I’ve long hated how bars are portrayed on television, especially those supposedly “gritty dives.” They never feel right—always a little too clean (or faux-grimy), or too full of people who don’t really seem like they know how to hang out in these kind of joints. Most TV bars are indistinguishable from a Monk’s Café or Central Perk—just a studio set with a built-in excuse for a group of characters to gather in a tight booth and advance a plot.
For so long it’s been a damn cartoon bar—Moe’s Tavern on The Simpsons—that most accurately captured the spirit of real-life watering holes. Patrons like Carl and Lenny and, of course, Homer are total louts: beer-guzzling, full-bellied, burp-ripping Duff swillers happy to be in such a charmless dump, mainly because it gets them away from their crummy jobs and pain-in-the-ass families.
Until now. Louis C.K.’s new online dramedy, Horace and Pete, takes place almost exclusively within a bar that feels more true-to-life than any other that has ever been portrayed on the small screen. That establishment, named Horace and Pete’s, is a 100-years-running old-man Brooklyn dive owned by brothers Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi). You’ll swear you can smell the lite-beer–soaked bar top and peanut-shell–dusted floorboards from the very first scene.
If this sounds amusing, I must admit the show is not for everyone. “It’s like what the bar that Cheers was based on was probably really like between 2pm and 5pm,” C.K. cracked to Jimmy Kimmel. The show is at times quite caustic, mainly due to the day-drinking sots like Marsha (Jessica Lange) who inhabit Horace and Pete’s at all times. The Atlantic’s David Sims notes that the series “unfurls with all the blunt force of an Arthur Miller play.” Still, even if the show isn’t quite your cup of tea, you can’t help but be seduced by its portrayal of the dive bar. Much like the phrase “I’ll just have one drink” so often slips into an all-night boozing escapade, Horace and Pete is rife for binge-watching.
Louis C.K. is a keen observer of many aspects of New York City life, as he has long demonstrated on his masterpiece Louie. But he’s never seemed to care all too much about the city’s taverns on that show. Louie stands in stark contrast to Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, which prides itself on “identifying and evangelizing the cool spots” in NYC. You’ll rarely see his character drinking in bars on Louie, even though C.K. himself has blue-collar roots. It’s not so far-fetched to think that, while starting his career in Boston and holding a job as an auto-mechanic, he was spending plenty of odd hours at shitty bars, observing his surroundings. Perhaps the man who now sells out Madison Square Garden regularly misses those simpler days—and he wouldn’t be the only one.
The barroom cognoscenti is also fully aware of the dive bar’s gradual decay. “God might not open a window every time he closes a door…but I’m pretty sure that every time he opens a brand-new speakeasy, he closes a fine old dive bar,” lamented cocktail historian David Wondrich a couple years back. “Given a decade or three, the survivors of this vast crop of new bars will grow into real, living places. But right now, the bars that have already done that—old bars, shabby bars, dive bars, bars where the customer isn’t always right—those bars are disappearing.”
Horace and Pete’s is one of those disappearing breeds, and in watching this streaming series, you start noticing all the delightful little touches about the drinking life that the show manages to nail. For the cost of a PBR at one of these dumps ($3), you can access each episode and see for yourself why Horace and Pete, more than any show ever, most accurately portrays the quirks of true dive bars. To help get you started, we’ve zeroed in on a few details that showcase Louie C.K.’s barfly brilliance.
It’s always too bright.
You could blame the brightness of Horace and Pete’s on the fact that C.K. is clearly paying homage to Golden Age-era TV plays like Requiem for a Heavyweight and other Playhouse 90 offerings, all of which were filmed in big studios with blazing overhead lights. But I think C.K. is smarter than that. Horace and Pete’s is that brightly lit because he knows that’s the standard lighting at all old-man dive bars. You want a moody ambience, a little candlelit romance? You ain’t gonna find that at a dive—instead, expect all the lights to be turned on, with not a dimmer switch in sight.
Customers are reading tabloids.
Of course, one crucial reason dives are so bright is because there’s more reading going on than at the public library. Indeed, in Horace and Pete, there’s always some character sitting at the bar reading—not War & Peace, but local tabloids like the New York Post and Daily News. The customers have to read newspapers because they can’t scroll through their damn smartphones; the old-fashioned bar scorns modern technology.
There are constant political arguments.
