Louie Anderson Turned His Pain Into Laughter so That We Could All Cope With Family Dysfunction

Tribute: Remembering "Baskets," "Life with Louie" star Louie Anderson, who died Friday at 68.

Louie Anderson Legends and Groundbreakers Honoree
Robert Ascroft

Many of us first saw Louie Anderson on screen as a flower delivery man in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a cameo role that comes late in the 1986 movie. But the first time he made an impression on me was in the late 1980s, when Anderson would fill in for Joan Rivers on her short-lived Fox talker “The Late Show.”

He was funny, he was engaging and brought a real personality and humanity when he would show up to guest host. Years later, I asked him about that experience.

“When I came to Los Angeles, I had three goals: Do the ‘Tonight Show,’ get my name on the Comedy Store, and to host my own talk show,” Anderson told me in 2018. “Really, in the first few years I was able to do all those things. And I loved them all [although] I realized that I did not want to be a talk show host.”

Instead, he embarked on an eclectic journey that included his animated series “Life With Louie,” hosting the game show “Family Feud,” and then later what was perhaps the role of his career, playing the family matriarch on Zack Galifianakis’ “Baskets.”

“I always tried to do stuff that I thought was right,” Anderson said. “People criticized me a little bit about doing a game show, and now game shows are the norm!”

The thru line through all of those projects, of course, was the word “family.” Anderson’s comedy was defined by his own family, and the ups and downs of his experience growing up with a father he described as alcoholic. Almost everyone escapes childhood with some sort of trauma, but the scale varies — and Anderson was on the extreme end of that.

But the comedian was able to channel his pain into his work, and his tales of surviving a dysfunctional family and a sometimes cruel world with a laugh were supremely relatable to his millions of stand-up fans.

“I take little things from everybody,” he said. “All the real things is all the stuff that matters. I always tell comics, ‘If this material that you’re doing means nothing to you, why should it mean anything to me? Why would you think I’m going to give you two seconds of my time if you’re doing stuff that’s just fodder?’”

Anderson’s stories, of course, crossed generations. “I did the cartoon because I wanted to recreate my family,” he said. “I thought that was a great opportunity for me to redraw some lines in my family. Put all the stuff in there, the subtext of how hard life can be for people, but not be heavy handed about it.”

It resonated, and over three seasons, Anderson won two Daytime Emmy Awards as outstanding performer in an animated program for “Life With Louie.” Later, in 2016, he added another Emmy, this time a Primetime win for supporting comedy actor, as Christine Baskets in “Baskets.”

In playing Christine, Anderson was actually channeling his mom, Ora Zella Anderson, who died in 1990. The role, which he called an “almost spiritual experience,” offered Anderson a chance to come to terms with that relationship and find a new way to heal from the death of his mother decades earlier.

“I took my phone out and wrote her a letter and got a whole bunch of stuff out,” he said. “My manager read it and people in my life and said, ‘this is beautiful, this could be a book.’ I needed to say some stuff to my mom and didn’t know it. Because once I started playing Christine, I realized I had not been the son I should have. I didn’t appreciate her like I should have.”

That letter turned into “Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too,” which was released in 2018.

“My mom really worked hard, and protected us from my dad, who was a monster in a lot of ways,” Anderson said. “He was sick, he was an alcoholic. I didn’t realize she defiantly stood between us and him. She drew the line.”

For Anderson, the “Baskets” accolades probably came at a perfect time, a bit of a reinforcement for him that his comedy mattered and touched so many lives. The outpouring of tributes from his peers also confirms that legacy.

But with his death on Friday, at age 68, I’m also reminded of something else he told me, and something we should all be thinking about in the wake of so many recent losses of beloved performers like Anderson, Betty White and Bob Saget: Appreciate the people around you now, and don’t delay that conversation you’ve always wanted to have with someone close to you.

“I wanted people to know that they have a chance with their parents and their loved ones,” Anderson said of the mission behind “Hey Mom.” “If you have something to say or have questions to ask, go ask them. Because I can’t do that. I had to go through other brothers and sisters and things and didn’t get all the answers. Don’t wait.”