Exclusive Interview With Two-Time Emmy Award Winner Louie Anderson

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Comedian, actor, author, two-time Emmy Award winner Louie Anderson
Photo courtesy of Louie Anderson

Comedian Louie Anderson, the two-time Emmy award winner, is one of the country's most recognized and adored comics; named by Comedy Central as One of 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comedians of All Time. His career has spanned more than 30 years. He is a best-selling author, star of his own standup specials and sitcoms, and he continues to tour the country performing to standing room only crowds worldwide.

In 2016, Louie was cast to co-star along with Zach Galifianakis and Martha Kelly in the hit FX series, "Baskets." Anderson's extraordinary new role is Christine Baskets, the matriarch of the Baskets clan. The character is based on both his mother and his five sisters, who were a major presence in his life. Anderson was nominated for the 2016 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his performance as Christine.

Sharing the ups and downs of his childhood experiences as one of eleven children in Minnesota, Louie crafted comedy routines that rang true for his early club audiences, routines that led him from his career as a counselor to troubled children to the first-place trophy at the 1981 Midwest Comedy Competition. Henny Youngman, who hosted the competition, recognized the diamond-in-the-rough genius of the young comic and hired him as a writer, providing invaluable experience that soon put Louie in his own spotlight on comedy stages all over the country.

Johnny Carson, the comedy icon for generations of rising stars, invited Louie to make his national television debut on the "The Tonight Show" in 1984, and the rest is history. Leno, Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, "Comic Relief" and Showtime, HBO and CMT specials followed, including hosting the legendary game show, Family Feud, making Louie a household name and opening doors for him as an actor. He has guest-starred in sitcoms like "Grace Under Fire" and dramas like "Touched by an Angel" and "Chicago Hope," and he has had memorable featured roles in film comedies like "Coming to America," opposite of Eddie Murphy, and the classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." In 2013, he took a dive on the ABC reality series, "Splash" where he conquered his own fears while becoming an inspiration of hope. His standup Special, "Big Baby Boomer" premiered on CMT, in 2013.

In 1995 Louie put his creative energies to work on the Saturday morning animated series "Life with Louie." The long-running series based on Louie's own childhood and his life with his father, won three Humanitas Prizes for writing on a children's' animated series, making him the only three-time recipient of this award. It also earned a Genesis Award for its depiction of the proper treatment of animals and, most significantly, two Emmy Awards.

His best-selling books include Dear Dad - Letters From An Adult Child, a collection of alternately touching and outrageous letters from Louie to his late father, and Good¬bye Jumbo...Hello Cruel World, self-help for those who struggle with self-esteem issues, and his latest installment on family, The F Word, How To Survive Your Family.

When not in production, Louie continues to tour, traveling the States doing what Louie loves to do, stand-up comedy. The second season of "Baskets" begins sometime in early 2017.

Was Minneapolis a good place to grow up? Any fond memories?
Growing up in St. Paul Minnesota was great until I realized other places had sun and no snow! But, yes, people were great, mostly friendly and lots of social programs for this fat poor projects kid--me! One fun thing we looked forward to, even though it was freezing, was The Winter Carnival, a palace made of snow! Plus, a chance to Find King Boris's Hidden Treasure--thousands of hoping people trudging & digging through the snow for a single Gold Medallion worth $2500.00. Which seemed like a million dollars to a poor kid from a family of eleven!

What do you remember about growing up in a household of eleven children?
Waiting for the bathroom and getting the smallest glass of Grape Shasta! My mom had sixteen births.

What were you like in high school?
I was friendly, kind of shy, kind of a hippie. Wanted to be liked. We hung out at the local restaurant, trying not to be cool.

What jobs have you had other than those in show business?
I worked at a gas station, an ad salesman, and doing social work.

Did you have a fallback plan in case the comedy career didn't work out?
My fallback plan if comedy didn't work was some sort of job in politics.

What made you decide to get into comedy?
People would always laugh at what or how I said things, and most times I was being serious. One night, a friend dared me and in 1978 I signed up, got up and did stand-up for the first time. I got some laughs, felt the excitement and some love. A fat poor kid from the projects knew a good thing when he felt it.

