Louie Anderson: In His Own Words
The comedian spoke to me in 2018 to celebrate the release of his memoir. He died Jan. 21, 2022. He was 68.
Stand-up comedian and actor Louie Anderson died Jan. 21, 2022, after being hospitalized in Las Vegas for DLBCL Diffuse large B cell lymphoma. Anderson was 68.
Born March 24, 1953, as Louie Perry Anderson, the second-youngest of 11 children grew up in St. Paul., Minn. He began his comedy career in Minnesota in the late 1970s, before moving to Hollywood to make it big. Anderson became one of the fixtures at The Comedy Store in the 1980s, and from there made his first big break on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1984.
A gig on HBO’s 9th Annual Young Comedians Special, hosted in 1985 by Rodney Dangerfield, quickly followed. Anderson closed out a bill that included Rita Rudner, Yakov Smirnoff, Sam Kinison and Bob Saget. He had a small but quite memorable role in 1988’s Coming to America as a fast-food worker alongside Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. Anderson was also part of two versions of Hollywood Squares, hosted Family Feud for three years, starred in the 1990s in both a short-lived sitcom for CBS (The Louie Show) as well as an Emmy-winning animated series for FOX (Life with Louie).
Anderson put out stand-up specials for HBO, Showtime and other platforms over the years, and for a decade starting in the early 2000s, headlined a residency in Vegas at various casinos and resorts.
After making a new splash with America courtesy of a reality competition called Splash, Anderson came back in a big way thanks to playing Christine Baskets in FX’s Baskets, for which he won an Emmy Award. Before his health declined, Anderson also got to chew up scenery as a defense lawyer in season three of Search Party for HBO Max, and reprised his fast-food role for the Amazon sequel, Coming 2 America.
That’s from when I saw Anderson and Martha Kelly performing at Carolines on Broadway in March 2016. As I wrote in the caption: “Louie Anderson turned 63 today. Before his show he talked to TV crews about Garry Shandling, then did an hour-twenty headlining, held a Q&A with his feature act Martha Kelly, live-Tweeted the season finale of Baskets, and took photos with fans afterward!”
I’d hoped to podcast with him then. He politely declined, but told me to keep asking him. I’m glad I did. This is an edited transcript from our conversation in April 2018 at the offices of Simon & Schuster, where he was publishing his memoir, “Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too.”
What would mom say to you, if she had the chance?
Do I get a cut of this? That’s what she’d say. Now do I get a pay, because you're playing me? Would I get something out of that? In the sweetest way, but you know, that's a very Midwestern thing,
Did she have a sense of your success at the beginning of your career?
Yes, she went to the White House with me.
(Anderson performed as part of “The All-Star Salute to Ford’s Theatre” in 1986)
Have you ever been there? They have the sheets from the night he died with the blood on him still in the museum. Which is like the creepiest thing. It’s morbid. So I did that with Lance Burton and a whole bunch of other entertainers. It was televised, because it was a gala. (Speaker of the House) Tip O'Neill was there. So lots of fun. Then we went to the White House and got to meet the Reagan's which you know, I'm a Democrat from Minnesota, but still.
I was not a Reagan Democrat. I did not vote for Reagan. I’m a Hubert Humphrey Democrat. I can’t vote for Reagan.
Back in the 80s, there were more tangible things of success. Like you could take your mom to the White House or when you did Johnny Carson.
She got to see all of that. And I hosted the Joan Rivers show and she got to see that. So she got to see my fame, for sure.
Did she know that Coming To America was a big deal?
It was just out when she passed away in 1990.
When I saw you at Carolines two years ago, you mentioned living in Connecticut in early adulthood and how you might have pursued a different path than comedy?
I said I managed a Goodwill store in South Norwalk, Connecticut, below a methadone clinic. And I said, you know there if I wouldn't have done comedy on a dare, I would have been a politician, I think. Either that or a social worker. That would have been my main thing. I wanted to be president. I was a Political Science major. And so I wanted to control the world because I had no control growing up. So I wanted a job where you had control, or you thought you did, at least.
Sounds like you might be able to relate to our current president (in 2018, that being Trump)?
