On Louis C.K., ‘Horace and Pete,’ and the Meanness of Donald Trump

On Louis C.K., ‘Horace and Pete,’ and the Meanness of Donald Trump

I woke up late on Saturday morning to good news in my email inbox: a new episode of ‘Horace and Pete,’ Louis C.K.’s online series, had dropped. The first part of the email was fun and games as usual, but then there was a PS, during which C.K. delivered a lengthy and much-publicized rant against Donald Trump. As one might expect, C.K. had choice words for Trump, calling him a liar, a bigot, the equivalent of Hitler–all fair labels. Most saliently, though, C.K. called Trump out for a couple of things: he stated that he’s “not one of you. He is one of him,” urging readers not to be fooled by Trump’s promises. And he described, at length, Trump’s bullying, threatening tendencies, his pure meanness. Meanness should be distinguished from cruelty: meanness is inherent, deep, and yet also tacky; cruelty is slightly different, possibly situational. There’s a reason why C.K.’s words on the meanness and pretense of Trump should be taken seriously, and that his rant should not be dismissed as yet another self-serious celebrity’s conscious political statement. The reason is that C.K. is a student, practically a scholar, of both these qualities in humans. This knowledge is in glowing and wince-worthy evidence in Episode 6 of ‘Horace and Pete.’

Pretense and meanness are, in fact, what the series is all about. Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) are cousins who thought they were brothers until Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), their late uncle (to Horace)/father (to Pete), revealed otherwise, running a bar which seems like a solid establishment but is in fact losing money and serving watered-down drinks. Horace presents as affable but is in fact highly dishonest in his relationships, and, in some ways, mean-spirited, with a damaged, unhappy daughter and a son who doesn’t speak to him. Pete seems like a retiring sort, but is in fact heavily medicated—without his meds, he begins having visions. And then there’s the meanness. Throughout this brilliant series, characters say unabashedly mean things to each other, from Uncle Pete’s call to Horace to say hi to his “fat daughter” onwards. The drama’s characters regularly tell each other to go fuck themselves, believably, with full-throated anger. And they do mean things too; in one particularly harrowing and beautifully executed episode, we learn that Horace’s marriage ended because he slept with his wife’s sister. Repeatedly. And we learn this after Horace’s previous wife has announced that she’s cheating on her current partner with his father.

Episode 6 cranks this sort of ultra-meanness up a notch. It
begins benignly, as Pete springs around his bedroom, preparing for a blind
date. Then we cut to the date itself, as Pete and Jenny, played with great
honesty and forwardness by Hannah Dunne, muddle around a bit and then speak openly with each other about their attributes and shortcomings. Nothing mean yet, really, but in the next scene, which takes place after the two have become a couple, Pete and his new partner have dinner with Horace and Horace’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco), a tightly wound, short of phrase, long of vindictiveness, cancer patient. The dinner starts awkward and gets worse as probing questions turn into snappish judgments (she’s 26, he’s 46). And then, finally, the kicker: Horace explains, explicitly and bluntly, Pete’s condition. Crushed, Jenny leaves, but not before telling Horace and his sister off, as Pete sits, head bowed, destroyed and ashamed. After Pete leaves, Horace and Sylvia go on eating dinner. So, the siblings have taken an unstable, lonely man, who was clearly enjoying a chance at happiness, decided that he wasn’t being forthright enough about his past, made a decision for him, crushed him, and then savored a plate of family-style spaghetti and meatballs. If you want a definition of meanness, look no farther. But simultaneously, if you want a definition of nakedness, the absence of pretense, the conclusion of this dinner gathering would be an apt illustration, as well. Nothing is hidden. Everything is revealed. Everything is ugly. Pass the parmesan.

