Comedian Louie Anderson, Who Performs at Hilarities This Weekend, Talks About His Career-Defining Role on 'Baskets'

Now in his sixties, Louie Anderson has worked as a standup comedian and actor for decades.

In a recent phone interview from his Las Vegas home, Anderson, who grew up in St. Paul and says he loves Cleveland and thinks of it as a similar city to his hometown, spoke about how he landed a role as Christine Baskets in the FX show Baskets.  Last year, he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his performance on the program.

Anderson performs on Friday and Saturday night at Hilarities.

It’s been such a treat to watch you in Baskets. Talk about how you first found out about the role.
I was on my way to a performance at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas. My agent said Louis C.K. wants your phone number. I said, “Give it to him.” A little while later, I got a call from him. He said he was with [actor] Zach [Galifianakis] and they were doing a new sitcom. They wanted me to play a part. I said, “Sure.” They wanted me to play Zach’s mother. I said, “Yes. I’ll do it. I love it.” The rest is history, I guess.

When it came time to take the role on, what challenges did it present?
The first challenge was not to change my voice. I just wanted to use my voice. Also, wearing clothes that I was not familiar with. That might have been considered another challenge. That was interesting. Those are the main things. I went in with open arms because these are really talented people. Zach and Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel have a lot of credits between them. They’re Emmy winners with the writing and directing and producing. I felt like they knew what the were doing.

I think you’ve said that you modeled the character after your own mother. Talk about that.
My mom was a really great person. She was very funny. She had little things she did. She had ticks and mannerisms. I stole that from her, and I stole my sister’s stuff. As I'm acting, I think, “What would my mom say here?” I think about that, and then I say it.

I would think that you didn’t take advantage of your mother the way Zach’s characters do in the show.
When you have 11 kids in your family like I did, I think some of them did do that to my mom. I saw that. I play the character just like my mom. She had a tremendous amount of compassion and would be tough when she had to.

The humor in the show is decidedly dark. To what do you attribute its success? Why does it connect with people?
That’s really a good question. When I first got the job, the director told me, “Don’t think of it as making a half hour TV show. Think of it as a three-hour movie.” That was the best advice I got from him on that. That was terrific. That gave me a foothold about what I should do and say.

I think viewers identify with the struggles the characters go through on the show.
I think you’re right. I think people feel a kinship, you know. I think that has been helpful.

Prior to Baskets, what would you say was your most rewarding acting experience?
I would say [the animated series] Life with Louie. I liked doing the voice acting and playing all the characters. It was challenging but super rewarding. I love my part in Coming to America, but I am not sure I remember exactly what I did in it. Everybody was helpful. [Actor] Eddie [Murphy] and [director] John Landis were helpful to me. We were young people trying to find our way. I love the work I did on I enjoyed them, but nothing compared to Baskets. This is the meatiest, grittiest, most most wonderful joy ride I’ve been on so far.

I would think the show has increased your visibility. Has it widened your fanbase?
Oh yeah. It’s a brand new day in a sense.

You’ve really earned given the number of years you’ve spent touring.
Thank you. That’s very nice of you.

Do you remember your first-ever stand-up show?
It’s kind of a blur. I remember that I got laughs. I remember looking at the audience. My mom and my dad were there. I remember that. That’s something I’ll always remember. I know I was standing too close to the microphone. Some told me to “hold back.” I told them, “Listen. I’m doing the best stuff I have.” That got a big laugh. In a sense, I remember some of the things about it. I remember how exciting it was.

How would you say your comedy has evolved over the years?
I used to jump on stage and now I sometimes need a little help to get up there. To answer your question seriously, I think I’m a better stand up comic. I’m more thoughtful. I am much more prepared for sure. I’m really enjoying it. That was more like getting through it and that kind of thing. I have less panic. I don’t have much panic anymore.

When you perform here in Cleveland, will the material be new or old?
Oh yeah, I’ll have new material. I’m working on a brand new one hour show. I’ll do some of my old favorites because people love that. I plan on doing the whole special. I might do that throughout the run.

You’ve written several books. Talk about what that experience has been like?
Those are my thoughts and chronicle the journey I was on with my dad’s alcoholism and my mom. You can read about my mom and see where the Baskets character comes from in Goodbye Jumbo... Hello Cruel World.  With The F Word: How to Survive Your Family, I wouldn't  rewrite a book like that. I exposed stuff about my family and I wished I wouldn’t have. I wished I wouldn’t have said the things I did about my family. They’re not in show business, and I am. And that was really unfair to them.

Have you resolved your self-esteem issues?
Yeah. When you’re a kid who’s a fat kid who grows up in an alcoholic family, you’re always in the back of your mind that little kid. I’m really healthy right now and very happy and working really hard on myself.