When you first hear that Louie Anderson plays Zach Galifianakis’ mother, Christine Baskets, on “Baskets,” you may assume the show is some kind of broad Adam Sandler-style gag-fest. But “Baskets” turned out to be one of the season’s sweetest, strangest, surprises: An absurdist dramedy grounded in the most vulnerable sides of its often-outrageous characters. And while we initially see Christine through her son’s eyes as an aggravating busybody, it was the sensational Easter episode that exposed Christine’s own contentious relationship with her overly critical mother — and made viewers love the character even more. Here, Anderson talks us through his work on that episode.
Season 1, episode 4, “Easter in Bakersfield”
written by Samuel D. Hunter; directed by Jonathan Krisel
LOUIE ANDERSON: “I knew how complicated that character was. All of her traits, her behavior, her physical appearance — all of those things don’t come without a price. They were the results of something. The results of her life. Her relationship with her mother, her tough luck with her husband. I had that picture of her from the start because I had the luxury of reading all the scripts.
“After I read (the ‘Easter’ script), I remember holding it close to my chest. It may sound silly, I’m kind of a sentimental person. But I remember feeling like I really appreciate Christine and where she’s coming from and where she’s been.
“That was the great thing about the scripts, there was just so much meat in them. I always tried to put in my own voice or my mom’s voice or my sister’s voice, somebody who I care about. All I was ever trying to do with the character was to make her as real as absolutely possible. That’s where I was coming from the whole time.
“My mom was the most positive role model, so I can look to her. My dad was a much meaner person. I think I draw on the combination of the two, which is always in the pit of my stomach. I don’t think you’re ever very far away from becoming either one of your parents, I don’t care what anyone says.
“You know that thing I do where I narrow my eyes in the character? That’s my mom when someone says something she doesn’t like. She may not comment on it, but when you saw that you knew that person was going to be out. My mom is the nicest person in the world and she would never have thought she’s like Christine. She was but she did it in a much nicer way.
“I wish I could boast about how I used to try on my sisters and my mom’s stuff. Then it would make it a lot clearer to people because of my comfort in (the clothes). (When we were filming) I got to the set at 5:30 or 6 in the morning. I put the clothes on first, not all of them, but anything that would go over my head because I can’t screw up the wig. I sit in the chair and look at myself — I have a mom top on and the wig is being fastened to my head. The wig is unbelievable. They measured my head and took a long time to make it, it was all hand made. They really nailed the wig. Then after you’re done you put makeup on.
“When people put lipstick on you, I don’t care who you are, you do that thing with your lips where you purse them. I never dreamt of wearing lipstick or anything, but when I put that on I think ‘I look pretty good.’ I don’t see my mother, except in the expressions at times. My mom always wore her hair up, like those women with the bouffant kind of thing. She had great hair and she wore it up and back. That was her look. I don’t look like her, but I do look like some of my sisters.
“I embrace it. I don’t allow anyone to call me Louie, I don’t let them write Louie on the trailer door. When I meet extras I say ‘I’m Christine, nice to meet you.’ I stay in that character until I leave for the day. Then I go and get off the set right away.
“This is a set where everybody knows each other and it’s the most welcoming and warm and loving group of people. Jonathan (Krisel) is really the maestro in this. He set up this thing where there’s no tension whatsoever about the shot. Nobody gets yelled at because they made a mistake. He really has a family environment. And it makes sense because we’re shooting a family that has never been on TV before.
“There wasn’t a big discussion about my voice, which is when I knew I was in the company of somebody who knew what they were doing. I was worried about that cartoony voice, that could’ve happened.
“Zach is the most generous actor there is. He’s nice to everybody, he talks to everybody. He’s a reluctant superstar, that’s what I call him. He’s not interested in the spotlight or the glory, he’s interested in good work and doing something that’s hysterically funny. He’s like one of the great masters who lives now of comedy. People don’t realize he’s got that Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields thing going. But he’s the ultimate professional, like ‘Let’s get it done.’ Not in a hurried way but ‘this is serious stuff we’re doing,’ in the sense that we want it to be great.
“The (Easter brunch) was a big scene for me, because that’s my life too. That’s (like) my dad berating me about being fat. What does a person say in that situation? Parents often tell their kids monumental things in front of strangers. Christine and myself have to say, ‘You’re right, I did put on the weight. I do have a weight problem. I am a compulsive eater. And I hope you die tomorrow.’ [Laughs]
“Her leaving was good. And then there was that beautiful scene with Chip giving me that candy. That scene and episode was so pivotal. It’s almost like the first four episodes were the set-up for you to stop turning your head from side to side in wonder and saying, ‘I like this family and I’m interested in what they’ll do next.’ ”