This Saturday, Louis C.K. did something he’s done before. In fact, the last time he did it was almost exactly a year ago, when the comedian made up for disappointing a few thousand fans (myself, as it turned out, among them) with tickets to a canceled Madison Square Garden show by surprising a few million with a brand-new hourlong special filmed at LA’s Comedy Store, a venue considerably more intimate than the Garden.
That special, like his 2011 hour Live at the Beacon Theater, was available not through Comedy Central or HBO, but exclusively on C.K.’s own website. Like “hipster” or “startup” before it, the term “disruption” has expanded so much over time as to lose all meaning; still, that’s what C.K.’s distribution model genuinely was five years ago: a smoke signal to other comedians, albeit only comedians with a fanbase as large and devoted as his, that they needed neither the distribution nor the marketing muscle of a major network to connect their work with its audience — almost two years before a similar epiphany would lead Beyoncé to kickstart a similar sea change in the music industry.
So when an email titled “A Brand New Thing from Louis C.K.” turned up in their inboxes, it’s likely that most fans were excited, but not necessarily shocked. Except that brand-new thing wasn’t a comedy special, or even anything that could be classified as “comedy” at all. It was the first episode of Horace and Pete, a full-blown dramatic series written and directed by C.K. himself (and co-starring acting heavyweights Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, and Jessica Lange, as well as veteran stand-ups Nick Di Paolo, Steven Wright, and Kurt Metzger).
Set in a family-owned bar in contemporary Brooklyn, complete with an uncomfortable mix of blue-collar old timers and beanie-clad 20-somethings, Horace and Pete has a self-contained feeling that’s reminiscent of both a stage drama — New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman compared the premiere to Eugene O’Neill — and classic sitcoms like Cheers. But over the course of the 67-minute premiere, a length that pushes the limits of even the most grandiose cable dramas while nonetheless helping to justify the steep price of five dollars for a single episode of television, Horace and Pete leans heavily towards the former.
C.K. himself plays Horace, a divorced, apathetic, middle-aged man struggling to connect with both himself and his family. He is, in other words, a Louis C.K. character, the befuddled straight man in an ensemble that includes an irascible, bigoted uncle (Alda), a brother and fellow bar owner struggling with mental illness (Buscemi), and an estranged daughter (SNL‘s Aidy Bryant). There are moments of comedy, both wry (“You always used to kiss me,” Lange’s drunken step-grandmother complains. “I think that was before I figured out I didn’t have to,” Bryant replies) and absurd. Yet Horace and Pete is ultimately a family drama, with resentments and secrets dragged out into the open when the title characters’ sister Sylvia (Edie Falco) attempts to take over and close the bar.
Horace and Pete thus represents an entirely new mode for C.K. Even at their most experimental, as when Louie briefly pivoted into a feature-length romance or Zach Galifianakis co-creation Baskets cast Louie Anderson in normcore drag, his projects have always fit into the ever more inclusive label of “comedy.” But with its self-contained vignettes, in which a former regular who murdered his wife and best friend visits the bar after his release from prison or a cluster of strangers debate the conditions necessary for civil political discourse, and tense family debates over obligation and tradition, Horace and Pete‘s comedy is incidental to its larger concerns — concerns that C.K. evidently intends to explore not with his stand-up act’s authoritative frustration or Louie‘s visual ambition, but in the wandering, spare, and melancholy style of a play.
Remarkable as Horace and Pete‘s tone is in the context of C.K.’s filmography, however, without any further episodes, or even a release schedule on which to expect them, what may prove most significant about the series is, once again, his means of releasing it.
Horace and Pete represents, incredibly, the third time the comedian-turned-auteur has established a new model for making art, and then distributing it, on his own terms. Before his stand-up coup, a maneuver that’s since been imitated by peers like Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari, C.K. brokered a deal with FX that set the most important creative precedent for our current era of premium television since David Chase showed his hero strangling a man on camera: in exchange for delivering his series on a shoestring budget, C.K. would have near-total control over Louie, writing, directing, and starring in every episode — and eventually, taking hiatuses at will and of indeterminate length.
C.K. is currently on one of those hiatuses, though most assumed he was spending it either developing yet more shows for FX or outside of television entirely. Instead, he’s opted to make what may be the first full-length television series created, produced, and distributed by a single entertainer, an endeavor that’s far more involved even than self-releasing a comedy special, which involves neither multiple installments nor an entire cast of other players to work with, not to mention pay.
As of now, C.K.’s reasons for creating Horace and Pete outside of FX’s purview are unclear. It could be simply speed; with an in-show newscast announcing Trump’s lead in the upcoming Iowa primary, Horace and Pete goes out of its way to let us know it couldn’t have been shot more than a few weeks ago, a turnaround time that’s uncommon for prestige premieres (though mid-season network shows are a different story entirely). It could be that even FX couldn’t accommodate an almost-70-minute show. Or it could be that C.K. simply wanted to do something different.
Whatever the story behind Horace and Pete, it’s the first example of a creator voluntarily reversing the now-well-worn path from self-produced web series (High Maintenance, Broad City, and Idiotsitter, to name a few) to network-funded show. Like the self-distributed specials, it’s a move that’s only available to entertainers with C.K.’s popularity and resources. But that doesn’t make its potential impact on television, a format that’s increasingly hard to define with a cast of players that’s constantly multiplying, any less significant. Louis C.K. just became the first entertainer to realize he can do anything, not just comedy, without the official go-ahead of a third party who’s neither C.K. nor his fans. If his previous efforts are any indication, it’s only a matter of time before someone else follows suit.