[Read our full review of the Horace and Pete premiere here]
This week’s column has nothing to do with the news. Instead, it is a column about media innovation. Well, to be honest, that is only my thinly veiled excuse to use this space to write a fan letter to Louis C.K. But he is innovative.
If you have not downloaded Louis’ (or C.K.’s or should I say Mr. K’s?) latest, Horace and Pete, please do so now. I can’t do a better job of describing it than Daniel Fienberg did in a Hollywood Reporter review: “It starts as a Eugene O’Neill play about two brothers running a struggling joint, transitions into a David Mamet drama about political correctness and generational definitions of masculinity, becomes a Norman Lear sitcom about contemporary political attitudes, pivots into a Chekhov saga about an underestimated woman reclaiming a birthright and settles into a Mike Leigh kitchen sink dramedy about painful blue collar family revelations.”
It’s not a comedy, but its second episode earned bigger laughs from me than any show I’ve watched in months as Louis takes on irony, hipsters, comedians, PC, parenting, families, and even cancer and mental illness with bluntness, poignance, and profound befuddlement. He is our current master of observation—darker, smarter, and more honest than the auteur hero of my younger years, Woody Allen. I will watch anything he makes. I will pay for it, too.
As he did with a recording of his stage show, Louis released the premier of Horace and Pete by surprise, online, and directly to his public.
As he did with a recording of his stage show, Louis released the premier of Horace and Pete by surprise, online, and directly to his public. He charged $5, which might seem like a lot when you think of it as a TV episode—I buy tons of them on Google Play for $1.99 each or less than $20 for an entire season—but is damned cheap when you see it as a virtual off-Broadway play. Louis then emailed everyone who’d bought the first episode, half-apologizing, half-not and promising to lower the price of the next episode to $2 and the rest to $3 each.
“Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself,” Louis emailed. “So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.”
Lovely thought. And then he added: “So why the dirty fuckballs did I charge you five dollars for Horace and Pete…? Well, the dirty unmovable fact is that this show is fucking expensive.” He has two sets, four cameras, a phenomenal cast—Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Aidy Bryant, Steven Wright, Nick DiPaolo—and an original theme song by Paul Simon. “Every second the cameras are rolling,” he continued, “money is shooting out of my asshole like your mother’s worst diarrhea. (Yes there are less upsetting metaphors I could be using but I just think that one is the sharpest and most concise). Basically this is a hand-made, one guy paid for it version of a thing that is usually made by a giant corporation.”
Bingo. With Horace and Pete, Louis proves wrong the giant media corporation executives and internet dystopians who argue that only old, huge, well-funded companies can make quality entertainment. That’s a variation of the you’ll-miss-us-when-we’re-gone school of Eeyoring I hear constantly from journalists who lament the implosion of their institutions and employers.
Now it is undeniable that Louis C.K. could not make his Judy-and-Mickey-in-a-barn productions into economic successes without bringing the celebrity, stature, and bank account that big, old media enabled in his career. This is an argument I’ve had when calling into Howard Stern’s show, futilely begging him at each contract renewal to leave corporate media behind so he could own his show, destiny, freedom, and company on the net. Mr. Stern shudders at the plebeian image of making a—and he spits this word—podcast. He argues that an up-and-coming star should start on broadcast as he did (I argue back that he’s the one who killed broadcast radio in America; when Mr. Stern goes on this rant, he sounds like his father demanding proper modulation). He also says that the only people successful in podcasting are those, like Joe Rogan, Adam Carolla and NPR, who have followings already—and he’s not wrong, except that doesn’t explain the multimillion-dollar phenomenon that is PewDiePie.
Now, finally, comes Louis’ lesson for big, old news media—because I have to have one: They should be using their audience, stature, and cash, albeit dwindling, and their relationships with Google and Facebook, newly eager to be their friends, to—pardon my German—just try shit. Experiment. Fail. Listen. Boldly go where no newsroom has gone before. Build new products and services and brands. Go directly to your public and see what your public tells you. I don’t care whether the business model is charging or advertising or marketing; don’t worry about that until you know you have something worth something. I just care that, like Louis, you see the assets you’re lucky enough to still have as a license to—no, an obligation to—innovate.