How much did you struggle before making it?
I worked in Minneapolis clubs with nice success for about a year and a half, then moved to Los Angeles in '81, struggled, then met Jimmie Walker, who kindly hired me as a joke writer. I wasn't very good, but he got me in at the Comedy Store and after two years of auditioning, I finally got on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. My career took off and I've been very lucky, pretty much working steadily since 1984.

How was your experience writing for Henny Youngman?
Henny was great to me. He had a grandson and I wrote some comedy for him--Larry Kelly a lovely guy. I wrote some fat jokes for him. Henny loved to work. He was very business-like, but sweet at the same time. He worked hard and expected everyone else to do the same.

What do you remember about your network debut as a stand-up comedian on "The Tonight Show" in 1984?
The memories of my first "Tonight Show" are still bright. I arrived in a limo to NBC, got out the car and noticed a parking spot that said "Johnny Carson'. I paused and smiled. I was greeted by the talent coordinator and an assistant. Lots of smiles, how do you feel, I replied great, I was escorted to my dressing room, my name was on the door, there was a wardrobe person who came in and took my clothes, I could hear the band tuning up, then I was shown into makeup, things were moving faster, the talented coordinator came in and said you're the second guest, Freddie De Cordova executive producer would be in to talk to me, the makeup person pulled off the bib he put on me and that was my cue I was finished.

Back to the dressing room, 15 min to show time. "What!?" I silently screamed. I took a deep breath and settled, looked at my manager and he said something positive. Freddie came in and told me the mechanics of the night, gave me a "you'll be great" and away he went. The band was blaring now and I started to think about getting dressed, after the monologue I'll get dressed, I thought. There was no Twitter back then, so I couldn't tweet, I just looked one more time at my set list and said to myself I got this, I'm ready! I watched Johnny's monologue on a small monitor. Then he threw to commercial.

I started to get undressed and I stood there in my tee shirt and underwear and thought about my Dad who was always in his underwear, let a fart go in his honor and giggled, he would have laughed. A knock at the door, talent coordinator, you're up after this guest and after the next commercial "What!?" I silently screamed again. Got dressed, & drank some Diet Coke. Breathed deeply looked in the mirror, another knock you know who, talent coordinator, "ready?" he said. Yes sir, I replied. He was talking as we walked--something about if Johnny calls you over, go to the desk! No kidding. Every Comic knows that. We ended up behind the striped light-colored curtain that I saw a thousand times on my 18 inch black and white as a kid, I reached out and touched it, like any other kid of my mother, because she would have asked me after the show, "Louie, what material is that curtain made of you came out of on the Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson?"

I can't believe it, back to reality, the band is blaring and we are back from commercial and I hear Johnny Carson's voice: "Our next guest is making his national television debut and will be performing tomorrow night at the Comedy Store at the Dunes Hotel, please welcome Louie Anderson."

I walked through that curtain, found my mark, and ad-libbed a joke a joke about McDonalds from Johnny's monologue and I've been doing stand-up ever since. It's the one thing in my life that I can count on, no matter what happens, no matter if the space shuttle blows up, no matter who dies, no matter who is president.

From that day in November of 1984, I had a friend I could count on, a drug that was non-toxic, an addiction that could help others and one that night after night saves my life and keeps smiling. Oh, yeah--he called me over. Thanks, Johnny!

Your 3-year hit animated show on Fox, "Life with Louie," centered on your 10 siblings, a sweet-hearted mother and a loud, war-crazed father. Autobiographical?
Semi-autobiographical. Had to tone down my actual family, especially my father, who was alcoholic and abusive. Because this was a family show cartoon and I had to make a show that folks could watch with their kids. And that would have been a really good show for me and my dad to have had.

You've said you were picked on for your weight and dealt with that through humor. Did that occur throughout your youth? Could you give an example of how you dealt with the teasing and abuse?
When you're a fat kid or different in some way, other kids who aren't that way don't understand it. It's funny to them. It's an easy target for them to call you "Fatso", etc. And I didn't like being teased; I was a sensitive kid. As Popeye said, "I can stands so much, but I can't stands no more." But I think I did a really good job of cooking up those hurts and turning them into anecdotes with jokes. I was fairly quick-witted and I soon found out how cruel I could be, but I didn't really like that. I had bullies threaten me because I'd go right after their weak spots; I could see them. But finally they decided, "Well, maybe I'll use Louie more as a jester than a whipping boy."