What is the origin of nastiness? The sad reality is that its origins are often hard to place. One could hazard a number of explanations for why Horace spills Pete’s beans for him: he didn’t want a painful situation to develop later; he was doing his cousin a favor by not allowing him to become involved with a woman not mature enough to handle Pete’s reality; he was protecting Pete’s stability by stopping things before he got in over his head; he was bringing truth in where there had been none before. But none of these explanations are quite as strong as: he felt like it. And: humans are like that. So, the spectacle of Trump must be quite interesting to Louis C.K.: a man who says whatever he wants, and who promises to commit acts of great barbarism if elected President, for no other reason than impulse. Simultaneously, Trump is a pretender, someone who acts as if he has compassion for the downtrodden and yet has none, clearly. C.K. understands this man, because he’s watched this behavior in others, and he has allowed it to spark ‘Horace and Pete,’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Louie.’ In C.K.’s dramas, the urge to be nasty or brutal or mean floats around like a life force, at times seeming like its own character. There are other impulses as well, but the injustice humans do to each other is often the catalyst behind each storyline. Dissembling is germane to C.K.’s work as well; C.K. plays himself, in a sense, in his dramas and in his stand-up–and yet who is this man? C.K. pretends to be a likable schlub, an everyman, a junk food addict, an ordinary guy–and yet, look: he’s assembled a remarkable cast for ‘Horace and Pete,’ with a theme song by one of the best songwriters of the past 50 years, a drama packed with incisive, acute analysis of American sadness. Not the work of a schlub! C.K. demonstrates by example that there are two kinds of dissembling. His is the good kind. Trump’s? Something else altogether.

Louis C.K. On Rape: Why Are We Listening to Him, and No One Else?

Louis C.K. On Rape: Why Are We Listening to Him, and No One Else?


Much has been written about this season of Louie, including pieces from Heather Havrilesky on Louie’s manic
bossy nightmare girls
and Kathleen Brennan on “fat,” “not fat,” and holding hands. Last week’s episode was no exception, as it
triggered commentary from Amy Zimmerman at The Daily Beast, and Madeline Davies at Jezebel. Louie
and its subsequent commentary offer poignant insight into a range
of issues, and most recently gender relations. But why is it, exactly, that viewers
take so much notice when Louis C.K. says something, and not other times? In
particular, considering last week’s near rape of Pamela, why are we paying so
much attention to Louie’s attitudes towards women and rape while ignoring women
who have expressed the same sentiments for years?

In the last episode, Louie’s perspective was clear as he decided
to try a “guy/girl” thing with Pamela, which consisted essentially of his
taking control in every sense. As I watched him discover Pamela half-asleep on
the couch, and then nearly rape her, I grew increasingly angry because, once
again, I felt silenced. We only see Louie’s point of view as he chases and
repeatedly grabs Pamela. Initially, Pamela is allowed a few refusals before quipping, “This would be rape if you
weren’t so stupid.” Then, once she is cornered in the doorway, she is
effectively silenced as Louie asserts control.

Finally after a resistant kiss, Pamela escapes and Louie shuts
the door on her—and with it, her response. After Louie’s perceived success at
his version of a “guy/girl” thing, women are denied a way to deal
with the experience of watching Pamela being nearly raped. We have no idea what
it’s like on the other side of the door.

During or after an assault, people are denied self-preservation
by not being allowed to run, ignore, seek revenge, or learn from the event.
This episode not only denied a reaction from Pamela, but also the opportunity
to learn from it. It follows the predominant narratives that offer nothing new
and focus on the assailant. In the recent rape case in Calhoun, Georgia that
is getting attention from local and national news outlets as well as
blogs, we watch the police as they do their jobs by investigating the
case and charging suspects. And while
local columnist David Cook deserves respect for pointing out that rape
mentality causes rape
, it’s problematic that these are the narratives. By not
empowering the woman involved, it makes it seem as though the immense amount of
courage it took for her go to the police was outweighed by praise for people
doing their jobs, or being human.

