clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Saying Goodbye to Comedy’s Family Man

“Louie Anderson was pure,” Zach Galifianakis says of his former costar, who died at the age of 68 last week. He’s not the only one who felt that way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

While making Season 3 of Baskets, Louie Anderson decided that the show’s staff needed hats. He went to a mall across the street from the writers’ room, walked into a Lids, and ordered some custom baseball caps. When they were ready, he went back to the store to pick them up.

When the comedian walked in, he greeted the salesperson by name. Then they began chatting like they’d known each other for years. “He had a deep relationship with the hat guy,” says Baskets cocreator and executive producer Jonathan Krisel, who was with Anderson that day. “He and the hat guy had spent some time together.”

Anderson wasn’t actually close with the hat guy, but it felt like he was. “Every single person that he interacted with was an old friend,” Krisel says. “He gave them the time of day and wanted to make them laugh. Because he had this magic power, which is he could make anyone laugh.” It was a gift, Krisel adds, “that he shared with anyone who was in the vicinity. And it was genuine. He was thinking about that person and what would make them laugh, and what their day was like.”

The stand-up comic and actor, who died at 68 late last week of complications from cancer, wasn’t just everyone’s old friend. He was everyone’s goofy uncle, everyone’s annoying little brother, everyone’s authoritarian dad, and everyone’s overprotective mom. He could assume all of those roles because he knew each of them intimately. After all, he was the 10th of 11 kids in a Minnesota household headed by an abusive father with alcoholism and an extraordinarily bighearted mother. His comedy both mined and made sense of his difficult childhood.

“He was caring and tender,” Zach Galifianakis, Anderson’s Baskets costar, said in an emailed statement. “And you learn that his tenderness was born out of pain. Makes you love him even more.”

That specific kind of sweetness is what led the producers of the FX show, which revolves around a rodeo clown and his twin brother, to cast Anderson as Galifianakis’s mother, Christine. The performance landed him an Emmy award, though he wasn’t really playing a character at all. He was, he said in interviews, bringing his own mom, Ora Zella Anderson, back to life. “He was just so intensely tapped into people and his mother, which he was doing a performance of for Baskets,” Krisel says. “In her body.”

Anderson’s four seasons on Baskets might’ve seemed like the culmination of his career, but in reality, they were just one highlight in a life full of them. For the past 40 years, he was comedy’s most reliable family man. The hefty comic with the soothingly nasal delivery told mostly clean jokes about his parents, his siblings, his pets, his education, his home state, his weight—in a profoundly accessible way. “There was a vulnerability about him that made you want to root for him,” says Kathleen Madigan, a comedian from Missouri who used to open for Anderson. “Before I was a friend I was just a fan. And I was really attached to him. It was his Midwest perspective … pretty humble.”

Madigan’s favorite Anderson bit was his explanation for why he wouldn’t move back to Minnesota. “It’s too cold,” she says, retelling the joke. “I don’t want to live anywhere where somebody looks at you seriously and says, ‘Louie, get your good gloves.’”

Anderson may have had softer edges than some of his contemporaries, but his material was just as sharp as theirs. The signature gap in his front teeth was a window into his uniquely chaotic family, which he universalized with ease. “Louie’s stuff, it’s family,” says filmmaker Danny Bilson, who directed Anderson in The Wrong Guys, a late-’80s comedy that also featured Richard Belzer, John Goodman, Richard Lewis, and Ernie Hudson. “It’s every family.”

Whether it was making fun of his domineering father’s stubborn search for a $3 Christmas tree, remembering when his mother shot down the idea of getting a cat because “they lick the butter,” or telling stories about how his older brother tortured him with tales of swamp monsters, he managed to channel his adolescent self so vividly that young audiences new to stand-up could identify with it. During an HBO Young Comedians Special, Anderson admitted to taking the wrong lessons from his siblings. When the family’s last child was born, Louie knew what he had to do. “I got a little older, and a little smarter, and a little brother …” he deadpanned during the show, which Rodney Dangerfield hosted. “Tommy, see that swamp over there? That’s where your real parents live!” (Like many others, I assume, I stole the first part of the line for my youngest brother’s wedding toast.)

“You could tell it was all true,” Madigan says. “He didn’t make anything up.”

Anderson made his Tonight Show debut in 1984 and spent the rest of the decade headlining theaters across North America. In 1987, he shot an hour-long stand-up special at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis that earned a glowing New York Times review: “Mr. Anderson has developed a low-keyed act that could fit comfortably into the category of family entertainment. Don’t underestimate it.”

Anderson gained some fame in the ’80s—he joined the Comic Relief crew and appeared on The New Hollywood Squares—even as show business did underestimate him. He had small parts in movies like Quicksilver and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Eddie Murphy even cast him in Coming to America—both to meet Paramount’s quota of one white guy and because of how much he liked Anderson. “We knew Louie was cool,” Murphy said on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last year.

Anderson didn’t let a lack of major roles slow him down. In 1989, he published the first of his four books, Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child. In the early ’90s, he began developing an animated series based on his childhood. Life with Louie, in which he voiced a version of his younger self and a gentler take on his father, premiered on Fox in late 1994 and ran for three seasons. From 1999 to 2002, he hosted Family Feud.

