Honoring His Mother Was Louie Anderson’s Life’s Work

Anderson performs stand-up in Las Vegas in 2012. Photo: David Becker/WireImage

It felt right that Louie Anderson hit the peak of his popularity playing a version of his own mother on the FX comedy series Baskets. Honoring his mother was Anderson’s life’s work, and the 68-year-old entertainer, who died on January 21 of cancer, accomplished it beyond his wildest imaginings.

Throughout his long career as a stand-up comic, writer, actor, Family Feud host, and series creator (the animated Life With Louie), Anderson drew on what he called his “poor white-trash” Minnesota youth. He grew up in St. Paul in a house with 11 children where every month the family would have to decide “whether to shut off the gas or the lights.” He described his father, Louis William Anderson, a trumpeter who once played with Hoagy Carmichael, as a self-pitying alcoholic who invoked his World War II experience to win arguments (“Oh yeah? Well, have ya ever been pinned down by a sniper in France?”) and constantly groused and snarled at his spouse, his kids, and random strangers. Anderson described his mother, Ora Zella Anderson, as an upbeat and inexhaustible person — the kind of housewife who might’ve been a performer, entrepreneur, or politician had she not been born in 1912 who managed to be kind despite her husband’s cruelty.

He returned to the stark differences between his mother and father so regularly and incisively that he made it the text rather than subtext of his life’s work. He cast them as recurring characters in his routines, including his very first national TV appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1984, in which he described his father as “the kind of guy who hates everybody” and who would sometimes slow the family car down and glare at a stranger who had committed no offense besides “being a little different.”

“For crying out loud,” Anderson growled, imitating his father. “Get my rifle!”

Anderson’s mother, in contrast, was the sort of person who responded to the question of whether to shut off the gas or the lights by going without lights, because, as he told Conan O’Brien, “she had a million candles.” She’d want to buy a broken 25-cent toaster at a garage sale, he joked in his 1987 special Live at the Guthrie, because “‘the cord’s worth a quarter’ … Then she says the real funny thing: ‘Anyways, your father could always fix it.’” In another joke, Anderson said he couldn’t throw a grocery bag away without hearing his mother’s voice in his head asking, “What are you doing? What are we, the Rockefellers suddenly?”

Talking to Hawaii Public Radio in 2017, Anderson told host Dave Lawrence that he had modeled his demeanor on Ora. “When she walked into a room, she commanded it. She had a lot of charisma … 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 strove to be more like his mother. The older he got and the more accomplished he became, the more obvious it seemed that he owed most of his success to her example and was proud to be able to honor her, even posthumously (Ora Zella Anderson died in 1990, a few years after her son’s popular breakthrough).

Late in life he managed to become her, in a sense, by playing Christine Baskets, the doting mother of two sets of identical twins (one played by Zach Galifianakis, the other played by Garry and Jason Clemmons). After decades of taking supporting and walk-on parts in comedies like Coming to America, Back by Midnight, and Do It for Uncle Manny, Anderson’s soulful work on Baskets cemented his bona fides as a screen actor (he was nominated for three Emmys as Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy, winning in 2016). Christine was acerbic but never wantonly vicious. When she laid a hand on her sons, it was comically exaggerated, like something out of a cartoon. Her unconditional love always shone through.

The role opened new avenues for Anderson as a longform storyteller whose work was about more than setups and punchlines. He anchored a 2016 episode of the Comedy Central storytelling series This Is Not Happening, focused mainly on his upbringing, and authored the 2018 best seller Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, a rumination on the lessons his mother taught him. The cover showed Anderson dressed up as his mom.

Anderson was so inspired by Ora that he made prenatal health the central focus of his philanthropy, promoting and donating to Make Your Date, a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps pregnant mothers get to their scheduled medical appointments. Anderson told Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2016 that he chose a prenatal health charity because their family would’ve had 18 children if his mom hadn’t lost seven to miscarriages.

Throughout his career, he expressed nothing but love for the woman, in public and private. “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,” Anderson said while accepting his Critics’ Choice Award for his Baskets performance in 2016. “She had so much of it that it dribbled onto me. I didn’t want it, but I found it.”