Certainly when comparing the Calhoun case to a situation like
Steubenville, it can seem like the reproduction of rape myths might have
momentarily lessened, and we might be making some progress in the acknowledgment
of the realities of rape. Sure, we know from press coverage that the students
were drinking in Calhoun, Georgia that night, but we haven’t yet heard about
her prom dress, or how she might have been asking to be assaulted to the point
of hospitalization. Additional hope that we might be making progress might be
found in the formation of the first White House task force to study rape, and now
the subsequent federal investigation into over 50 universities for their sexual
assault policies on campus. But we still have a long way to go.

Rape occurs off campus too, and it’s estimated to happen to one
in five women in their lifetimes. So given the frequency of rape, it’s
consistently disheartening that the male perspective is the dominant
perspective in popular culture. What possibly is most upsetting is that while
we continually see rape from a male perspective, as if it’s something men to do
to women (which it is 98% of the time), we don’t seem to address men’s behavior
that leads them to rape. And television episodes like this, as well as most
rape narratives in popular culture, just play into that by ending it with
closing the door and not focusing on Pamela. 

So, again, why are we taking notice when Louie offers commentary
on rape? Perhaps we are sticking with what is safe, or what doesn’t drastically
challenge our power dynamics. However, when we allow men to continue to control
the commentary, they also get to reinforce entitlement over women’s bodies. I
suppose that having men define our experiences prohibits us from incessantly
flicking men’s penises, seeking unlimited abortions, or generally taking
control of our lives.

Or maybe women’s perspectives on rape are too real and ugly for
a mainstream audience. In this episode, Pamela did a fine job of exhibiting
tortured resistance, but it ended there. It has been a long time since Thelma and Louise showed us that when a
woman cries like that, she isn’t having any fun. In popular culture we don’t
often experience, in a non-fetishized way, the complete violation that
accompanies forced penetration with objects or body parts, and the blood and
bruises that may result. Even more messy are the complicated emotions one might
experience: denial, bargaining, fighting, acceptance. While I certainly
wouldn’t want to fetishize rape, the acknowledgment of these
horrific experiences can enable us.

Consistently showing the male perspective of rape also
conveniently absolves us of the consequences. Not only do men often get away
with it—98% are never incarcerated—but women are also forced to navigate a
culture that has historically blamed or not believed them. So when the Louie
episode ends with the door closing, we don’t have to experience what goes
through Pamela’s head, and how she processes the experience. In the episode, if
things went further, we wouldn’t have to consider whether or not she would report it. And
if she did, we wouldn’t have to feel the shame or fear and consider how she
will deal with it when there might not be any justice.

Ultimately, maybe women’s perspectives on assault aren’t
reflected enough in popular culture because they counter the pervasive
acceptance of everyday violations women endure, such as being groped in public,
having erections pressed on our asses in the subway, and being told to smile on
the street. Perhaps our tacit acceptance of these behaviors make it easier to
follow the dominant narrative. But after seeing this play out once again,
especially from such a generally excellent show, I’ve had more than enough.
It’s time to stop shutting the door.

Allison Blythe is an urban planner and Chicago native who currently
lives in Brooklyn, NY. She tries to increase equity and improve the
quality of life for New York City residents through her work. She loves
to laugh, and you can have a drink with her at the happy hour for area
planners that she co-founded.

On Louis C.K., “Fat,” “Not Fat,” and the Importance of Holding Hands

On Louis CK, “Fat,” “Not Fat,” and the Importance of Holding Hands

null          “You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat
girl? That ‘you’re not fat.’”

At 5’4” and about 167 pounds, according to my last Wii Fit
weigh-in, the digitally-rendered Mii version of myself and I are firmly within
the Orange Alert “overweight” category, according to both the federal
government and the fitness experts at Nintendo. Granted, those same Nintendo
engineers freaked out an entire generation of female high school athletes when
the Wii Fit made its U.S. debut in 2008, by telling them they too were
borderline obese. However, my Mii (which is automatically plumped up according
to my real-life gravitational pull) and I are not confusing muscle mass for
extra LB’s. The worn-through holes in the inner thighs of my Old Navy Rock
Stars are frustrating evidence enough for my pear-shaped, student-budget self.
And though I don’t aim to lose the two dozen or so pounds my now-antique video
game console recommends, primarily because I would simply look weird, it would
be nice to throw on a shirt and jeans without worrying if my navel is peeping
through the gap at the bottom of a button-down.

