Louie Anderson is a professional.
That’s really the important thing to know about the popular standup comic, who came up during the comedy boom of the 1980s. Anderson quickly earned a reputation as a reliable headliner and emerged as one of the leading comedians of his generation.
In his 30-plus years since then, Anderson has branched out into movies, TV and the game show circuit – he hosted the “Family Feud” reboot for several years. He even had his own animated kids show, the sweet and funny “Life with Louie,” based on his childhood years in Minnesota.
Anderson is back in circulation again, big time, with his remarkable performance in the hit FX comedy “Baskets,” created by Zach Galifianakis and Louis CK. In the show, Anderson plays Christine, the mother of Galifianakis’ character, and it is truly one of the most startling transformations you’ll ever see on screen. Hollywood has noticed: Last year, Anderson won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
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Anderson returns to his standup roots Thursday, performing at the Duke Energy Center in Raleigh. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he spoke to The News & Observer about the FX show, his mom and the unspoken contract of standup comedy.
Q: Like so many comics, you got your big break on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Do you remember that experience?
A: Oh, you mean November 20, 1984? [Laughs] Yeah, I remember every second of it. Going in the back door, Johnny’s car was parked right there – a Corvette Stingray. I might have put my hand on it, as a lucky thing. The dressing rooms were tinier than you’d expect. Somebody did my hair. The guy told me, “Do a good job. Don’t go over your time.” Very showbizzy.
I heard Ed McMahon introduce Johnny, and he did his monologue about McDonald’s – their sign had just updated to the famous thing, “One billion people served.” I came to that curtain you’ve seen a million times on TV. The band is blaring, they point to the little “X” where you’re supposed to stand. Then I heard Johnny say, “Our next guest is making his national television debut, please welcome Louie Anderson.” The curtain parted, I did my first joke, it went over big and everything changed.
Really – Zach (Galifianakis) is a genius actor and a reluctant superstar.
Q: Your performance on “Baskets” is just incredible, it’s like some kind of magic trick. Do you have any specific techniques for portraying the character?
A: Well, I ask everyone on the set to call me Christine, not Louie. When I get on the wig and the makeup, I look like a cross between my sister and my mom. I draw from that. I ask myself what my mom would think, and I try to come from her angle on it. That seems to be successful.
As the part has gone on, it’s become a collaboration and I think I’m getting better at it. I came into that show from a different era. I’m from the generation of comedians before Zach and Louie, and they’re just geniuses. Really – Zach is a genius actor and a reluctant superstar. I was dumbfounded when I won the Emmy. It didn’t mean as much to me as it did to the show. I knew if I won the Emmy, it would make a huge difference for the show.
Q: What is it about the form of standup comedy that keeps you coming back?
A: Well, it’s so immediate, you know. As an art form, it’s reminiscent of jazz. You start with an idea, but you can really improvise it to anything. I really think the secret to great standup is to improvise the material into a full piece, a full presentation, like a song with a melody.
I also like this idea that, when I’m onstage, there’s an unspoken obligation, a contract with the audience. I think all the good comedians have that awareness. It’s an exchange. These people have had a hard week, they’ve spent their hard-earned money. You have an obligation to make them laugh. When I walk on that Raleigh stage, it’s with the same sense of importance that I had on “The Tonight Show.”
I’m working on a special right now, so the material is all new. I’m doing the Colbert show, too, so I’ll be revisiting the late night TV world once again, 30 years later. I’m excited that I’ll be back behind the curtain again, somebody pointing to where I’m supposed to stand.
When I walk on that Raleigh stage, it’s with the same sense of importance that I had on “The Tonight Show.”
Actually, there’s something I didn’t tell you about the Johnny Carson thing. So he did the monologue about McDonald’s, right? Well, when you’re on the show, you’re not supposed to do any jokes that you don’t go over previously with the talent coordinator.
But I didn’t really like that guy. So after I opened, I looked to Johnny and said, “You know. I was just at McDonald’s and that sign changed again.” It got the biggest laugh. Johnny appreciated that, because he was a great standup comic.
Q: Did the guy say anything to you afterward?
A: Yeah, he comes up and says, “You weren’t supposed to do any other jokes!” I acted like I didn’t remember, all innocent: “Did I?” I looked right at him and I lied. “Did I?” Then he said, “Yeah, well, Johnny liked it. Good job.”
Who: Louie Anderson
When: 8 p.m., Thursday, June 15
Where: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Info: 919-996-8700 or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com