It's All Relative
Legendary comedian Louie Anderson, keeps storytelling all in the family
Comedian/author/storyteller Louie Anderson has been performing his gentle brand of family-friendly stand-up for 40 years. Lately he's enjoyed a revival of interest for his portrayal of Christine in the quirky Louis CK sitcom "Baskets" on the FX Network. The busy actor - an Emmy-winner last year for his role as the long-suffering mother of the unusual Baskets twins - returns to town this month for a show at City Winery. INsite recently spoke with Anderson by phone after a production meeting for the series.
You just did another spot on "This Is Not Happening" [set to air this fall on Comedy Central]. How'd it go?
I just did another story on there about my mom and dad and little brother and a little winter adventure. I had a lot of fun doing it and I think it went well. But you always wonder because it's not joke-laden.
Storytelling is hot in comedy right now, as is character-driven persona, but you've been doing it for 40 years.
Isn't that amazing? You know, I'm a storyteller from my Norwegian and English/Irish/Dutch background. Those were the comedians back then. There'd be a long, drawn-out, highly detailed story with a nice punchline at the end - hopefully. That's what I did last night, it was about a journey with my dad and my brothers. My dad ended up a little drunk â€“ well, a lot drunk - and we had to navigate getting home from the Moose Lodge.
There's a lot of storytelling in the current alt-comedy movement.
You're exactly right. It's a very nostalgic generation right now. I think people are reliving and reinventing the past in a forward-thinking way. Not just being in it, but learning from it and asking where can we go with it and what can we do to improve upon it.
And your family has been an incredible well of material for you.
Well, both my father and now my mother. (Laughs) I couldn't resist. When comics ask me for advice, I always ask them: What do you care about? What matters to you? And what's interesting to you in your life? Those are the things you should be doing and nothing else.
Otherwise it seems forced.
Yeah, my advice is always to go inside. Go inward with your material. Go within yourself. If you don't care about the material you're doing, no one else is gonna care about it, either.
Speaking of your dad, I hear you're working on a new play about him.
Yeah, I'm working on "Dear Dad," based on the book I wrote. It was letters to my dad after he died. So I've been acting it out on stage, little parts of it. In fact, the story I did last night is from it. I took all the details from that, so instead of reading it I told the story of it.
Your mom must be looking out for you; taking the role of Christine was a brave move.
It was. It was a fate thing. I was on my way to work one day and Louie CK called me and said "Hey, I'm here with Zack Galifianakis and we're doing this new sitcom. We were wondering if you would consider playing a part in it." I go, "Yeah, I'd love to." And they go, "We'd like you to play his mother." And I go, "Yes! Bring it on!"
You accepted the role with no deliberation at all?
Yeah, none. He went, "Ok, we'll be in touch." Then the next time I heard from them was to shoot the pilot. I did one scene in it and I think it was just meant to be. Before we shot, I went to the director and said, "Hey Jonathan [Krisel], I'm not going to change my voice for this character." He said, "Ok." So I just did it and we've had two wonderful seasons. We're sitting in the writers' room right now deciding what the third season will be. So far, it's been pure fun.
Congratulations on the show, it's nice to see you getting a whole new wave of attention and a new generation of fans.
Thank you, it's so nice of you to say that. But people will say the funniest things when you get something like this happening. They'll say, "I didn't know you had it in you." Or "Why were you hiding this?" All that kinda stuff. But I do feel very lucky. I feel like the higher powers in the world have taken over and are guiding me to a path that I otherwise wouldn't be on.
You can't beat that combo of the other Louie and Zack and Jonathan.
They're comedy royalty right now. I'm the old guy.
I know from talking with Jonathan during the early days of Portlandia and Louie's work in general, there's probably a lot of improvisation going on during production.
Well, to be honest with you, a lot of times what I'll end up saying is, "Do you mind if I do it like my mom would do it?" and they're all for it.
What do you think your mom would say about your performance?
I think she'd be in love with the idea, but she'd try to tell me what I'm not doing right about her. Which would be fine. I would listen and take it to heart. She'd say, "You almost have it Louie, but you're not quite right on it yet." Like how any good mom would be, am I right?
Oh yes, it's part of their job description to tell us we aren't quite good enough.
I love that about my mom. She would try in her own way to help me, but it would be in her letting me know, "Don't think you can just put a wig and a dress on and just become me." That's what I've really tried to work at, to become a real character while trying to make Louie Anderson completely disappear.
The wig and the dress are traditional old-school vaudeville comedy accessories.
Yeah, that's Milton Berle and before. Milton, I think, was the first guy to do it on TV that I remember. But what's so much fun is, I try to play it real. I have five sisters and a really great mom to pull from for nuance and otherwise.
Some comics have to assume a character - but not in your case.
The character is definitely alive to me. I sit in these rooms with the great writers and I'll go, "What about this or this," and try to add my two-cents worth.
You're known for long-form stories, but an early mentor for you was Henny Youngman.
Yeah, he was the king of the one-liners. A workhorse craftsman of jokes. I just loved his patter and he was real straightforward about how he did it. He was the judge at a comedy contest I was in. He said he thought I should have won. Then he said he wanted me to write some jokes for him and his grandson so I did.
Did you move to New York to work with him?
I went back and forth. I never moved to New York because I grew up in cold weather. And I'd always wanted my name on the Comedy Store and I'd always wanted to be on the Tonight Show so I stayed in L.A. because those were my goals.
And you managed to do both.
Yeah, I got very lucky. I wanted to do all that and play 'Vegas, too. There was a clutch of '80s comics that did the clubs out there, did the Showtime specials and almost all of us are still working. Back then, Carson was the goal. It was American Idol and America's Got Talent all in one.
Your comedy is gentle and definitely not edgy or aggressive but have you felt any backlash from the whole PC movement?
No, I don't want to hurt anyone. I'm not going to pick on or belittle anyone. I'm not gonna trash anybody. I don't have time for that. I'm doing jokes that are good for everybody, whatever party you support or whatever age you are. I have political views but people aren't there to hear them. They're there to hear my take on family for the most part. That's what I'm selling, the crazy family angle and how I've dealt with it. And how I'm turning into my parents.
After we reach a certain age, that does seem to happen.
It does! One day I found myself sipping coffee out of the saucer. I thought, "Oh my God! My father's back! I've turned into my father, blowing on his coffee." There were a lot of great things about my parents that have helped me in life. And a lot of things that were not so great, and that haven't helped me - but I've refused to let go.
Louie Anderson performs July 23 at City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.