"Baskets" star Louie Anderson "had a lot of gut punches" playing Christine this season

Salon talks to the Emmy-winning "Baskets" star and comedy legend about Christine's toughest season yet

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 24, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets in "Baskets" (Erica Parise/FX)
Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets in "Baskets" (Erica Parise/FX)

Comedian, actor, television host, cartoon character and author Louie Anderson says that his role as Christine Baskets in FX's "Baskets" is the part he was born to play. In other hands, Christine could have been easy camp. But drawing on his own mother for inspiration, Anderson has won accolades and an Emmy as one of television's favorite supporting characters.

Anderson sat down with "Salon Talks" recently to talk about spam, why Christine's happiness was "devastating" to play and why it might be time for a "Life with Louie" revival.

You are my first guest ever to have been immortalized by Chef Boyardee as a SpaghettiO.

You know, Chef Boyardee, he's a Midwesterner, too. He's the first guy to put spaghetti in cans. Midwesterners know it. We're growing up, we get three things: who made butter, who made SpaghettiOs and who made Spam.

What about cheese?

Cheese? We're just born with cheese. A lot of babies are powdered, we are cheesed.

Are you upset with the way that Spam has now been appropriated by Hawaii?

Well, those boys really made a bigger meal out of it than we did. That's in a lot of their foods. We just had it in maybe one or two, but Hawaiians own Spam. I give it up to them, even though it was made in Minnesota, where I'm from.

I do a Spam joke where I say, "Do you have anything less fishy?" When they say "salmon" I go, "Do you have any pork that swims? Do you have any Spammon?"

Aside from being an expert on Spam and Spam joke-telling, Louie, you're also now on season four in "Baskets." People love Christine.

They do. And I love Christine. People write me every day and say, "I wish Christine was my mom." I was thinking about starting a service where I can just go out and be people's mom, with Christine, for the right price.

When you started this role, you were basing her very much on your own mom and other women in your family and in your life. But now four years in, you've gone on this journey with this character. She's gone through so many changes. Is she becoming more of her own independent entity now?

A lot of people don't realize, but Christine has progressed. My mom never was in this position where she went with another man. She stayed with my dad until he died, and didn't remarry. But Christine has embarked on a new adventure. Is she going to allow someone else to love her? Is she going to make a full commitment to Ken? Is she going to be the woman that she thinks she can be? These are all things that she's struggled with, because she was so caught up in just being a mom and taking care of those kids.

That's where we started with her, and that's where the story of your mother and your family really is. Now she gets to have this experience, where you get to almost write a different ending for her.

I guess the ending is still to be written. I won't tell you anything that will give any of it away. I think everybody this fourth season is trying to find themselves in this family, without using the other people in the family in it. Everybody tries to do their own thing, and then tells you the results. Really, you should all get together and try to help each other do those things, but in families that's not how they work. You go, "Dad, I became a clown." "What? I always thought you were a clown, kid." Those kinds of things.

The great thing about Christine is the way the writers really gave her a lot of challenges this year. It was very emotional to shoot this character this year. I had a lot of gut punches emotionally from the character this year, a lot of tough things, where I had to ask myself, "Jesus, was my mom ever this happy?" That was just a really devastating one for me. But good, though. It was good. I like that I could get there as a human. Was she ever this happy?

You look around, and every five minutes there's a controversy over some casting choice, there's an uproar about the way that some character has been portrayed. And you've never gotten that for this character, because you've taken it seriously. You haven't done it as, "I'm a man playing a woman." You've taken this beautiful, complicated woman and just performed it.

I wish I had an explanation for how it works, but when I get into that makeup chair, I get that makeup on and when I get the wig on, and then while this process is going on Louie Anderson is slowly disappearing. When I get dressed and I'm ready to go out that door of that trailer, the hair and makeup, I have the wardrobe on, I am leaving Louie Anderson behind. I'm asking people on the set, "Please don't call me Louie. Please call me Christine, or Mrs. Baskets, whatever you want to say." I'm completely in character. I'm not going to talk to you as Louie. The only reason I do that is because this is a really important character to me, and I really want to make it good. I want to make it good. I can't turn it off and on. I'm in that character one thousand percent.

There's this long tradition of comics taking on female characters, but it's done as a joke. And she is not a joke. In a show that has a lot of wit and heart in it, this is not a joke. I've read you say that this is the role you were born to play.

But I never knew it, by the way. I never knew it. I had no idea. I always thought I'd play my dad, and here I am playing more of my mom character. I don't play it cartoony. I don't play a man playing a woman. I play a woman. I don't know how to explain that other than I just know something happens to me, and I'm completely connected to that character. It's like those old movies where the ghost used to inhabit the character. I feel like that happens to me. I feel like there's a channel going on, or there's some sort of portal that opens up and allows me to have the complete sunshine of my mom or of all my sisters or whatever it is.

I'm getting that female perspective, because I know so much more now about the idea of being a female. People treat you different. I never knew my mom got ready before she came out and made breakfast. I didn't know she took time to put makeup on and fix her hair. I didn't know she went through so much. I didn't know how much she did for me. I wish I would've had the chance to ask my mom, "What is it that you wanted to be? What did you give up for us?" Because obviously moms give up their whole lives for us. It's a never-ending almost job in a sense.

There were generations of moms who didn't even know that that was a thing. That they could wish for something, that they could want something.