Anderson also continued to tour as a stand-up. Madigan recalls the first time she opened for him. “I was probably just naive enough to not be too nervous,” she says. “Which I should’ve been in retrospect. I knew him from TV and stuff. He came up to me and said, ‘What’s your name? Who sent you over here?’ And then we just started talking and he was like, ‘Well, here’s my phone number if you need anything.’”

“He was like an older Midwest brother,” Madigan adds. “As time went on, we split a lot of corporate gigs. We split a lot of casino gigs. We both liked to gamble. I’m up for late-night drinking, he’s up for late-night eating. As long as we could find a place to have food and drinks we were happy.”

Madigan had her 50th birthday party at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Las Vegas, where Anderson lived and did stand-up to big crowds for years. “No matter who came up to the table, Louie just kept going, ‘Are you Ruth?’” she says. “Nobody really got it. But we did.”

To Madigan, Anderson’s sweetness cannot be overstated: “There’s not a lot of people that have grace anymore, but he had grace for everybody. There could be the meanest comic in the world, and he’d go, ‘But we don’t know what happened to him.’ I’d just be cussin’ up a storm, saying, ‘That guy’s a fuckin’ dick,’ or whatever. And he’d be like, ‘I know, he probably is. But we don’t know what happened to him. Something made him mean.’ He was as kind as you can be to everybody.”

There were times when Madigan was worried about Anderson, especially when his well-being occasionally fell victim to his good nature. In 2013, she was there when he miraculously avoided getting seriously hurt while jumping from a high dive into a pool on the ABC reality show Splash. “‘That is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. That must’ve been terrifying,’” Madigan recalls telling him. “He goes, ‘It’s just water.’”

A few years after that, Galifianakis, Krisel, and Louis C.K. gathered for a table read of the Baskets pilot script. Galifianakis, for some reason, began saying Christine’s lines in a nasally voice. “Louis C.K. was kind of like, ‘You know who that is?’ And he just started laughing,” Krisel says. “He’s like, ‘This is the craziest idea but that’s Louie Anderson.’ And Zach started laughing. And we just started laughing. And we just knew, ‘That’s right.’” Soon enough, Anderson was on the phone. “Without skipping a beat, he’s like, ‘I’ll do it,’” Krisel says. “It was a magical moment.”

From the show’s outset in 2016, Christine was its breakout character. Krisel remembers filming a first-episode scene in which the matriarch is trying to push a Kirkland Signature sports drink on Chip’s friend Martha. Krisel told Anderson to take a long sip from the bottle to sell how good it tasted. “He just went and he just coughed it up,” Krisel says. “And he’s like, ‘Well you told me to just drink as long as I could.’ And I’m like, ‘I know, but I didn’t want you to choke.’ We were crying laughing because it was just real. And I’m like, ‘We have to use that in the show.’ Even though it was clearly a mistake. And we did.”

Every choice Anderson makes on Baskets is memorable, from the way Christine shops at her beloved Costco to the way she reacts when she smokes weed for the first time. To Krisel, the character was a loving—but honest—tribute to the comedian’s family. “The root of his comedy and his performance was a reality and a genuine authenticity and a love for these people,” he says. “There was love there. He was never making fun of them.”

The role, for which Anderson was nominated for an Emmy three times, helped lead to another pitch-perfect comedic turn. In 2020, he appeared in Season 3 of Search Party as Bob Lunch, an attorney to Alia Shawkat’s Dory. During filming, Anderson made the show’s cocreator Sarah-Violet Bliss laugh so hard that she was afraid she might ruin the take. “One particular improv that never made it into the cut was in a scene where Dory is trying to rally her legal team,” Bliss said in an email. “The scene ended but we kept the cameras rolling as Alia [Shawkat] and Louie improvised for a beat longer. In the improv, Dory asked Bob for his email password and without skipping a beat Louie channeled Bob Lunch and replied: ‘Frisbee’—it was perfect.”

“Louie made me want to be better all around. Better at my craft, better at kindness, and better at gratitude.”

Madigan says she got to say goodbye to Anderson in person recently. “I look at my gloves and I choose which ones I’m taking,” she says. “I’m in Texas right now. It’s not that cold but it’s cold enough. I have my shitty gloves, not my good gloves.”

Krisel last talked to Anderson a few months ago. “He kind of becomes like a family member,” he says. “I have these two dogs. He’d say, ‘Did the pugs ask about me?’ And my kids knew him. He came to my son’s 7th birthday party. He brought piggy banks. He was a good uncle to the world.”

As Galifianakis put it in his email: “Louie Anderson was pure.”

But Anderson’s sweetness wasn’t his only layer. Underneath his disarming, Upper Midwestern charm was raw emotion. As a performer, he could access both at once.

Late in Season 2 of Baskets, there’s a scene when the death of Christine’s mother hits her suddenly. “I knew in my mind, this is gonna be intense,” Krisel says. “And we were getting ready to film it. And I’m like, ‘Louie, this is kind of an intense scene.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. I know. I got it.’”

While sitting in an office at a bank, Christine blurts out that her mom died and begins to sob. Mid-breakdown, she knocks over a framed photo of the teller and her child. Then, she composes herself enough to compliment the woman and say, “You’re so tiny! How did they get that baby out of you?”

“It was just so intense and simple and funny at the same time,” Krisel says. “It was so real.”