Comic Louie Anderson has had a hugely successful stand-up career for the past 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 standout 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 OA [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 showoff.
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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I'm seeing comic Louie Anderson in a new way, and it's not just because he's wearing a dress. Anderson co-stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets," playing the mother of Zach Galifianakis' character. I've gone back and listened to his standup comedy and hear how even though he's considered a family-friendly comic, his comedy comes from a very dark place. He grew up in a housing project in St. Paul, Minn., with an alcoholic father and 10 siblings. He considers food his drug, and he's been told many times by doctors that he has to lose weight. He came very close to shooting himself in the head some years ago before he was supposed to go on stage. We'll talk about all that later.
Let's start by hearing him in "Baskets." We're going to hear two short scenes that show different sides of his character, Christine Baskets, the mother of Chip Baskets. Chip is an aspiring clown who's always been something of a loser and is a bitter, angry guy. Christine lives alone and deals with her frustrations by eating. She can be very critical of her son, Chip, but she can also be his biggest supporter. Chip didn't tell his mother that he got married to a French woman. When the mother finds out, she invites her new daughter-in-law, Penelope, played by Sabina Sciubba, on a trip to one of Christine's favorite places - Costco. Here's Louie Anderson.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
LOUIE ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, look at this. Oh, that's perfect for you. I'm going to get one, too. Oh, I love this place. I'd love to get lost in here. Wouldn't it be something? Do you have this in France?
SABINA SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) Not yet.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, I didn't think so. Oh, acid reducer - this stuff is a lifesaver. Do you have multi-packs in France?
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) I don't think we take so much medication in France like you do.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, well, that's a shame. Oh, cheese balls - it's the only thing Chip would eat as a child. I got tired of fighting him on it. I gave them to him for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) (Unintelligible).
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, he blew up, but I helped him get the weight off. I always supported Chip. He needed more attention than other kids, but I always supported him, even during this clowning phase. It's hard being a good mother. I mean, $1.50 for a quarter-pound hotdog and a drink. Tres bien, right?
GROSS: While spending the day together, Christine discovers that Penelope married her son, Chip, only to get a green card and that Penelope and Chip don't even live together. Here's Christine, played by Louie Anderson, driving her daughter-in-law, Penelope, back to Penelope's apartment after dinner.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Well, then, thank you so much for buying dinner.
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) It's nothing. Thank you very much for the tour of (unintelligible).
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Sure thing. Well, I'll wait here. You get your stuff.
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) What stuff?
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) All your stuff. We're going to head to the airport. I have a direct flight to Paris for you. I got it on Icelandair. I got a very good deal. Of course, all my miles are on Southwest, but you can't pass up a bargain.
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) What are you talking about, Madame Basket?
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Well, I had a conversation with your father, Monsieur Herbert. I guess I wasn't the only one in the dark on the marriage. He said for me to tell you this - if you're not on that flight, you can kiss your trust fund goodbye. Those were his words. He spoke very good English.
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) I'm sorry.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) I'm not as simple as you think I am, dear. Here you go. There there now. Take your time, then get your things.
GROSS: Louie Anderson, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on your performance in "Baskets."
ANDERSON: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Now, Zach Galifianakis told us that when he was casting the part of the mother - the part that you play - he heard a voice in his head and he did that voice for Louis C.K. who produces "Baskets." And Louis C.K. said, oh, you mean like Louie Anderson's voice. So they decided, well, why not call Louie Anderson? So they called you. Did you have any reservations about whether you could convincingly play a woman?
ANDERSON: No. Unfortunately, I did not. I grew up with a really great, strong woman in my mother of 11 children and five wonderful sisters. And so I didn't have any - and I'd been doing my mom's act, her voice, to some degree in my act for, you know, several years.
GROSS: What's the difference between your voice and your mom was?
ANDERSON: Well, my voice is - you know the voice I'm speaking to you in and my mom's voice is (imitating mom's voice) Terry Gross, huh? Now, what is that? Is that Irish - Gross? Is that Irish or are you - is it British?
That would be more my mom. Terry, I've always liked that name - my mom was never without a compliment.
GROSS: (Laughter) Whether she meant it or not.
ANDERSON: I think she meant it. She loved people and she loved conversation and she loved to engage with people. She was a really fantastic person. You would've really liked her.