There are, of course, consequences to having a clientele that vigilantly keeps up with the latest news: political arguments abound as every customer becomes a know-it-all who thinks he/she could run this damn country. What else are a dive bar’s customers going to talk about? There’s never any sports on the one TV above the bar—just the news, the six o’clock edition, or more likely with the Horace and Pete’s crew, the morning edition. One nice thing about the show is that, with episodes shot so close to the time they are released online, C.K. can become hyper-topical, almost like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight as hosted by dysfunctional alcoholics. Each week we have the show’s bar denizens (played by such “that guy” comedians as Steven Wright, Kurt Metzger, and Nick DiPaolo) arguing about current events: the refugee crisis, Trump vs. Sanders, Chris Christie, even whether Cam Newton is dabbing too much on the heels of episode 1’s impending Super Bowl.
The bartenders are overdressed.
The entire cast of Horace and Pete is stellar, but in early episodes it’s Alan Alda as crusty-head bartender Uncle Pete who steals the show with his surly treatment of regulars and an Archie Bunker-esque bigotry toward outsiders. Still, even though the bar is a dump, and Uncle Pete would clearly rather be anywhere else that behind the stick, the man still wears a nice shirt and often a tie to work everyday. So does C.K.’s Horace for that matter. Why? Because it’s how things have always been done, starting back 100 years ago when every current dive was then simply a “bar.” Still, despite the dress clothes, both men manage to pull off the requisite “dive-bar chic” look, if you will, with C.K.’s white Oxford shirt constantly struggling to stay tucked into his ill-fitting khakis. Conversely, Horace and Pete knows that dive bars always have one regular a little too well-dressed to frequent such a crummy joint—in this case, that character is DiPaolo’s fed-up-with-his-life assistant, DA.
There is concern over “tourist” invasions.
At least DiPaolo’s character isn’t at the bar for ironic purposes. Horace and Pete does a splendid job—if not going a tad over-the-top—in portraying gentrifying hipsters wanting to check out a “authentic” Brooklyn dive in between hitting up Tørst and The Four Horsemen. “Oh my god, this bar is so old—it’s amazing,” exclaims two young women entering the joint before trying to order Coronas and martinis. Uncle Pete is constantly having to tell these dive-bar tourists that all they serve is Budweiser and straight shots of the hard stuff. He doesn’t even want these moneyed tourists infecting his nephews’ failing business, intentionally overcharging to try and chase them away. As Horace later explains to one hipster tourist, “If he looks like him”—nodding to a schlubby regular—“he pays $3 (for a beer). If he looks like you, he pays $4.50.” Eventually understanding, the young man pays up, accepting his “douche tax.”
There’s a coffeepot on the back bar.
By now it’s become almost de rigeur for hip bars and gastropubs to have an extensive coffee program in the early parts of the day. Last week Kobrick Coffee Co. even started serving strictly coffee-based cocktails. But while joints like Kobrick usually have $8,000 La Marzocco espresso machines hogging the back-bar area, classic dives keep it a lot simpler. Like at Horace and Pete’s, where the bar features a simple Mr. Coffee drip machine sharing space next to the bottles of Jameson. Good thing, because dive-bar bartenders like Uncle Pete and Horace—and often their chronically hungover patrons—constantly need a jolt of black joe to get through the miserable day.
Drinks are poured liberally, and no one is ever charged.
When there aren’t many choices, it’s easy to serve your customers. Uncle Pete almost always has a bottle of Jameson in his hand, ready to freshen customers’ rock glasses often before they’re even fully drained. Of course, he isn’t jiggering—dive-bar bartenders can easily eyeball two ounces and are going to be more generous than that. At dive spots like Horace and Pete’s, the proprietors understand that their job is to get you drunk for next to nothing. Even to the crusty Uncle Pete, every other drink is seemingly “on me.” And how often have we walked out of our own local dive wasted and still flush with cash. How do these places make money?!
You can’t help wondering how this place is still in business.
Last month, the Boston Globe’s Luke O’Neil wrote about the rapid rate at which local dive bars have been closing. Perhaps that’s no surprise as most cities become more gentrified and the desire for most residents to spend time in a filthy shithole declines. Fittingly, Horace and Pete’s sister, Sylvia (Edie Falco), wants to sell their bar, even noting that with “air rights,” their little plot of land is worth a cool six million. But Horace just can’t pull the trigger, feeling like the bar isn’t just half his namesake, but also their family’s heritage. “It doesn’t make any money!” Sylvia screams in her brother’s face late in episode 5. And, of course, Horace’s answer tells us everything we need to know about how shitty dives like theirs are still standing in gentrified Brooklyn: “I’m not shutting this place down—that seems harder than keeping it open.”