It came without promotions. It came without ads. It came without packages, boxes or bags. One morning it was just there, announcing its existence to millions of mailing list subscribers through a tantalizingly sparse subject line: “A brand new thing from Louis C.K.”
For anyone who has followed C.K.’s career over the past decade, his decision to drop his new series, Horace and Pete, Beyoncé-style, without fanfare or hype, is expectedly unexpected—that is, it feels like something C.K. would do even if he hadn’t before. He operates under the conviction that businesspeople are best left out of comedy, because, in its purest essence, comedy follows the direct-to-consumer mode of stand-up. This belief informs his business decisions as well as his creative ones. His determination to write, cast, film and even distribute Horace and Pete by himself, eschewing the middlemen entirely, has allowed C.K. to bypass the clunky production process that bogged down his early film projects.
Horace and Pete is easily the strangest project of C.K.’s career (well, since his early absurdist films, at least). The show feels a bit like Cheers meets Arthur Miller: a family drama of old resentments and filial duty, set inside a Brooklyn bar among a mélange of Norms and Cliffs. It’s shot like live theater, too, with long takes, a couple of scene shifts and the occasional fumbled line. There’s even an intermission in the form of a 30-second black screen appearing halfway through the production, over which Paul Simon croons and picks his delicate theme song, written specifically for the show:
Why do we tear ourselves to pieces?
I just need some time to think
Or maybe I just need a drink
At Horace and Pete’s.
Is this a sitcom? A staged play? A stand-up act? Sometimes it feels like a hybrid of all three.
Cousins Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) run a family-owned, century-old bar in Brooklyn, passed down to them through a paternal lineage of previous Horaces and Petes, extending back to the original pair in 1916. Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), the eldest remaining Pete, is a snarling, hipster-hating barkeep who hurls out racial slurs as casually as he slips customers their watered-down drinks. His clientele includes Marsha (Jessica Lange), an acid-tongued regular and the previous Horace’s final love; Kurt (Kurt Metzger), a political cynic who supports Donald Trump for president, if only to hasten the country’s self-destruction; and Leon (Steven Wright), a droopy-eyed drunk with the energy and spirit of Eeyore. Edie Falco, who plays Horace’s sister—the lone voice of reason in the establishment—rounds out this all-star cast, which seems drawn directly from Hollywood’s Walk of Fame rather than a desk pile of head shots.
Stranger even than the local playhouse feel of Horace and Pete is its distribution method. At a time when television is ruled by Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and much of the content is streamed through on-demand gizmos like Apple TV, C.K. evaded the new boob-tube big cats and released Horace and Pete directly through his website, for a pay-per-episode charge ranging from $2 to $5. For consumers used to paying a flat monthly fee for all-access to hundreds of shows, C.K.’s asking price—which will reach about $30 by series end—may seem a bit high. But value is mercurial, subjective. Like liquor drinkers at a finely aged Brooklyn bar, we can decide whether a bottle of well whiskey is worth as much as a sip of 12-year-old single malt.
“As a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion,” explained C.K. about his decision to forgo advance fanfare for Horace and Pete. “So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.” In this age of perpetual ads, big-budget promotions and the all-you-can-eat buffet of binge-ready entertainment, that raw sense of discovery indeed feels like a brand-new thing.
Feature photo: Everett Collection