Life with Louie (‘s parents)

1 February, 2022

Louie Anderson died on January 21, 2022, at the age of 68. The reason this article exists is because Louie Anderson was extremely relevant to the millennial generation in Romania, thanks to his cartoon series, Life with Louie, which was watched by millions of children in the late ’90s, but few asked themselves, “Who was Louie Anderson really?”.

Louie Anderson

The easiest way would be to open his Wikipedia page and find out the most basic information one could be known by. About his personal life, we learn that Anderson was born in 1953 in Minnesota, the second youngest of 11 children in his family – a handful for the parents: a war veteran and a housewife. He began his acting career in the 1980s, doing stand-up comedy and playing minor roles in TV series. His appearance on Coming to America alongside Eddie Murphy gain him some visibility, but as his stand-up shows brought him more and more fans, the opportunity arose to make the animated sitcom mentioned above (in the 1990s, it was common for some comedians to link their names to children’s animations; among them Howie Mandel, John Candy and Rick Moranis). Most of the American audience also remembers Louie Anderson as the host of Family Feud between 1999 and 2002. He also had several guest appearances on various shows, and between 2016 and 2019, he played a memorable role on the comedy series Baskets. In the meantime, he continued his career as a comedian and wrote several autobiographical books. That would be all, nothing impressive, just two or three milestones in his 38-year career. And yet, a simple Google search shows us a cascade of pieces that pay him tribute. So many eulogies, letters of sadness and condolences from big names in Hollywood. It’s clear that Anderson had many friends, but how? How did Louie Anderson become so famous with a rather thin resume? He was a great comedian, for sure, but maybe one doesn’t become so loved just by talent. So who was Louie Anderson? As with any artist, his true identity is hidden in his work. The autobiographical books, Life with Louie, his stories, and especially the stand-up show that made him famous (Mom! Louie’s looking at me again!), all have one thing in common: his family. Being one of 11 children, it’s no surprise his family left a permanent mark on its formative years. But it’s his mother and father who are omnipresent in his entire body of work. Louie Anderson was his parents.

LIFE WITH LOUIE, (from left): Louie Anderson, Little Louie Anderson, Andy Anderson, ‘Born A Rambler Man’. © Fox Children’s Network / Courtesy: Everett Collection

I would start this analysis chronologically. First, we have the 1989 stand-up show Mom! Louie’s looking at me again!, which has obviously been the basis for the cartoon series Life with Louie (Fox Kids, 1995-1998). Producer Margaret Loesch invited Anderson to create a TV series inspired by his childhood, and Matthew O’Callaghan served as animator and co-creator. Although it won two Emmys and the Humanitas Prize three times (an award for film and television writing), the show didn’t leave a notable mark on American popular culture. But I think it’s superfluous to mention the impact the series had on Eastern Europe (maybe this topic would be worth exploring on another occasion). Anyone in the 25-35 age group from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia and Turkey remembers this show fondly. The popularity of the series is due, in part, to the fact that Fox Kids was, in the 1990s and 2000s, one of the two TV channels to broadcast cartoons exclusively, but unlike Cartoon Network, the programs were dubbed in Romanian, which made it more accessible. From my brief research, it seems that the element that made the series really popular was the father’s character, Andy Anderson. Many found their own father in him: a head of household annoyed by every little thing, with endless stories about his glory years, a bombastic personality and legendary stinginess, a blue-collar worker who spent hours repairing his eternally broken car (his most prized possession). Andy Anderson was a difficult man who had a hard time expressing his true feelings, but it was clear that deep down he only had true love for his family. Sounds familiar, right? Maybe it’s anecdotal, but next time there’s a downpour, mention to someone “This isn’t rain! I was in the South Seas for monsoon” – guaranteed you will get the reply “For crying out loud!”. That’s how ingrained are his lines in the minds of Romanian millennials. Even Louie Anderson admitted that the character’s international success was due to the fact that “dads are crazy, mean, and unfair everywhere! But we love them”. Watching the series, it’s clear that besides Louie the child, the second protagonist is Andy; Life with Louie is thus not only a show about the comedian’s childhood, but also about his father. Maybe that’s why the actor plays both characters. This was his chance to get into his father’s skin; to take on his image so he could turn his childhood into something better. Louie Anderson was his father.

