Photos by Ackerman + Gruber
Louie Anderson, just before his sold-out shows in Burnsville on New Year’s Eve.
Late last summer after appearing on The Jason Show at Fox 9 KMSP studios in Eden Prairie, one of Minnesota’s most famous comedians spotted a makeshift sign and abruptly detoured to hit a neighborhood garage sale. At first, no one seemed to recognize Louie Anderson as he perused polished stones and tiny religious earrings he was sizing up for his sister, but then it happened—a woman pulled up, jumped out of her car, and asked to take his picture.
The impulsive pit stop seems straight out of one of Anderson’s old jokes. The 64-year-old St. Paul native has always infused his standup with stories about his mother, Ora, who couldn’t resist the treasure and trash siren call of dangling price tags tied to other people’s stuff. “My mom loved garage sales,” he says. “She would pull her car over if she saw one, even if she was in a funeral procession. ‘This looks like a good one, Louie, let’s go see it.’”
Anderson has long mined material from his family, practically branding his humor with art that imitates life, most notably with endearing impersonations of his mother. It’s that inspired bit of gender morphing that recently landed Anderson back in the spotlight last year when he won an Emmy for playing the mother of dysfunction in the dark FX comedy, Baskets. The accolades he’s received since being cast as Christine Baskets have literally brought his colleagues to tears of joy and helped the comic overcome his struggle to believe in himself.
Back in his home state on December 30, Anderson is at the wheel of his rented red 4Runner, headed west on Highway 12 to Willmar as 2016 peters out with all of its casualties and victories in the rear-view mirror. Anderson seems to have had more than his share of both. “This road is so straight, you could roll a marble down it,” he quips; it’s a line he will successfully use in his two sold-out shows at the Ames Center in Burnsville. He drives on, past the Cokato water tower. “Cokato,” he deadpans. “Too much of that stuff could get you into a lot of trouble in the ’80s!” He and his passenger crack up like a couple of joy-riding teenagers. Variations on the joke also work into his act that week.
Anderson’s acerbic wit is still as biting today as it was when he debuted on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in November 1984. Back then, before a million YouTube clicks measured stardom, the green light from Johnny meant you could make it anywhere in the Hollywood matrix, and it’s what first catapulted Anderson’s career. But his success didn’t happen overnight.
Broke and looking for a break in the early ’80s, the comic floundered for the first two years he lived out West in a one-bedroom apartment in Studio City. To make rent, he often returned to Minneapolis or Denver for standup acts, but when money finally ran out, and he could no longer borrow from friends, he applied for a cashier’s job at a Mini Market. He soon got two job offers—on the same day: one from the store manager, and the other from The Tonight Show.
“I told the guy, ‘Thanks, but I’m doing The Tonight Show tonight.’ He goes, ‘Right.’ I said, ‘No, really! Watch it.’ The next day the guy called me back to wish me good luck,” Anderson recalls.
The appearance, plus regular $25-a-set gigs alongside an über class of comics he came up with at The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip, launched him into eventual comedic stardom. “I had to follow guys like Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey—sometimes all of them on the same night,” he says.
It’s been almost 40 years since Anderson first stepped on stage at Mickey Finn’s, a small comedy joint in downtown Minneapolis. Comic and writer Scott Hansen ran the place, and he’s a longtime pal of Anderson’s, writing jokes for him over the years. Hansen says Anderson surprised his friends by appearing on Finn’s stage. “He did it on a dare made by his fellow social workers at St. Joseph’s Home for Children,” Hansen recalls. “He showed up with all these props—you know how real comics hate ‘prop comics’—and he’s wearing a pitch helmet. But his jokes were pretty good and everyone was laughing.”
Like his classic comic idols and TV mentors Jack Benny and Bob Hope, Anderson appreciated those comedians’ master of timing—“that pause, joke, pause method,” Anderson says. He also credits Jonathan Winters for inspiring the rubbery facial expressions that underscore his persona, and the classic Borscht Belt comics like Jackie Vernon and Milton Berle as formative influences who he watched on television growing up. Actually, he watched two TVs at home, “one for sound, the other for picture—both of ’em from the dump,” Anderson says.
