Louie Anderson: Laughing in the Face of Pain

“I love to do standup comedy still. It still makes me really happy… 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.”

That one statement, taken from an interview Louie Anderson did with Terry Gross in a 2016 episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, tells you all you want to know about what it takes to make people laugh.

One, you hone your craft. Two, you polish your act to make it seem natural and “unburdened.” And three, you make the audience feel special. All these things Anderson, who died recently at age 68, mastered.

One of eleven children, Anderson’s family was poor, and his father was an alcoholic. Louie suffered from obesity and depression. These conditions did not overwhelm him; he used them as material. As a performer, Louie saw himself as one who could alleviate it, if only for the audience’s time in the theater. 

Life as a comedy

As child number ten, Louie formed a close bond with his mother. So close that when Louie played the role of the mother to Chip (played by Zack Galifianakis) in the television series, Baskets, elements of his real-life mother seeped into the character.

As Anderson told Terry Gross, he would tell jokes, chiefly about his family as well as himself.

At Thanksgiving, my mom always makes too much food, especially one item, like 700 or 800 pounds of sweet potatoes. She’s got to push it during the meal. ‘Did you get some sweet potatoes? There’s sweet potatoes. They’re hot. There’s more in the oven, some more in the garage. The rest are at the Johnson’s.’” 

“My mom was a garage sale person, save money [to] save money. She’d get in that garage sale and point stuff out to you. ‘There’s a good fork for a nickel. Yeah, that’s beautiful. It’s a little high. If it were three cents, I’d snap it up.’”

“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.” [“My dad quit drinking when he was 69,” Louie told Terry Gross, “and here was my mom’s response. She turned to me, and she said, ‘I told you he’d quit drinking.’”]

“My first words were ‘Seconds, please.’ Most kids in kindergarten napped on a little rug. I had a braided 9 x 12.”

“I’m a 7 o’clock act. My people want to go to a show, a dinner, and then go home and go to bed.” 

Keeping it real

Lessons managers can learn from Anderson is the commitment to work, continuous improvement over time, and a willingness to connect with others.

For all his stardom, Louie never lost the sense of himself. After his first appearance on the Tonight Show in 1983, he received a warm response from Johnny Carson, then the biggest arbiter of standup talent. Louie was on cloud nine, or as he says, “heaven.” 

The Comedy Cellar in Los Angeles held an after-glow party for Louie. “And a guy comes up to me and 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?”

First posted on Forbes.com 2.00.2022