That being said, I’m not sure if I am seen by others as “fat.”
Several people (excepting grade-school bullies and a particular ex-boyfriend)
have specifically informed me that I am “not fat” Obviously the spectrum of
body shapes is highly variegated, but my place on it has long been difficult
for me to define. So, while watching the latest episode of Louie this past Monday, I found myself identifying more than I
initially expected with Vanessa, the above-quoted “fat girl,” especially during
the episode’s poignant closing, when Vanessa elegantly calls Louie out on his
well-meaning and perhaps unintentionally backhanded bullshit.  It was a rare televised blow struck on behalf
of the “fat,” the “not fat,” and everyone else who — like Louie and Vanessa
both, as they stroll into the sunset hand in hand, understanding each other
through touch as much as humor — runs around in potentially lovable and
routinely devalued skin. Rather than digressing into an oversimplified binary
of what is and is not considered attractive, the episode skillfully alludes to
vagaries of personhood that extend beyond weight. Being a fat girl in the
dating world sucks, Vanessa says, breaking a taboo of what she isn’t supposed
to say, but so does a range of characteristics that might mysteriously
reclassify someone as supposedly unworthy and unwanted.

Vanessa is a sharp-witted server at the West Village comedy
club where Louie is a regular. After she catches Louie’s set one night, she
tells him she loves “seeing him up there,” though she “hates comedy.” (She
herself is clearly more talented than at least one of the male comedians shown
on stage; Louie observes her cracking up Ed Burns and hobnobbing with Dave
Attell.) Vanessa is honest, hilarious, attractive, and fat. She forthrightly
asks Louie out, but he begs off, saying that “he’s tired.” “Oh my God, are you
going to be okay?” she says, forehead wrinkling with over-concern. “You should
have said something before, I didn’t know you were tired.”

It’s also implied that Vanessa is better at her job than
employees like the pretty, slender young blonde named Sunshine, who shuts Louie
down when he clumsily asks, “Is that really your name?” Dealing with a crabby customer
waiting too long for his check, Vanessa says, “I’m not your waitress, but let’s
go find her and kick her ass.” If I didn’t want to be friends with this
fictional person from her first appearance, I definitely wanted to from that moment

Vanessa’s approach with Louie reverberated with my own so truly
that I cringed while watching her give him thousand-dollar hockey play-off
tickets because she’s busy on game night, and subsequently convince him to grab
a cup of coffee with her, with the implied caveat that it’s not exactly a date. (She still pumps her
fist in victory.) As far as spending time with another human being goes, Louie
and Vanessa’s not-date is enviably good. They obviously click on several
levels; later, Vanessa tells Louie that if someone were watching them from a
few yards away, they would see a great couple in action. Yet, throughout his
interactions with her, you can see the half-fictionalized Louie/Louis trying to
process conflicting input and impulses. Here’s a woman who is fun, clever,
generous to a fault, and who genuinely likes him, his gastronomical “bang bang”
adventures notwithstanding. Dave Attell seems to vouch for her. And Louie
himself is “nobody’s bargain,” to quote the Boss. So what’s the problem? We’re
all riders on this train, and there’s no mercy in this town, so why is what
Vanessa’s asking too much?