After Life with Louie, the next landmark in Anderson’s career is Baskets (FX, 2016-2019), a comedy TV series created by Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel. Baskets tells the story of Chip Baskets, a clown who studied performing arts in Europe and returned to his hometown in the United States, where his artistic acts are not acknowledged. Chip has to face an ignorant culture, family dramas, his own childhood traumas and the difficulty to perform as a clown. But he has the support of his mother, Christine Baskets, played by Louie Anderson. The series has been praised by critics, especially for its dry, bittersweet humor, typical of Galifianakis, and although it has been nominated several times, the series won only two awards (a Critic’s Choice and an Emmy), both for Anderson’s performance. Perhaps the historical context played a part, too. Would anyone have appreciated a non-burlesque performance in drag, let’s say, at least 15 years ago? But it looks like we live in a more empathetic era and Louie Anderson could act naturally even dressed in a dress without being pointed at; so naturally that despite Anderson’s recognizable face it’s easy to get lost in the illusion of the character. And that’s thanks to the script. Christine Baskets is, as the actor describes her, “an everywoman”. She is an overweight elderly woman who loves all her four children and is actively involved in their lives, trying to help them “make their own way in the world”. She is warm, clumsy, mushy, determined and utterly honest. And this honesty is what Louie Anderson mentioned every time he was asked what it was like to play a woman. He didn’t change his voice, didn’t have exaggerated feminine gestures and didn’t play a caricature. He was honest. Because, as he himself admitted, he invoked his mother in interpreting Christine. Louie Anderson dug deep into his memories and picked a gesture, a facial expression, a certain way of walking, talking, scolding… which he took on and wore as adornments. One thing that Christine Baskets and Ora Anderson had in common was the challenge of raising many children with precarious financial means, but there are probably many other similarities in the hard lives led by the two women, which were known only by Louie Anderson. This role was the actor’s swan song, and it wouldn’t have been so brilliant if he had not had the experience of a real mother brought to the surface by the actor. Louie Anderson was his mother.

Both Andy and Christine were tribute roles. Through them, Louie Anderson was able to honor his parents. But at the same time, they were also therapeutic roles. In his books, Dear Dad: Letters from an Adult Child and Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, Anderson sends letters to his late parents and reveals to the public the harsh reality behind his jokes: his real father wasn’t as caring as the character in Life with Louie. The actor’s childhood and memories of his father were marked by domestic violence, fear and alcoholism. His mother struggled to raise 11 children and her early death in the 1990s left a terrible void in her son, who didn’t get to show her how far he had come and how much he could have done for her. With such scars and suffering, Louie Anderson set off and created his most famous roles. Fortunately, he was open to kindness and understanding. His path to healing – writing books, therapy, support groups – began early in his career, before he could be blinded by the well-known mirage of fame and success. Therefore, Anderson’s work is not resentful. It would have been easy to have made a show in which the father was the antagonist, to have painted him a venomous portrait. But he took the figure of his father and shaped it into something that holds affection, rather than malice. When viewers look at Andy, they probably can’t even imagine the hardships the actor actually went through as a child, this “shadow” of his father seems so genuine. As for his mother, Christine’s role was her late gift. Unable to give her too much in her final years, Louie Anderson brought her back through his role. If the father had to undergo some changes for his tribute, the mother remained exactly as she was, perhaps to feel closer to her, to communicate the things that couldn’t be said before. He found healing to his trauma by assuming the identities of his parents, thus making Louie Anderson a better man; this is how he is described by all his friends who have mourned him in recent days: as a kind, generous and empathetic man. That’s how those who knew him felt about him, and that is the reason for which he is famous. Louie Anderson was not necessarily his parents. Louie Anderson was the force that created good from bad.

Graphic artist and comics creator, known under the name of Nilu Crocodilu. Passionate about animation, but not enough to create some. An amateur cinephile, with his brains rotten from pop culture.