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Louie Anderson and the compassion of America’s eternal kid


The comedian Louie Anderson in performance in New York in 2016.

By Jason Zinoman


One of the first killer jokes in the stand-up act of Louie Anderson was about the meanness of older brothers. Imitating one of his own in an intimidating voice, he warned that there was a monster in a swamp nearby. With childlike fear in his eyes, Anderson reported that he avoided that area “until I got a little older and a little smarter and a little brother.”


Pivoting to the future in an instant, he adopted the older brother voice, pointing to the swamp and telling his sibling: “That’s where your real parents live.”


Anderson, who died Friday at 68 from complications of cancer, had five brothers and five sisters, but over the course of a sterling comedy career spanning four decades, he established a much larger family of colleagues. Comedian Bob Saget, who also died this month, was a younger brother of sorts. They started in stand-up 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 back then was second only to “The Tonight Show” as a springboard for stand-up careers.


Just last May, Anderson and Saget took part in a loving conversation on a podcast, reminiscing and laughing, and gingerly approaching topics with the sensitivity and warmth of intimates catching up during the long, isolating pandemic. It’s funny and now, considering the loss of both men, terribly heartbreaking. Both still prolific in their 60s, they sounded joyful about the current moment and were looking to the future. Saget talked about wanting to direct a movie that would appeal to everyone, and Anderson said he wished to play Fatty Arbuckle.


None of that will happen, of course, and as these friends talked about their careers, it struck me that losing them represents the end of a key part of an era.


When you think of the 1980s comedy boom, the first artist that comes to mind for many is Jerry Seinfeld and his clinically observational brand of 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 incentivized a warmly inclusive, rigorously relatable comedy that could appeal to a broad mainstream and, at its best and most resonant, had an empathetic humanity.


The outpouring of love for Bob Saget took some by surprise and was in part a testament to his good-natured, filthy humor and personal generosity. But it was also because of a vast audience that saw him as the friendly paternal face on “Full House” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” That comedy fans also knew him as one of the dirtiest joke tellers around burnished and deepened his reputation. But if Saget became one of the few cultural figures who could be described as America’s Dad (does any current star get described in such sweeping terms these days?), Anderson fit seamlessly into an equally idealized role as our culture’s eternal kid.


There was a boyish innocence and sweetness to Anderson that never left him, even when he was playing a mother on “Baskets,” a remarkable and sincere performance that marked the start of his acclaimed second act (which included his turn in “Search Party”). Like Saget, Anderson had a broad résumé as an actor, author and television host, but he was a stand-up at heart who never stopped touring. I saw him do a 90-minute set in 2018, and he had the low-key improvisational, searching energy of someone still obsessed with finding an incredible new bit.


There was a remarkable consistency in Anderson’s work from his early stand-up to his later performances, in spirit and also in subject matter. This included a focus on food: No one told more fat jokes, like his longtime opening line, which he used during his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” and again on “Conan” last March: “Listen, I can’t stay long. I’m between meals.”


More prominently, his great topic was family, particularly his ever-optimistic mother and irate father. (As soft-spoken as he could be, Anderson could also yell as much as Sam Kinison.) While his early comedy featured plenty of punch lines, Anderson’s great gift was acting out stories, brilliantly evoking moments with quick-change characterizations, displaying the depth and technique of a seasoned actor.


In one lovely, unusually nuanced scene for his 1987 hour at the Guthrie Theater, near his hometown, St. Paul, he recalled his parents fighting. It begins with a teasing imitation of his father, a classic belligerent blowhard of an old-timer. In Anderson’s telling, he was the kind of guy who would say things like, “When I was a kid, they didn’t have schools. I had to find smart people and follow them around.”


In the show, his father boasts in a brusque, nonsensical rant about being a veteran of “World War I, World War II, everything, Korea, everywhere.”


Leaving the scene for an instant, Anderson explained that as a boy, he had to look to his mother for the truth — then he unfurrowed his brow, flattened his face and utterly transformed into a soft-spoken woman gently shaking her head. As the audience cracked up, he lingered silently before lowering his voice and saying: “World War II.” There’s something about the quietness of the way he has her explain this that is touching. His mother wants to correct the record but not humiliate. The scene escalates into a fight, and while it could have been incredibly dark, it somehow isn’t.


The reason, I think, is that the core of Louie Anderson’s art has always been a bend-over-backward compassion, a grace for everyone, including (maybe especially) those he teases or criticizes, like his father.


It’s a quality that can seem in short supply, but it’s one you hear so vividly in that podcast with Saget, who asked Anderson if he ever thought of being a therapist or minister. Anderson replied that he found therapy in comedy.


Because they’re comedians, the talk eventually turned to death, specifically 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 sticking up for him. Anderson told him: “I know that must have hurt you, what he did. I wasn’t going to let you hang there. Jay probably just did it out of nervousness. Maybe he needed to do that to not burst out crying.”


Leno is a polarizing figure for 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 Anderson’s suggestion that Leno was trying to avoid shedding tears: “I don’t think he does that.”


In the gentle way a friend does, Anderson disagreed. “I bet he does.” Saget then immediately changed his mind, almost as if he recognized that the humanity of this thought outpaced the fun of his gibe.


“All I ever want to do is hug you,” he said to Anderson at one moment.


It was unusually sentimental for a comedy podcast, but that these old friends got to share this final moment of connection is no small thing.

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