Well, you know, I think that happens to entertainers and you know, people that are egomaniacal. And I'm egomaniacal. Comics are pretty egomaniacal, usually.
Narcissistic and insecure.
What’d you say?
Why’d you say that? I’m doing the insecure thing. God, why do you have to say those mean things to me?
Although you do have a much better Trump joke comparison, as your closer to Big Underwear, your new special. Which doesn’t translate to audio. When you when you decided to release Big Underwear, you released it on iTunes and everywhere but Netflix. That’s part of a new trend.
Oh, is it? I don't know. You know, I just said how much am I getting? And I'll do it and they put it all out there. I didn't have anything to do with the architecture of you know where it was going to go? I did this with them. I did a special two years. Or three years ago, maybe now called Big Baby Boomer. And that was Comedy Dynamics. My good friends over there. They've done 100-some specials in the last couple years. And so I don't get into the idea. Plus I don't think I'm Netflix demo, you know? Because I think they're only taking certain people that I think have the right amount of television exposure so that they can get a special. So they didn’t pick me. But I think my special is one of my best specials, because I really did an homage to the old comedies with the joke joke joke. Joke joke. I’m doing jokes. I have a lot of great jokes on my special I'm proud of it.
Do you have any metrics, any sense of how many people are watching it?
Oh, no, I say between three and 400,000 people have viewed it. No. I have no idea. I mean, I don't even know how to fund that stuff.
I guess I should also ask you about Mitzi Shore and the Comedy Store since she had just died. Was The Comedy Store your first stop out in LA?
That was one of my goals. I wanted to get on The Tonight Show, and wanted to get my name at The Comedy Store.
How long did it take for both of those?
About two and a half years.
Which came first, the name at the Store or Carson?
I think Carson, although maybe almost simultaneous.
So Mitzi saw you on Carson?
No, no, she liked me. I did my Carson spot at The Store. That’s where everybody auditioned for The Tonight Show was up the store. Jim McCawley. And so I finally got on and it was my dream come true. And it changed my whole life overnight. I got a holding deal from NBC. The next day, I debuted in Las Vegas at The Comedy Store at the Dunes Hotel. The next week, I was opening for the Commodores at the Bally's hotel on the Strip. So it was fast. It was fast. The Tonight Show had more power maybe than American Idol. You know what I mean? It could have been overnight. It was like overnight power. You know, the next day people are going, ‘You were great on Carson!’ ‘You sucked on Carson!’ Shut up!”
Have you watched any of the Showtime series I'm Dying Up Here?
I have, yeah. It’s interesting, but that's before me, though.
That show took place in the 1970s leading up to the strike at The Comedy Store.
I'm glad Jim's doing it. I love Jim Carrey, so I'm glad he's doing it and the guys are great. I can't get past the hair. The hair bugs me. I don't know why. It just does. I go, that’s a wig! But I'm wearing one. So I don't know what I'm talking about. But my wig looks real. I don't care what anyone says. People ask me all the time if that’s my real hair, and I go yes. I lie right to them. Always have. Are you John Candy? Yes. And then I would sign the autograph Kiss my ass, John Candy.
The fact that anyone who asked that now, if you were John Candy, today…
Yeah, but people do misname me often. Another one I get is the guy who does the documentaries, Michael Moore. ‘Are you Michael Moore?’ Am I that frumpy?
If you're wearing the hat, like now, maybe.
So I’m going to have to get a different hat.
You also did the Young Comedians Special with Rodney Dangerfield.
I knew Rodney from Minnesota. He came out, and I brought him a bottle of Glenlivet Scotch with all the other comedians in Minnesota. Because we loved Rodney, and we brought him some balloons saying welcome. And he was very touched by that. He never forgot that.
How old were you?
25 is when I started comedy in 1978.
So you're new to comedy. Rodney comes to town and you buttered him up.
He came down to our club and he performed and it put us on the map. And he watched all of our sets and he loved me. He said, ‘Hey, hey, you're all right, you know wbat I mean?’ and he always stayed friends. We stayed friends ever since.
Who else was on your young comedians special?
Harry Basil. Bob Saget, Rita Rudner, Howie Gold, Bob Nelson, Sam Kinison. It was a big one.