I think also to some degree being fat is an addiction. My dad was an alcoholic and there's lots of drug use and alcoholism and mental illness in my family. I think I've used food as a defense mechanism. Food became my second best friend after stand-up comedy.

What do you love about stand-up?
It's so immediate. It's like surfing the big wave. If you really work hard at it, you could get a really big wave of laughter coming your way. The idea, then, is to keep topping it and going deeper and deeper into it. Stand-up is a beautiful experience, night after night.

How much preparation is involved in putting together one of your televised stand-up comedy specials?
It starts with an idea, such as what's going on in the world; what's my take on it? Or, being a fat kid, with a lot of exclusion going on and you're never included. The challenge is making some of these serious ideas funny. So, I look for a comedic vein in these ideas. I start out with a beginning and then almost always want an ending I can work towards. And I keep working on it and shaping it. You can tell what's going to work out and what isn't. I work it and work it and work it. And when I think I've got an hour, I crush it out at a club for a whole week, until it just becomes the song I want to play. Take a few days off, then do one more club, then I go shoot it.

How long do you work on a joke?

I once worked 11 years on a joke. The joke: My mom used to have me and my brother guess the price she paid for clothing. We hated it because we didn't know; we were just 10 and 12. We'd complain, "You're ruining our lives!" My mom would say, "Kids, what do you think I got this outfit for?" And being a wise guy, I'd go, "Eleven hundred? Nine hundred?" And she would say the price. I always knew it wasn't the right joke. Finally, I was on stage one night, got to the point where mom said, "What do you think I got this outfit for?" And I said, "Halloween?" And that was the joke. That was the missing part of a complete joke. Underneath every joke is a better joke. And I don't think comics hardly ever peel the tape off. Because the first one's the zircon; the second one's the diamond. And the third one's the emerald--really ambitious. Also, the original question was "How much do you think I got this outfit for?" And without thinking, I changed it to, "What do you think I got this outfit for?" I allow myself to deliver the same joke differently each time. Because if you're not different in every joke, how can you find the other joke?

What was it like playing in the 2006 Word Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas? How did you do? Are you a gambler?
Let's be honest: I'm in show business--I'm a gambler. There are no guarantees. I got in because I lived in Vegas and someone at "Poker Stars" was a fan of mine. I've rarely played poker and almost never tournament poker. The problem with me is I always think I have the best hand. But I loved doing it; it was so much fun. There were 6,000 people there. I think I made it 12 hours, which I felt great about. Poker became a really cool thing for a while. I enjoyed the strategy. Coming from a large family, there's always a strategy. And I love cards. When you're poor, you have a deck of cards.

What was your experience hosting the TV game show, "Family Feud"?
Living in the projects sitting in our living room on the arm of the couch, dad in his "dad chair", mom in the kitchen, "Family Feud" comes on and we played it.

When I got the offer to host, I wanted to do it! (I might not have hosted any other game show) but the "Feud", it was a no-brainer, it gave me a chance to come full circle, for my mom, dad and me! 30 years earlier revisited, and now I'm the host, it was a honor, I was no Richard Dawson (the man they created the Feud for) but I loved giving away money to people who could use it. That was my favorite part of the show. And when they'd lose it, it was a bummer for them and me.

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Louie as Christine Baskets, on the FX comedy series "Baskets"
Photo courtesy of Louie Anderson

You play Christine Baskets, the put-upon mother of Zach Galifianakis, on the FX comedy series "Baskets". What was your initial reaction when you were offered that part? How did you arrive at the character? How has the experience been over all?
I was working in Vegas at the Plaza Hotel. I was on my way to work and got a call from Steve Levine, my old agent. He said Louie C.K. wants your phone number. Louie calls me a short time later: "Louie, hi, it's Louie." "Hi, Louie." "Hi, Louie." Which is one of my favorite things ever because it hardly ever happens. He said I'm with Zack Galifianakis and we're doing a sit-com and we'd like you to play a character. I said yeah! I mean, these two guys call you; are you going to say anything but yes? I mean, unless you're crazy. They're royalty in comedy right now, and probably forever. He said, we want you to play Zack's mother. And I go, "Yes!!" I was excited because it was some sort of divine thing. Like you're waiting for something but don't know what it is, but you know it could be really good. And that's really how it felt. I never thought it would lead to an Emmy nomination until people started mentioning it to me. Zack's manager, Marc Gurvitz, told a friend of his that he thought I was going to win an Emmy. He also told an old manager of mine, Alex Murray, "I saw the dailies and Louie's going to win an Emmy." It's weird when you hear stuff like that. How do you respond, except, "I am?" And then people started making those Emmy comments on my Twitter and Facebook pages. And people in airports would say that to me. And I said, "Are you guys voters, though?"

