Louie Anderson Gives One of TV's Best Performances in 'Baskets'
The veteran comedian opens up about his career, the comedy scene, and how he brings Christine Baskets to life.
Courtesy of Pamela Littky/FX
Louie Anderson is so funny that he can make even a bad batch of poached eggs seem like a laugh riot. We're sitting in a restaurant attached to the Times Square hotel he's staying in while clocking a few stand-up gigs and doing press for Zach Galifianakis's bleak, confrontational, and frequently brilliant FX comedy Baskets, when the waitress comes over to check on how his breakfast was. "There were eggshells in the first bite," he says without a trace of bitterness, gesturing toward the plate of eggs; myself, the FX publicist, and the waitress all laugh nearly in unison, waiting for the punchline. It never comes: "Yeah, it happens sometimes," he says nonchalantly, as the three of us realize that he's not kidding.
In fairness, Anderson's convivial demeanor is almost constantly peppered with the type of one-liners and quick quips that anyone familiar with his stand-up material would delight in. When a glass of iced coffee I ordered arrives at the table, he sings loudly, "Iced coffee!," as if announcing its arrival to anyone in earshot; later, I bring up his influential, semi-autobiographical animated comedy Life with Louie, and he immediately starts conversing with me in the character of the show's father, Andy Anderson. It's easy to spot when a comedian is trying too hard to be funny, but Anderson's sense of humor runs through his kind, thoughtful demeanor with the ease of water flowing from a tap.
As Baskets's matriarch Christine Baskets, Anderson gives off a similar sense of effortlessness—which is astounding, when you consider that he's playing a woman. Alternately touching, hilarious, and extremely relatable, his performance hits an empathetic sweet spot that counts as one of the most fascinating and emotionally engrossing performances on television right now. On paper, the potential for cruelty in having Anderson portray a diabetic, Costco-obsessed, and constantly nagging mother is more than apparent; but it's Anderson's compassion for the character he portrays that shines through the brightest, elevating Christine past the notion of pure caricature and fleshing her out as a real human being.
For the first season of Baskets, the cast and crew worked hard to keep Anderson's involvement with the show under wraps. "When they gave [critics] screeners, it was like dumping a big bag of Halloween candy on everyone's laps," he says. Obviously, the secret's out when it comes to the show's second season (currently airing Thursdays at 10 PM on FX), especially after Anderson's Emmy win for Best Actor in a Comedy Series last year. By extension, he and the show's writers are using the accolades as a jumping-off point to take Christine's character to new narrative heights.
"I said to the writers and [showrunner Jonathan Krisel], 'I would like Christine to twirl,'" Anderson claims. "That was all I told them—I knew what it meant to me, and I wanted to see what it meant to them. And we did it. Christine's out in the world for the first time in a long time—she's going places."
Here's how the rest of our conversation went:
VICE: You live in Los Angeles but have been doing some shows in NYC. What's the difference when playing to those separate crowds?
Louie Anderson: On the East Coast, I can do jokes I can't do anywhere else. I do a joke about being the tenth of 11 kids—"I just slid out of my mom, I was home from the hospital before my mom was"—and it gets a laugh in New York and a groan everywhere else. It's not a Louie Anderson joke, per se, but it's where I'm going [with my comedy]. I'm trying to be more real. I'm a really good stand-up, but [everyone's like], "Oh, he's clean comedy," and they get the idea that "clean" somehow means "parochial."
I'm doing more [jokes] about my family, but it's a little hoarser. My dad once kept us up from midnight until 6 AM because somebody left the butter out—and because he was a drunk. I'd never say that before—that he was a drunk—so I'm peeling back another layer of where the world is. We're in a new place. I want you to be joyful and dying from laughter, and I want you to be on the brink of tears.
Some comedians brand themselves as "clean." To me, it's always seemed like a weird categorization.