GROSS: What other qualities did you take from your mother to give to your character of the mother in "Baskets?"
ANDERSON: Well, she was a little passive-aggressive, you know, like in that - those scenes that you played - isn't this something? You don't have this in France, you know, that little side - she just could slide stuff in and you'd go, did I just get cut by a really sharp razor? Mom, what did - you know, she just had that - she had that thing. She was a little competitive, but she loved to show off. She was a show-off. I really love playing this part for a big reason that my mom gets to come to life. It's the weirdest thing. When you get a wig - when that wig and the makeup comes on - you know, I work on the transformation, I think, while I'm getting dressed.
GROSS: Yeah, what about the dresses? You wear these, like, big dresses with large, bold, primary color patterns, you know, caftans, long necklaces, an Easter bonnet in one scene. How do wearing those clothes help you get into character and who do those clothes remind you of?
ANDERSON: Well, the first day that I went in to see the clothes, it was early, early on. We were all going to meet and do a group photo I think it was. And there was a big wall of clothes, and I just went through it. And I go this would be good, this would be good, and I just thought of my mom and my sisters. I said this'll be good. I said that's out, nothing like that. They have to be really colorful. Make them enter the room sometimes before the - I will. You know, make them what a person who hasn't got a lot of money thinks is really fancy. Make it real American. Make her a big American woman. And I have to tell you, it was kind of - even though I never dressed up in my mom's clothes or never had any real desire to put it on, I always remember how soft her clothes were. You know, my mom always had soft, like, a lot of jersey knits and my mom was ahead of her time. She wore pantsuits, and she goes, you know what I like about a pantsuit, Louie? And I go, what, Mom? I just look so good in it.
GROSS: (Laughter) Was she a plus-sized woman?
ANDERSON: She was. She was a big girl.
GROSS: And there's a scene - after she's kind of spurned by her adopted twins, she takes to her room with, like, a tub of ice cream and a big scoop and is eating it lying on her side, eating it from the scoop. And it...
ANDERSON: Now, that would've never been my mom. I've done that. I'm a food addict. You know, I go to OA and I really work hard on trying to eat better, especially lately. I've been really working hard on it. And so I know what that's like. When you're really down, if you're any kind of an addicted person, you are not eating for flavor and you're not eating for - you're eating for some comfort that can never come from what you're doing. There's no comfort that could actually come from it. But there is a familiarity that I think comes with it. So it was really a sad scene, but I really think that the scene was really important to show her disappointment with - you know, when you go out on a limb and pretty much put those kids above everybody else in the family and then they just kind of blow you off, it's a big blow to her.
GROSS: Did you and your mother bond over eating together?
ANDERSON: Well, my dad was an alcoholic, and he was a really mean and, you know, could be very vicious. And so with anybody who's grown up with an alcoholic knows that there's usually a fight to bring everything to a head in an alcoholic family where, you know, 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. And then I created a character on stage that had a lot to do with being fat and so I've really - I really boxed myself in a lot, and I'm really aware of it.
GROSS: You think that you boxed yourself in - were you referring to your persona as a heavy person?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I - and I would never play those parts in movies, so I was kind of limited. And I wasn't a very good actor early on. I was a terrible actor 'cause I didn't know who I was or how to do it, you know? But I feel like this part gave me an opportunity to play the most real person - a really real person. That's what I was really going for here, Terry. I was really going for a really real person. I don't know if that even makes any sense...
GROSS: No, it does. That's what I love about your portrayal. It's, like - it's funny but it's also sad because she's sad a lot of the time and feels, you know, rejected and lonely. But it's never, like, pathos, you know?
ANDERSON: I think a lot of women are sad.
GROSS: Well, I think a lot of everybody is sad (laughter).
ANDERSON: Yes, but I mean - but, yes, I agree that a lot of everybody is sad. But, you know, this whole thing about raising all the kids, you know, so much - I remember my dad would work and my mom raised the kids. And it was a weird - like, it was a much - it was very lopsided in one sense, you know? And I even - I figured that out early on, you know, 'cause I think my mom, all she did was wash clothes and put them in the dryer and then fed us and then, you know, washed clothes and put them in the - you know, it was just very...
