Louie Anderson’s annual New Year’s Eve concert in the Twin Cities was still a day away, but the Minnesota native was already ordering bubbly.
“I’m not really a drinker. I only drink Champagne,” Anderson said to the waiter at the Mall of America’s FireLake Grill House, which he frequents so often he’s practically memorized the menu. “Probably because there’s so much sugar.”
Anderson has every reason to raise a glass. More than three decades after dazzling Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” a breakthrough followed by numerous career stalls, the comedian has landed his sweetest, most intoxicating part: the judgmental but ultimately protective mother of Zach Galifianakis’ character in FX’s “Baskets.”
That’s right. Mother.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had anything close to this,” said Anderson, choosing a table smack dab in the middle of the restaurant. “I’m not sure I even knew how to act before.”
The series, which premieres Thursday, has been heavily promoted as a signature project for Galifianakis, with Louis CK taking a break from his own critically acclaimed sitcom, “Louie,” to serve as executive producer. But unsuspecting viewers will quickly discover that the show’s secret weapon is Anderson.
TV critics got a whiff of what’s to come this past weekend at their winter gathering in Los Angeles. FX network execs opted to roll an extended clip showcasing Anderson’s Christine Baskets slobbering over her more successful sons, while Galifianakis, playing a rodeo clown with the warmth of a bucking bull, silently seethes in the background.
“When I was starting off in the ’80s, Louie was very prominent. I always loved him because he was sincere,” said CK after the well-received sneak peek. “I just like that better rather than people that are sort of sarcastic or putting you on. Louie is a real ‘heart on his sleeve’ kind of a stand-up.”
Dennis Miller, a comedian not exactly known for hyperbolic praise, once called Anderson one of his favorite comics, comparing his light touch and nimbleness on stage to Chris Rock and Fred Astaire.
Anderson remains a dedicated craftsman. Three weeks before the coming-out party in L.A., Anderson followed the FireLake dinner with a stop at the Mall of America’s comedy club to catch Andrew Norelli.
Astute spectators could easily pick up Anderson’s medley of guffaws, wheezes and giggles from the back of the room. Those lucky enough to be seated within whispering range were privy to a running commentary on the headliner’s hits and misses, along with the occasional sigh of jealousy.
“I hate that he has all this material,” Anderson said after a particularly sharp bit. “I want all his material.”
Anderson’s desire to still generate laughs at age 62 is best exemplified in the evolution of a joke that recalls his late mother, who raised 11 children.
In the bit, Mom parades in a new outfit in front of her kids and asks them to guess what it cost. Nine hundred dollars? Anderson would ask, followed by a riff on how ridiculous that amount was.
Then one night, Anderson made a slight change.
Mom: “Guess what I got this outfit for?”
“That joke took me 10 years to write,” said Anderson, who’s working on all-new material for an unspecified TV special. “Under every good joke is a really good joke.”
Life with Louie
Despite respect from his peers and steady employment — particularly in the Twin Cities, where he performs several times a year — Anderson has never quite lived up to the early hype.
A year after his 1984 “Tonight Show” debut, Anderson was cast as the straight man in a promising pilot for ABC. The sitcom got picked up; Anderson did not. Mark Linn-Baker took over his part in “Perfect Strangers,” which ran for eight seasons.
A decade later, he played a Duluth-based psychotherapist in CBS’ “The Louie Show,” with a supporting cast that included future Emmy and Tony winner Bryan Cranston. The network canceled it after six episodes.
He hosted “Family Feud” for three years, only to be replaced by the guy from “Home Improvement” who wasn’t Tim Allen.
Sure, he won two Emmys for starring in the animated kids’ series “Life With Louie,” but being part of Fox’s Saturday morning block isn’t quite the same as being asked to host “Saturday Night Live.”
He may have hit the bottom of the pool two years ago when he agreed to be a contestant on “Splash,” a reality series in which he competed against the likes of former “Cosby” daughter Keshia Knight Pulliam and former Miss Alabama Katherine Webb for the title of Most Courageous High Diver or Most Desperate Celebrity.
“You know why I said yes to that?” said Anderson, who is less than stunned that the appearance didn’t lead to a third Emmy. “Because nobody else had asked me for a job. In show business, you just want people to think of you.”
Anderson wasn’t the first person Galifianakis had in mind while developing “Baskets.” That would have been two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, who, it turns out, wasn’t available. A frustrated Galifianakis kept telling CK that he had a particular voice in his head and then went ahead and demonstrated.
“You mean like Louie Anderson’s voice?” CK said.
Yes, Galifianakis said, and urged his producing partner to reach out to the comic, despite the fact that neither knew him terribly well.
“So we got his number and called him,” CK said. “I called him right then and I said, ‘We want you to play Zach’s mother.’ There was this pause where you could just hear the hum of his car. And then, ‘I love it.’ And the way he said that, I’m like, ‘That’s it. That’s your mother.’ ”
Anderson knows what “voice” CK and Galifianakis were responding to — that caring, cautious delivery that could come only from someone who appreciates good news, but loves delivering bad news even more. It’s maternal, melancholy and, of course, Minnesotan.
“We didn’t even know it, but Louie has kind of been channeling his mom on stage a number of years, so the character kind of came along with it,” Galifianakis said. “We kind of got lucky that way.”
Christine Baskets isn’t a carbon copy of Anderson’s mom, whom he honored in his bestselling book “Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child” for protecting him and his siblings from their alcoholic father. The character can be a bully — Mommie Dearest with withering glances instead of coat hangers — especially to underperforming Chip (Galifianakis), whom we meet shortly before he’s forced to move back home to Bakersfield, Calif., where he lives in a motel and commutes to work on roller skates and cigarette fumes.
But beneath Christine’s thrift-store dresses and customized wig runs a stream of loyalty, whether it’s to her favorite restaurant, Arby’s, or her mopey son, whom she defends with fire and brimstone when a fellow church parishioner makes an offhand observation about his lot in life.
She’s a complicated, three-dimensional figure, and leaves Anderson’s brief roles in “Coming to America” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” in the dust.
“I don’t fit into the John Candy or Dom DeLuise mold,” said Anderson, who still closes his stand-up act by urging his audience to be good to their families. “They would offer that to me, and it would never work. My comedy needs to be attached to something.”
It’s too early to say what lies ahead for Anderson. He ended his stand-up residency gigs in Las Vegas, where he lives alone in a high-rise apartment building. He’s giving considerable thought to getting surgery to deal with continuing weight issues. He also hasn’t given up hope of opening a comedy club in the Twin Cities.
But for now, Anderson is enjoying his Champagne moment.
“This is the first time I ever got a job where I said to myself that I’m not going to complain about anything and I’m never going to say no to what’s asked of me,” Anderson said. “I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m 62. What do I have to lose?”