In a time when stand-up comedy is in a state of controversy and upheaval, Louie Anderson stands out as a warm, comforting presence. For 40 years, the Minnesota-born comic has entertained crowds with jokes about growing up in a dysfunctional family, dealing with his weight, and, in his latest special, being the proud owner of Big Underwear. But Anderson’s resume includes much more than self-deprecating stand-up. His 1989 book Dear Dad: Letters From An Adult Child chronicles his attempts to make peace with his abusive, late father. His Emmy-award-winning cartoon Life With Louie ran from 1995-1998 on Fox. He (briefly) hosted Family Feud, for goodness’ sake. His performance as Zach Galifianakis’ mother on the FX series Baskets, meanwhile, has netted him three consecutive Primetime Emmy awards. For other comics, being called over by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show would be hard to top. Anderson has managed to do so in his own idiosyncratic way.
Before his three-night stint at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino’s Northern Lights Theater (January 21-23), Milwaukee Record spoke to Anderson about his past career, his place in comedy today, and, of course, his character in Coming To America.
Milwaukee Record: So much of your act over the years has revolved around your family. Is it strange when people ask you personal questions about your family?
Louie Anderson: You know, it goes in streaks. I don’t mind it. Sometimes people ask weird stuff that I don’t even get. An often-requested thing I get from my Life With Louie fans all over the world is, “Can you send a picture of your dad?” The other question I get is, “Was your family really like that? Did those stories really happen?” It’s easy to forget for people who aren’t in show business, but everything is an amalgamation when you animate it or script it or do all that stuff. When you animate you can do anything. You can make your dad 10 feet tall or two feet tall, whatever you want. For me, being able to recreate my family was great. It was a joy.
MR: People obviously feel a connection with you.
LA: It resonates. I can remember when I first started out, people would come up to me and ask me about my family, and they would say this a lot: “You know, my family is just like yours.” It made me feel like, “Oh, wow. I’m not the only person who went through this stuff with my family.”
MR: Speaking of adjusting things for your act, there’s a moment I’ve always loved in your first special. You’re talking about your dad buying a Christmas tree, and he says, “For $35 that tree should dance!” It gets a laugh, but then you pause and say, “My dad really said that.” That gets an even bigger laugh.
LA: Luckily, in my case, the lines that my parents said were pretty accurate. The Christmas tree thing was a nightmare, because my dad didn’t want to spend any money doing that kind of thing. But that’s what he said to the guy. The guy laughed a little. And it did make it so my dad got a better deal on it.
MR: You come from a large family of 11 children, but now, sadly, there’s only a few of you left.
LA: Yeah, there’s four of us. My brother Jim, my sister Shannon, my sister Lisa, and me. I try to keep everybody alive in my act. I guess that’s the best I can do. They’re gone from the physical world, but as I talk to you I know…I can see them all clearly and I still feel them around me.
MR: You’re currently celebrating your 40th year in comedy. Your first show was in 1978, and it was done on a dare. What are your most vivid memories of your first time on stage?
LA: It’s definitely vivid when your family files in and sits in the second row. Your mom, your dad, your brothers and sisters. That was weird. I was not just performing for the people at the club, now I was performing for my family. But they loved it. It was so much fun. I really did get a good response the first time, so I’m really lucky. And that probably encouraged me to still be here doing it now. I just love doing stand-up. Especially in the Midwest. I mean, come on, that’s the best. Those are my people. I was just in Detroit and I had two nights of wonderful sold-out shows, and it happened to coincidentally be the club owner’s 40th anniversary of running that club. It was a really great weekend. Now I’m going back to Milwaukee, one of my favorite places. My book, Dear Dad, was started at Summerfest.
MR: You talked to Marc Maron about that a few yeas ago. Was it a bad experience at Summerfest that inspired the book?
LA: No, it just made me think of my dad and I started writing letters to him, and the letters became a book. It was 10 years after he died. It was a pretty great book for me, helping me with my journey with my dad and forgiving my dad. I probably got over 10,000 personal letters. I still have them. That was a pretty amazing thing, having 10,000 people share their stories with me. In fact, in the paperback I put some of their letters in the book.
MR: And you eventually wrote a similar book for your mom, Hey Mom: Stories For My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too.
LA: Once I started playing my mom on Baskets, I started writing her to just let her know I was playing the character. It’s from a kid’s perspective in a sense. In playing a mom, I realized how much my mom had really sacrificed and done for me.
MR: What about your mom are you putting into your performance?
LA: I think it’s everything about her. She was one of a kind. It’s mostly nuance with my mom. Her approval or disapproval, or her wonder or her confusion. It’s all the things that moms and people go through. But I try to remove my Louie Anderson persona completely from the character. It’s osmosis or something. I wish I could tell you there was a button I click off, but I mostly just don’t allow that part of me to be there. I was reading the scripts for season four on the plane yesterday. It’s amazing that people can write for the character now.
MR: And yet the remarkable thing about your performance is that you’re not changing your voice, you’re not doing anything outrageous.
LA: I wish I could give you some insight into how it happens. It’s the first time I’ve understood the “channeling” thing. It feels like my mom is on the set more than me. I’m like an observer of the show going on.
MR: A lot has changed in comedy in four decades, and now seems like an especially tumultuous time. How do you navigate the ongoing conversation of what’s okay to say and what’s not? How do you fit in?
LA: I think any victimizing is off limits. Any victimizing of anyone is out. Anything that would victimize anybody on any level. Nobody wants to hear it, and people will band together and almost lead a light brigade with torches when people do it, regardless of the context. In comedy, you get going and things just roll out of your mouth, you know? That’s the idea, just having fun, letting it all hang out. Being a little bad, being a little naughty, being a little controversial and all that stuff. Now that’s been almost outlawed.
But it doesn’t really apply to me, because my victims are all my family! [laughs] And they’re eager participants! They’re right in it with me. I don’t make my dad meaner than my mom, I just make him meaner in a different way. I do a line in my act where somebody would walk into the room and my dad would go, “I hate that guy.” And I’d go, “Dad, do you know that guy?” He’d go, “I don’t need to know someone to hate him, Louie.” That’s just about my dad, but that could be taken weird if I put a label on the guy who walked into the room, right?
But for me, I’m just talking about me, mostly. My goal, every time, is to bring people back to their memories of their family, and relish in it, and have them mumbling that stuff as they’re walking out. I never was that comic. I could have been a political comic. But it wouldn’t have been as fun. The greatest opportunity I have is, no matter how serious something sounds, there’s always a joke at the end of it, so people are let off the hook a little bit. I’m not interested in preaching to people. I’m actually doing stand-up comedy still. It’s my brand.
MR: Finally, I have to ask about the just-announced Coming To America sequel. Where do you see your character, Maurice, 30 years later?
LA: For me, he’d be right there, still washing lettuce. Or drying it. Whatever would be the smallest next step he could take. Or maybe he’s the manager of the whole place. But that’s for those guys to figure out. I don’t even know if I’ll be in it. I’m hoping I will. I hope I’m on fries!