Humor was a familiar family coping mechanism in the tumultuous Anderson household, says Anderson’s older sister, Lisa, who lives in St. Paul. The 11 siblings grew up poor, raised by an abusive alcoholic father and a strong, caring mother. Anderson derived much of his comedic bits, like his namesake father’s rants and tirades along with his endearing impressions of his mother, from his family. “My brother was always funny and had a charm about him,” Lisa says. “I think Louie was really my parents’ favorite, even though our oldest brother Roger was the funniest one in the family. But Roger was ‘naughty funny.’”
Back in the rental car, the comic’s spontaneous humorous eruptions are balanced by a somberness reflected outside in the gray winter clouds and encroaching darkness. Seven of Anderson’s 10 siblings are now gone, all before they were 70 (most suffering from strokes and heart attacks). In the past year, he lost his youngest brother, Tommy, and longtime colleagues in his show business family like Garry Shandling and Kevin “We’re Big Pants People” Meaney. “I cried so hard when Kevin died,” he says. “And I miss Tommy a lot. I think about him every day.”
The toll visibly wears on Anderson, even as the beautiful old and fraying small-town Christmas decorations strung across the streets of Litchfield momentarily capture his imagination the night before his New Year’s Eve show. As he drives into town, worn storefronts and fake candles enshrined inside shaggy red wreaths hung high overhead turn the moment into a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. Anderson’s mood lightens as he tries to grab a shot of one of the wreaths with his phone. The nostalgic, warm view is in stark contrast with Anderson’s self-described “nice house on a nice golf course” in sunnier, drier Las Vegas, where he has lived for many years.
Until recently, a Vegas club off the strip bore his name when he was a regular headliner there. A private person, Anderson doesn’t like to discuss his personal life, including a short marriage to a fellow Johnson High School friend a long time ago.
But for all the heartbreak in 2016, there were phenomenal successes with the new show, which, in many ways, was like finding another golden ticket. The last time Anderson was regularly on TV, it was on the questionable 2013 ABC reality show Splash, where celebrity contestants performed challenging dives, like a watered-down version of Dancing With the Stars. Anderson made minor headlines while shooting an episode when he struggled getting out of the pool after one of his dives.
But in his latest, yet perhaps most fitting, twist of fate, Anderson transforms into Christine Baskets, a sympathetic maternal figure with a Costco fixation. The role and the renewed recognition prove he’s come a long way from hosting the apropos game show Family Feud in the ’90s and his film cameos in ’80s teenage films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Now winding down season two, Baskets showcases Anderson in big colorful frocks, floppy hats, and a blonde mom wig as the world-weary but self-aware woman who struggles with herding grown children who have not made smooth transitions into adulthood. Many of Christine’s personal issues often mirror the comic’s own. It seems the show’s writers let art imitate life in crafting Anderson’s lady parts in some of the story lines. Likewise, Anderson says he drew heavily on his mother’s loving kindness and laughable ticks, and the passive-aggressive traits of his five older sisters. But, he insists, he’s not really acting. “When I put on that wig and dress, I am Christine Baskets.”
The show pivots around the ensemble as the matriarch does her best to nurture, or at least nudge, two sets of twins. The older twins are both played by Zach Galifianakis. Alluring and off-putting, Galifianakis’s Dale is an upbeat, obsequious leader of Baskets Career College, and his brother, Chip, is a failed professional clown who trained in Paris, where a young French woman married him only to get to America. Melancholy, morose, and forced to settle as a Bakersfield rodeo clown, Chip is Pagliacci personified, with a chronic case of country and western blues.
Galifianakis co-created Baskets with comedian Louis C.K. and director Jonathan Krisel, best known for the hipster sketch comedy Portlandia. Krisel says the creative trio didn’t set out to build on the reality and web TV memes of Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation, nor did they try to duplicate Jeffrey Tambor’s gender-bender role in Transparent. “It was not political, it was not a broad joke, it is not about a man playing a woman, Louie is Christine Baskets,” Krisel says.
Louis C.K. says he recalls thinking when Anderson was cast, “‘How awesome would this be if Louie stepped up and turned this into something?’ All we did was hand him the keys. He could have driven that part into a quiet, shady spot or just sat in there crying, but he took it on the track and showed everyone how great he is.”
Baskets is dark and desperate yet refreshingly alive with ambitious but also ambiguous storytelling. It’s storytelling that Anderson himself is somewhat responsible for because he ad-libs many of his lines. In a first-year episode, Christine moves off-camera to show Chip’s dreary friend Martha (played by Martha Kelly) around her house while introducing the cats. “This one is Ronald Reagan, there’s Tip O’Neill. And that one is a feral cat—that’s Will Ferrell.”
