Remembering stand-up comic and actor Louie Anderson
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Comic and actor Louie Anderson died last week due to complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 68. Raised in a Minnesota family with 10 siblings, an alcoholic father and a mother who used food as comfort, he turned family and food - or, really, his weight - into fodder for his comedy. After winning a Midwest comedy competition in 1981, he began writing for the king of one-liners, Henny Youngman. Then he went on to his own standup career. Here's one of Anderson's early standup routines from 1987, when he was on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. He's talking about Thanksgiving dinner.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")
LOUIE ANDERSON: And my mom makes too much. She's always over cooking, like 700 or 800 pounds of sweet potatoes, so she's got to push it during the meal. They're sweet potatoes.
ANDERSON: They're hot.
ANDERSON: There's more in the oven.
ANDERSON: Some in the ground.
ANDERSON: Did you ever finish a meal, you're eating the dessert, all of a sudden, your mom stands up in a panic? The Cranberries - get them. They're on the bottom shelf. Mom, we're eating pie. Put some cranberries.
DAVIES: Years later, Louie Anderson modeled his character in the FX series Baskets on his mother. He played Christine Baskets, the mother of Chip, a depressive rodeo clown played by Zach Galifianakis. It earned him an Emmy award. Following Anderson's death last week, Shane O'Neill, a fellow Midwesterner, wrote in The New York Times of Anderson's portrayal of Christine, it was a portrait of a woman I know and love who has never been presented with such affection and skill on television before or since.
We're going to listen to Terry's 2016 interview with Louie Anderson, in which they talked about that role, growing up in Minnesota and about taking comedy to a darker place. Let's begin with a clip from "Baskets." Christine, the mother of Chip Baskets, can be very critical of her son, but she could also be his biggest supporter. Chip didn't tell his mother that he'd gotten married to a French woman. When the mother finds out, she invites her new daughter-in-law, Penelope, on a trip to one of Christine's favorite places, Costco. Here's Louie Anderson as Christine.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, look at this. Oh, that's perfect for you. I'm going to get one, too. Oh, I love this place. I'd love to get lost in here. Wouldn't it be something? Do you have this in France?
SABINA SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) Not yet.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) I didn't think so. Oh, acid reducer. This stuff is a lifesaver. Do you have multi-packs in France?
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) I don't think we take so much medication in France like you do.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, well, that's a shame. Oh, cheese balls. It's the only thing Chip would eat as a child. I got tired of fighting him on it. I gave them to him for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
SCIUBBA: (As Penelope) Nice diet for your kids.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, he blew up, but I helped him get the weight off. I always supported Chip. He needed more attention than other kids. I always supported him, even during this clowning phase. It's hard being a good mother. I mean, $1.50 for a quarter pound hot dog and a drink. Tres bien, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Louie Anderson, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your performance in "Baskets."
ANDERSON: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Now, Zach Galifianakis told us that when he was casting the part of the mother, the part that you play, he heard a voice in his head. And he did that voice for Louis C.K., who produces "Baskets." And Louis C.K. said, oh, you mean like Louie Anderson's voice? So they decided, well, why not call Louie Anderson? So they called you. Did you have any reservations about whether you could convincingly play a woman?
ANDERSON: No, unfortunately, I did not. I grew up with a really great, strong woman in my mother of 11 children and five wonderful sisters. And so I didn't have any. And I've been doing my mom's act, her voice, to some degree in my act for, you know, several years.
GROSS: What's the difference between your voice and your mom voice?
ANDERSON: Well, my voice is, you know, the voice I'm speaking to you in. And my mom's voice is (imitating his mother) Terry Gross, huh? Now, what is that? Is that Irish - Gross? Is that Irish? Or are you - is it British? That would be more my mom. Terry, I've always liked that name. My mom was never without a compliment.
GROSS: (Laughter) Whether she meant it or not.
