Louie Anderson gets back to stand-up roots
Louie Anderson recalls his early days in stand-up comedy, where because his act was clean, he landed opening gigs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area for performers like Ray Charles, James Brown and Glen Campbell.
Anderson took his comedy to late night in the mid-’80s, doing stand-up bits on “The Tonight Show,” starting a long, winding career in entertainment. He’s done bit parts in films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “Coming to America” and mined his childhood for material for the animated show “Life With Louie.” For a few years, he got to declare “Survey said …” on “Family Feud.” And more recently, he appears on the TV show “Baskets,” where his bruised and determined portrayal of the titular character’s mother, Christine, earned Anderson an Emmy.
Right now, he’s out doing stand-up, from which he never strays for too long. But thanks to “Baskets,” Anderson, 63, is enjoying renewed renown on tour. “I’m really excited about my third act,” he says.
Anderson plays Warehouse Live Friday. He talked about stand-up, “Baskets” and his favorite guest comment on the “Feud.”
Q: This stand-up tour is you getting back to your roots in entertainment. But I don’t think you ever really stepped away from it, right?
A: No, I never stopped doing stand-up. I did a show in Vegas for 10 years. It’s just my bread and butter, so to speak. And it always afforded me a life in between other things that might be more exciting or fun or interesting to other people. Stand-up has always been just the best Soylent Green that I could get. Just the best. The best serum, the best NyQuil, the best Theraflu, the best antibiotic in life for me. It’s my Slurpee. It’s the sweetest thing. And there’s no calories in it. So I have a tremendous connection to it. And I get a transfusion from an audience. I hope they get something of a pinprick from me, some little bit of satisfaction.
Q: I assume, with more than 10 siblings, you grew up in a chaotic environment. Does that sort home setting nudge you into comedy? To find a way to draw attention?
A: Yeah, I think all comics grow up in an indoor typhoon or twister. An indoor tornado that’s about to hit, you know what I mean? I think they’re good at checking the barometer in the family. Check the barometer to see if Dad has been drinking or if there’s no money, or if there’s enough money to pay for the lights or the heat but not both. Is Dad going to keep his job or get fired from it? Do I have good clothes for school? Growing up poor puts you in a weird place. But I was never like, “Poor me.” I didn’t like being poor, but it didn’t make us who we were. I felt lucky, and I felt like my mom and dad were incredible people, even though my dad was an alcoholic.
Q: You were on the scene when Houston was a prime proving ground for comics. Did you spent a lot of time here?
A: Not as much as a lot of other guys. I didn’t spend a lot of time in Texas, though I was in Houston more than the other Texas cities. There was an old theater on Main Street, like an old movie theater. I don’t think it was a real theater because instead of a back stage area there just wasn’t one. There was a curtain and then a brick wall, so maybe there was a movie screen there. Arriving and having to walk through the crowd has never been one of my favorite things.
But what I remember is it was one of the hottest places I’d ever been outside Minneapolis. I think that’s where Southern accents come from. In the summer you can’t talk. (Speaks in a slurry drawl) “Hello, there, how are you doing?” I mean, I live in Vegas, where it’s hot in the summer, but only for a short time.
Q: Do you find the stand-up work is a counter-balance to doing “Baskets”? One is so internalized and the other is very much not.
A: It’s a funny thing, and that’s a good question, and one I don’t have a quick answer for. It’s really a different set of muscles, though. Doing stand-up this one muscle is at attention with concentration even though I’m pretty relaxed when I’m up there. People say I have an easy manner. I guess that’s because I’m not a machine gun of jokes. But I hope to create a scene every few minutes.
With the show, there’s a lot of unspoken words that go into it. And I try to play that part as small as possible. I try to be there as little as possible. I have my mom to thank for the glances and the brow that furrows when she’s thinking - all those tiny beautiful things that Christine does that people seem to enjoy so much. That’s just me mimicking my mom. She was much nicer than Christine, though. So I use the meanness of my dad to make up for that in the character. Christine’s not really mean, but she’s also not afraid of anybody or anything.
