Comedian Louis C.K. caught fans by surprise once again Saturday morning when he sent an email notifying them of a new web series he’s written and directed. The message was characteristically terse: “Hi there. ‘Horace and Pete’ episode one is available for download. $5. Go here to watch it. We hope you like it. Regards, Louis.” And there’s no premium cable network or streaming service involved. Want to see the first episode of a quietly terrific dramedy starring C.K. Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, and Jessica Lange? Great. Give Louis C.K. five bucks and you can stream or download Episode 1 right now.
C.K. and Buscemi play Horace and Pete, respectively, brothers who run an eponymous, struggling Irish bar in Brooklyn. Their uncle Pete (a delightfully, almost frighteningly foul-mouthed Alda) runs the bar with them, and makes no bones about his sexist and racist beliefs. Falco plays their sister Sylvia, equally vocal about her frustration with the bar’s sliding profits and her determination to dissolve the business. Aidy Bryant guest-stars as Horace’s daughter Alice, and Rebecca Hall makes a brief but strong appearance as his live-in girlfriend. A wry and tarted-up Lange is Marsha, who is forever welcome in the bar, according to Uncle Pete, because she was his father’s last girlfriend.
The show was almost certainly filmed in the last few weeks—there are Trump and Clinton references—and is less an episode of a TV show than the filmed first few acts of an intense play. (Indeed, there’s an intermission during the 42-minute run time, and playwright Annie Baker is thanked in the credits.) Ordinary wooden furniture, a morose red-and-white jukebox, and limp green fairy lights are the only decorations. Hipster customers who ask for mixed drinks or Coronas are immediately told to fuck off by Uncle Pete.
With Horace and Pete’s release via a website, plus a flat fee for the download, C.K. continues to avoid relied-upon models of distribution. Starting with his 2011 stand-up special Shameless, C.K. has distributed a number of programs himself, and other comedians have followed suit. Aziz Ansari’s special Dangerously Delicious was released for a small fee online in 2011. Jim Gaffigan took the same approach for Mr. Universe in 2012. After seeing Tig Notaro’s now-legendary set at the Largo in August of 2012, C.K. told Notaro he wanted to release the audio online. The audio of the special went on sale on C.K.’s website in October of the same year and sold 75,000 copies.
Does it work? It has for standup specials. In a statement published on his website in 2011, C.K. detailed the revenue of Shameless, on which he spent $170,000 of his own money to produce: “12 hours [after going on sale], we had … earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website … I have a profit [of] around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show … but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use.”
But releasing your own TV show, with big stars and real production values, is a different matter entirely. There are plenty of web series out there, distributed on network-like platforms or released independently, but few have the kind of star power and creative juice of Horace and Pete. C.K.’s FX show Louie made use of the network model but benefited from the support of FX executive John Landgraf, who said in 2012 that by giving C.K. a limited budget, he left the comedian free to explore subjects and characters not usually associated with basic cable. “If I can give you this little money, then I can do something kind of crazy. If you can make a show of real quality with that little money, I don’t have to give you notes.” Nonetheless, for Horace and Pete, C.K.’s trying a new experiment: distributing a network-quality TV show with no network assistance (or interference) whatsoever.
Like Louie, Horace and Pete is not a straight comedy. There are laughs and quirks but the issues addressed are serious and unforgiving: parental abuse and neglect, alcoholism, exhaustion, shattered relationships, estranged children, imminent bankruptcy, and mental illness. Gentle awkwardness quickly spirals into full-blown tragicomedy. If the first episode is any indication, Horace and Pete is the next great show to get obsessed over—and Louis did it on his own.