ANDERSON: I think she meant it. She loved people. And she loved conversation. And she loved to engage with people. She was a really fantastic person. You would've really liked her.
GROSS: What other qualities did you take from your mother to give to your character of the mother in "Baskets"?
ANDERSON: Well, she was a little passive aggressive, you know, like in that - those scenes you played. Isn't this something? You don't have this in France? You know, that little side? She just could slide stuff in. And you go, did I just get cut by a really sharp razor? Mom, what is - you know, she just had that thing. She was a little competitive. But she loved to show off. She was a showoff. I really loved playing this part for a big reason that my mom gets to come to life. It's the weirdest thing when you get a wig, when that wig and the makeup comes on. You know, I work on the transformation, I think, while I'm getting dressed.
GROSS: Yeah. What about the dresses? You wear these, like, big dresses with large, bold primary color patterns, you know, caftans, long necklaces, an Easter bonnet in one scene. How did wearing wearing those clothes help you get into character? And who do those clothes remind you of?
ANDERSON: Well, the first day that I went in to see the clothes, it was early, early on. We were all going to meet and do a group photo, I think it was. And there was a big wall of clothes. And I just went through it. And I go, this would be good. This would be good. And I just thought of my mom and my sisters. I said, this will be good. I said, that's out. Nothing like that. They have to be really colorful. Make them enter the room sometimes before the eye will, you know. Make them what a person who hasn't got a lot of money thinks is really fancy. Make it real American. Make her a big American woman.
And I have to tell you, it was kind of - even though I never dressed up in my mom's clothes or never had any real desire to put it on, I always remember how soft her clothes were. You know, my mom always had soft, like, a lot of jersey knits. And my mom was ahead of her time. She wore pantsuits. And she goes, you know what I like about a pantsuit, Louie? And I go, what, Mom? I just looked so good in it.
GROSS: (Laughter) Was she a plus-sized woman?
ANDERSON: She was. She was a big girl.
GROSS: There's a scene after she's kind of spurned by her adopted twins. She takes to her room with like a tub of ice cream and a big scoop, and is eating it, lying on her side, eating it from the scoop. And...
ANDERSON: Now, that would have never been my mom. I've done that. I'm a food addict. You know, I go to OA. And I really work hard on trying to eat better, especially lately. I've been really working hard on it. And so I know what that's like. When you're really down, if you're any kind of an addicted person, you are not eating for flavor. And you're not eating for - you're eating for some comfort that can never come from what you're doing. There's no comfort that could actually come from it. But there is a familiarity that I think comes with it. So it was really a sad scene, but I really think that the scene was really important to show her disappointment with - you know, when you go out on a limb and pretty much put those kids above everybody else in the family, and then they just kind of blow you off, it's a big blow to her.
GROSS: Did you and your mother bond over eating together?
ANDERSON: Well, my dad was an alcoholic, and he was a really mean - and, you know, could be very vicious. And so with - anybody who's grown up with an alcoholic knows that there's usually a fight to bring everything to a head in the alcoholic family where, you know, the lines are drawn. And that either ends with police coming, or in our case, my mom would feed us. It was the weirdest thing. So there's a lot of stuff emotionally tied to my eating. And then I created a character on stage that had a lot to do with being fat. And so I really boxed myself in a lot, and I'm really aware of it.
GROSS: You think that you boxed yourself in. Were you referring to your persona as a heavy person?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I would - and I would never play those parts in movies. So I was kind of limited. And I wasn't a very good actor early on. I was a terrible actor because I didn't know who I was or how to do it, you know? But I feel like this part gave me an opportunity to play the most real person, a really real person. That's what I was really going for here, Terry. I was really going for a really real person.
DAVIES: Louie Anderson speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARINA FERDINAND SONG, "GREEN EYED SORROW (FASAN AND HERTZ REMIX)")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with comic and actor Louie Anderson. He died last week at the age of 68. When we left off, they were talking about his family, which has been the focus of a lot of his comedy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I was very sorry to hear about your brother Tommy, who died last week in his sleep. And this was, like, your youngest sibling. You had been the youngest of 10. Then he was born. He was the...