That was big because some of those were really hit-or-miss especially looking back at them now.
You know hit or miss, it is up to the public to decide who becomes famous. How can you say that? Some of those people as funny as anyone but the public designs. Comedy is subjective and who knows who's really good and who isn't? It's all just like, are you still working?
Well speaking of that, I wanted to ask you about doing Splash.
That was really the beginning of me coming back right.
Because you hadn’t worked for a period of time. Had you had other offers for celebrity reality shows?
Nah, maybe, but I never would’ve done them.
I never had that. I would’ve done that in a second.
Or The Amazing Race..
I bought my house from that guy who invented that, in California.
Yeah. So that (Splash) just came to me and I just went, I’m gonna do it. Because it seemed like a lot of fun.
And it seemed like you had fun.
I did have fun.
Because of course the show is thinking oh, we're gonna get this big guy on a diving board. Let's see what happens.
Yeah, but I took it seriously. I went all the way to the ten-meter.
You weren’t in it to be a joke.
I think that's what people liked. I got a lot of letters saying that I inspired people to start swimming and exercising, doing all kinds of stuff.
What was it that made you say yes, or was it just the need for work?
No, not at all because it was hardly any money. I guess the thing that made me realize, well, first of all, I thought maybe I could win it. Because why underestimate yourself? So it's like when I watch the Olympics, I go what could I still do? I still think that way. I go, I could still do curling that's the kind of person I am.
So I think that my competitive nature. But also I really thought it would be, you know, I thought it's the kind of reality show I could do, because it didn't seem like an exploitive one, in one sense. I know they had me and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and that whole thing, but it still wasn't. It still was such an interesting idea. Really. It's crazy. They've never done it again because of the injuries everybody got.
It’s no joke to do high dives.
Yeah, you could die and people die from it.
You also did, in the late 90s you hosted a stand-up series.
Oh, I hosted Comedy Showcase. A lot of famous people ended up being on that. On Saturday night right after SNL. That was a great show. That was Regency television or artists.
Some of the shows was up here at the pier at in Santa Monica, there was a club right on the pier. We did some there. Some somewhere else. It was great. Nick Swardson was on it. Mitch Hedberg was on. It was really great. It was great.
Did Zach Galifianakis do that show?
I don't think so. I don't see Zach doing that. I don't think he would have done that. Maybe he would have.
Do remember the first time you met Zach?
At the show. I never met him before that really happened. Maybe he remembers meeting me but I remember we met on the show and going to meet him before the show.
How long does it take to get an actual kind of maternal bond with him?
Well, immediately for me because I'm maternal. You know, that's who I am as a person. I think. I'm the first person that if somebody's not doing well, would try to reach out for him and say, Hey, what's going on? Are you doing OK? I learned that from my mom. I'm a lot like my mom.
The famous story about you getting the part was that Zach and Louis CK were talking about the part and they thought of you immediately for it.
Zach made a sound. And Louie said to him, ‘Do you mean, Louie Anderson?’ Because Zach said he had the voice. I have the voice in my head, how the mother should sound and he made a sound like ehhhhh. And Louie said what? You mean, you mean Louie Anderson? And Zach said ‘Yeah, Louie Anderson.’ And then they said, should we call him? And they called me. I remember them, they both were in the room when they called me.
What was your career like before or in that moment?
Well, I was working as a headliner in Vegas. I had my own show. At The Plaza at that time, but I did it six years at the Excalibur in the old Catch A Rising Star room. Okay. And then three years at the Louie Anderson Theater at the Palace Station.
How many weeks would you do?
I did the whole year.
You wouldn’t take breaks?
I’d take breaks but not big breaks, maybe a couple of weeks off. I mean, when you're doing a residency show you can’t, because there's a lot of advertising and money that goes into it.
How much did you enjoy that?
That could be old. That could get old, night after night. Same Vegas crowd. Blah, blah, blah.
So you're sitting in Vegas and you get the phone call?
