In the third episode of Louis C.K.’s “Horace and Pete,” Horace’s ex-wife Sara (Laurie Metcalf) delivers a gut-wrenching, vivid monologue in which she slowly reveals her infidelity to her new husband. The camera remains firm on her fragile face, and it takes a solid ten minutes before the camera even cuts away to reveal Horace (C.K.) is sitting across from her as she speaks. The more we learn about her backstory, the more she digs a hole for herself. But it’s so descriptive and well acted we empathize with her immediately. We understand why she’s behaved so horribly and why she can’t bring herself to stop. Worst of all, she now has the audacity to look to Horace to help her find a way out, but we too understand why he’s the only one who could.
Call it TV, film or theater, this episode of “Horace and Pete” is possibly the single best hour of art of the year. It explores through only dialogue and character what it is to be on the brink of something so terrible and be unable to stop. Horace tells her it’s like having home insurance during a fire: you just have to burn it all down.
“You really have a skill at justifying horrible things,” she says to him. That line speaks volumes in the moment of the episode, but whether on stage doing stand-up, on screen, or in public, Louie increasingly is all about justifying horrible things.
Upon seeing C.K. on his recent tour, the first 20 minutes of his act were less about being a father or a husband, and more about sensitive subject matter. Abortion is either “murder or taking shit,” he said in one particularly touchy routine. “Christianity won,” he declares in another by asking the audience what year it is. “I’ve been spending the last 20 minutes talking about just awful stuff,” C.K. said. “And I really enjoyed it.”
We may be in an age of trigger warnings and political correctness, but comedy, and perhaps especially stand-up comedy, has always strived to push boundaries, to test limits, to shock audiences and to drum up attention, conversation and controversy.
C.K.’s latest tour is no exception, and it’s not even unusual for him. But on stage today, C.K. is almost trolling the audience to jump to a conclusion, to assume he’s on the wrong side of an issue and crossing that line from provocative to offensive. In that abortion routine, he says we’re supposed to hate those people who protest outside of Planned Parenthood, but he takes a moment to put us in their shoes and say, from their perspective, they think babies are being killed in there. How are they supposed to react?
“Horace and Pete” strives for a similar effect. The characters on the show are not good people. They’re alternately offensive, racist, homophobic, obnoxious, pretentious, abusive, distant or short-tempered. They cling to tradition and to alcoholism, and the bar where the show is set is their only home, their only refuge. They come here to be alone together. The things they talk about, all ripped from the headlines, are volatile, loaded opinions that they believe strongly and say loudly in the confines of this bar. Anyone who heard one of these people in public wouldn’t hesitate to shut them down, to condemn their behavior and tell them the politically correct reason why they’re wrong.
As he does in his act, C.K. wants to understand the perspective of these people. He doesn’t write them as one-dimensional figures made to be condemned. Instead, the show’s slow, theatrical pacing languishes on them, and we’re forced to sit and absorb it. He doesn’t end up vindicating their opinions or taking their side, but in time, C.K. shows he has the patience to listen. In doing so, we see these people have depth, emotions and rationales behind what we typically consider unpopular opinions.
It’s one thing to make us process these ideas in the form of a joke on stage. But in drama, a director has to contend with narrative and framing characters in a way that’s realistic. When these people openly discuss politics, gender, race, sexuality and generational gaps in ways that force the audience to wrestle with their own beliefs, sitting with them can be a turn off.
You might even call them “problematic,” which one critic did upon the show’s release. Vikram Murthi of The A.V. Club argued that in an episode where Horace questions whether he just slept with a trans woman, C.K.’s choice to tackle themes of transphobia is “problematic” when coming from a cisgendered writer and director. He’s “over-reaching outside of his own perspective,” Murthi wrote. That C.K. is reaching outside of his own perspective is exactly the point, and that review was thoroughly refuted in a brilliant Atlantic essay: “That’s the sort of empathy-building result that honest fiction can achieve, even while tackling ‘a pervasive, deeply-ingrained issue from an outsider’s perspective.’ It matters not if the creator is ‘best-positioned’ to explore a subject, a standard unmet by every writer who portrays diverse characters and themes.”