ANDERSON: No - yeah, yeah. I was youngest at 10, and then he was...
GROSS: It sounds like his death was totally unexpected. You've described him as your inspiration. In what sense was he that?
ANDERSON: Well, you know, like, he was my - you know, such a good friend. And you know, he was really smart. He was the kind of guy you could call up and go, what do you think? He'd go, ah, that's all crap. That's all bull. Don't do that. That's no good. You know, like, he was just that kind of guy. He had a thing we called the Truth Ranger where he goes, everybody should tell the truth, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone's feelings. And I just laughed. I go, Tommy, you're so sweet. Of course, it's going to hurt people's feelings if you always tell them the truth.
ANDERSON: Well, you know, you just don't know how to tell them the truth then, Louie. And I go, maybe not. But it broke my heart. My heart's completely broken right now.
GROSS: When you did comedy about him...
GROSS: ...Did you run it past him first? And if so, what...
ANDERSON: No, I never did. But people didn't - my family didn't get mad. I didn't even know I had to run it by him. You know what I mean? I regret the - some of the books I wrote because I think I hurt people's feelings. And I forgot one thing, one thing to remember when you're successful, famous, whatever you want to call it, well-known, not that well-known, whatever you want to call it. One thing to remember is your family's now famous, and they're not well-known. And even though you can handle it, it doesn't mean they can. And that's the biggest regret I have. I should never - I should have run it all by them. And yes, they all read it before I ever published anything. But still, I didn't realize - you know what I mean? Like, I'm in show business. I've always been in show business. I kind of know how it works. They're not. They're my sibling, but they're not in show business.
GROSS: One of the things you've joked about about your younger brother...
GROSS: ...Is that you used to torment him.
ANDERSON: I mean, I used to tell him he was adopted. I said, you were adopted. And I used to say they were frog-faced people.
ANDERSON: Pretty soon, your eyes are going to pop out. Your eyes are going to pop out.
GROSS: How old were you when you stopped tormenting him?
ANDERSON: Just before he died.
ANDERSON: He'd like that. I think there was always a little bit of a - like, Tommy used to get really mad at me if I interrupted him. Tommy was a very, really precise person. So - and he suffered from, you know, some bipolar stuff and those kind of things and a little bit of paranoia. And he didn't have an easy life. He had a tough life. And he lived on the streets for many years. And finally, I - you know, I always would take care of him if I could.
And finally, I said, Tommy, I'm not going - you got to get it together. I'm not going to help you anymore. You're just being unreasonable. And that was with some advice from a good friend because I was at my wit's end. My good friend said, listen. He's got to hit bottom, and then he'll be able to deal with it. And it was really good. It was good advice because he did. And he said, Louie, I need your help. He said, when he asks for your help, then you'll be of use. He said, Louie, I need your help. And I said, Tommy, you know - you know what you should do, Tommy? Your sisters could really use your help, I think you should move back home and take care of your sisters. I think they could really use your help.
And so, like, five or six years ago, he moved back to Minnesota. And he really did - he took care of my sister, one sister until she passed away and my other sisters. And he really helped. And we had a service for him Sunday. And people talked about how much that he had done for them. And it was really - I really - I was really touched by how many people loved Tommy. I thought I was the only one who loved him that much. But, of course, my whole family loved him. And we're going to miss him.
GROSS: Does having a younger brother who died - and you're around 63. He was 60. Has that made you think a lot about your own mortality?
ANDERSON: You know, it's so funny. Like, mortality - the first time I really felt anything about mortality was in 1990, when my mom died. That's where I really went, oh, my God. I think I could die now. You know what I mean? Like, I came from my mom. She died. I can't believe she died. It was, you know, very devastating. I couldn't believe my mom died. It's like, oh, my mom died.