Dad, not so much. In fact, Anderson’s stand-up and talk-show history is packed with fantasies of murdering his father, from the 2019 appearance on Conan when he described a coupon book he gave to his mother on her birthday, each pledging to complete an essential household chore (“I’ll wash the dishes … I’ll do the laundry … I’ll kill dad for you”) to his much-shared 1988 routine about his father’s fixation on a Pontiac Bonneville sedan. “This is my Bonneville,” he’d tell houseguests, according to his son, “and that’s my family over there.” In the climax of the Bonneville routine, Anderson remembers how his father used to raise the car up with a jack to work on it and press the boy into service handing him tools: “You looked down at that jack and thought, College … or prison?

Compare the glowing book Anderson wrote about his mother to the title of the 1991 book he wrote about his relationship with Louie Sr.: Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child, described by the publisher as a memoir of “a household held hostage by the unpredictable and violent behavior of an alcoholic father.” It’s a volume of posthumous letters to a patriarch who died in 1980. He waited to write the book until the year of his mother’s passing, presumably to spare her from having to react to it.

“But really, Dad, what did we do together?” Anderson wrote. “I can’t think of anything. Or at least I can’t think of anything fun. I guess maybe I should complain about that. After all, a boy’s got a right to share some quality time with his dad. But it’s funny how we’re taught not to complain.”

Childhood, family, and psychological development were what most interested Anderson as a writer-performer, and you could see his frustration at being forced to go the predictable route during the first decade of his stand-up career, thanks to his silhouette. As a self-described “fat guy” whose weight generally ranged between 270 and 400 pounds, Anderson knew he wouldn’t be able to get people’s attention if he didn’t lean into the obvious, so he told lots of fat jokes about himself. The jokes were preemptive: He knew if he didn’t make them, someone else would. This is still a problem today, but it was a bigger one in the 1970s and early ’80s when Anderson was working his way up through the club scene. Even his star-making Tonight Show appearance consisted of roughly 50 percent fat jokes, capped by his explanation that he felt he had to do them, otherwise viewers “would be looking at the TV saying, ‘D’ya think he knows he’s fat?’”

What’s fascinating in retrospect about that appearance is how Anderson’s delivery changes when he shifts focus to telling tales of his childhood and painting verbal portraits of his parents. During the first part of his Tonight Show routine — the fat-jokes part — his face stays nearly immobile, just shy of a scowl. He’s doing what’s expected before shifting to the unexpected. Even though the stuff about his father is (beneath the punchlines) unnerving, Anderson’s demeanor brightens when he talks about his youth. You can tell that, even back then, storytelling was the part of stand-up that excited him, not self-negation for laughs.

By the end, Anderson had become an artist who projected into the world the nourishing warmth that radiated from his mother. The transformation was so full that he belatedly began directing a bit of that warmth toward his father. You can see it in a People magazine profile published the year Anderson won awards for channeling his mother on Baskets. He talked about his dad again, but in terms of recognizing his father’s darkness within himself (he told AOL that he had to apologize to somebody “every two weeks” after realizing, “Oh, the mean person’s coming out”), trying to understand what caused it, and learning to forgive.

Anderson spoke of his shock at learning, years after his father’s death, that the man had been separated from his sister at age 10 when both children were “taken out of their home and put up for adoption … 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. 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.”

Anderson told Stephen Colbert in 2017 that a year before landing Christine on Baskets, he prayed for a part that would let him play a full range of emotions and experiences, and that when he got the call, he looked up and said, “Thank you, Lord!” When Anderson talked about his performance on the series, he described himself as “being seized by” or “channeling” his mother.

“I actually think I’m a vehicle for this, I really do,” he told Hawaii Public Radio. “A vessel. And I try to make Louie Anderson the person disappear in there.”

Disappearing into the vessel of his mother helped Anderson find his truest voice as a comedian. In Hey Mom, he wrote about how, after Ora’s death, he made a commitment to dig deeper into his past and frame the stories in a way that were complex and unsettling as well as funny, because he wanted to try to get closer to the truth of his mother’s experience, and since she wasn’t around anymore, he would have to use his imagination. The last few years of his life were filled with public appearances where he exhorted anyone in the audience whose parents were still alive to try to get to know them as friends, or at least fellow adults, because that was the only way to get honest answers to the questions that adult children are obsessed with. Anderson wrote about feeling himself become stronger as a person and an artist by trying to understand his parents.

“I’m finding new reservoirs of strength,” he wrote in one of the posthumous letters of Hey Mom. “I really love you and miss you and wish I’d been nicer to you. Did I say that yesterday? Does everyone wish they’d been nicer to their dad or mom after it’s too late? … Everyone should tell the people they love that they love them, at all times, because you never know.”

Honoring His Mother Was Louie Anderson’s Life’s Work