I charge you five dollars for ‘Horace and Pete,’ where most TV shows you buy online are 3 dollars or less? Well, the dirty unmovable fact is that this show is fucking expensive ‘Horace and Pete’ is a full on TV production with four broadcast cameras, two beautiful sets and a state of the art control room and a very talented and skilled crew and a hall-of-fame cast. Every second the cameras are rolling, money is shooting out of my asshole like your mother’s worst diarrhea. (Yes there are less upsetting metaphors I could be using but I just think that one is the sharpest and most concise.)”

Along with the 50 minutes of the second episode (cost is $2, while the price of further episodes, whose number is unknown, will be $3), Louis provided a belated caveat for viewers: “Warning: this show is not a ‘comedy.’ I dunno what it is. It can be funny. And also not. Both. I believe that ‘funny’ works best in its natural habitat. Right in the jungle along with ‘awful’, ‘sad’, ‘confusing’ and ‘nothing.’ I just think it’s fair this one time to warn you since you have every right to expect a comedy from a comedian. I will not warn you again.”

With which we come back full circle to the beginning of this column, about Louis’s greatest achievement in this our world of entertainment: He has managed to reframe for us the definitions of “comedian” and “funny.” It is not (only) about making ourselves laugh. It is about the ability to look at life, ours and that of others, and take it as it is, making – no, not the best of it, but if possible, not the worst.

With things being as they are, what better way to live through it, while having a drink in the “intermission” – there is one offered in each episode – following the misfortunes on the planet of “Horace and Pete” and all its satellites, with a new episode hitting you whenever they finish it, and when you least expect it.