GROSS: Yeah, 11 kids. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Louie Anderson, who co-stars in the new FX series "Baskets" as Zach Galifianakis' mother. We're going to take a short break here and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Louie Anderson. He costars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets" as Zach Galifianakis' mother.
I was very sorry to hear about your brother Tommy, who died last week in his sleep. And this was, like, your youngest sibling. You had been the youngest of ten - then he was born, he was the youngest.
ANDERSON: No he was - yeah. I was the youngest of ten and he was...
GROSS: It sounds like his death was totally unexpected. You've described him as your inspiration. In what sense was he that?
ANDERSON: Well, you know, like, he was my - such a good friend. And, you know, he was really smart. He was the kind of guy you could call up and go, what you think? He'd go, ah, that's all crap; that's all bull; don't do that; that's no good. You know, like, he was just that kind of guy. He had a thing we called the truth ranger where he goes, everybody should tell the truth as long as it doesn't hurt anyone's feelings. And I just laughed, and I'd go, Tommy, you're so sweet. Of course it's going to hurt people's feelings if you always tell them the truth. Well, you know, you just don't know how to tell them the truth, then, Louie. And I'd go, maybe not. But it broke my heart. My heart's completely broken right now.
GROSS: When you did comedy about him...
GROSS: ...Did you run it past him first? And if so, what...
ANDERSON: No, I never did. But people didn't - my family didn't get mad. I didn't even know I had to run it by him. Do you know what I mean? I regret some of the books that I wrote 'cause I think I hurt people's feelings. And I forgot one thing. One thing to remember when you're successful, famous, whatever you want to call it - well-known, not that well-known - whatever you want to go. One thing to remember is your family's not famous. And they're not well-known. And even though you can handle it, that doesn't mean they can. And that's the biggest regret that I have. I should never - I should have run it all by them. And yes, they all read it before I ever published anything, but still, I didn't realize - you know what I mean? Like, I'm in show business. I've always been in show business. I kind of know how it works. Well, they're my sibling, but they're not in show business.
GROSS: Well, one of the things you've joked about about your younger brother is that you used to torment him.
ANDERSON: I mean, I used to tell him he was adopted. I said, you were adopted. And I used to say they were frog-face people - pretty soon, your eyes are going to pop out.
GROSS: (Laughter) How old were you when you stopped tormenting him?
ANDERSON: Just before he died.
ANDERSON: (Laughter) He'd like that. I think there was always a little bit of a - like, Tommy used to get really mad at me if I interrupted him. Tommy was a very really precise person. And he suffered from, you know, some bipolar stuff and those kind of things and a little bit of paranoia. And he didn't have an easy life. He had a tough life. And he lived on the streets for many years. And finally - you know, I always would take care of him if I could. And finally I said, Tommy, I'm not going to - you've got to get it together. I'm not going to help you anymore. You're just being unreasonable. And that was with some advice from a good friend because I was at my wit's end. My good friend said, listen, he's got to hit bottom, and then he'll be able to deal with it. And it was really good. It was good advice because he did. He said, Louie, I need your help. He said, when he asks for your help, then you'll be of use. He said, Louie, I need your help. And I said, Tommy, you know - you know what you should do, Tommy? Your sisters could really use your help. I think you should move back home and take care of your sisters. I think they could really use your help. And so like five or six years ago, he moved back to Minnesota and he really did - he took care of my sister, one sister, until she passed away - and my other sisters - and he really helped. And we had a service for him Sunday and people talked about how much that he had done for them. And it was really - I was really touched by how many people loved Tommy. I thought I was the only one who loved him that much. But of course, my whole family loved him. And we're going to miss him.
GROSS: Does having a younger brother who died - and you're around 63, he was 60 - has that made you think a lot about your own mortality?
ANDERSON: You know, it's so funny. Like, 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. You know what I mean? Like, I came from my mom. She died. I can't believe she died. It was, you know, very devastating. I couldn't believe my mom died. It's like, oh, my mom died. When I lost my dad - you know, my dad was a really bad drunk but a really funny guy, and he stuck with us, and he stayed. My mom - I'll never forget. My dad quit drinking when was 69, and here was my mom's response. She turned to me and she said, I told you he'd quit drinking.
ANDERSON: And I just said that - and, you know, that's who the character Christine is, don't you think? Don't you think that in a nutshell that that's Christine?
