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Courtesy of Louis C.K.

April 13, 2016

Horace & Pete: Thought in the Age of Binges

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“Not only do they talk about you as being the undisputed king of comedy, but your [work] is deeper and broader,” Charlie Rose declares at the beginning of a 30-minute interview with Louis C.K. “You could make comparisons to Lenny Bruce, to Bob Dylan … comparisons to a sort of philosopher-king.” Clearly anticipating some kind of credit for coining the term “philosopher-king,” the self-serious Rose awkwardly pushes the comedian for a response. Upon realizing the talk show host was, indeed, serious, C.K. replies, “I don’t know, man, I’m just a comedian … anything beyond that I always get a little uncomfortable.”

The interview dates back to May 2014, but that goofy exchange remains indicative of just how difficult it can be to define C.K.’s current position in pop culture. His latest offering, a series entitled Horace & Pete, does little to clarify what it means to be “just a comedian.” Set within a hundred year-old Brooklyn dive bar operated by —  you guessed it — Horace (C.K. himself) and his brother Pete (Steve Buscemi), the series features the comedian pushing himself into more strictly dramatic territory and exploring new modes of independent production. Along for the ride is an embarrassingly talented supporting cast, counting among its ranks Jessica Lange, Edie Falco, Rebecca Hall and Alan Alda — who frequently steals the show as Uncle Pete, an aged, foul-mouthed bartender resentful of Brooklyn’s hipster invasion (amongst other things). Oh, and did I mention Paul Simon performs the show’s theme song?

With that level of pedigree, the obvious question is why the show hasn’t garnered more attention, the answer to which perhaps lies more in its distribution than its content. After announcing a hiatus from his hit FX series Louie last year, all remained quiet on the C.K. front until January, when subscribers awoke to the following email: “Hi there, Horace & Pete episode one is available for download. $5. Go here and watch it. We hope you like it.”

Just like that, C.K. did to TV what the music industry has done to album rollouts: eliminate promotion cycles and blindside fans with new content. The difference here, though, is the lack of industry machinations between artist and fan, with C.K. self-producing each episode and uploading one every Saturday to his personal website for purchase. It’s an unprecedented strategy, and one gets the sense that C.K. himself was figuring it out as he went along. Nobody knew how many episodes there would be, or if the show would function according to seasons. What’s more, the episodes’ runtimes vary wildly, and the price of each one ranges from $2 to $5.

Now that the series’ run is over, some of that confusion has resolved itself. All ten episodes come out to $31 —  reasonable (if seemingly random) pricing that will likely do little more than recoup the out-of-pocket expenses required of an independent production. A similar lack of clarity extends to the show’s content, and turns out to be one of its greatest attributes, allowing the auteur room to experiment while trusting his audience to follow. Part of Horace & Pete’s appeal is figuring out what it is, exactly.

As with Louie, C.K. serves as the show’s writer, director and editor, granting a vital sense of cohesion to the messier moments of experimentation. Stylistically, the show resembles a stage play as much as it does a sitcom, taking place almost entirely within two constructed sets: the bar and the living quarters above it. C.K. keeps his camera at a distance, rarely using close-ups and cutting between shots at long intervals. The dialogue, too, flows according to a theatrical rhythm, as the actors often deliver lengthy monologues before falling into silence.

In one of the few promotional interviews he’s done for Horace & Pete, C.K. aptly described the show’s tone to Jimmy Kimmel as “what the bar in Cheers was probably really like between 2 and 5 p.m.” The bar’s patrons are mostly depressive figures disillusioned with any sense of idealism, broken down by struggles ranging from quotidian to tragic. That’s not to say there aren’t laughs to be had here, but they’re often of a rueful variety — the kind that these people might follow with another drink.

As a longstanding family business, the titular bar is held together almost entirely by a bitter commitment to tradition for tradition’s sake, repeatedly passed along as patrimony from one pair of messed up men to the next. Therein lie some powerful metaphors for America, which C.K. capitalizes on by setting the show in the immediate present (a certain reality TV star-turned-presidential-candidate is debated once or twice). His writing is at its best, though, in areas where it refrains from the grandiose, opting instead to generate empathy in ways that his stand-up never could. C.K. knows he is no great actor, and the character of Horace mostly serves as an ear to others’ perspectives. These moments of ceded spotlight allow the show to deftly tackle conversations on topics ranging from transphobia to mental illness, all without straying too far toward the pretentious.

If anything threatens this current golden age of television, it’s the trend toward “bingeable” melodrama, the kind of content designed to be digested in a single weekend. With Horace & Pete, C.K. has crafted an imperfect, but thought-provoking show that demands time to ruminate between episodes. He may not be a “philosopher-king,” but the guy has certainly given us plenty to think about.
Chris Stanton is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cms459@cornell.edu.

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