Q: There’s an interesting Midwestern sensibility to Christine. Did that come naturally to you? I feel like if she were Southern she’d say “Bless his heart …” a lot, which is a damning phrase.
A: She’s … I think you’re right. And that’s part of why I did the voice that way. If I wouldn’t have kept my voice it would’ve cartooned up the character and affected it in some way that would have never worked. Instead, it does feel like a real person I’m playing. I know that person.
One of my favorite things … all the great stand-ups, in my opinion, they all learned one very valuable lesson, which is to be wide open up there. That’s easier with Christine, who’s never trying to hide within herself. I don’t think there’s anywhere for her to hide. It helps that I have a wonderful director. He’s set it up so when I get in Christine’s outfit, I’m very intent on being those boys’ mother. And I’m just somebody trying to figure everything out. And that’s what people try to do, right? Try to figure things out. Don’t you?
Q: Sure. It doesn’t always work, though.
A: No, but we try. There’s a lot to work with there, the idea about a woman getting older and no longer with her husband, having to take a little look at what was her life for herself. That’s the most exciting part for me. What was her life? What is her life? What had she given up? And what is she now?
Q: The delicate touch is crucial. Otherwise it’d be comic caricature.
A: That has a lot to do with working with tremendous actors, who are all stand-ups or people who worked in a stand-up vein. Our director worked on “Saturday Night Live,” “Portlandia.” I went to him and said, “I don’t think I should change my voice for this character.” And he said, “OK, don’t.” That simple. There wasn’t a big discussion. It wasn’t a philosophical thing. He trusts me, and I trust him. That’s what that show is about. Everybody on the set is that way, they feel like they’re making something special and different. And I’m having the time of my life. I love the show. And I feel like I’ve given my mother a chance to shine. That’s worth a million dollars to me. My mom is alive and well in the big picture, and I love that about it.
Q: So much comedy seems to come from a place of pain. But this is a variation on that idea. It’s not necessarily pain, but some shared feeling.
A: Yeah, we think of stand-up as always simmering until it boils. “I GOTTA TALK ABOUT THIS!!! … I think the thing is finding little ways to connect. We don’t have any other purpose but to do that. To help each other when we’re up or down. To connect. We don’t have a bigger purpose than that. I know it sounds good to say it, but it’s true. My mom always said, “Be nice to people. You never know what kind of day they’ve had.” And at the time I thought, “God, I hate that you said that because now I have to be nice to people. And I don’t even know them.” But it’s true. You can implant these little bombs that go off in people’s consciousness, and they can implant them in you. And some of them stay forever, especially if they came from a good place.
Q: We could use a little more of that these days.
A: Well, then my dad would say, “Arrrrrgh, who cares? No one cares, Louie, get used to it.” (Laughs.) So I had both. Good and bad. And grumpy.
Q: That belief, though, runs contrary to a lot of comedy that feels born of a kind of nihilism. I think in one of your stand-up bits you mentioned you have to take all these pills to stay alive, whereas in the comedy scene 25 years ago, people took drugs to get as close as they could to death.
A: Yeah, that’s changed, I think. I hope. I think all these comedy podcasts have helped, where comedians are talking about how they feel so other comedians don’t feel so alone. I mean, we really did lose so many great comedians. But then there’s this outlet where they hear, “Don’t give up. We’re in this with you.” It’s like I was saying, I think we all want to connect more than we want to disconnect. And that can save us. Something silly like that. Or not silly, maybe, but clear and easy.
Q: One last question: Does “Baskets” get you any sort of discount at Costco?
A: Ah, Costco. I just saw that, for the first time in like 20 or 30 years, Costco is raising its yearly thing like $5. As Christine would say, “Hah! That’s a drop in the bucket for what you save.”