ANDERSON: Finding a silver lining - and, you know, it just - that was really profound. I didn't even realize it when she said it.
GROSS: So if your brother's death has you thinking about mortality, where is that leading you?
ANDERSON: I have to be locked in a cage, Terry, for 23 hours a day...
ANDERSON: ...And fed small amounts of food. I mean, really, I can't be trusted around food. I mean, I've been eating really good for four weeks. I started this thing four weeks ago 'cause I saw the show and I said, you're really big, Louie; you're really much bigger than you're looking at your mirror and seeing. And then some other people in TV told me they were worried about me. And so that always makes you feel like, OK, OK, OK. And so the last four weeks I've been eating healthier. And I didn't weigh myself until just the other day, and I'd lost 10 pounds. And I was disappointed that I had only lost 10 pounds. And I had to deal with that - to really talk to myself about that - because that's really - that's perfect - about two and a half pounds week. You know, that's a really good thing. So I have to keep that in mind.
GROSS: You know, you were saying mental illness runs in your family. And your thing, I think, was maybe depression.
ANDERSON: Yeah, I'd say depression. I definitely think that.
GROSS: So depression always seems to go hand-in-hand with comedy. You know, I think most comics, you know, have either some kind of, like, bipolar or depression disorder. And I'm not sure why they go together, but they do. So maybe you have some idea.
ANDERSON: Yeah, I mean, I think the reason that they go together is because, you know, 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.
GROSS: And is that helpful...
ANDERSON: I tried to kill...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
ANDERSON: Well, I mean, I tried to kill myself but the rope broke. That would be a joke that I could probably do and get a laugh on it.
GROSS: Well, well...
ANDERSON: I mean, I have to be very careful about how I do any stuff on sadness 'cause the crowd gets really sad and concerned for me. So I try to - you know, I used to do this joke, which is really - and, you know, I'm going to take a risk and tell this joke. I used to do a joke - I'd go, how about - I read a thing where this guy killed his whole family. I go, I'm surprised I don't read that every day. I mean, I don't think you start out where you're going to kill the whole family, but the rush of the first one must carry you all the way through to the end.
ANDERSON: (Laughter) But it was too dark for my audience.
GROSS: My guest is comic Louie Anderson. He costars as the mother in the FX comedy series "Baskets." After we take a short break, we'll talk more about comedy and about some tough choices he's thinking through right now. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic Louie Anderson. He co-stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets" playing the mother of the rodeo clown played by Zach Galifianakis. Anderson's portrayal of the mother draws from his memories of his own mother. His standup comedy, which he's kept family-friendly, often draws on memories of his childhood, growing up with 10 siblings and an alcoholic father. He says there's a history of mental illness in his family and he's dealt with depression.
In reading your books - 'cause you have, like, at least three books that have a lot of memoir to them - and, you know, in listening to your comedy, I keep getting the impression that you have parts of your humor that are too dark for your audience and that, you know, maybe there are things you'd be saying to a different audience that you wouldn't say to yours.
ANDERSON: You know, I'm at this precipice right now that I feel like I'll be changing myself on stage just because I'm 63-ish (laughter). I don't even know how old I am. I think I'm 62. It doesn't really register. I don't know how old you are, Terry, but does it register with you? Like, I don't ever think - like, if somebody were to say I'm 62, I'd go I am not.
ANDERSON: You know, in my eyes as 62 that's, like, you know, Walter Brennan.
ANDERSON: That's an old reference, but you know what I mean. It's...
GROSS: So how does being 62 or 63 relate to this perhaps turning point in your comedy? Do you feel like there's...
ANDERSON: I could be an alternative comic. I could be that really dark - I was - I was a very dark comic to begin with. I could be that guy and the only reason I didn't is that I wanted to make money. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be liked more than I wanted to be admired. Does that make any sense?
ANDERSON: You know, and I - my mom and my family would - you know, I was trying to - that was my audience. I really - I think I've always been trying to heal families and here's why. I did a cartoon about my family. All my specials are about my family and I wrote all that stuff with the intent that you, Terry, and your children, if you have any, and your parents could sit in a room and all get something out of the performance or the jokes or whatever. That was my goal. But I think the world's changed a little. I mean, I think I could go to another level but I don't know - you know, what am I going to - am I going to betray my audience? Is that a betrayal, you know?
