JFL: Louie Anderson shares ups and downs of his career

Pop Goes The News – Louie Anderson’s voice cracked and his eyes filled with tears as he talked on Thursday afternoon about his role on Baskets.

“It was great and you know all about it,” he said during a keynote address in the ComedyPRO series at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival. “At 61, I got that job… and that same year won the Emmy for it.”

Anderson, now 66, recalled getting a phone call from Louie C.K., one of the creators of the FX series starring Zach Galifianakis. “He asked ‘Will you play Zach’s mother?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will! I’ve been wanting to play someone’s mother.”

The steady job (the fourth season of Baskets debuted last month) came after years of ups and downs for Anderson. 

A stand-up slot on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson in 1984 earned him a $250,000 holding deal with NBC and changed his life forever. “I thought I was the coolest thing in the world,” he recalled. “I went to the top of the heap really fast.”

He was cast as Cousin Lou opposite Bronson Pinchot for the pilot episode of ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers but was replaced by Mark Linn-Baker. 

“I was so devastated. I almost quit show business,” said Anderson. “I really almost quit.” (He joked that he took a picture with his Emmy for Baskets and sent it “to the Perfect Strangers people.”)

An animated series, Life With Louie, ran on Fox for three seasons but a CBS sitcom, The Louie Show, was cancelled after six episodes.

Anderson hosted a reboot of Family Feud but was fired after three years. “Another devastation. Horrible, terrible thing,” he admitted. “Another experience of me not being the Louie that I could have been.”

Anderson said he went to Vegas to do stand-up but “was really down and out, not getting jobs.” He accepted an invitation to be part of a celebrity diving show called Splash, which aired on ABC in 2013.

“I couldn’t swim at the time but I didn’t really care and it was the most fun thing in the world,” he remembered. “I knew I could jump off the 33-metre board and I did it, and it changed my whole life.”

He told himself, “I’m brave. I can do anything.”

Anderson’s ComedyPRO address, which ran at least 15 minutes longer than scheduled, was both emotional and funny. He frequently veered off script and repeatedly wiped sweat from his face with a towel.

(Anderson, who had a ring on the ring finger of his left hand, didn’t talk about his personal life but advised the audience to “find someone to love you, especially someone to love you and not your comedy.”)

He told of being the 10th of 11 children in a Minnesota family – and joked about recently finding out from 23andMe that he is “50 per cent Norwegian and English and 50 per cent butter.”

His father Louis, a trumpet player for singer Hoagy Carmichael, was “a psychopath” with a drinking problem. His mother Ora was “a saint.”

Anderson said his older brother Kent was a career criminal who worked for the Mob. He was implicated in the high-profile theft of seven Norman Rockwell paintings and a Renoir in February 1978.

“They said he was the lookout but he was with me that night,” Anderson quipped.

Anderson dabbled in crime by selling stolen snowmobiles. “I got caught right away because the guy brought one back and the police were following him and they took me in,” he recalled. “I got six months probation.”

He credited his probation officer with convincing him to do better in his life. “He was the first guy who ever told me that I was a really smart person. He just really changed my whole life,” said Anderson. “I was very grateful. He just had a big impact on my life.”

Anderson re-enrolled in school and eventually became a social worker. Someone dared him to try stand-up and he quickly realized it was what he wanted to do. He made his way to Los Angeles.

A week before The Tonight Show offered him a slot, he couldn’t pay his rent and applied for a job at a gas station/convenience store.

“The day of the Tonight Show, the guy called me back and said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I’m doing the Tonight Show tonight.” He said, ‘Yeah so am I.’ I said, ‘No I am, watch me.’

“He called me the next day and he said, ‘You did it. I had no idea. You still want the job?’ I said no.”

Anderson said he’s an example of why no one should give up on what they want “no matter what anyone else thinks, no matter what anyone else says.”

He added: “My career began on a dare, continued on a dream, stays alive on the belief that I am not yet finished.”

Louie Anderson will be part of the Anthony Jeselnik gala at Just For Laughs on July 27. Tickets are available here.