Louie Anderson is a living legend. With a career spanning forty years, Anderson boasts a résumé that includes three Emmys, numerous film and television appearances, late-night talk show comedy sets, and comedy specials, in addition to multiple producing and writing credits.
The comedian is celebrating a new chapter in his lively career with the release of his book Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, a collection of letters to his late mother, Ora Zella Anderson, who remains one of his biggest inspirations.
Throughout the years, Anderson — whether while hosting Family Feud or on his Nineties animated series, Life With Louie — has done vocal impressions of his entire family. Most recently, Anderson channeled his mom to win an Emmy for the role of Zach Galifianakis’s mother on the FX comedy Baskets. Anderson shines while playing Mrs. Baskets, a Midwestern older woman who adores Costco, buffets, and everything conventional.
Anderson just released a comedy special, Big Underwear. He sat down to speak with the Voice in New York City while on his book tour and fresh off an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Anderson, who recently headlined a show at the Cutting Room in midtown, reflected on a life in comedy, and gave some advice based on what he’s learned during his decades in the business.
How are you feeling today?
Well, you get on these jags, and you just talk about yourself, and you try to make sense of what you’re talking about. Hopefully you’re answering the questions. And it’s 5:45 in the morning, and then it’s 6, and then it’s 6:30, and then 7:30 and then 9, and then 11, 1, and now here we are at 2:30. And you think, “Can I still say anything that I don’t know? Is there anything interesting?”
But you know, you just do your thing. And I try to pay homage to my mom, and the book, and the interview process, in which it is really important to stay present.
What made your mom laugh?
She made, like, absurdity, rather than to get mad. Let’s say you drove around for a half-hour to get a parking spot. And you couldn’t get one close. And then you’d park somewhere. And as you’re walking up to the front, there would be a parking spot that would open up. And you’d have to make the decision, do I go get the car — and you hold the spot? I think that was the kinda stuff that made her laugh.
So sorta like physical comedy?
Maybe “absurdity” is not the right word. She loved silliness. She loved a good joke.
When you were growing up with all your siblings, was there a competition for laughs? Was humor something important in your home?
My brother Roger was much funnier than everybody else. So, there was really no competition. And I really wasn’t developed as a comic then. And I didn’t really have a sense that I was gonna be a comic, or be funny. But people would laugh when I talked, and I would go, “Huh!” I’m being serious, but they would laugh.
I think I had a funny way of saying things, even as a kid.
When did you know that you were a comedian?
Not until October 10, 1978, when I first went onstage. I did it on a dare. I mean, I always thought I was funny because people would always laugh when I talked, but that was the first time I prepared some jokes and went onstage. And it was only gonna be a one-time thing. I wasn’t trying to become a comedian.
Where was that?
It was just a little club called Mickey Finn’s in northeast Minneapolis, and it was open mic night. I showed up, and I went on, and all my family and friends were there, so it felt like I did really well. It was gonna be a one-time thing, and here I am — forty years later — still doing it.
I feel like maybe you lucked out. Do you think if you bombed that night you would’ve gone back?
Good point. I dunno. It would’ve been a terrible experience. I probably wouldn’t have. But, you know, is it luck, or was this all the plan? Do you sometimes feel like you’re in a plan, and you wish you knew what the next move was?
So, I dunno. That’s a good question, though. I think I was supposed to be where I am right now.
What does it mean to be successful?
I guess what marks success is being able to produce something that you created. In this case, success for each person is different, but for me, it’s being able to accomplish a goal, like writing a book, and having the book be either well-received, or well-written — or both — and have it work! Have it be something I can be proud of.
It seems like you like to stay busy. Can you just talk a little bit about your schedule?
I do like my time off. I can just lay around, and watch TV, and play a little golf, and read a little, and write a little. When I get into a groove, I like going and working for a couple of weeks, maybe even a month. I’ve had kind of a big stretch of working lately.
And then, in the middle of this whole book tour, I realized that I’m gonna be changing what I’m doing. I can feel it. What am I doing? What should I be doing? And where am I going next? And I have a glimpse of it from doing the book. ’Cause in the book, I touch on some serious, important things to me that I really want to make happen.
I think my next thing is to give back by trying to help people who need help, or need comfort, or need some sort of assistance. I think that’s my journey.
Do you feel like you’ve always been a giver?
No. I think that I was selfish, and a “taker” at some point in my life. Probably not as much as I have put on myself at times.
I think at the end of the day, I come from a family, like, if you had $3, you would give people $2 if they needed money — or maybe even the whole $3. Because you would realize the $3 would make such a difference for them.
What is something that you can only learn after years of doing comedy?
Well, first of all, you can only learn comedy by doing comedy. You can’t practice and become a good comedian. You have to go up, and have success, and failures. You learn on the fly. Stand-up is, like, the most interesting thing, because even after forty years I still work on certain jokes to make ’em better.
Because underneath every joke is a better joke.
And most people don’t ever go for the better joke. But people who are successful comedians go for the better joke. And then the better joke under that, because they want to have something significant. They want it to mean something to them.
When do you know a joke is expired?
When people don’t laugh anymore. When people go, “Unnnnhhhh.”
But do you think that sometimes it’s the audience?
Hardly ever. I think it’s always the performance. Even a bad audience will laugh at a good joke.
What do you want the audience to take away from seeing you?
All the trash that they brought in.
I want them to be walking out mumbling about their family. Or something I said that resonated with them.
When I get home from a good show — be it a movie, or live show, or stand-up, or music — I’m either singin’ the song, or sayin’ the lines from the play. Or if I’m at a stand-up thing, I’m laughing about the thing and reminiscing.
If I talk about family, I want them to be walking out thinking about their family.
When I think of you, you’re just so polite. Can you give any advice to young people in show business that they might appreciate?
The best advice I could give somebody who’s doing stand-up, or in show business at all, is, first of all, get your eye on the prize that you’re going for. I wanted to get my name on the Comedy Store marquee, I wanted to do The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and I wanted to be a host of a talk show.
I kept my eyes on those things, and I got to do all of them. I filled in for Joan Rivers for a week once. Then I knew exactly what it would be like to be a talk show host, so I could knock it off my list, ’cause I no longer wanted to do it — although I do think I would be a good talk show host. I’m not motivated anymore in that direction.
If your goal is to get a special, how will you get a special? Work it backwards. Let’s say you’re gonna get a comedy special. You work backwards. What did it take for that person to get that comedy special?
That’s what I could tell them. Work as hard on your comedy as you do at getting laid and getting drugs.
By the time this publishes, you will have performed at the Cutting Room, which is a special place because that was Joan Rivers’s room! Tell us what that means to you.
Of course Joan is always in my heart, and I love Joan, and I’m sorry she’s gone. But she’s always gonna be with me. She was a big influence on me, and a great, great, great joke writer. I’m going to be able to do my stand-up from my new special, Big Underwear, that’s out right now, if you wanna get it. I’m going to be able to talk about Baskets and how that part came to me, and also I’m gonna be able to reminisce about the week I’ve had promoting Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, my new book.
And then I’m going to talk about families like I always do. And I’m looking forward to it. I hear it’s a great room. I have never been there. And I’m looking forward to that.
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.