GROSS: Well, you have to allow yourself to grow as a performer if that's what you want to d to change. I think performers shouldn't let audiences hold them back from becoming the artist that they're ready to be.
ANDERSON: But, you know, you get so much criticism from it. You know that, right?
ANDERSON: I mean, you know, the press is relentless, but your fans are mad at you.
ANDERSON: But, I mean, you do have to take that chance. I mean, I'm not afraid to do it.
GROSS: Well, let's talk about something that's happened to you or that you did nearly to yourself and how that either could or could not become something that you'd use on stage. You tell a story in one of your books about how you were in your dressing room backstage before a performance. You had a gun. You put it to your head and you were very serious about pulling the trigger. You though first about something you'd seen on TV in which an expert explained that if you shoot yourself in the wrong part of your head you might survive and then just be brain damaged, which would be worst-case scenario. So you tried to do it, you know, place it in the right spot and then you thought, oh, I don't want to leave a mess, so you got a towel. And then you decided not to pull the trigger and you went on stage, and it went really well. The audience liked it. You felt better about being alive after that. So - OK, so that's a kind of near suicide story. Has that made it on stage into one of your performances?
ANDERSON: No, no, but here's what I'll say to you. I never even thought of it as a thing. But, you know, I could do it. You're exactly right. I could do it in a second. It would be funny. That whole experience was I didn't want anyone to find me. That really was the - the thing is I didn't want that to be their last memory of me.
ANDERSON: You know, that was another big part of it, you know? So you're right. That could be - I mean, you know, I did a dark joke for a while. I go I was - I was going to kill myself, but I just thought I would just eat myself to death (laughter) but nobody ever laughed, Terry. I couldn't get people to laugh because it was too dark, don't you think?
GROSS: I think you have to see it as adding an audience as opposed to adding and taking away. Like, you can - you could do something different without betraying, I think, without betraying...
ANDERSON: You can, Terry? So, Terry...
GROSS: What do I know? What do I know?
ANDERSON: No, I'm going to turn the tables on you.
ANDERSON: Will you allow me?
ANDERSON: OK, Terry.
ANDERSON: What is it are you doing exactly - always have you done - has your road been this road that you're on with...
GROSS: I've been doing shows like this, like, my whole adult life.
ANDERSON: And this is what you've always wanted. You never wanted to get on a show where you just let it fly and just go (growling).
GROSS: It would be really out of character to do that.
ANDERSON: It would be, so there's nothing in you - there's nothing in you that you're not - that you need to do in that area.
GROSS: Yeah, I feel like my person on the air is being true to myself.
ANDERSON: So do people think - 'cause, you know, you're not the first person to be mentioning this stuff to me - so do people think I'm a wimp? And I don't mean that in a mean way. But do people think I'm too sweet and too nice, there's a dark thing that should be explored and that I should lay it all out there?
GROSS: I don't know what people think. I think that there's an...
ANDERSON: Well, you brought it up. You brought it up.
GROSS: Yeah, I think that there's maybe an edge in your humor that you're protecting your audience from.
ANDERSON: Don't you think they see it, Terry?
GROSS: Probably, it's probably true.
ANDERSON: You know, like, don't you think they probably think he has a knife, but I don't necessarily want to see it?
GROSS: Yeah, I get that. I get that. Yeah.
ANDERSON: Do you think that - I mean...
GROSS: That's a really interesting way to put it. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Louie Anderson. And now you can see him on the FX series - comedy series "Baskets" playing Zach Galifianakis' mother. It's a terrific role. So we'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Louie Anderson. He's a famous comic who is now making a name for himself in a performance that he's giving as Zach Galifianakis's mother in the FX comedy series "Baskets." Zach Galifianakis plays an aspiring clown who's trapped in a job as a rodeo clown, and his mother is a really interesting character, who - the portrayal is based in part on Louie Anderson's actual mother.
So one of the things I learned about your father is that when he was courting your mother, he was a trumpeter and he played in Hoagy Carmichael's band. Wow.
ANDERSON: Yeah, like, I mean - yeah. I mean, he was a great musician. My dad was a famous musician - I mean, in those standards. You know, he recorded - I mean, to work with Hoagy Car - that's a - he was a hell of a trumpet and cornet player. And I never got experience any of it, yeah.
