“…this show is not a ‘comedy.’ I dunno what it is. It can be funny. And also not. Both. I believe that ‘funny’ works best in its natural habitat. Right in the jungle along with ‘awful,’ ‘sad’, ‘confusing’ and ‘nothing.’
I just think it’s fair this one time to warn you since you have every right to expect a comedy from a comedian. I will not warn you again.”
This was the opener of an email I received a few days ago from Louis C.K., who is the world’s top comedian right now. I happen to think he’s one of our greatest living artists. It’s a preface in a note to his followers that the second episode of his new streaming show, Horace and Pete, is now available. Like his previous few comedy specials and recordings, it’s only available through his own site. You pay a nominal sum for it and then own it. No mediating HBO, no Netflix, no Amazon. As a business model, this strategy seems to work out pretty well for him and his fans.
I’m not sure why he issued the non-comedy warning, but I have a couple of guesses. 1) There are people out there who like his stand-up but haven’t watched his (truly groundbreaking) TV series on FX, called Louie, so they haven’t figured out that Louis C.K. is as much or even more of an experimental filmmaker and theater-of-the-absurdist as he is a comedian, or 2) the great unwashed masses who ‘like comedy’ cannot stand it when a known person slips the bonds of their initial definition and does something wonderful and unexpected. The bottom line is that C.K.’s fan base runs the gamut, from working-class people who don’t have the time, energy or intellectual curiosity to explore the complex reaches of C.K.’s output, all the way to chattering-class New Yorker readers who would rather talk about Horace and Pete than anything C.K. has said in his last three stand-up specials. I make no value judgement between the poles. C.K. tells the truth, and like many of our best artists and comedians, he’s managed find success either because of it or in spite of it.
His tonal range can cause whiplash, and in the best way. I like his lowest lowball jokes, because even they have a shiny knife edge, and I swoon at his most abstract, surrealist show narratives. There’s a story arc in Season 3 of Louie in which C.K., playing a less-successful version of himself, is trying out to be the unlikely new host of the Tonight Show under the tutelage of a fantastically eccentric network old-schooler played by David Lynch. I had to watch these episodes a few times each and I’m still thinking about them four years later. If you watch Louie or have read any of the gushing think-pieces on it, you know that C.K. trashes narrative rules right and left: which actors play which characters, who he defines as his on-show family, what elements are to be taken as straight story and what might be deemed—might—as a fugue-state sequence only marginally connected to any established on-show reality. He seriously does not give a shit about continuity, and I’ve never seen that in a TV show. It liberates both him and his viewers from conventions we discover are more stifling than we ever guessed.
There’s no doubt in my mind that if C.K. as a younger man hadn’t pursued stand-up, he’d be at this point something like a David Lynch, or Ingmar Bergman, or Michael Winterbottom. He’s on his way now. That he’s much, much funnier than most of his comedy peers is really down to his lucky wiring, and a lot of hard work. Right now, with Horace and Pete, he’s merely on break from his FX show and decided to try what is essentially a teleplay in the spirit of Arthur Miller and James L. Brooks. Horace and Pete is an odd, clunky, quiet and very slow affair—a raw family drama that also addresses our political swampland—and it actually makes you slow down to its pace (which is like finally breathing some clean air after months of current-pace exhaust fumes). It delivers small, sad human truths like jabs to the gut. It’s much like a night on off-Broadway, only starring C.K. and Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, and Jessica Lange.
Who does this? Who spins free (or nearly free), complicated gold on their weeks off? Artists have a tendency to work when they’re not working. Their brains can’t switch off. Not only does C.K. not have to make Horace and Pete, but there will be a number of his fans who will never watch it, or will watch the first episode and abandon it, because it’s not funny enough or funny in the right way. And C.K. will make the next episode and the next—he’s making and releasing episodes pretty much in real time—for those of us who marvel that we get to have this guy doing his thing in our lifetime.