Winning an Emmy for playing Zach Galifianakis’s mother on the TV cringe-com Baskets has gained Louie Anderson some fans who weren’t around when he started performing comedy in the late 1970s. But channeling his own departed mom to inhabit the character hasn’t radically changed the core themes of his stand-up act, which he brings Bristol Riverside Theatre on May 25.
“My act has always been about my family, or about me being fat in my family,” says Anderson. He won a best supporting actor Emmy in 2016, his first year playing Christine Baskets (the fourth season of Baskets starts June 13 on FX). The story goes that when Galifianakis and then-producer Louis CK were talking about casting the show, Galifianakis made a squawky noise to suggest what the mom should sound like, and CK said, “You mean like Louie Anderson?” Anderson doesn’t really alter his voice for the role. He wears a wig and dress but isn’t campy about it.
“Christine is kind of a cult figure, so I try to let people know where that character came from,” Anderson says. “It’s given me a chance to reflect on my mom and my mom’s relationship with my dad. She raised 11 children, and my father was a monster, but she never gave up on him or us. I never knew my mom got makeup on before breakfast.”
Stand-up performance can be a sort of on-stage therapy for comedians, and in his four decades as a comic, Anderson, 66, has joked through a few issues with a microphone in hand (along with confessional books he wrote to his mother and father). In his early years, his go-to jokes were about the first thing audiences noticed: his weight, which is in the 400-pound range. He loaded up self-deprecating one-liners. Taking the mic, he’d announce: “Let me move this [microphone stand] so you can see me.” He joked that at the beach, “every time I’d lay down, they tried to push me back into the water.”
These days, he's letting himself off the hook a little.
"I only do a few real fat jokes. I kind of get it out of the way," he says. "I talk about how much I love food. My mom loved butter. I love butter. My dad drank. I just decided food was going to be my addiction. I say if I get one more X on my clothing, I'm next year's Super Bowl. Or when I go to a 'big and tall' store, you never run into any tall people. So I make sure they're really funny jokes, but I don’t dwell on it. I'm just telling you what it's like to be a big person."
He has come to terms, too, with his late father, whom he always described as alcoholic, verbally abusive, and volatile (“He never hit us. He carried a gun.”)
“He’s still a little bit fodder for me, because I have adopted some of his complaining. I think he made me a better arguer,” Anderson says. “I think it’s about remembering your parents in the fondest way that you can. And cut people slack that have a hard time in life. Don’t be so hard on them. They’re doing the best they can. I don’t think people choose to be screw-ups.”
How can a comedian be at peace with his demons and stay funny? "There's always someone to be mad at," he says. "I come from a blamer's family."
A Minnesota native, Anderson isn’t in the Philly area a lot, though he has fond memories of playing the Valley Forge Music Fair in the 1980s (“I had to figure out how to tell jokes in the round.”). He comes to Bristol as part of the Riverside Theatre’s “One Night Stand Series,” which is aimed at attracting name acts and a younger audience than the usual shows there. It’s apparently a baby step on the youth front. Following Anderson in the series is comedian Robert Klein (age 77) on May 31 and the jazz/swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on June 6.
Baskets, as an awkward sort-of comedy (does Galifianakis do anything else?), is considered edgy and has surely won Anderson younger fans. It’s also helped him appreciate his mother and, he thinks, womanhood in general.
"People treat you different as a woman," he says. "Sometimes, I'll be in the Christine get-up, and I'll run to the store. And people will treat me differently as a woman. I can feel it." Women over a certain age sometimes say they are made to feel invisible, he is told.
“That’s when I start stealing stuff,” Anderson jokes. “That’s when I steal a Hershey bar. For me, it would be the Baby Ruth. Really, I like a Butterfinger. Just because it has the word butter in it.”