GROSS: So did he play music in the house? I realized you never heard him play trumpet, but what about playing...
ANDERSON: I never - yeah, he'd play ukulele and he'd play harmonica. And when I was opening for Crosby, Stills and Nash one time at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis (unintelligible), security came back and said, there's a guy who used to take trumpet lessons from your dad. I said, send him back. I talked to him a long time. I go, well, what kind of guy was my dad? Well, you know, he was a tough - he was a tough teacher. I go, yeah, you got that right. And he gave me a poster, and it's the only poster we had, ever. And it said Louie Anderson and his orchestra, and it was a woodcut poster and it looked just like one of my posters from the '80s. And I was just like, oh, I really am a lot like my dad (laughter). I mean, I really, you know, was - I've been in lots of the same theaters that he probably played in.
GROSS: Was he alive when you started performing and when you got successful?
ANDERSON: Yeah, he saw my very first show, and the next day he had a stroke, which was really upsetting to me.
GROSS: Oh, gee.
ANDERSON: But he had lots of strokes - like, 20 or 30 strokes. My dad was a really tough guy.
ANDERSON: We finally had to kill him.
ANDERSON: That was a joke...
GROSS: Right, I - yes.
ANDERSON: ...I've done. I think I used to do, my dad smoked, he drank, we finally had to kill him.
ANDERSON: The joke - the whole joke is, my mom ate every piece of butter in the Midwest, she lived till she was 90. And my dad, he smoked, he drank - we finally just had to kill him.
ANDERSON: That was the whole joke (laughter).
GROSS: Did he feel like you were fulfilling his dreams by actually having a showbiz career?
ANDERSON: I think he was the kind of guy who'd fight somebody and then we'd go to the store and he'd pick up an extra bag of groceries and we'd put them on somebody's steps 'cause they were struggling. He was two guys.
GROSS: So there's the guy who did bad and the guy who came in and apologized for it.
ANDERSON: Yeah. Alcoholism, you know, all addictions, all that stuff - you know, my dad - when my dad was a kid, his mom and dad, you know, were very - my grandfather has 72, I think, inventions that he sold. We would've been really rich. You know, like the switch on the train tracks that switches it from one track to the other, the sliding thing that you slide your door - the big door out to the patio - he invented all that stuff and sold them. And then they would go on drunks across the country, him and his wife. And they would leave the kids, and one of the times they went, there was a murder by a Swedish gang in the house in Frazee, Minn. And the kids were taken away from my grandparents. And my dad and my dad's sister were put up for adoption. And what that means, you probably know, Terry, but people don't know it. You were put up in front of the congregation and people would pick your kids. They could pick them and take them to their farm and have another farmhand. And my dad and his sister were split up, and my dad never got over that. He never recovered from that. And then you'd live in a different part of the house in another city...
GROSS: Well, it sounded like your father was treated more like a servant than a child.
ANDERSON: Yeah, he was treated more like a servant. He took me to house one time in Northfield, Minn. He said, you see that window? I go, yeah. He said, they used to wonder why it got rusty. He says, I used to pee out of it to get back at them. I said, good one, Dad.
GROSS: So he had a hard life, yeah.
ANDERSON: And then at 15 he made them sign a paper so he could join the first World War. And then he learned how to play the bugle, and that's how he taught himself the trumpet.
GROSS: Oh, wow.
ANDERSON: And then...
GROSS: But you didn't find out about this until later in life.
ANDERSON: After he died.
GROSS: Yeah. So you must've been shocked to find out that there was this big secret - there were so many secrets in your family. You're supposed to keep it secret that your father drank. He kept secret from you that he was put up for adoption...
ANDERSON: I don't think secrets as much as just it wasn't - nothing was talked about like that. Do you know what I mean? I don't think they hid it away 'cause when my dad was going through radiation for his prostate cancer, I was with him and he spilled his guts to an attendant who was doing all that. He told all this stuff and I go, Jesus, I'm right here, Dad. You never told me any of this. You're telling some stranger.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing. Sometimes it's easier to tell secrets to a stranger.
ANDERSON: Much easier, yeah.
GROSS: So, like, on the subject of secrets - years ago you were blackmailed by somebody who said you'd propositioned him.