Most people don't know very much about comedy. We don't even have a comedy hall of fame. That's crazy to me. There are so many great comics. Comedy is like what kind of wine you drink or magazines you read—you may not want people to know that you read Hustler, and that's the same with comedy. People who go see comedy do so for all different kinds of reasons. My crowd wouldn't necessarily be going to a comedy club—maybe they're just not comedy club people, but there are people who are. That's always been my struggle, I think. I don't know if I register enough with the comedy-club crowd. I always say that you may come not liking me, but you're leaving as someone who wants to see me again. I think I'm a really good comic.
You've always drawn heavily from your past in your routines, which is a practice that's more common now in stand-up. It's almost like everyone else caught up with you.
I hear from other comics, "You really influenced me a lot," or, "I grew up on your comedy." I feel very appreciated as a comic right now. It's funny that this Christine part has given me some kind of gravitas that I feel like I already had. Everyone's like, "That part you're playing... Wow!" And the subtext is, "I didn't think you had that in you!" They don't mean that in a mean way, it's just how people are.
Something that's very impressive about your performance as Christine Baskets is how relatable you make her out to be.
People can't get enough of that character—they're really resonating with who she is. [Sings] Something has happened... And what it is ain't exactly clear! There's a woman with a purse over there, and her name is Christine Baskets!
You were raised in a household with five sisters, and your mother is a central figure in your stand-up routines. Is there anything you learned growing up in a house with so many women that you apply to your acting?
My mom endured this monster—my dad—at all costs, and never let it douse her humanity or optimism. She was an eternal flame within our house. As sad as she might look sometimes, she would never give up. It was remarkable. So I'm stealing that humanity, because she had it.
Typically, overweight men on television are allowed to be more slapstick and inherently funny. When television focuses on overweight women, there seems to be a more pitying approach to how they're portrayed.
Do you think that's because everyone is oversensitive in the world right now? And isn't it a disservice to the women?
Yeah, there's this cloud of pity that hovers above overweight women, that overweight men seem to completely elude.
That's a new show I'm working on—Cloud of Pity, this fall on FXXXX. Or should it be called Pitycoat Junction. [Laughs] I've seen black women be more real about it onstage, and Lisa Lampanelli, who lost all the weight. On This is Us, the guy's always making jokes about his weight, but the woman's always sitting in the corner, looking at her girth. That's why I quit looking at my girth. Remember Girth Brooks? [Laughs] He got big at one point. You know someone's big when they start wearing a Members Only jacket. To them, it's like, "Hey, that works," but it's almost like putting leather on a ball.
Were you surprised when you won the Emmy last year?
Yeah—you're surprised when you win. The worst part is, if I didn't win, I would've had to hear people say, "You got robbed." But I knew I might have a chance, because during the commercials they played the Minnesota Vikings and the Packers game [at the Emmys]. I'm a Minnesotan, and the Vikings were winning, so I said, "Oh, I could win an Emmy." I was the underdog to win, so when I won, I yelled, "I won!" Just like Nelson Muntz on The Simpsons. "Ha, ha!" Isn't that in all of us?
There's been a trend in recent years—Louie, Maron, and even Baskets, in a sense—of comedians making TV shows explicitly about their own lives. Life with Louie did that almost two decades before it was on-trend, but it had a much more universal approach.
I've had many people tell me that Life with Louie was a big influence on a lot of shows that are real popular now. My dad and I never connected, so I wanted to make a cartoon where people would watch it with their kids. The whole goal was to clear out the minefield of my memories, sanitize them, make them palatable for the public, and make them real. But Life with Louie now means a little more to me. I have a Life with Louie Facebook page that has probably 100,000 Romanians and Turkish people—people from Poland and Belarus. People that write me and say, "Come to Turkey, come to Romania, you're our God."
We were also the first cartoon that the NFL let use real logos. I wanted it to take place in Minnesota, but the lawyers wanted it to be Wisconsin, so people wouldn't sue me. In hindsight, I shouldn't have done that, and here's why: All those people in those countries are football fans, and they have Packers hats in their room now. So I'm like, "Those fucking Packers sold hats because of Life With Louie." They could've all been Vikings fans!
Follow Larry Fitzmaurice on Twitter.