C.K. however doesn’t just have empathy for trans people or for good people who “deserve” empathy. He “justifies the horrible” by daring to empathize with those we would usually demonize. He looks at all of his characters deeply, but he doesn’t judge.
One scene in the first episode of “Horace and Pete” does a good job of articulating the way in which many political conversations devolve these days. In the scene, a loud-mouthed conservative and an obnoxious hipster liberal bicker over Hillary Clinton’s emails. An impartial observer asks them to define the other as “liberal” and “conservative,” and they both recite the worst clichés and assumptions about the other. “The fact that you start out thinking like that, how could you ever possibly respect or agree with them?”
Republican and Democrat may be the big dividing lines today that seem to inevitably encroach on every social or cultural discussion, but we’re divided over the little things too. In a piece on C.K.’s FX show “Louie,” Andy Greenwald writes in Grantland how the show resists the Internet’s vocal “Outrage Economy”, the need to always take a position and recognize that “being silent is far worse than being wrong.”
“This is a particularly poor context for a show like Louie, which, unlike other critically adored programs, makes no attempt at universality. It’s not at all interested in reflecting a national conversation, flirting with the zeitgeist, or examining ‘the way we live now.’ It’s both foolish and reductive to respond to these deeply personal musings with clickbait argument-starters about what Louis C.K. got ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about a particular issue. His fickle, occasionally infuriating meanderings are a feature, not a bug.”
The same is true of “Horace and Pete,” and perhaps even more so. The show moves at a glacier’s pace, and though it’s often insightful and complex, it’s a heartrending and draining viewing experience. You may not agree with Alan Alda’s Uncle Pete when he explains why a man should never go down on a woman, or with why Horace’s ex-wife is committing adultery on her new husband, but after enough time with them, you start to see their humanity. They may not reflect the national conversation, but they’re fully drawn and realized characters. And the closer you get to understanding someone, the harder it is to truly hate them.
Recently C.K. did a seminal interview with New York Magazine in which the writer’s first inclination was not to ask him about “Horace and Pete” but about Donald Drumpf. Such is the state of comedy today, in which everyone from John Oliver to Amy Schumer to Key & Peele to Samantha Bee is expected in the media to be a truth teller and advocate for topics that stretch beyond comedy. And as the champion of average white guys telling it like it is, when C.K. says “Donald Drumpf is Hitler,” you’ll bet it’ll get headlines.
C.K. had a lot to say about the Internet, about how he’s tried to quit it, and about how people get a feeling of power when they vent their outrage. He talked about what it must take for a person with 20 million Twitter followers to say that the dentist who shot Cecil the Lion should have his life destroyed. In the same way his shows resist labels and categorization, when asked if he was a feminist, he said he “didn’t feel strongly enough about anything to give myself a label,” but that he identifies with his feminist daughter. At one point the writer even strongly disagreed with C.K. that “the idea of America is that we can be mean to each other,” when Louie really meant that in art, drama and fiction, we should be able to paint someone as weak or flawed.
“If you need your public profile to be all positive, you’re sick in the head,” C.K. said. “I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after. So my thing is that I try to speak to the work whenever I can.” This quote was in response to the writer’s questioning about the actual horrible things C.K. has been accused of doing by several female comedians. I don’t expect C.K. to “justify” anything he’s done, but I hope that, much in the way he does with his art, he can not only address these acts, but earn the understanding and empathy of the Internet.
“I can’t complain about my problems,” Paul Simon sings in the “Horace and Pete” theme song. “I just need some time to think/or maybe I just need a drink.”
“Horace and Pete” is groundbreaking for the way in which it’s been distributed, for its approach to storytelling and for its devastating performances and style. But above all, it wrestles with perception and forces you to think more deeply about the world’s issues, for better or worse.
Note: On Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, Louie goes into great detail about how he wrote and made the remarkable third episode of “Horace and Pete,” as well as the entire series. It’s the conversation I wish I could’ve had with Louie and is essential listening.