GROSS: He blackmailed you for $100,000 or else he threatened to go to the tabloids. I think you paid him that and then he asked you for, like, a quarter of a million dollars and you said, you know, forget it. And you went to the police or FBI or whoever. He was arrested and that was the end of that. But just given the fact that secrets had a really - pretty big place in your family - they do in most families, but maybe a bigger place in your family than in most. The thought of being blackmailed for, you know, threatened to go into the tabloids with the secret, that must have been just horrifying.
ANDERSON: You know, I mean, this was the weirdest thing 'cause what happened was really, like, nothing and just the fact that that proposition happened and then to have somebody do that to you was just so left-field. And then I thought, I'm not going to do this. I'm not going to do this anymore. I'm not going to let somebody exploit me like this. And, you know, it hurt me because it really did hurt my career. I didn't get a lot of business in certain areas for a while - corporates. But I'm glad I did it 'cause I felt like I did the right thing. And, you know, I've always kept my personal life really personal. I've always wanted to and I think it's OK for people to do it, you know? And so - but I didn't talk a lot about it, but I didn't - you know, I knew what was going to happen. And I just said, yeah, it happened and that's it.
And I was surprised. You know, you really find out a lot by who calls you when you go through stuff like that, you know, like other celebrities. And it was really nice to get some calls from, like, Jay Leno and Bob Costas - you know, people who - I go, huh, Bob Costas and Jay Leno called me, you know, to say, hey, man, sorry.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Louie Anderson, and he co-stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets" playing Zach Galifianakis' mother. We're going to take a short break here and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Louie Anderson. He co-stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets." He plays the mother of the character portrayed by Zach Galifianakis.
What was the comedy scene like when were just getting started? And where did you see yourself...
GROSS: ...Fitting in? Like, how did you find your place within it?
ANDERSON: Well, I mean, there are two comedy scenes - one in Minneapolis, where I started. So there were only, like, a handful of us. So we'd do the show and you could do as much time as you want 'cause we only had six, seven people. So it was, like, an hour and a half show. Nobody had too much material, you know? And then we were smart. We had a little club and whenever anyone famous was in town, we invited them down - Joan Rivers, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield. And that's where I became friends with Joan and Rodney. They both told me I should go to East or West Coast and become successful. They were both very nice. And I stayed friends with both of them until their deaths.
But I was on stage one night and I was doing jokes and I go, is that your dad to a kid sitting with a guy. He goes, yeah. I go, he seems like a nice dad. Do you guys get along? He goes, yeah. And then that was the first time I did, yeah, my dad never hit us either, but he carried a gun and then I did that joke. Never shot us - he'd just go (imitating gun clicks) you know, and that got the biggest laugh of anything I'd ever done. And it got a different kind of laugh, like a, oh, and it opened something up in me. And I started mining my family stuff right then. I just started digging. And then I came off stage and a guy named Roman DeCare - God rest his soul - he was a - he was a shriner and he played a little harmonica. And he told really silly jokes. He'd hit a bad note on the little, tiny harmonica and then he'd pull out of his hand rubber pickle. He'd go, oh, that's a sour note. And then he'd do these really dumb - but we loved him. He was a very sweet guy. And I came off stage and he said (imitating Roman Decare) Louie - he'd talk like this - Louie, if you did that material about your family and you had a completely clean act, you'll become famous.
And, you know, I was listening to him. And I just said, really? You know, I was - you know, I was looking for somebody to tell me something. I didn't know. I just wanted to, you know, be successful. And then in 1981, I moved out to Los Angeles and for two years I auditioned for "The Tonight Show" and finally got it and - you know, with Howie and Robin and Roseanne...
GROSS: It was in the Johnny Carson era.
ANDERSON: Yeah, this is - this is the big time. This is the HBO babies, you know, in comedy, all those guys. We all did specials, you know, Jim Carrey and Sam Kinison, Rita Rudner. And they were all there, you know? And that's what kind of - you know, I wasn't like anyone else. And I never had to - I never felt competitive, you know? I only had a few goals. I wanted to have my name on the comedy star. I wanted to get on "The Tonight Show" and I wanted to host my own talk show.
GROSS: Which is your podcast, I guess.
ANDERSON: No, I hosted "The Joan Rivers Show" for a week when she - when Edgar died...
GROSS: Oh, oh, OK.