I was on my way to work, yeah. I got the phone call. They said, Would you do it, play a part in Zach’s sitcom? I go, yeah. They go, would you play the mom? I go yes! I would! So I went there and we shot a pilot. I put the wig on, put the outfit on, put the lipstick on. I had one scene and that was it. I ad-libbed trying down one of those Kirkland drinks and I couldn't, and I spit it out. I tried to save the take I go, ‘That hit the spot,’ or something like that, because I wanted to save the scene. If you look at that scene, Zach's laughing in his cup. He's laughing right in it because that’s your job is to try to crack each other up.
So then, it turns out to be this huge hit, especially for you with all the critical acclaim and the Emmy. You would won an Emmy or two for Life of Louie.
My voice work.
And then 20 years later you get this Emmy. How did it feel being back p there?
I loved it. I said we did it, mom. I gave her credit right away. And then you know, it felt great because I felt like I you know, I never was credited as a great actor, but I feel like it really did a great acting job. I feel like I nailed it. I still feel like it's a lot of fun.
How much vindication did you feel for even just being in the game after 40 years to still be a vital part of the business? Through the ups and downs of it?
Yeah, you know, like you can give up any time you want. But I stayed relevant by being in Vegas.Three or 4 million people saw my billboards every week. So you stay around. I never felt like I wasn't really great at what I did. But, you know, the public kind of dictates everything, and the world change completely, didn’t it?
You know, we had revolution in social media and revolution with the computer and YouTube, just what was important and what was relevant and all those things. And funny, though, is still funny. If you're funny. You're funny. And I had a lot of really iconic things that I was in Coming To America and Ferris Bueller and I had the Rodney Dangerfield Young Comedians Special, and I did four of own one-hour specials for Showtime and HBO, and Comedy Showcase, and a big presence in Hollywood Squares. Family Feud for three years I hosted. So I have a body of work that I'm proud of it. I always thought something was next. I just didn't know it would be playing a woman. And it's not like even a man playing a woman, I play a woman. I’m not playing a cartoon. This is not Mrs. Doubtfire.
This is a woman who finds love after so many years. Raising two sets of twins.
Yeah, it's an absurd comedy but it’s grounded. Yeah, it has a heart and the humanity and I felt like I'm part of something special. I don't think there's another show on TV like Baskets.
Now I want to ask about when everything happened with Louis CK last year. Were you able to be kind of maternal with him?
I won’t talk about how his and my relationship because that's my business. But I felt for him, and I felt for the whole situation was uncomfortable. But I'm not gonna talk about. I'm not going to talk about it because it’s too painful for me.
Well, I only bring it up because you had gone through your own dark period where you had been blackmailed…
Yeah, I'm not going to talk about that, either.
But you have to get through those kinds of things.
That's what I'm more interested in is how…
You have to face them. You have to look at them and I think Louis did a good job apologizing. I feel like Louis will be back. I hope that he's accepted back.
Did you have any advice for him in terms of dealing with that?
Again, even if I did tell him, I'm not going to tell you because I just know it'll get reported on. And it'll make me have to answer the question more times. And I just feel like, first of all, I guess, you know, it changes like, it's all like, there's no good thing I could say. What good thing could I say about it except that it's a sad situation for everyone involved. On a lot of levels. And, you know, it was an unfortunate thing that happened. It was terrible.
Do you have a sense of what you hope for the Baskets family?
I hope that we can get enough episodes or seasons to play it out to its rightful end, because I see it will go somewhere but I don't know what that is because Zach and Jonathan Krisel and maybe me a little bit would have an impact on that. But I've given my feeling about it and still don't know what's going to happen or if we're going to get on but I would like to see it be able to play out to the end.
I just think it should play out like how life plays out. Some good stuff. But also, no matter what, nothing is perfect. I don't think this show would ever end with like a big smile. As long as it's true. And I think that's this beauty of Jonathan Krisel and Zach Galifianakis they're not going to do the joke you want to hear. They're going to do the joke they want to hear. So I’m thankful that they invited me into this world because it gave me a whole new audience. You know, there's a whole new group of people that look at Louie Anderson differently because of this part. And it's unfortunate that they didn't think that of me to begin with, but I'm grateful that they do think of me now that way. So, you know, I'm just hoping that I get to play a part of a man someday again.
That he did, playing a defense lawyer in the third season of Search Party.
Rest in pancake peace, Louie.