When I lost my dad - you know, my dad was a really bad drunk, but a really funny guy. And he stuck with us, and he stayed. My mom - I will never forget. My dad quit drinking when he was 69, and here was my mom's response. She turned to me, and she said, I told you he'd quit drinking.
ANDERSON: And I (laughter) - and I just said that - you know, and that's who the character Christine is, don't you think? Don't you think that in a nutshell, that that's Christine?
ANDERSON: Finding a silver lining - and, you know, it just - so it was very profound. I didn't even realize it when she said it.
GROSS: You know, you were saying mental illness runs in your family. And your thing, I think, was maybe depression?
ANDERSON: Yeah, I'd say depression. I definitely think...
GROSS: So depression always seems to go hand-in-hand with comedy. You know, like, I think most comics, you know, have either some kind of, like, bipolar or depression disorder. And I'm not sure why they go together, but they do. So maybe you have some idea.
ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, I think the reason that they go together is because, you know, if you look at that depression long enough, you have to tip it on its side and look at the other side and find some humor in it. I tried to kill...
GROSS: And is that helpful?
ANDERSON: I tried to kill...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
ANDERSON: Well, I mean, you know, I tried to kill myself, but the rope broke. And that would be a joke that I could probably do and get a laugh out of.
GROSS: Well, well...
ANDERSON: I mean, I have to be very careful about how I do any stuff on sadness 'cause the crowd gets really sad and concerned for me. So I try to - you know, I used to do this joke, which is really an - you know, I'm going to take a risk and tell this joke. I used to do a joke. I go - how about - I read a thing where this guy killed his whole family. I go, I'm surprised I don't read that every day. I mean, I don't think of the - you start out where you're going to kill the whole family. But the rush of the first one must carry you right through to the end.
ANDERSON: But it was too dark for my audience.
GROSS: In reading your books - 'cause you have, like, at least three books that have a lot of memoir to them - and in - you know, in listening to your comedy, I keep getting the impression that you have parts of your humor that are too dark for your audience and that, you know, that maybe there are things you'd be saying to a different audience that you wouldn't say to yours.
ANDERSON: You know, I'm at this precipice right now that I feel like I'll be changing myself onstage just because I'm 63-ish (laughter). I don't even know. How old am I? I think I'm 62. It doesn't really register. I don't know how old you are, Terry, but does it register with you? Like, I don't ever think - like, if somebody were to say I'm 62, I'd go, I am not.
ANDERSON: You know, in my eyes, a 62, that's, like, you know, Walter Brennan.
ANDERSON: That's an old reference. But you know what I mean? It's...
GROSS: So how does being 62 or 63 relate to this perhaps turning point in your comedy? Do you feel like there's...
ANDERSON: I could be an alternative comic. I could be that really dark. I was. I was a very dark comic to begin with. I could be that guy. And the only reason I didn't is that I wanted to make money. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be liked more than I wanted to be admired. Does that make any sense?
ANDERSON: You know, and I - my mom and my family would - you know, I was trying to - that was my audience. I really - I think I've always been trying to heal families. And here's why. I did a cartoon about my family. All my specials are about my family. And I wrote all that stuff with the intent that you, Terry, and your children - if you have any - and your parents could sit in a room and all get something out of the performance or the jokes or whatever. That was my goal. But I think the world's changed a lot. I mean, I think I could go to another level, but I don't know - I - you know, what am I going to - am I going to betray my audience? Is that a betrayal, you know?
GROSS: Well, you have to allow yourself to grow as a performer, if that's what you want to do, to change. I think performers shouldn't let audiences hold them back from becoming the artists that they're ready to be.
ANDERSON: But, you know, you get so much criticism from it. You know that, right?
ANDERSON: I mean, you know, the press is relentless, but your fans are mad at you. But, I mean, you do have to take that chance.
ANDERSON: I mean, I'm not afraid to do it.