ANDERSON: ...When Edgar died, so I felt like - and then at the end of that week I go I could never do this. The actors and actresses are too boring.
GROSS: (Laughter) Really, was that your conclusion?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I just said, oh, this would be so arduous 'cause, you know, I would sit there and they'd have nothing. You know, comedians, but I just said - it just didn't - it didn't like - it was no longer the thing I felt like I needed to do.
GROSS: So we've spent a lot of time talking about growing up in a really big family - 11 kids in your family. So having grown up in such a big family and with a lot of issues in the family from mental illness to your father's alcoholism - even though you've kept close to your family through both your comedy and through, I think, being close to the surviving members of your family, did you also want to get away from family? And did you ever want to create a big family of your own or did you feel like I've done that (laughter) I don't want that?
ANDERSON: First of all, I did want to get away but only in that any big family, you want - you want your own stake in life. You want your own space. And you know, when you grow up in a big family, you - of 11, with a 20-year span in age... You know, I wanted to find my family but not necessarily have a family - 'cause 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. And I think - I mean, I shouldn't say a lot of comics are. I just am. I'll just take it all on myself. And 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. And I would be a great parent for about 10 minutes a day. You know, oh, you're going to school. Go. Have some fun. But, you know, I wouldn't - I don't think - I think I'm a much - I'm a much better, you know, friend and uncle and, you know, cousin and brother and, you know, that kind of thing. But I don't think I would have been a good parent. I mean, I'm gone all the time. I like to travel. I love to do standup comedy still. It still makes me really happy. And I'm really - I just think I - it's the one thing I'm so good at that I go, you're good at this, Louie; good job. I've worked so hard. I've worked so many hours to make sure that when you're there, you are not burdened with this performance. 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.
GROSS: So you turning difficult things into comedy will help me in my life. Does it help you in your life? I mean, when you see the joke...
GROSS: In something terrible that's happened, is that helpful to you?
ANDERSON: Yeah because, you know, like - I sat in my brother - I went to his apartment. It was really hard after he died. I sat where he sat, you know, and all the tragedy that I felt when I first got there - there was a peace that came over me. And I'll tell you, I was searching for Tommy's playlist because he had a really great playlist of classic rock music. And I said, Tommy, you have such good music. He goes, you know where I got it, right? And I go, no. I kept your album collection when you left. And it was all my songs. And I wanted to get them so we could play them at the service, the celebration. And I looked over to the left, and there was a little MP3 player. And I opened it up, and it said, music. And so it was just like, thanks, Tom. And so as much as I miss Tom, his life was complete in so many ways. And so when I used to be - it was such a labor when I would lose somebody, and I would agonize over it and feel guilty and did I do enough? I did as much as I could in all those situations, as much as I was able to do. And I really do encourage people. You have to not worry or doubt or punish yourself. All the worry, doubt and punishment will not add one second to your life, you know? Let it go. Let those things go, and find the humor in wherever you can. When I first became really successful, I did "The Tonight Show." And I had the biggest - a big "Tonight Show," in terms of, you know, Johnny's response, you know? And the Comedy Cellar had a party for me. And I was really in my - I was in heaven. I was in heaven. And I was really full of myself. It was really funny. It was - you know, I can even look back at it and laugh. And I was saying, hey, I am the greatest... And a guy comes up to me and goes, are you Louie Anderson? And I go, I am. And I put my hand out to meet him. And he goes, I don't want to meet you. Could you move your car?
ANDERSON: And it happened twice to me that night. My karma's so immediate.
GROSS: Louie Anderson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.
ANDERSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Congratulations on your performance in "Baskets." And my sympathies. I'm so sorry about your brother, Tom.
ANDERSON: Thank you. Thank you. I'm going to send you about 50 of his flashlights that we found.
ANDERSON: We found over - we found, honestly, over a hundred flashlights just in one little area. And I go, what was he...
GROSS: Oh, gosh - was he a hoarder?
ANDERSON: You know what I always say about my family? We were packrats. We weren't hoarders because we have aisles.
GROSS: Louie Anderson costars in the FX comedy series "Baskets," playing the role of the mother. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk about lead, why it was used in pipes, paint and gasoline, how it came to be regulated and who's being exposed to lead today in addition to the people of Flint. Our guests will be historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, authors of the book, "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.