There are dozens of dramas available on the television and through streaming services. The same goes for comedies. These are two of the bread and butter genres for the medium. But tragedy? That hasn’t been a part of the cultural lexicon in any meaningful way for quite some time. Since Louis CK is an island unto himself and a true auteur who basically has free reign to do whatever he wants, he went ahead and pretty much made a tragedy. A funny, loose, and ultimately emotionally devastating ten-episode masterpiece called Horace and Pete. And it tore me to pieces. And it had me laughing out loud. And then it tore me to pieces again. It’s as raw and emotionally honest as anything I’ve seen in the medium and when it was over there was a void in my life I didn’t have ten hours earlier. I didn’t want it to ever end. That’s power.
First, here’s a quick look at how Louis CK pulled off sneaking almost ten hours of new content through the system without anyone knowing:
Spider-Man always juggles the balance of Power and Responsibility and no one in Hollywood (or in this case, New York) takes the kinds of risks that the once and future Louie does. He works off the grid, does it his way, and has found a direct inroad to his fan base through email. He has unprecedented autonomy with FX Networks and is given a lump sum per episode to use as he wishes and they don’t know anything about his episodes until they’re finished. In a business built on fear and covering one’s ass, the man is an island.
Additionally, when Louis grew tired of going through the normal channels to release his stand-up material, he decided to release it himself on his website and sell it through Paypal. In twelve days he made over a million dollars. This isn’t an overnight sensation being in the right place at the right time. This is the rise to power of one of the hardest working men in comedy over the past two decades.
When Louis took a break from his FX show Louie the belief was that he’d either take a well-deserved break or work on his next hour of material. To the casual observer, that’s just what he was doing. Until January 30th, 2016 when a seemingly innocuous email arrived in the inbox of subscribers of Louis CK’s mailing list, heralding the arrival of Horace and Pete. No one saw it coming. No one knew what it was about or why it existed. What they did know was seemingly under the cover of night, Louis gathered the likes of Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, Edie Falco, Burt Young, Laurie Metcalf, and a host of famous comedians to populate his story.
And what a story it is. Horace and Pete is the chassis that allows Louis CK to purge some of his inner demons, and he does it in spades. Covering current events like the presidential race as well as betrayal, infidelity, abuse, mental illness, racism, familial struggle, and whatever else pops into his mind, Louis CK pulls back layers and layers of emotion and presents it to the camera in a way that is at times jarring. Too raw to be prepared for. He plays his famous faces against type to keep his audience off-guard, because racial epithets somehow pack even more sting when delivered from the beloved Alan Alda. On a similar note, when Louis CK plays his character’s abusive father, that abuse hits even harder because it’s “our Louie” delivering it.
The most powerful and visceral moment of the ten episode series is when Laurie Metcalf (best known from TV’s Roseanne) delivers a twenty-minute soliloquy about a sexual fantasy that doesn’t flinch during its entire duration. It’s a stunning performance that pulls legitimate tears from the show’s creator who is playing against her. It’s moments like those that marry the material of Horace and Pete to famous plays of a bygone era that created dimensional and unforgettable characters that stuck to the marrow of their audience and never let go.
It’s filmed like a 70’s sitcom, but it lingers on moments long after any broadcast show would, prying into its characters to the point of imbalance. When something shocking happens, instead of providing the visceral reveal we’ve grown accustomed to, the screen goes to black. It’s obvious that Louis CK is paying respects but in many ways serving no master but his own twisted muse.
The results are unforgettable, yanking tears, deep laughs, and self-inspection from the viewer in a way unlike anything else out there. There’s a definite finality to Horace and Pete, but when the smoke clears Louis CK will be flush with cash again and though I’ve seen the man perform onstage for a decade and follow his work wherever it goes I’d be a happy man if he spent all of his time on this project. It’s a perfect throughline to the artist, goofball, and uncomfortable role model this amazing creator is and when allowed to be free there’s nothing better than him when he’s energized.
See this. Feel this. It’ll remind you you’re human.