DAVIES: Louie Anderson speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. He died last week at the age of 68. We'll hear more after a break. And TV critic David Bianculli will review the new Showtime docuseries about Bill Cosby made by W. Kamau Bell. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH MANSFIELD'S "MONDAYS CHILD")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, and we're listening to Terry's 2016 interview with comic and actor Louie Anderson, who died last week at the age of 68. He grew up in Minnesota with an alcoholic father and 10 siblings. His mother became the model for his portrayal of Christine Baskets, the mother in the FX series "Baskets." When we left off, Anderson was talking about taking his comedy to a darker place.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Well, let's talk about something that's happened to you or that you did nearly to yourself and how that either could or could not become something that you'd use on stage. You tell a story in one of your books about how you were in your dressing room backstage before a performance. You had a gun. You put it to your head, and you were very serious about pulling the trigger. You thought first about something you'd seen on TV in which an expert explained that if you shoot yourself in the wrong part of your head, you might survive and then just be brain damaged, which would be worst-case scenario. So you tried to do it, you know, place it in the right spot and then you thought, oh, I don't want to leave a mess. So you got a towel. And then you decided not to pull the trigger, and you went on stage, and it went really well. The audience liked it. You felt better about being alive after that. So...
GROSS: OK, so that's a kind of near-suicide story. Has that made it onstage into one of your performances?
ANDERSON: No, no. But here's what I say - here's what I'll say to you. I never even thought of it as a thing. But, you know, I could do it. You're exactly right. I could do it in a second. It would be funny. That whole experience was I didn't want anyone to find me. That really was - the thing is, I didn't want that to be their last memory of me.
GROSS: Right. Either...
ANDERSON: You know, that was another big part of it, you know. So you're right. That could be - I mean, you know, I did a dark joke for a while. I go, I was going to kill myself, but I just thought I would just eat myself to death. But nobody ever laughed, Terry. I couldn't get people to laugh because it was too dark, don't you think?
GROSS: I think you have to see it as adding an audience as opposed to adding and taking away. Like, you can - you could do something different without betraying, I think - without betraying...
ANDERSON: You can, Terry? So, Terry...
GROSS: What do I know?
ANDERSON: What are you think...
GROSS: What do I know?
ANDERSON: No, no, I'm going to turn the tables on you.
ANDERSON: Will you allow me?
ANDERSON: OK, Terry.
ANDERSON: What is it - are you doing exactly - always have you done - has your road been this road that you're on with...
GROSS: I've been doing shows like this, like, my whole adult life.
ANDERSON: And this is what you've always wanted. You never wanted to get on a show where you just let it fly and just go (growling).
GROSS: It would be really out of character to do that.
ANDERSON: It would be. So there's nothing in you - there's nothing in you that you're not - that you need to do in that area.
GROSS: Yeah, I feel like my person on the air is being true to myself.
ANDERSON: So do people think - because, you know, you're not the first person to be mentioning this stuff to me. So do people think I'm a wimp? And I don't mean that in a mean way. But do people think I'm too sweet, I'm too nice, there's a dark thing that should be explored and that I should lay it all out there?
GROSS: I don't know what people think. I think that there's an...
ANDERSON: Well, you brought it up. You brought it up.
GROSS: Yeah, I think that there's maybe an edge in your humor that you're protecting your audience from.
ANDERSON: Don't you think they see it, Terry?
GROSS: Probably. It's probably true (laughter).
ANDERSON: You know, like, don't you think they probably think he has a knife, but I don't necessarily want to see it?
GROSS: Yeah, I get that. I get that. Yeah.
ANDERSON: Do you think that - I mean, I...
GROSS: That's a really interesting way to put it.
GROSS: What was the comedy scene like when you were just getting started?
GROSS: And where did you see yourself fitting in? Like, how did you find your place within it?
