Minnesota never had a kinder — or funnier — cheerleader than Louie Anderson. Throughout his Emmy-winning career, he used his deep affection for the state, along with a self-deprecating wit, to bring laughter to the world.
Anderson died Friday from cancer in a Las Vegas hospital. He was 68.
"We're all devastated," said his nephew Josh Florhaug, who followed in his uncle's footsteps as a stand-up comic. "He was not only a great comic, he was a great guy. I grew up without a dad, so he was my father figure. He taught me way more about being a person than about comedy."
The comedian had a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, his publicist said.
A pioneer of the Twin Cities stand-up scene, Anderson helped turn the Minneapolis dive bar Mickey Finn's into a safe space for amateur comedians in the late 1970s, along with his friend Scott Hansen, who died last September,
Jeff Gerbino, who was an emcee when Anderson started taking the stage, said he was impressed by his friend's ability to improvise with the bar's rowdy crowd.
"That was better than his regular act," Gerbino said. "He was killing them."
Anderson catapulted into the national spotlight in 1984 when he made his network TV debut on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."
"I can't stay long," he said at the top of his appearance. "I'm in between meals."
His routine so impressed Carson that Anderson was beckoned to the couch — a rare invitation for a first-timer.
KQRS Radio host Tom Barnard, who had Anderson as a guest numerous times, remembers that appearance well.
"It was amazing," he said. "You knew after that he was going to blow sky high."
He quickly became one of the country's most beloved stand-ups, selling out comedy clubs, popping up in hit films ("Coming to America"), writing best-selling books ("Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child") and developing a popular children's cartoon series, "Life With Louie."
Gerbino, who let Anderson stay with him and his wife in Los Angeles in those early days, said one of the comic's talents was ingratiating himself with A-listers like Rodney Dangerfield.
"He made you want to do things for him," Gerbino said.
Through it all, Anderson never forgot Minnesota. His hardscrabble childhood in St. Paul loomed large in his act. His New Year's Eve shows in the Twin Cities became an annual event.
"There's no debating it. He's the greatest of all time when it comes to being a comedian, trailblazer and mentor in Minnesota comedy," said Patrick Strait, who featured Anderson in "The Funny Thing About Minnesota," a recent book about the rise of the local comedy scene. "He proved you can be funny and stay true to your Minnesota roots, no matter where you go."
Anderson's stardom was fading by the late 1990s. A CBS sitcom, "The Louie Show," set in Duluth, was canceled after just six episodes. He hosted "Family Feud" for three seasons, then was let go. He turned his attention to Las Vegas, where he held residencies from 2003 to 2012.
In 2013, Anderson agreed to participate in a reality show, "Splash," in which he nearly drowned.
"You know why I said yes to that?" Anderson told the Star Tribune two years later. "Because nobody else had asked me for a job. In show business, you just want people to think of you."
But he came roaring back when Zach Galifianakis tapped Anderson to play his mother in an FX series, "Baskets." The performance — inspired by Anderson's own mom — won him the Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series.
"Oh my God, I won! I can't believe it," he told the Star Tribune by phone in 2016 shortly after his name was called. "This is like a reboot for me."
He was nominated again the next year. FX issued a statement Friday praising the actor: "It was a risky role for him and he embraced it with a fearlessness and joy that demonstrated his brilliance as an artist."
Local comic Joe Tanner said those visits home gave performers a chance to learn from a legend.
"Hollywood doesn't usually come to Anoka," said Tanner, who once won a contest to open for Anderson. "Then to sit with that guy and be talked to like a regular human being? You can't put money on that.
"He wasn't just my buddy. He was everybody's buddy."
Throughout his career, Anderson mined his childhood for laughs, looking back on the tensions with his alcoholic father, channeling his hard-working mom and sharing stories about his 10 siblings.
Comedian K.P. Anderson fondly remembers a stand-up bit in which Anderson poked gentle fun at how his mother got nervous pulling onto the freeway.
"He was the first comedian I saw and thought, 'I want to do that for a living,'" said Anderson, who grew up in the Twin Cities and has served as a producer on "The Soup" and "The D.L. Hughley Show."
"He was such a good friend to any comics coming out of Minneapolis. He was just one of those people that you were so happy to see when your paths crossed."
Mike Brody is one of many younger local comedians to earn Anderson's support. "He was always incredibly nice and supportive to me," Brody said, "even though I once accidentally [swore] during one of his shows." (Anderson famously refrained from cussing in his act.)
Mary Mack, a staple on the Twin Cities comedy scene, recalled how Anderson always rang her after she made a TV appearance.
"Louie still believed in phone calls," she posted on Instagram. "He was my first friend who ended every call or visit with 'love you.'"
Many celebrities mourned him on social media.
"'Baskets' was such a phenomenal 'second act' for Louie Anderson. I wish he'd gotten a third," actor Michael McKean tweeted.
"Louie Anderson was one of the funniest and kindest people I have ever met in this world," Bill Engvall wrote. "We toured together on some dates, and every time I saw him he greeted me with a big hug and said how happy he was to see me."
Comedian Gilbert Gottfried posted a photo of Anderson with Bob Saget, the comic and actor who died Jan. 9: "This photo is very sad now," he wrote. "Both good friends that will be missed."
Staff writer Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this report.