Legends and Groundbreakers Honoree Louie Anderson Reflects on His Long Comedy Career

Louie Anderson Legends and Groundbreakers Honoree
Robert Ascroft

Louie Anderson got his start in comedy on a dare.

As a young man in Minnesota in the late 1970s, Anderson went to a comedy club with some friends. He wasn’t impressed.

“It was my fault because I said the comedians who were up there weren’t very funny,” he recalls. “That backfired on me. People said, ‘Why don’t you go up there?’ I said, ‘OK, I will.’”

Within a week Anderson was performing on open mic night.

“I remember I wrote these jokes all week and I’d ask people if they thought they were funny,” Anderson says. “They were mostly about being a fat kid growing up. I was terrible with the mic technique, I was way too close.”

But almost instantly, Anderson, who is being honored by Variety as part of their “Legends and Groundbreakers” series at the Just for Laughs fest, started getting attention. A local newspaper was writing about the booming business of comedy clubs, and newbie Anderson was singled out with special mention (he admits it made some of the more established standups jealous).

Soon after, the PBS station did a local-comedians profile, which Anderson jokes “spurred my already gigantic ego.”
At the time, Anderson was working as a counselor at a shelter for abused children. The same mix of compassion and inner pain that drew him to his day job also fueled his comedy.

“I realized I had a whole filing cabinet full of stuff about my family,” Anderson says of his early material. “That was a big awakening. I started talking about my dad, and it was a bottomless pit.

“I had so much resentment and anger and pain, so much going on from my dad because he was an abusive alcoholic. Even though my dad was mean, I was able to do jokes about it somehow. They seemed natural. I was kind of on my way before I even knew what I was doing.”

The more comfortable he got on stage, the more ambitious he became. “I just had a couple of goals,” Anderson says. “One, to get my name on the Comedy Store, and two, get on ‘The Tonight Show.’ And then world domination, but I didn’t tell people. You don’t tell people you have a plan for world domination because they’ll see it coming.”

Life, Animated: Anderson racked up multiple honors for his autobiographical animated series “Life With Louie.” Fox/Photofest

World domination may not have been in the cards (at least not yet), but it was “Tonight” that would ultimately be the big break for a man destined to hit Comedy Central’s list of 100 greatest standups of all-time. He had cherished memories of watching “Tonight” as a kid with his father, a jazz musician.

That’s where Anderson was exposed to Jonathan Winters, Jackie Vernon, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Richard Pryor. Johnny Carson held a similar influential status, and landing “Tonight” was “a dream come true.”

“I watched it from [my home’s] little black-and-white TV set at Hazelwood Avenue,” Anderson says. “It was a little curtain on our TV … I got to stand behind that curtain and hear, ‘Our next guest is making his national television debut, from St. Paul, Minnesota.’ As any good Minnesotan would, I was going over the details of the curtain and not listening to the guy telling me to relax.

“That curtain opened up and all I did was look for the little ‘x’ I would be walking out to. I settle myself, take it all in for a second, and say, ‘I can’t stay long, I’m in between meals.’ I was off and running. My whole life changed that day.” Carson liked his act, but throughout his career Anderson felt something of a distance between himself and other comedians.

He credits Henny Youngman, Jimmie Walker, and Comedy Store founder Mitzi Shore with helping his career, but Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers top the shortlist of longtime pals.

“I never was the guy who ended up being friendly with the big-time comics,” Anderson says without resentment. “They patted me on the head like, ‘Good job, Louie.’ I wasn’t in the club.”

He thinks it’s because he was never considered “edgy,” despite delving into his dysfunctional family past.

“I was more, ‘My dad never hit us, but he carried a gun,’ than ‘My dad was a real prick; we wish we could’ve killed him,’” he says. “Same place the joke is coming from, I chose to turn another page. On the other side of the page where it says, ‘F–k that,’ is, ‘Here’s how I dealt with it.’”

That also may have colored the way he was viewed in Hollywood. Despite being one of the top standups during the time of the late ’80s/early ’90s sitcom boom, Anderson struggled to find success in front of the camera.

Career Highlights
The Tonight Show Anderson’s first appearance was with host Johnny Carson on November 1984.
Life With Louie (1994-1998)
The animated show based on his childhood won two Daytime Emmy Awards and three consecutive Humanitas Prizes.
Family Feud (1999 – 2002)
Anderson succeeded original host Richard Dawson in a reboot of the popular game show.
Baskets (2015 – present)
Anderson is earning raves and an Emmy nom playing the mother of Zach Galifianakis’ character on the FX series.
Anderson the Author
He has penned three books: “Dear Dad: Letters from an Adult Child” (1989), “Goodbye Jumbo… Hello Cruel World” (1993), and “The F Word: How to Survive Your Family” (2009).

In the mid-’80s he was cast as the lead opposite Bronson Pinchot on “Perfect Strangers.” They filmed a pilot, but Anderson was ultimately replaced.

“I helped develop the whole thing, and then they fired me. My agent called and said, ‘They’re going to replace you with Mark Linn-Baker.’ ‘How come they didn’t call me?’ was my first question. That’s the day I really learned about show business.”

Although Anderson never found out exactly why he was replaced, he has a theory. “I think what it really boiled down to, and I don’t have any proof of it, is you don’t want two funny guys on the show. [Pinchot] was very hot from ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ — he was very hip, and I had big hips. [Linn-Baker] was a great comic foil for him, he was a great choice. And I’m happy that’s not my legacy anyway. I forgive all that, I don’t take it personal.”

He kept trying, but it looked like small-screen success simply wasn’t in the cards. “I made three pilots for TV shows. People were interested,” he says. “I let people talk me into a character who wasn’t me. I should’ve been the character like my dad. I didn’t understand show business in the sense of what I should become. Everybody around me wanted to present the sweetness, which really was not the funniest part to people.”

When “The Louie Show” finally made it to air in 1996 on CBS (starring Anderson as a Minnesota psychotherapist), it lasted only five episodes.

He found a better outlet for his sensibility in the cartoon “Life With Louie,” which ran for three seasons on Fox and earned him two Daytime Emmys.

Anderson is now enjoying his greatest acting role to date, playing Zach Galifianakis’ mother on FX’s “Baskets,” for which he just landed an Emmy nomination for supporting actor in a comedy.

And he’s still knocking ’em dead with standup. “What I’m trying to do is be funny first, be relevant second,” he says of his current act. “I think I removed a few of the barriers about what I can and can’t say on stage. I don’t like when people advertise a completely clean act. I want to be able to speak about how I feel and talk about anything I want. If your comedy material doesn’t mean anything to you, why do it?”

And more than that, he’s grappling with current events. “People are outraged by Donald Trump, but I think that millions of people voted for that outrage,” he says. “There’s two camps out there. One that’s way too politically correct, one that’s way too politically incorrect. We can’t walk on eggshells and we can’t stomp on eggs. We’ve got to be able to discuss this.

“There’s so much fear out there, and we’re not dealing with the fear. It all comes back to the very simple thing, the way you grew up — if you were included, if you were excluded, if you were marginalized. We have to stop marginalizing people, excluding people. We’re dealing with those consequences every day now. We’ve got to come together as a nation. If we go one way or the other, the division is just going to grow.”

That’s ground Anderson hopes to tackle in his next standup special. “I’d like to do a special about inclusion, exclusion and how to make a good devil’s food cake,” he says. “You know how you get an inclusivist and exclusivist together? You cut that cake.”

What: Louie Anderson performs
When: 9 p.m. July 24-26
Where: Just for Laughs festival
web: haha.com