Comic Louie Anderson Modeled His 'Baskets' Role After His Own Mom
Comic Louie Anderson has had a hugely successful stand-up career for the last 30 years, but he admits he wasn't a very good actor early on. "I didn't know who I was or how to do it," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Now, at 62, Anderson is delivering a stand-out performance on the FX comedy series Baskets. In it, he plays Christine Baskets, the mother of an embittered rodeo clown (played by Zach Galifianakis). Christine is both exasperated by her son and deeply supportive of him. "I feel like this part gave me an opportunity to play the most real person — a really real person," he says.
The comic drew from his memories of his late mother for the role of Christine. "I really loved playing this part for a big reason that my mom gets to come to life," he says.
Anderson grew up with 10 siblings in a housing project in St. Paul, Minn., and for years family has been a big part of his act. He says that imagining his mother and family as his audience helped shape his family-friendly humor. "I've always been trying to heal families," he explains.
But as Anderson grows older, he has reconsidered adding darker material to his set. "I'm at this precipice right now that I feel like I'll be changing myself onstage," he says. "I think I could go to another level, but am I going to betray my audience? Is that a betrayal?"
On his ongoing struggle with his weight
I'm a food addict. I go to O.A. [Overeaters Anonymous] and I really work hard on trying to eat better, especially lately. I've been really working hard on it. So I know what that's like. ...
My dad was an alcoholic and he was really mean and could be very vicious. And anybody who has grown up with an alcoholic knows that there's usually a fight to bring everything to a head in an alcoholic family, where the lines are drawn, and that either ends with police coming or, in our case, my mom would feed us. It was the weirdest thing. So there's a lot of stuff emotionally tied to my eating. Then I created a character onstage that had a lot to do with being fat, so I really boxed myself in a lot, and I'm really aware of it. ...
I have to be locked in a cage, Terry, for 23 hours a day and fed small amounts of food. I mean, really, I can't be trusted. I've been eating really good for four weeks ... and I didn't weigh myself until just the other day and I lost 10 pounds. And I was disappointed that I had only lost 10 pounds, and I had to deal with that. I had to really talk to myself about that. Because that's perfect — about 2.5 pounds a week. That's a really good thing, so I have to keep that in mind.
On thinking about mortality
The first time I really felt anything about mortality was in 1990 when my mom died. That's where I really went, "Oh my God, I think I could die now. ... I came from my mom. She died. I can't believe she died." It was very devastating. I couldn't believe my mom died. "Oh, my mom died." When I lost my dad — my dad was a really bad drunk, but a really funny guy, and he stuck with us and he stayed. ... I'll never forget, my dad quit drinking when he was 69 and here was my mom's response: She turned to me and she said, "I told you he'd quit drinking."
On his mother
My mom was never without a compliment. ... I think she meant it. She loved people and she loved conversation and she loved to engage with people. ... She was a little passive aggressive. ... She just could slide stuff in and you'd go, "Did I just get cut by a really sharp razor? Mom?" She just had that thing. She was a little competitive, but she loved to show off. She was a show off.
On why depression and comedy often go together
I think the reason that they go together is because if you look at that depression long enough, you have to tip it on its side and look at the other side and find some humor in it. I tried to kill myself, but the rope broke. That would be a joke that I could probably do and get a laugh out of. I have to be very careful about how I do any stuff on sadness because the crowd gets really sad and concerned for me.
On not wanting to have a family of his own
I wanted to find my family ... but not necessarily have a family, because I'm really a selfish person. I'll be really honest with you. I'm really self-centered and selfish, and I know I am. I don't want to be that person, but I really am selfish. ... I don't mean it in any mean way or any cruel way, I just am. I'm all about me and I know it's wrong. I try to do nice things and all that, but I am a very, very self-centered person. I would be a great parent for about 10 minutes a day, you know? I think I'm a much better friend and uncle and cousin and brother. ...
I'm gone all the time; I like to travel; I love to do stand-up comedy still — it still makes me really happy. ... And it's the one thing I'm so good at. ... I've worked so hard, I've worked so many hours, to make sure that when you're there ... you are hopefully forgetting every bit of your troubles. That's my goal every night. Hopefully, at some point in my act, you have forgotten whatever trouble you had when you came in. "