ANDERSON: Well, I mean, there are two comedy scenes - one in Minneapolis where I started. So there were only, like, a handful of us. So we'd do the show, and you could do as much time as you want because we only had six, seven people. So it was, like, an hour and a half show. Nobody had too much material, you know? And then we were smart. We had a little club, and whenever anyone famous was in town, we invited them down - Joan Rivers, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield. And that's where I became friends with Joan and Rodney. They both told me I should go to East or West Coast and become successful. They were both very nice, and I stayed friends with both of them until their deaths.
But I was on stage one night, and I was doing jokes and I go, is that your dad, to a kid sitting with a guy. He goes, yeah. I go, he seems like a nice dad. You guys get along? He goes, yeah. And then that was the first time I did, yeah, my dad never hit us either, but he carried a gun. And then I did that joke. Never shot us; he'd just go, (clicking) you know? And that got the biggest laugh of anything I had ever done. And it got a different kind of laugh, like, oh, and it opened something up in me. And I started mining my family stuff right then. I just started digging.
And then I came offstage and a guy named Roman Decare - God rest his soul - he was a Shriner, and he played a little harmonica and he told really silly jokes. He'd hit a bad note on the little tiny harmonica, and then he'd pull out of his hand a rubber pickle. He'd go, oh, that's a sour note. And then he did these really dumb - but we loved him. He was a very sweet guy. And I came offstage and he said (imitating Roman Decare) Louie - he'd talk like this - Louie, if you did that material about your family and you had a completely clean act, you'll become famous. And, you know, I was listening to him. And I just said, really? You know, I was looking for somebody to tell me something. I didn't know. I just wanted to, you know, be successful. And then in 1981, I moved out to Los Angeles, and for two years, I auditioned for "The Tonight Show" and finally got it and - you know, with Howie and Robin and Roseanne...
GROSS: This was in the Johnny Carson era.
ANDERSON: Yeah, this is the big time - this is the HBO, babies, you know, in comedy, all those guys. We all did specials, you know, Jim Carrey and Sam Kinison, Rita Rudner. And they were all there, you know? And that's what kind of - you know, I wasn't like anyone else, and I never had to - I never felt competitive, you know. I only had a few goals. I wanted to have my name on the comedy star. I wanted to get on "The Tonight Show," and I wanted to host my own talk show.
GROSS: Which is your podcast, I guess.
ANDERSON: No. I hosted "The Joan Rivers Show" for a week when she - when Edgar died.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, oh.
ANDERSON: When Edgar died. So I felt like - and then at the end of that week, I go, I could never do this. The actors and actresses are too boring.
GROSS: (Laughter) Really? Was that your conclusion?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I just said, oh, this would be so arduous because, you know, I would sit there and they'd have nothing. You know, comedians but I just said, oh. It just didn't - it didn't, like - it was no longer the thing I felt like I needed to do.
DAVIES: Louie Anderson speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with comic and actor Louie Anderson. He died last week at the age of 68.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So one of the things I learned about your father is that when he was courting your mother, he was a trumpeter. And he played in Hoagy Carmichael's band. Wow.
ANDERSON: Yeah. Like, I mean, yeah. I mean, he was a great musician. My dad was a famous musician, I mean, in those standards. You know, he record - I mean, to work with Hoagy Carmichael - that's - he was a hell of a trumpet and cornet player.
GROSS: Did he record with him?
ANDERSON: But I never got to experience any of it. Yeah.
GROSS: So did he play music in the house? I realize you never heard him play trumpet, but what about playing records (ph)?
ANDERSON: I never - yeah. He'd play ukulele, and he'd play harmonica. And when I was opening for Crosby, Stills & Nash one time at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, a guy came. Security came back and said, There's a guy who used to take trumpet lessons from your dad. I said, send them back. I talked to him a long time. I go, what kind of guy was my dad? Well, you know, he was a tough teacher. I go, yeah, you got that right. And he gave me a poster. It's the only poster we had, ever. And it said Louie Anderson and his orchestra. And it was a woodcut poster. And it looked just like one of my posters from the '80s. And I was just like, whoa, I really am a lot like my dad. I mean, I really, you know, was in this - I've been in lots of the same theaters that he probably played in.