The answer might lie in Jim Norton’s one-word reaction when
he sees Vanessa at the club: “Yuck.” After all, what could be more disgusting
than a compelling woman who would accept Louie as he is, without forcing him to
conform to an artificially higher standard? Tellingly, Louie says nothing. That
moment foreshadows the conversation he and Vanessa have about calling dating
“trying” at the end of their vague hang-out session. “Try dating as a fat girl
in your early thirties,” she tells him, inviting his wan, conciliatory
contradiction, “You’re not…you’re…”

“Oh Louie,” she sighs, already disappointed before he says,
“You’re not fat.”

Thus begins Vanessa’s wrenchingly honest monologue about living
as a fat girl in New York City. “Why do you hate us so much?” she asks,
admitting that she’s choosing Louie to represent “all guys,” as she is
representing “all fat girls.” “What is it about the basics of human happiness
— you know, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us —
that is not in the cards for us?” This is something I have mulled over many
times, openly challenging my late mother’s installed voice that tells me, as
she did when I was an intense high school junior, I have “everything a man
could want,” a lingering and enigmatic phrase.

“If I was ‘very, really beautiful,’” which Louie calls
Vanessa post-“not fat,” “then you would have said ‘yes’ when I asked you out,” she
says, adding that the “high-caliber” guys flirt right back with her, because
they know their status and social power won’t be compromised. Meanwhile, the “regular”
guys, including the great Louis C.K., refuse to bat an eyelash at her, “because
they get scared that they should be with a girl like me. And why not?” What is
dangerous about being with a person like Vanessa, an overweight but confident grad
school nerd like myself, or any number of the amazing women I know, who have a
variety of bodies and somehow routinely become friends with men they like, instead of lovers? A lack of mutual
attraction is one thing, but repeatedly falling into the “she’s great, but…” category
causes a person to start asking questions more frequently. Meanwhile, the warm
embrace of gentle rejection that Louie describes as a special female talent at
the beginning of the show, and which he employs himself, becomes less and less

And as the episode clarifies, it’s not a matter of sex. “I
didn’t ask if you ever fucked a fat girl,” Vanessa tells Louie. If she had
simply offered a quickie in the stock room, she says, he would have jumped at
it. Vanessa then lays it on the line, speaking for many: “I can get laid —
any woman who is willing can get laid. I don’t want that. I don’t even want a
husband or boyfriend. I just want to hold hands with a nice guy, and walk and
talk.” Louie finally takes her hand, and as they amble toward the horizon, he tells
a fat lady joke, the best possible ending to the show.

Part of the episode’s brilliance lies in exploring why that
simple, public display of intimacy can be so threatening, especially when the
person on the other end of the held hand is, according to the sliding scale
implemented by our societal hive brain, demonstratively imperfect. Sarah
Baker’s portrayal of Vanessa incisively tackles the interwoven, rat-king-like
nest of issues surrounding culturally-approved body images and actual desire,
but the genius in Louie’s writing is
that “fat” could, with minimal adjustment, be swapped out for a range of
alleged flaws. This is a specific story, but with threads that tie it to a
number of all-too-human experiences.

A few years ago, on what would become the most surprisingly
romantic evening of my three decades plus on Earth, a friend of mine suddenly
changed the game and opened my heart just by taking my hand as we walked down
the street to a party. Unfortunately, this took place in London, and more
unfortunately, said friend still lives and teaches in one of the world’s most
famous college towns outside of the UK’s bustling capital. An Atlantic-sized
ocean of time has now passed, stretching the endurance of perceived destiny and
slowly eroding whatever true feeling passed between us.

Since then I have had enough spontaneous and short-lived
adventures to keep a girl occupied, but maybe too often I’ve returned to the
thought of that night, and that feeling, especially because, as one of my male
friends said recently while discussing the vicissitudes of dating, “You do have people who like having sex with
you.” Sure. Most of them have been “good guys,” as Vanessa describes Louie. Sometimes
they’ve even bought me coffee or walked me to the subway the next morning.

But rarely have they held my hand.

Kathleen Brennan is a history PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center. Occasionally she writes and edits non-academic things at her home in Brooklyn, NY.