One of the first killer jokes in Louie Anderson’s stand-up act was about the meanness of the older brothers. Imitating one of his own in an intimidating voice, he warned that there was a monster in a nearby swamp. With childlike fear in his eyes, Anderson said he avoided that area “until I got a little older, a little smarter, and a little brother.”
Pivoting to the future in an instant, he adopted his older brother’s voice, pointing to the swamp and telling his brother, “That’s where your real parents live.”
Anderson, who died Friday at 68 of complications from cancer, had five brothers and five sisters, but in a stellar acting career spanning four decades, he raised a much larger family of colleagues. Comedian Bob Saget, who also passed away this month, was something of a younger brother. They began stand-up comedy on the West Coast around the same time and had breakthroughs in the same 1985 episode of HBO’s “Young Comedians Special” (hosted by Rodney Dangerfield), which at the time was not was second only to “The Tonight Show” as a springboard for stand-up careers.
Back in May, Anderson and Saget engaged in a loving conversation on a podcast, reminiscing and laughing, and carefully broaching topics with the sensitivity and warmth of intimates catching up during the long isolation pandemic. It’s funny and now, considering the loss of both men, terribly heartbreaking. Both still prolific in their 60s, they seemed joyful about the current moment and looking to the future. Saget talked about wanting to make a movie that everyone would like, and Anderson said he wanted to play Fatty Arbuckle.
None of this will happen, of course, and as these friends talked about their careers, it struck me that losing them represents the end of a key element of an era.
When you think of the comedy boom of the 1980s, the first artist that comes to mind for many is Jerry Seinfeld and his clinical observational humor. For others, it might be the rock-star flamboyance of Eddie Murphy or Andrew Dice Clay. But in the days of three major networks, the culture encouraged warmly inclusive, rigorously relatable comedy that could appeal to broad audiences and, at its best and most resonant, had an empathetic humanity.
The outpouring of love for Bob Saget surprised some and is a testament in part to his good-natured, dirty humor and personal generosity. But it was also because of a huge audience that saw him as the friendly fatherly face of “Full House” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” That comedy fans also knew him as one of the dirtiest joke tellers of the day bolstered and deepened his reputation. But if Saget has become one of the few cultural figures who can be described as the father of America (is a current star described in such general terms these days?), Anderson fits perfectly into a equally idealized role as an eternal child of our culture.
There was a childlike innocence and sweetness about Anderson that never left him, even when playing a mother on “Baskets,” a remarkable and heartfelt performance that marked the start of his acclaimed second act (which included his turn in “Search Party”). Like Saget, Anderson had an extensive resume as an actor, author, and TV host, but he was a stand-up at heart who never stopped shooting. I saw him do a 90-minute set in 2018, and he had the low-key improvisation and searching energy of someone always obsessed with finding an amazing new track.
There was a remarkable consistency in Anderson’s work from his first stand-up to his later performances, in spirit and also in subject. This included a focus on food: no one told cruder jokes, like his long-running opening line, which he used when first appearing on “The Tonight Show” and again on “Conan ” last March: “Listen, I can’t stay long. I’m between meals.
More importantly, his big subject was family, especially his ever-optimistic mother and angry father. (As sweet as he could be, Anderson could also scream as much as Sam Kinison.) While his early comedy had plenty of punch lines, Anderson’s great gift was acting out stories, brilliantly evoking moments with characterizations. quick-change, displaying the depth and technique of a seasoned player.
In a beautiful, unusually nuanced scene for his 1987 hour at the Guthrie Theater near his hometown of St. Paul, he recalled his parents fighting. It begins with a teasing impersonation of his father, a classic belligerent hard hit from an oldie. In Anderson’s story, he was the kind of guy who said things like, “When I was a kid, there was no school. I had to find smart people and follow them everywhere.
On the show, her father brags in a blunt, nonsensical rant about being a veteran of “WW1, WWII, everything, Korea, everywhere.”
Leaving the stage for a moment, Anderson explained that as a boy he had to look to his mother for the truth – then he frowned, flattened his face and completely transformed into a soft-spoken woman gently shaking his head. As the audience burst into laughter, he silently lingered before lowering his voice and saying, “World War II.” There is something about the tranquility of the way he explained this to her that is touching. His mother wants to correct the balance sheet but not to humiliate him. The scene escalates into a fight, and while it could have been incredibly dark, it isn’t.
The reason, I think, is that the heart of Louie Anderson’s art has always been a backward-bending compassion, a grace for everyone, including (perhaps especially) those he teases or criticizes, like his father.
It’s a quality that may seem rare, but it’s one you hear so clearly in this podcast with Saget, who asked Anderson if he’d ever thought about being a therapist or a minister. Anderson replied that he found therapy in comedy.
Because they’re comedians, the conversation eventually turned deadly, particularly at Dangerfield’s funeral in 2004. Saget officiated at the service and said he was actually heckled by Jay Leno. In the podcast, Saget thanked Anderson for standing up for him. Anderson told him, “I know it must have hurt you, which he did. I wasn’t going to let you hang around there. Jay probably did it out of nervousness. Maybe he needed to do this so he wouldn’t burst into tears.
Leno is a polarizing figure to the comics of their generation, and to his detractors he’s an unsentimental joke-telling machine, which might have been part of the subtext when Saget quickly responded to the suggestion of Anderson that Leno was trying to avoid shedding tears: “I don’t think he does that.
In the gentle way of a friend, Anderson disagreed. “I bet he does.” Saget then immediately changed his mind, almost as if acknowledging that the humanity of that thought outweighed the enjoyment of his joke.
“All I want to do is hug you,” he told Anderson at one point.
It was unusually sentimental for a comedy podcast, but that these old friends were able to share that last moment of connection is no small feat.