I'll tell you what was so cool about it. I worked really hard with Louie and Zack and Jonathan Kreisel on making the relationship between Zack and I real. And I worked really hard to make Louie Anderson disappear on screen. And I thank my mom for that, because if you could become someone else it's best if you know that person. I had been doing my mom in my act for a long time, and Christine Baskets is a version of my mom. And my mom had very funny mannerisms and was a very funny person in her own right. A really clever person and could find joy in a bottle of DeSante.

You have a wonderful relationship with Zack's girlfriend on the show.
That was such a hard scene for me to do. When I had to send her home to Paris. We both cried.

No, I'm talking about Martha Kelly, the nerdy girlfriend/insurance salesperson.
Oh my god, I love Martha. I feel bad that she's Zack's whipping post. He really gives her a hard time, but I think he really loves her.

Was this the first time you'd worn women's clothing for an acting role?
No. Comedian Dom Irerra did one of those specials we used to do for Showtime and HBO. They'd all have an opening comedy bit. So, Dom asked me if I would play the maid in the scene. The scene was I wake Dom up as the maid. Then after I leave, the other covers come off next to Dom and it's Bruce Willis. And Dom goes, "Hey, didn't that maid look like Louie Anderson?" And that was the only time I did that. I had 5 sisters and a mom, but I never really tried on any of their clothes. Wearing women's clothes takes a little getting used to, but it's much more comfortable in some ways than men's clothes. Because you're not all strapped in.

One of the three books you've written, Dear Dad: Letters from an Adult Child, is a collection of letters to your late father. What kind of relationship did you have with him? Were the letters things that you didn't or weren't able to communicate to him while he was alive?
I wrote the book 10 years after he died. I took a friend of mine to his father's grave where he read a letter to him. I was very moved by it. And I knew in my heart I'd have to do that same thing someday. So, 10 years later in Milwaukee, I was on the road and started writing these letters in a journal and they just poured out of me. And they became a book. I ended up getting 10,000 letters from people who had much worse times with their dad than I did. And my dad was an abusive alcoholic. Writing the letters healed me, because I was able to forgive my dad. And I think the book helped a lot of people; I hope it did, anyway. People mention it to me quite often. It just came out on Kindle and I'm excited about that. This may sound crazy, but I'd love to do it as a stage performance where I read the letters and do the comedy part in there. I'd love to find a director who could help me make it into a stage production. Because I feel that people don't read as much as they used to, especially books, and this is an important subject.

Another of your books, Goodbye Jumbo... Hello Cruel World, is a self-help book for those who struggle with self-esteem issues. What has been most helpful to you in dealing with self-esteem? What would you tell someone you met today who was dealing with self-esteem issues?
They have to believe they can be healed before they can start healing themselves. They have to believe they're a good person, before they can start being nicer to themselves.

Your third book, The F Word: How to Survive Your Family, features 49 family survival tips. Could you share one of your favorites?
This is my favorite one: For every family function, arrive late and leave early. Because it's just better. And make sure your emotional gas tank is full before you go. And it's unlikely with the story of your family you keep replaying, that the third act is going to change. So, you should be more accepting, smile, giggle, and go, "Oh, mom!"

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Louie Anderson's favorite family survival tip: "For every family function, arrive late and leave early."
Photo courtesy of Louie Anderson

Have you done everything on your bucket list? What other goals do you have?
I'd like to turn my book "Dear Dad" into a stage show. I'd like to write a one hour drama for TV because I'm a huge one hour drama fan. And I'd love to get to a weight that is completely healthy for me. That is really my main goal--my health. I've been eating sprouts and drinking wheatgrass juice. Someone told me when I was about to start drinking it that the wheatgrass juice would taste like Kool-Ade. I keep calling them. But it's much easier after a while. And it's so nutritious and good for you and sets your system. I look at it this way: I've eaten everything I need to eat.

