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Horace and Pete

Louis C.K., the culturally-iconic comic, writer and performer, has always been hit or miss for me. I’ve enjoyed him most when he’s riffing on the soulless expanse of social media and modern technology or the inane sanitation of language. He does a great bit on the pointlessness of having a phrase like “the n-word” when everybody mentally substitutes the word anyway once you say it. But he loses me with some of his more self-loathing takes on middle age and near-clinical meditations on the true nature of his sexual id. It doesn’t matter that the guy is smart and truthful; this is the idiosyncratic nature of comedy. It either clicks or it doesn’t, and I find myself laughing out loud more when watching Norm MacDonald. All of which I’m sure C.K. could live with, given his lofty position atop the showbiz heap and ability to call his own shots. Which brings me to his latest creation, the near perfectly-imperfect “Horace and Pete,” now available on his website, for five bucks.

There are a dozen launching points one could choose in discussing the show, so let’s start with that last one first. There was no forewarning from C.K. and this was obviously a conscious decision on his part. Anyone can scrap an advertising budget, but getting an assembled cast and production staff to remain quiet about what they’re doing takes some planning. It just “arrived” on his website with an email to subscribers along the lines of “check this thing out that I made.” There is no means of enforcement for the five dollar charge; only the honor system and understated request that you not “be a dick” by stealing it. Losing the middle man bonds audience with endeavor. For a fiver you’re on-board and connected; not giving it a chance would be like buying an expensive cup of coffee then leaving it on the counter. There’s a blurb on his website about what to do if you “hate” something he is offering and want a refund. His own system is at work .. simple, but given the scope of his influence, quite effective.

So what do you get for the ticket? If you were one of the first to sign up, it’s jarringly current. There’s mention of the Iowa Caucus and Donald Trump skipping the Republican debate — both occurring within days of the show’s launch — in the opening moments. The setting is a hundred year-old bar in Brooklyn populated by a group of dedicated day-drinking alcoholics and a smattering of non-regular hipsters and wanderers-in. The easiest thing to describe about “Horace and Pete” is how it might be sold at a network pitch meeting. Various reviews have used “Cheers meets ..” and then “Eugene O’Neil” or something equally dark after the hyphen. But this doesn’t do it justice and a large part of the point is that there was no pitch meeting. C.K.’s subject matter is a clever mix of the psychological, political, familial and inter-personal. There’s a fine line separating means of delivery from content. The show was delivered un-sold; what to make of it is left to its audience. At its core, it’s a transcript of some of C.K.’s inner dialogues via a group of talented actors (Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange etc.) It avoids some of the more self-absorbed tangents of his stand-up routine or FX series “Louie.” It’s a particular treat seeing his typically sharp thinking delivered from abstract perspective. “Horace and Pete” feels like theater, complete with miscues and rough spots, highs and lows. Marc Maron commented on his podcast that you can now add “playwright” to C.K.’s list of credentials, and I wouldn’t disagree.

The show is also about how we fail to connect, and C.K.’s character Horace is perhaps the least-connected of the bunch. C.K.’s acting chops are a step behind the other main players, but this, too, draws us in on a meta level. We’re familiar with his comic persona and aware at every turn that he’s created this. It has his stamp all over it. When his character is accused of being an inept failure as a subsequent-generational heir to his hundred year-old family business, he answers simply and honestly “I don’t care.” It can be read as like ambivalence toward any “message” one might derive from the production. The questions raised in “Horace and Pete” are both compelling and mundane. They are not easily answered. How they’re delivered feels as salient as their interpretation. As Alda, in a great reverse-casting role as a profane and racist bartender (making ample use of the un-sanitized ‘n-word’) notes: “racist is what you do, not what you say.” When he later weighs in on the ensuing legal battle over the bar’s future, his perspective and history feel equally valid despite his skewed, misanthropic angle.

I’m not sure where C.K. will go with this show. It’s labeled “Episode One” but feels complete unto itself and impressively current and real. Any exploration of topics raised in the pilot — if that’s in fact what this is — would seem like overkill. All I really need to know about Horace is transmitted in this sixty-seven minutes. Alda is spot-on, and Buscemi, well, Buscemi. I’d like to see C.K. continue as a dramatic writer to see where it takes him. He has the chops and, most impressively, the ambition, stature and vision to follow up on them in a uniquely independent way. It’s a rare and potent combination.*

*Louis C.K. did, in fact, reveal in an email to his website subscribers days after the show was realeased, that it’s an episodic series with more to come. Despite the above, I’ll be interested to see where it goes.

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