Photos courtesy of Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images; Rich Fury/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images; Ben Cohen/FX; Louie Anderson
Comedian Louie Anderson
(Clockwise from left) Anderson on the Tonight Show in 1984, Anderson's 2016 Emmy, Anderson and his late brother, Tommy, Anderson with Zach Galifianakis on Baskets
Krisel remembers that when Anderson first took the role, the comedian thought he would be able to do something different than what he’d done in the past. “He talked about ‘the new comedy’ and just this whole notion that things could be very funny and not involve people trying too hard or being too wacky. I don’t think he’d ever had that opportunity before, outside of his own cartoons, where he was totally in charge. I think he’d been dying to do something a little more nuanced.” Season two of the show “shifted on its axis,” Krisel says, and leans heavily on Christine’s character after “we had this performance by Anderson, which was so real; [it was] the most real depiction of a mother that was heartbreaking and hilarious. It was hard not to take notice and let that character grow.”
Anderson’s co-star Galifianakis says the two work well together because they’re both standup comedians. “None of us comes from a strict discipline, so we try to keep it fun and loose. It is the small stuff that Louie does that I respond to the most when we are working,” Galifianakis says. “Louie always has made me laugh. But there is something in [his] eyes that tells you there is a lot of depth to him. There is pain and joy in those peepers.” The actor jokes that while Anderson may have “glued his Emmy to the hood of his MINI Cooper,” the show and its principles haven’t changed since it originated, but the perceptions of Anderson and his abilities have. Louis C.K. adds that when Anderson won that recognition last year, “I cried in front of my kids. Someday my kids will say, ‘The only time I saw my father cry was when Louie Anderson won the Emmy.’ Unless something wonderful or horrible happens before then.”
Prior to Baskets, Anderson won two Emmys for his animated Life with Louie 1990s series that also mined his fractured childhood. But his latest success may provide introductions to people and resources to take on new projects, some that he’s had in mind since leaving Minnesota for the coast. It’s as if Anderson’s return to the limelight reaffirms an old adage that Ora Anderson, who passed away in 1990, used to tell her kids: “It just goes to show you that you never know.”
“My mom was a firm believer in perseverance,” Anderson says. “When my dad finally stopped drinking at 69, she reminded us, ‘See, I told you he would quit.’ She was a kind, brave woman who, in one hand, held a metal shield defending us from our dad, and in the other hand she held a basket to put her little chicks in to care and protect.” Anderson’s father died in 1979 at age 79.
This year, Anderson hopes to turn his 1991 collection of laugh-and-cry-out-loud letters, which he wrote to his departed father in Dear Dad: Letters from an Adult Child, into a theatrical piece. He’s also focusing on his health, calling his weight “my final frontier,” despite trying numerous programs, gurus, psychics, shrinks, gyms, and diets over the years. He says he’ll have “the surgery” in 2017 to reduce his size if he can’t do it himself. And there’s a fourth book he’s outlining to address those addictive behaviors that underlie his eating disorder and gambling incursions.
Anderson says he will continue coming back to the Twin Cities, where he mentors new comics and tries out new material. “Minnesota audiences are smart; they’re not interested in cheap and gratuitous jokes,” he says, adding that he was lucky to grow up here, despite his family’s hard luck. “This is a cool place to be from! Look at Prince. By staying here most of his life, he proved what a quietly hip place Minnesota really is.”
Jim Gitar, one of his oldest Minnesota friends and a fellow social worker at St. Joseph’s who is now in private practice, describes Anderson as a local hero “for people here and elsewhere.” People relate to his struggles, Gitar says, and find the “laughter is the best medicine” cliché at work in Anderson’s standups and TV character a healing tonic for their own troubles.
Years ago, Anderson mused in his book The F Word: How to Survive Your Family about Thomas Wolfe’s line that you can’t go home again. “I wonder if he realized that most of us never leave. Rather, we take home with us in our heads,” he writes.
Back at his Burnsville show on New Year’s Eve, Anderson’s new and longtime fans convulse to his improvised material and old bits. It’s clear he still connects with people and says he has more to offer. Maybe next he’ll be on the big screen again. “I’d like to find a part in film as great as the Christine character,” he says. “But I’d like to see how I’d do as a man.”