What hobbies and other interests do you have?
I just started painting. It's always about my family. I just took a class and painted something that was nice; I liked it. I have a lot of big underwear and thought they'd be wonderful canvases. I think it would be really funny as well as an effective canvas.

Do you have a favorite charity?
The homeless. I had a program called Hero that ran for several years in Flint, Michigan, that I started with my manager's sister. I'm working on an infant mortality charity in Detroit, MakeYourDate.

Who do you admire in stand-up comedy? In acting?
People who really influenced me were Johnny Carson, Bob Hope--had such great patter; he really knew how to deliver a joke; Richard Pryor--his heart was so unbelievable, Jackie Vernon, Rodney Dangerfield--I loved his jokes and character, Bill Burr, John Mulaney--he is so prolific; I was so jealous. Emo Phillips--I realize what a great performer he is; his jokes are so solid. I love great solid jokes. Nick Swardson--we're both from Minnesota. Of course, Louie C.K. And Jonathan Winters had a giant impact upon me, too, with my character stuff.

Bryan Cranston was my co-star in the "Louie" pilot, where I played a therapist. I've always rooted for him and I'm really proud of all his success. I love great comic actors on TV--Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ted Knight, Carol O'Connor, Jean Stapleton. I loved Laurel & Hardy and Abbot & Costello.
The greatest thing about my life is I got to meet so many of those people. I got to work with Audrey Meadows, who told me stories about Jackie Gleason, who was so great. I loved Red Skelton.
I never wanted to be a comic, which is the funniest thing. Someone just dared me. But I was going to be a politician; I wanted to be President.

Do you see yourself in a storytelling tradition, like Bill Cosby?
Bill came from an adult point of view, telling his stories. I feel like I come from the place of a son. I'm the kid whose parents are driving him nuts to this day. But Bill was a great storyteller, standup, great delivery.

What's it like living in Las Vegas?
I've been in Vegas since 1984. The day after my "Tonight Show" debut I started working at the Dunes Hotel. You've got to stay off the Strip for the most part; you can't live that life. I've had a lot of fun there. It was the greatest. I worked at Bally's for 11 years for 6 weeks a year. I would either go in as Paul Anka was finishing. And then when I would go out, George Carlin would come in. Next time I'd come in, Dean Martin was there. Then I'd go out and Smokey Robinson would be there. I got to meet everybody. Got to see Frank Sinatra perform at the Desert Inn.

I got to open for so many acts because my agent Frank Rio at Triad Artists was Bob Hope's agent and all the great acts' agent. The week after my "Tonight Show" debut, I was opening for The Commodores. And then The Pointer Sisters. And then Dolly Parton. And Kenny Rogers. And Glenn Campbell. And Ray Charles. All these unbelievable acts. It was surreal. So, I got a peek in at how fame worked. And how they lived. And who was nice. The greatest thing I experienced was that the majority of stars were super nice. The bigger the star, sometimes the bigger the niceness.

Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield--both people who guided and mentored me early on. They were fans. They came to Minnesota and I was lucky enough that they connected with me and gave me encouragement to get to one of the coasts.

If you could choose one person, living or dead, to have as your dinner companion for one night?
People? Jesus.
Standups? A tossup between Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx.

Favorite music album?
Harvest, by Neil Young.

Movie?
All That Jazz.

TV show?
If I was on an island? I guess it would have to be Gilligan's Island. 'Cause I could then at least learn how to make the things.

Food?
French bread. [LAUGHS]. No, probably one food I'd have to eat forever? Well, the new Louie says wheatgrass. The old Louie says Jerry's Fried Chicken in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a broasted secret recipe chicken that once in a while my dad would treat us.

Who would Christine Baskets vote for in this Presidential election?

Well, she did like that Rubio. But she really misses Ronald Reagan. She really wishes there was a Reagan-type President. She's awfully thrilled that a woman could be President. But she does like a billionaire. So, she's really torn, but as any good person knows, you never disclose your politics; it can only start the fighting.