Louie Anderson, TV’s Unlikeliest Mother, Took Cues from His Own

In time for Mother’s Day, the actor-comedian releases a book of stories for his family’s late matriarch

In his stand-up and in the semi-autobiographical animated series Life with Louie, Louie Anderson has always quarried comedy from his family, a large Minnesotan brood of 11 children ruled by an alcoholic father and a loving, quirky mother. But Mrs. Ora Zella Anderson became an even bigger part of her son’s act when Louie was cast as Christine Baskets in the FX series Baskets. The role was a career high and rebirth for Anderson, who won an Emmy in 2016 and has been nominated every season since (making it a fair bet that he will be again for the show’s fourth and final season).

A Costco- and cat-loving Republican, Mrs. Baskets is a kooky, funny, suburban Bakersfield mom of a certain age and shape that we’ve pretty much never seen on television, and Anderson played her with utter sincerity. The character may have been created by Zach Galifianakis and showrunner Jonathan Krisel, but Anderson infused her with his DNA—and his mother’s. His latest book, Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, but You Can Read Them Too, is dedicated to the late Ora Zella and comes out in paperback just in time for Mother’s Day.

Anderson, 67, Zoomed with me from Henderson, Nevada—just outside of Las Vegas, which he first played in 1984—his home of 12 years. (His Zoom virtual background was the Golden Gate Bridge.) He said his mom would have loved this quarantine: “She’d have food on every surface. She’d be so thrilled our hands were so clean. And she’d be so happy to be around us. She loved us, man. She would always invite the skinniest kid in the neighborhood for supper.”

Is Vegas kind of a weird ghost town right now?

Oh, my God, it’s haunting. I was there at night going down the Strip, and the lights aren’t all on; just utility lights basically. I don’t think it wants to remind itself of what’s going on.

Did you have to cancel any shows?

They’ve canceled me; I haven’t canceled them [laughs]. They’re trying to reschedule them now. I told them, “Let’s go for around Thanksgiving because that’s my feeling about when things can get back to normal.”

You don’t mind being quarantined?

I insist on it [laughs]. I’m blessed and lucky. My nephew, who is a comic—Josh Florhaug—he brought me here from L.A. I had been stranded because I’d been doing Funny You Should Ask, and then the next day I got sick, and I was there for three or four days, really sick. Then he drove me back here, and he stayed until just a few days ago. It’s been fun to have someone to talk comedy with and take care of me.

But I don’t mind. I’m working on a new book and working on a new TV show. For a creative person, it’s kind of a fertile ground—once you get past the paranoia and the fear and the hopelessness. ’Cause all those things are there, when you listen to the news or put any kind of perspective on it. Even if it hasn’t touched you personally, it has touched you as an American; it has touched you as a human being. And it certainly has touched you as a family member on some level, if you’ve lost family before. It reminds me of when you can’t get back for a family member before they die. I feel sorry for all those people that can’t be with their loved ones on their last breath. It’s frightening.

I imagine a lot of people are discovering or catching up with Baskets during their homebound time.

That’s exciting, huh? We always thought we were doing a show that was ahead of its time. I always thought, you know, Baskets is not for everyone, but Baskets is for everyone who needs it. I happened to need it. I miss what was happening with Baskets every time I went to work because it was a show within a show. You know, Zach was playing two characters—that’s a lot of work. Jonathan Krisel, a great director and a visionary, I talked to him yesterday about possibly doing a new project for FX. You know, he never gave me any direction hardly. I’d go, “Was that it?” He goes: “Eh … let’s try another one.” There was no direction. Once in a while he’d squeeze out some info. But it was really good for me. Taught me a lot. He’s equally a part of creating Christine as I am.

Did you alter the way you played Christine over the course of the four seasons? Did you find her more as a character as time went by?

I became her more. You know what I mean? I don’t know if I just embraced her more. ‘Cause the very first Christine scene, if you watch it, is completely raw and honest. One of the things that happened was I owned her more as a person. I really was Christine when I played the part. I wasn’t Louie Anderson playing Christine Baskets. I didn’t let people call me Louie on the set. I needed that. I’d go, “Don’t call me Louie. You can call me Mama Baskets if you want or Christine but not Louie. He’s not here right now.”

You went full Dustin Hoffman?

Well, he’s just not here. I don’t want to get into a serious conversation as Louie. So I would answer everybody from Christine’s perspective because I really had to make sure that Louie never crept into any of those scenes. ’Cause he’s a jealous, vain egomaniac. He wants to get in there and see if he can get a little glimmer of success out of that.

One thing that happened is, Christine got better accoutrements. Her clothes got a little classier. Her hair got spectacular. First of all, this is Zach’s show, and I crept into it. Not purposefully, but I tried to steal it, you know—or the character did. I can blame her. But that didn’t mean that everybody didn’t go along with it. So I think that could be the change that maybe you feel. And I think Jonathan always set the tone. Each year I think he wanted Christine to be happier. Did you get that sense in the fourth season? He said, “I just want Christine to be happy.” And I thought, “Wow, that was really prophetic for me,” ’cause I go, “Good, I want Christine to be happier, too.” I didn’t try to change her. You know what I was trying to do? Be authentic to where the character was each time. I think she let go of things as things went on. I think she realized she was a big bully and trying to control the whole world, and then she found someone, finally, who loved her. I think that was hard for her. I don’t know that she trusted it. But look at her: She’s in Denver with the Carpet King.