GROSS: Was he alive when you started performing and when you got successful?
ANDERSON: Yeah, he saw my very first show. And the next day, he had a stroke, which was really upsetting to me.
GROSS: Oh, jeez.
ANDERSON: But he had lots of strokes, like, 20 or 30 strokes. My dad was a really tough guy. We finally had to kill him. And - that was a joke I've done.
GROSS: Right, yes.
ANDERSON: I think I used to do, my dad smoked. He drank. We finally had to kill him.
ANDERSON: The joke, the whole joke is, my mom ate every piece of butter in the Midwest. She lived till she was 90. And my dad - he smoked. He drank. We finally just had to kill him. That was the whole joke.
GROSS: Did he feel like you were fulfilling his dreams by actually having a showbiz career?
ANDERSON: I think he was the kind of guy who'd fight somebody, and then we'd go to the store, and he'd pick up an extra bag of groceries, and we'd put them on somebody's steps because they were struggling. He was two guys.
GROSS: So this is the guy who did bad and the guy who came and apologized for it.
ANDERSON: Yeah. Alcoholism, you know, all addictions, all that stuff - you know, my dad was - when my dad was a kid, his mom and dad, you know, were very - my grandfather has 72, I think, inventions that he sold. We would've been really rich. You know, like the switch on the train tracks that switches it from one track to the other, the sliding thing that you slide your door, the big door out to the patio - he invented all that stuff and sold them. And then they would go on drunks across the country, him and his wife. And they would leave the kids.
And one of the times they went, there was a murder by a Swedish gang in the house in Frazee, Minn. And the kids were taken away from my grandparents. And my dad and my dad's sister were put up for adoption. And what that means - you probably know, Terry, but people don't know it. You were put up in front of the congregation, and people would pick your kids. They could pick them and take them to their farm and have another farmhand. And my dad and his sister were split up. And my dad never got over that. He never recovered from it. And they'd live in a different part of the house in another city. He would...
GROSS: It sounded like your father was treated more like a servant than a child.
ANDERSON: Yeah, he was treated more like a servant. He took me to the house one time in Northfield, Minn. He said, you see that window? I go, yeah. He said, they used to wonder why it got rusty. He says, I used to pee out of it to get back at them. I said, good one, dad.
GROSS: So he had a hard life, yeah.
ANDERSON: Yeah. And at 15, he made them sign a paper so he could join the first world war. And he learned how to play the bugle. And that's how he taught himself the trumpet.
GROSS: Oh, wow.
ANDERSON: And then...
GROSS: But you didn't find out about this until later in life.
ANDERSON: After he died.
GROSS: So you must've been shocked to find out that there was this big - there were so many secrets in your family. You're supposed to keep it secret that your father drank. He kept secret from you that he was put up for adoption, that he was...
ANDERSON: I don't think secrets as much as just it wasn't - nothing was talked about like that. Do you know what I mean? I don't think they hid it away because when my dad was going through radiation for his prostate cancer, I was with him. And he spilled his guts to an attendant who was doing all that. He told all this stuff. And I go, Jesus, I'm right here, dad. You never told me any of this. You're telling some stranger.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing. Sometimes, it's easier to tell secrets to a stranger.
ANDERSON: Much easier, yeah.
GROSS: So we spent a lot of time talking about growing up in a really big family - 11 kids in your family. So having grown up in such a big family and with a lot of issues in the family, from mental illness to your father's alcoholism, even though you've kept close to your family through both your comedy and through, I think, being close to the surviving members of your family, did you also want to get away from family? And did you ever want to create a big family of your own? Or did you feel like, I've done that - I don't want that?
