Regine K.

Moral Surgery

With Louis C.K. at retractor’s end.

There is something ethically remedial about watching Horace and Pete. Louis C.K.’s newest show left me feeling healthier and clear-sighted, as if he had lanced off some cataract of moral myopia, popped some pustule of prejudice.

As the show begins you feel a clinical light hitting the white canvas that is its un-muddied premise: a hundred-year-old bar managed by two brothers (sometimes) committed to its survival. The set is sparse and the characters that slowly begin to occupy it seem fittingly plain. Everything is laid out as if on an operating table, unprotected, lying vulnerable in the surgical light.

Then things get bloody.

Yet despite the emotional gore, even because of it, the plot remains committed to people and their relationships and the values that suture them, swinging us swiftly from sorrow to solace and back again. Its stories have a lived, existential darkness for which only its accompanying honest humor — by illuminating our absurdly arbitrary arrangements of value — can act as antidote.

Louis knows exactly along which lines to incise, those of political polarity, religious rancor, or trite tribalism. Take this line, delivered by Horace’s ex-wife after a gripping 30-some-minute monologue recounting in voluptuary detail her carnal lust for an 84-year-old man who also happens to be her new husband’s father.

“ The worst part about telling a lie is when someone that you love just accepts it. ”

The preceding hilarity had splayed out my limbs, and in this state of vulnerability the angle and thrust of this incision caught me defenseless. I was lacerated by the sharpness of its truth: lying isolates the liar. It is an immunity against intimacy. Lying separates us from those we hold dearest — even if they never find out.

This is how you refine ethical percepts, elevate our standards of dignity, and resuscitate political discourse: you offer patients a mirror in which to see their principles at work, sometimes in all their ill-defined nakedness, and other times pitted against one another in glorious battles of dissonance. This is what Louis C.K. does — he performs ethical surgery in absurd places, operating on people where they least expect it, and without anesthesia.


The image is an adaption of Richard Selzer’s essay collection Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery.

The quote is delivered by Laurie Metcalf in episode 3.

YouTube’s Nerdwriter has called the standup comedian a moral detective, and I’ve evangelized the concept ever since hearing it. In Horace and Pete, however, it appears he’s put down the magnifying glass and picked up forceps and a hemostat.

February 2017
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