The episode (#405) where she goes to Denver with Ken, and she’s sad throughout and sort of gives Ken an out from marrying her—I didn’t know how it was going to end. Her self-esteem was really low.

I think she was afraid of being let down if she went all in. You know, like: What if you got naked in front of somebody and they giggled the wrong way? You would be crushed if you were Christine—or anybody. No one likes to be giggled at. When you’re a fat kid, you grow up with that. You know what I love most about Christine? That character has never been on TV in my opinion. Jonathan said, “Usually people like Christine don’t get on a TV show.” And I love that. I thought that was really right.

Did you keep the wig or the costumes?

No. Maybe one pair of the pants [laughs]. I think one night I was so tired, I wore home one of those black pair of pants she wears. And they kept asking me to bring them back, and I said, “I don’t know where they are.” And once in a while I take them out and smell ’em.

To each his own…

No, I mean in the sense of like … once in a while what happens is I run across them, and I go, “Oh, these are Christine’s. I should get them back to her.” But I never will. The wig was fantastic. It was handmade; it cost thousands of dollars to make that wig. The first wig, FYI, my head’s so big we had to cut the back of it open. And there was something about that cheap wig that was so real, you know.

One of the things I love about the show is, it balances a sense of melancholy and sadness with humor, almost slapstick at times. Was it hard to figure out which note to play on the set?

I was working with such a fantastic actor. Zach really made that easy, and Jonathan, too. And Martha [Kelly], she was a great foil for me. I love Martha, ’cause I could treat her like the daughter I never had—or maybe even the friend I never had. I think I’m a melancholy person. There’s a melancholy part of me that kind of enjoys being melancholy. It’s kind of a “poor me” thing, don’t you think? But with this character, the honest truth is I literally became that person who had sons—Chip and Dale were my sons—so I was a mother in that situation. And there’s a lot of sadness in being a mother. Especially with those sons, you know, and her circumstances. So I just kept reaching for: What is she feeling right now? And how did my mom feel? I used that a lot. My mom had situations with family members—you know, my brother who was schizophrenic, and he would just take off. When Chip took off … my mom was upset that Billy took off, and I would just play that as if that was true for me. And then I would be more like my dad—I would be a little mad at him when he put me through stuff, like when he ended up in jail. I was so connected to that character that it wasn’t something I decided after I read the script. It was something that was happening in the moment, and I embraced it. I took the part very seriously. People say, “You’re a man who played a woman.” I go, “I’m a woman who played a woman. Come on. Don’t talk to me like that.” There was no man in that part. I don’t know how it happened, or what was happening, or how I did it. I think it was part spiritual or however you want to look at it. I think that every person, if they look really hard at themselves, could find all the feelings they have. And you know a really funny thing, and I just found this out—’cause I love doctors, so I’m always getting tests for stuff—I found out I have very low testosterone. And I wondered then, after I found that out, did that play a part in my circumstances?

Baskets is a very hard show to describe.

I think it does represent a part of the country that doesn’t get honestly represented. Because I don’t think the show ever looked down at that family. I think it looks straight into their eyes and their hearts. Jonathan’s fearless—and Zach, too. But what a life experience I had. I’m really picky now about anything I’d want to do.

You’d want to find something that gave you a similar outlet or let you do something as ambitious. But I’m sure those roles are few and far between.

I’ve written a thing with Mike Sikowitz. A TV thing. And I said to Jonathan and Sally [Sue Beisel], the first AD—two people who are very dear to me—at the end of the thing, I said, “You know I can never play a human again” basically. So I put my hands like this on my face, and I said, “Can you see me as a cat?” And they both said, “Yes, I could see you as a cat.” So I went and met with Mike to possibly do another TV show. I said, “My brother had a cat named Tiggsly, who was so smart, who could use the toilet and flush it. What about me as a talking house cat?” And he goes, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And I did the same thing; I put my hands like this on my face.

I’m kind of a catlike person, you know—I like to lay around and have people pet me. I think my mom was that kind of person, too, in her older years. [Anderson is currently developing Tiggsly with Fox.] Me as a talking house cat—but not full in a costume, and not animated. Kind of a cross between a human and automaton, but cat size. I think it’s a good idea, about a cat who helps a family.

What do I do now? Doing the role of my lifetime, where do I go next? Do I just do something and I’m terrible at it, and that’ll be it? Or do I try something that’s equally as daring and challenging, if not more, than Christine was?

You know what’s really nice? To be OK with who you are. You get to a certain age and you’re just like: This is something that bugs me, and I gotta keep doing it. I wish I didn’t have such droopy eyes. You know, when I was a kid, they wanted to fix these teeth. They wanted to close up that space in between it. Three or four dentists tried to do it. I go, “No, shut up.”

Why did you resist?

I like being different. I’m never gonna be the person you want to be—you know, the perfect male, the class president.

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