ANDERSON: Well, first of all, I did want to get away but only in that any big family - you want your own stake in life. You want your own space. And, you know, when you grow up in a big family of 11 with a 20-year span in age, you know, I wanted to find my family but not necessarily have a family because I'm really a selfish person. I'll be really honest with you. I'm really self-centered and selfish. And I know I am. I don't want to be that person, but I really am selfish. And I think a lot of - I mean, I shouldn't say a lot of comics are - I just am. I'll just take it all on myself. And I don't mean it in any mean way or any cruel way. I just am. I'm all about me, and I know it's wrong. I try to do nice things and all that. But I am a very, very self-centered person. And I would be a great parent for about 10 minutes a day, you know. Oh, you're going to school. Go. Have some fun.
But, you know, I wouldn't - I don't think - I think I'm a much better, you know, friend and uncle and, you know, cousin and brother and, you know, that kind of thing. But I don't think I would have been a good parent. I mean, I'm gone all the time. I like to travel. I love to do standup comedy still. It still makes me really happy. And I'm really - I just think it's the one thing I'm so good at that I go, you're good at this, Louie. Good job. I've worked so hard. I've worked so many hours to make sure that when you're there, you are not burdened with this performance. You are hopefully forgetting every bit of your troubles. That's my goal every night. Hopefully, at some point in my act, you have forgotten whatever trouble you had when you came in.
GROSS: So you turning difficult things into comedy will help me in my life. Does it help you in your life? I mean, when you say the joke in something terrible that's happened, is that helpful to you?
ANDERSON: Yeah. Because, you know, like, I sat in my brother - I went to his apartment. It was really hard after he died. I sat where he sat, you know. And all the tragedy that I felt when I first got there, there was a peace that came over me. And I'll tell you, I was searching for Tommy's playlist because he had a really great playlist of classic rock music. And I said, Tommy, you have such good music. He goes, you know where I got it, right? And I go, no. I kept your album collection when you left. And it was all my songs. And it - and I wanted to get them so we could play them at the service, the celebration. And I looked over to the left. And there was a little MP3 player. And I opened it up, and it said music. And so it was just like, thanks, Tom.
And so as much as I miss Tom, his life was complete in so many ways. And so when I used to be - it was such a labor when I would lose somebody. And I would agonize over it and feel guilty. And did I do enough? I did as much as I could in all of those situations and much as I was able to do. And I really do encourage people. You have to - you have to not worry or doubt or punish yourself. All the worry, doubt and punishment will not add one second to your life. You know, let it go. Let those things go. And find the humor in wherever you can.
When I first became really successful, I did "The Tonight Show," and I had the biggest - a big "Tonight Show" in terms of, you know, Johnny's response, you know. And The Comedy Store had a party for me. And I was really in my - I was in heaven. I was in heaven. And I was really full of myself. It was really funny. It was, you know, I can even look back at it and laugh. And I was saying, hey, I am the greatest and all that stuff. And a guy come up to me, goes, are you Louie Anderson? And I go, I am. And I put my hand out to meet him. And he goes, I don't want to meet you. Could you move your car?
ANDERSON: And it happened twice to me that night. My karma's so immediate.
GROSS: Louie Anderson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.
ANDERSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Congratulations on your performance in "Baskets." And my sympathies. I'm so sorry about your brother.
ANDERSON: Thank you. Thank you. I'm going to send you about 50 of his flashlights that we found.
ANDERSON: We found over - we found, honestly, over a hundred flashlights...
GROSS: Oh, gosh.
ANDERSON: ...Just in one little area. And I go, what was he?
GROSS: Was he a hoarder?
ANDERSON: You know what I always say about my family? We were pack rats. We weren't hoarders because we have aisles.
DAVIES: Louie Anderson, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2016. He died a week ago at the age of 68. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new Showtime docu-series "We Need To Talk About Cosby" by W. Kamau Bell. This is FRESH AIR.
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