But their desire nonetheless would be real, and so I'm trying to explore that. I hope we get another season so that I can explore the idea of OK, Christine, maybe she's found love, but will she ever be able to be who she really wants to be? Because I think that's hard to be who you really want to be. One thing I say is become friends with your parents if you can so you can find out all the stuff about them that's really dear and important to you.

That's not something that comes easily, as you know. You've reckoned with your own family history. That is not a statement that you make lightly as someone who comes from a perfect Norman Rockwell background. You've touched people in such a deep way because of this. And another way that you've touched people so deeply is with "Life With Louie," putting this child in these circumstances of growing up.

This Father's Day was the first time I did a post that celebrated only my dad and the things that he gave me. I can finally clearly see all the things he really did for me unconditionally, even though he had an alcohol problem. He always worked. He always made sure that he got up for work and went to work and provided for us the best he could. He did not have an easy time, and for me, I really found a lot of forgiveness for my dad. That cartoon helped me with it, because my dad was not the perfect character and very ornery and stubborn and all the things he was. But I wanted you to know that he was a good human being, because there was a really great human being behind my dad.

We live in such a polarized culture, Louie, which is why I think your work resonates so deeply with your fans. Your work is nuanced. There are no great demons, there are no great heroes. There are just complicated people who are trying.

They're trying like crazy. My mom used to have the best saying ever. "Louie, be nice to everybody, because you don't know what kind of day they've had." I always thought that was such a stupid thing when she said it when I was a teenager. "What does that even mean?" But now? What a clever, deep thought she had, of recognizing that somebody could be going through just pure hell. We don't know what we see when we see people on the street. We don't know what they've been through, what they're living in, and how their situation is. It's easy to judge people.

It's very easy to judge them even more so when you have the filter of social media. You did a TV show about a kid grappling with cruelty, grappling with bullying, grappling with really having other people be mean to him at times because of the way that he looks. Now you look at this new generation coming up in a world where in some ways it's so much easier to be that cruel and to be that superficial, and forget about the kind of day that someone has had.

There almost is a permission has been given out there, to be a mean person. But I think that's an excuse, and I think that we shouldn't allow it, and I think we should stand up to it. There's a lot of bravery going on out there. There's a tremendous amount of bravery. People stick up for people all the time on the Internet, and that's good. I hardly ever read anything written to me, because that can only be a bad situation, because if you want to find something bad, you'll find it.

Sometimes I'll say, "Well why did you say that? I don't even know you. I don't know why you do this." And I've had people say, "Well I don't know. I was just trying to be provocative or something," and I go, "Okay. Well you're deleted." But not to be mean. I don't want people being cruel to me.

I had enough cruelty as a child. I just think we're all better and better human beings. I have a theory. We're all going to be up against trying to save ourselves from this world that we're just destroying. We're just not taking care of our planet. We're all on the same boat. We're all on one oar or another, and we should be rowing in the same direction. But it's easy to say all that. It's harder to live it. I'm not preaching. I can hardly keep myself on track of everything I'm supposed to do, so I know how hard it is to live by those standards.

It's hard when you're the person who's had the bad day to have that compassion. And yet when I look at videos of you, it's the only place I've ever seen on the internet where the comments are so lovely. People are saying, "I love him so much. I love his work so much." And a big part of that is the impact that you had on a generation of kids with "Life With Louie."

"Life With Louie" is a wonderful part of my life. I loved doing that. I spent a lot of time doing those voices and working really hard at the scripts. We tried to say something in each script, even if it was a tiny thing. We're trying to bring it back right now. I just met with the creator last Friday, and I said we should come up with a new spin on Louie. My big question to everybody out there is how old do you think Louie should be now? Should he be in middle school, should he be in high school? Should he be a young adult? That's what we're toying with the idea of bringing "Life With Louie" back. We hope to resurrect it very soon.

"Life With Louie" was in 18 countries. If you go on the "Life With Louie" page on Facebook, there's 300,000 people from all over the world, from Turkey and Poland and Russia and everywhere, and Romania.

It's also the first animated show to win three Humanitas Awards.

Those were really great honors and really great things, but mostly I think we made a show you can watch with your kids. That was really my goal with the show. I said, "I just don't want the kids to watch. I want parents to be drawn in to the stories and watch it with them."

That's not easy, let me tell you. I've watched a lot of crappy, crappy shows with my kids. There are a handful that are actually entertaining and funny and great.

It's so funny because kids are much smarter. We keep talking down to the people that are younger. We should speak up to them, because they're smarter than we are. Oh my God, they're so advanced to us. I feel very hopeful about the world now.

I feel like those kids are free of the burdens, a lot of them, that we struggled with, and I think that they're like, "Ah, we don't care about that. We want to move on." I think they want to move on, move up. I feel like they all have big hearts, a lot of them, too. They really want to do good things. They stick up for people who aren't mean to other people.

Because they have the vocabulary for it. They understand about bullying, they understand that it's not normal, they understand that it's not OK, that it's not just kids being kids, that there is something inherent in us that moves towards kindness and love and empathy. I see that all the time.

You've been at this a little while, and you're still doing the standup. You are booked through 2020. You're out there on the road. What is it like for you now as a comic being out there on the road, coming into contact with these audiences who know you in so many different contexts?

I'm better at it. I'm smarter. The most important thing about my standup is I'm really out there to make sure that every one of those people forgets their troubles for 90 minutes and has a wonderful time. That's it. That's my big agenda. Mine is completely selfless in the sense of I really want you to have a wonderful time. I want you to leave there muttering about your childhood and your parents and all the things that made you laugh or think or feel good about. That's my goal. I want you to forget your troubles.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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