Louie Anderson and I drove north up Cedar Avenue from Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis in Louie's ancient, baby-blue Mercury Montego. It was summer, 1981.
Just that winter Louie had stolen a kid's snow saucer, filled it with charcoal briquettes, lit them, let them smolder and then slid the whole mess under his engine block so it didn't freeze up in the steel-snapping Minnesota winter.
But now it was July, hot, and the windows were hand-cranked all the way down. Bus exhaust blew into the car and it smelled good. I didn't say much, because Louie was sporting the look of a gunslinger and I wasn't about to break that up. You let a genius think.
We were headed to a theater in the Seven Corners neighborhood near the University of Minnesota campus, where Louie was going to try and convince the owner, Dudley Riggs, to book a stand-up comedy show. Dudley's was the name in Twin Cities improv comedy, with a successful resident company locked into his Uptown theater, a touring company that was either on the road or at Seven Corners, and a pedigree that included sending Al Franken and Tom Davis to "Saturday Night Live."
This brainstorm of Louie's was a shot in the dark, but it turns out Louie had pretty good night vision.
We parked, illegally. I stayed with the car because three of the four windows didn't crank back up without a fight and because I was a fledgling comic with zero people skills. Let the two dealers deal. Louie disappeared around the corner. He came back 40 minutes later with a grin that went ear to ear — which was a significant distance, if you're familiar with Louie's face.
"We're in," he cackled, but I'd barely nodded in glee when he'd already shifted gears: "We need a name. You write a press release. I gotta call the Trib. I need an angle. What is the angle …?"
And so was born the Minneapolis Comedy All-Stars — Louie and the talented veteran Alex Cole, plus rookies Joel Madison and me. In one afternoon I'd gotten a master class in business from Louie. He'd given Dudley 100% of the bar and food profits in exchange for 100% of the door, gambling that we would draw big. He'd then given the newspaper a story about the city's improv master, Dudley, blessing this stand-up show because it featured the best stand-up comedians the town had to offer and because, like an improv troupe, "they would completely turn over their material every three months."
And of course he'd given me a creative stake in the game, so I would both work hard and also run through a wall for him.
Louie tirelessly worked every media outlet he could find, even auto shoppers, and put his hard-earned three-year comedy reputation on this gig. The night of the first show, we pulled up to Seven Corners in that same Mercury and saw a line, a glorious line of patrons all the way out the door and down the block. Louie pumped his arm like a ballplayer who had just hit a walk-off dinger. "Yessss!" he grinned.
We stayed that hot for a year, the absolute hottest ticket in town. Then he moved to L.A., and I followed nine months later, and we stayed good friends while both finding a fair portion of what we were looking for there.
Louie passed away last week at 68. I read so many loving tributes and memories from professional colleagues and fans alike, all of them moving and heartfelt — all of it about what a sensitive, genuinely funny and caring man he was, and all of it true.
But it didn't provide any solace, which irritated me until I realized why. I loved a different Louie. In a heartbeat after that realization I was whisked back to those early days in Minneapolis, when I was a naive, uptight, emotionally inept soul determined to be a comic, and he was a kid from the projects of St. Paul who ran on a high-octane fuel of confidence and street smarts, even when that fuel was down to fumes. And that's when I cried.
"Zeitgeist" is a term tossed around way too loosely, like the one working power adapter in a writers' room, but I looked it up and it means essentially an agent or force influencing a particular time in history. That is what finally pushed my early memories forward: Louie and I had lived through a Double-Zeitgeist.
In the early '80s, not only was stand-up comedy absolutely exploding nationwide into a creative juggernaut, but Minneapolis itself was exploding into a white-hot star of immense creative energy. We had not only lived through it, we had been participants in it, thanks to Louie.
Yes, I did indeed learn so much about the art of comedy watching Louie onstage. But I will never, ever forget that ride in the Montego, that look in his eye and that first, sweetest taste of success that comes from taking a gamble on yourself.
Jeff Cesario is a writer and comedian whose recent album, "What Was I Thinking?" was recorded in his comedy hometown, Minneapolis. Twitter: @realJeffCesario; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org