Everyone wants a picture. That’s the thing when you win an Emmy.
You’re stumbling around at a party, out of your mind with elation, the statuette glued to your hand. Smile and click, smile and click, smile and click.
"I never turn anyone down for a photo. Unless I’m in the tub," said Louie Anderson, who won in 2016 for his tender, gender-bent performance as Zach Galifianakis’ mother on the FX sitcom Baskets.
As he spoke, Anderson was preparing for a weekend of Emmy-weekend parties, leading up to a ceremony where he was once again nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He lost to Henry Winkler, but for the 65-year-old comic, the validation of a nomination was good enough.
For 40 years, Anderson’s clean takes on food, family and physique have made him a widely admired performer and author. He’ll come to Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre on Friday riding a late-career high from Baskets’ critical acclaim, the April release of his latest special Big Underwear and the May publication of his touching book Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too.
There has long been a current of darkness underneath his comedy, one that stems from the guilt and shame of food addiction and his relationships with his difficult father and complicated mother, on whom he based his Baskets performance. He has life regrets and complex thoughts on some of the troubles plaguing the comedy world in 2018, some of which he’s connected to. But he also just wants to make people laugh and see the light.
"I do think that people are not coming to my show to be lectured or to visit the dark realms of comedy," he said. "I think people relate to those things. I think they know them. I’ve written about them. I’ve talked about them. But on stage, my thing is, how much light can I shine upon the underbelly of that comedy?"
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The most obvious good thing to come from Baskets was that it showed Anderson could really act. Despite past roles in film (Coming to America) and TV (he co-created the Emmy-winning animated show Life With Louie), it was hard for people to look past his giant, gap-toothed grin.
"I don’t think people ever took me seriously as an actor," he said. "Not that they said anything, but I just didn’t get the calls, the parts."
For Anderson, though, the best part was getting to pay homage to his mother from the stage. Ora Zella Anderson, who died in 1990, could be "passive-aggressive, overbearing," and she "had to merely glance at you and you knew you were doing the wrong thing." But her son carried a deep affection for her all the way to the Emmy stage.
"To get to celebrate my mom was the big part for me," he said. "She had been so important to me, and she was the orchestrator of this role, and a lot of her nuances won that award, and a lot of her gestures and things like that. I like to think that she’s looking down and smiling."
The idea to cast Anderson as Christine Baskets came from series co-creator Louie C.K., who has left in the wake of his sexual misconduct scandal. Anderson called C.K. "a strong person," but downplayed his day-to-day involvement ("We never had a lot of contact") and expressed sympathy for all involved.
"It’s such an emotional thing, still, for me, like, Oh, man, that is rough, all the way around," he said. "He’s a really smart guy. I always thought he was much smarter, one of the smartest standups. What do you say about something like that, except it’s so unfortunate?"
The #MeToo web almost could have snared Anderson, too.
Last year, veteran comic Tom Rhodes released an album featuring a bit called "Meeting Louie Anderson." He describes being a 19-year-old in the ’80s, and winning a contest to fly from Florida to the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where he met Anderson. On the album, Rhodes said Anderson took him out and began making unwanted advances, attempting to kiss him and "squeezing my ass cheeks." On his podcast, Rhodes later said the experience made him feel "ashamed and disgusted," and that it took years for him to be able to open up about it.
Asked about the incident, Anderson at first demurred, but a few minutes later had a change of heart.
"I really regret that Tom felt put upon and felt uncomfortable," Anderson said. "I had no idea. I was a big flirt back then, and so that’s a possibility that that happened, and I regret that. I regret that he would be put in that position. And I’m truly sorry for it."
Rhodes has since retired the bit from his act, and said his feelings on the incident have evolved as more stories from the #MeToo movement have come to light. He has not spoken to Anderson, who he has always liked and still calls a "comedy legend." But he believes "someone’s sexual proclivities should never be an issue when it comes to discussing the merits of someone’s chosen work," and that Anderson should not be lumped in with other accused harassers and abusers. He asked that his story not circulate further.
"Whatever I went through in that story, based on my knowledge of the man, I would not categorize him as a sexual deviant monster, which some people are being revealed to be right now," Rhodes said. "I have great sympathy for the guy."
Anderson, for his part, has some sympathy for at least one comic caught in a #MeToo controversy. He is a friend of Chris Hardwick, who over the summer was accused of emotional abuse by an ex-girlfriend. Anderson had gone on Hardwick’s podcast in April to talk about his mother and book; it was an emotionally charged two hours that he calls "one of the strongest podcasts I did."
"I completely support his innocence," Anderson said of Hardwick. "He took a beating. They (AMC, the home of Hardwick’s show Talking Dead) did an investigation, and the network, they feel like he was exonerated in it. He’s just such a great guy. That all happened, and you just, you don’t even know what to say to a person, except, ‘I support you and I hope everything works out.’?"
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Anderson is nearing 40 years in standup comedy. The official anniversary, four decades from his first gig at Mickey Finn’s in Minneapolis, is Oct. 10.
"I’m so happy that I can still bring it," he said. "It feels really good. I’m really proud of it, and I’m still around."
His comedy, clean and self-deprecating, has evolved in that time, but only to a point — his latest special, released in April, was called Big Underwear.
"Here’s my No. 1 thing with my standup: Is everybody having a good time?" he said. "Are people enjoying themselves? Am I getting the laughs? And am I sticking to the script of who I am and what I talk about?"
For every joke about eating too much bread, or every loving impression of his mother, he said, "there’s a serious thing that happened" to inspire it. Take the following line: "My dad never hit us. He carried a gun. He never shot at us. He’d just click the gun."
"I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s a pretty serious thing," he said. "But a very funny take on it. It’s very, Oh, I can laugh at that. I just feel like I can simmer it down to be palatable. Because if I go out there and say, ‘Hey, my dad kicked down my door at 3 in the morning and called me a lardass,’ where do I go with that, comedy-wise? That isn’t my forte. That’s just not my interest."
He has spent years getting help for his issues, and thinks that to his audiences, "it’s obvious that I’m a food addict and had my struggles with my life and with my family." He adds: "I think we all have real lives, and then we have a life that we lead outside."
All of it, he talks about with great affection. And that, coupled with the success of Baskets, leads him to his biggest regret of all.
"I wish I could have become better friends with my dad," he said. "I was pretty good friends with my mom. But I wish I would have been a better friend with my dad, and a better friend with my mother, also."
He encourages anyone whose parents are still alive to ask them questions, to engage them in conversations they will later wish they could have had. If not, those questions will "linger with you, and you have to deal with them."
"Sometimes we forget that our parents can be our friend, instead of having to be the parent," he said. "It’s a really difficult and touchy thing to get to that point. But once you do, it makes a giant difference."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.