A tribute to Louie Anderson: honoring his empathetic, dignified comedy

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 21: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Actor/comedian Louie Anderson visits Build Series to discuss FX Networks' comedy TV series "Baskets" at Build Studio on June 21, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 21: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Actor/comedian Louie Anderson visits Build Series to discuss FX Networks' comedy TV series "Baskets" at Build Studio on June 21, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images) /

Louie Anderson, a beloved comedian on the circuit since the 1980s, passed away on Jan. 21 due to cancer complications. He was aged 68.

Anderson’s portrayal of the mom, Christine Baskets, on the FX series Baskets is one of those great performances that live rent-free in my mind. It was a brilliantly moving portrayal that connected with so many people, and garnered him three Emmy award nominations for the role, with him winning the statue in 2016. He could have easily won every year for the singular role.

The comedian’s passing hit me pretty hard. He was a dream interview goal for me and I will never get that opportunity. Honestly, I just wanted to thank him for infusing our culture with a unique, kind, and gentle form of comedy encapsulated especially in the heartfelt character Christine Baskets. I remember when he was first nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Emmy in 2016, he wasn’t the first pick in the Emmy pool, but I swore to anyone who would listen that he would walk away with the award.

Born in 1953 and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Anderson was one of eleven of Ora Zella’s and Louie William Anderson’s children. After winning a Midwest comedy contest and working as a comedy writer, his first big break came when he was booked on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for his network television debut in 1984. He knocked it out of the park, of course:

Self-deprecating and hostility-free, Anderson stood as a sharp contrast to much more in-your-face coarse peers such as Sam Kinison at the time.

Well-received comedy showcases lead to a slew of small, memorable roles in seminal 1980’s films Flashdance, Quicksilver, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Coming to America, which he reprised in the 2020 sequel, Coming 2 America.

The Midwest comic also made guest appearances on Remington Steel, The Jim Henson Hour, Grace Under Fire, Scrubs, Ally McBeal, Nash Bridges, Chicago Hope, Drunk History, Young Sheldon, and Search Party.

But he was known even better for the award-winning animated show he created, Life with Louie, which ran from 1995-1998. Inspired by his childhood, the series dealt with family relationship issues—especially regarding his abusive and alcoholic father—and bullying due to his weight. Life With Louie would earn the comedian two Daytime Emmy’s, his first television performance awards.

From 1999-2002 Louie Anderson also hosted a revival of Family Feud, which he hilariously talked about in a People interview, including how he was instrumental in raising the prize money for families on the show.

But all of this was a drop in the bucket compared to the cultural impact of his seminal character on Baskets, where he played mom to comedian Zach Galifinakis’s dual role of twins. The minute Louie Anderson appeared on the screen he was instantly recognizable as “everywoman.” I don’t know where or why, but I knew this judgmental, loveable woman, maybe as an aunt, maybe a friend’s mom, but I instantly related to Anderson’s mom as did so many others. Anderson’s Christine was not only the best part of Baskets, she was the best character on TV. Just watch her hilarious narration of “Tiny Kitchens.”

Louie Anderson never played the role as a person in drag for obvious laughs. Instead, he infused Christine Baskets with grace and dignity. He channeled his kind, tireless mother who dealt with his father’s self-pitying bitterness with always a resilient answer for her family. Both parents had been fodder for his comedy routines, but his multi-layered seamless Christine was on a new bravado level. It was the performance of a lifetime.

"“When she walked into a room, she commanded it. She had a lot of charisma,” Anderson said during a Hawaii Public Radio interview in 2017. “She put up with my dad, who was an extremely abusive alcoholic. But she never, ever let us feel the brunt of that. She always had a smile. She always got up every morning and made us breakfast our whole lives. I can still smell the oatmeal, the eggs, and the toast and bacon.”"

Anderson’s mother had a profoundly positive effect on the Midwest comic. His greatest tribute to her was the unconditionally loving mother on Baskets, mom to two sets of twins. There simply aren’t enough clips of Anderson’s comedic genius in the role on Youtube to do a tribute justice.

Anderson’s profoundly empathetic portrait of Christine Baskets was rooted in deep compassion that made others instantly drawn to her. Anderson would also pay homage to the woman whose humanity inspired his greatest role in the 2018 best-selling novel Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too.

"“To my mom, who raised 11 children, and my dad was mean to her, and no matter how tough it got for Ora Zella Anderson, she never lost her humanity,” Louis Anderson said during his 2016 Critics’ Choice Award speech, another prize he won for the role, according to Vulture. “She had so much of it that it dribbled onto me. I didn’t want it, but I found it.”"

In later years Anderson was able to even find a way to forgive his father, who he found out had been separated from his sister when both were put up for adoption at age 10.

"“Imagine being with your sister and having her go one place and you go another. Forgiveness was easy for me when I found that out,” said Anderson. “And I miss him. I love him. I miss the grumpy, coffee-sipping person that he was. One time my dad goes, ‘I hate that guy.’ I go, ‘You don’t even know him.’ He goes, ‘I don’t need to know someone to hate them, Louie.’ Thank God for my dad — I’m still doing the humor.”"

Gathering up video footage of Anderson’s best comic moments was a bittersweet joy for me, but doesn’t lessen the impact of his loss. I’m certainly going to miss Louis Anderson and I’m sure he’s cracking everyone up in heaven.