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In the role of Christine Baskets, the optimistic, clueless mother of idiotic twins on the FX series Baskets, Louie Anderson channels—and fully embodies—his own mother, Ora Zella Anderson. Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, Anderson’s new book, allows him to catch that singular woman up on his life since her passing in 1990. Before he hits NYC comedy club the Cutting Room this spring, the legendary stand-up talked to us about his boundary-breaking, gender-transcending performance.
You revisited the past in writing this book. Now, you’re revisiting the revisiting doing press. What is that like for you?
It’s a bittersweet thing. I don’t always feel like talking about these emotions again, but it’s good practice, because I think we should deal with our emotions every day, and be brought to tears and joy. So it’s the least I can do for the life I had with my mom. I think to myself: “Why don’t I write a fun, flowery book that makes people laugh?” It’s the same reason I play Christine the way I do. It’s the same thing. I play it as real and honest as possible, and I share it all with people. I tried to do that in this book. I want people to laugh and enjoy it, but at the end of the day, if they have a chance to reach out to their parents, I want them to do it. I don’t think all of us want to talk seriously about this stuff all the time, but what can we do?
Is there a general piece of advice you’ve found yourself giving a lot lately?
To not hit your parents over the head with questions, but to go spend time with them and then sneak it into the conversation, like you would when you wanted to use their car. It’s like you’re going to ask for money—use it that way, sneak it into the conversation, but make the conversation about them and how they’re doing.
What is your approach to telling Christine’s story?
I try to meet with the writers. I give them all my feelings about the show and about the character. I don’t try to change anything they give me. I don’t try to rework it. The only thing I ask is: Should I play this the way I think my mom might play it, or should I stick to the strictness of the script? Usually, I go with my heart. And when I’m on that screen and playing that part, I am playing it as their mother. I don’t know if it makes any sense—even though I am a man, I am playing it 100%. I am trying to make Louie Anderson disappear in that part.
It’s hard for me to imagine some of her moments even being scripted, acted and directed, because it seems so organic. How long did it take you and the writers to get whatever alchemy you have?
I think they got it very quickly, much quicker than I. They caught up to me. I always thought a lot about what I was going to do, but like I did with my standup, I went with my instincts. I tried to make Christine a real person. I think that’s what people connected with. I think people believe, and I believe, that Christine is a real person. I think when I put that stuff on, I’m Christine.
What has been the toughest challenge about playing this part?
I really miss my mom when I’m doing it; that’s been the toughest thing. I imagine her sadness, I imagine her not getting the life she wanted and not getting enough of out of life. That makes me sad sometimes, but there isn’t one thing that’s hard for me, because I love the character more than anything.
Those moments when Christine has her small victories are big. When she stands up to her brother for the first time—
Oh my god, that was such a good scene.
It feels like a big deal for her.
She kind of grew up a little. She lost her mom, and she’s not going to let her brother push her around. She’s not going to be mean about it, but she’s not going to let people push her around, and I think that’s the thing I enjoy the most.
It feels very earned, because we know what she’s been through.
People have been rooting for her. I think Jonathan is such a genius, because he gives me the opportunity to play the part like, what if my mom would have stood up to my dad, or if my mom had done some other things that would have made her life better. Christine is a lovely, complicated, crazy, bossy know-it-all with a big heart, and sometimes she’s like a hick in the midwest...of California. She has good intentions and goes with her gut, and sometimes it takes her to a good place and sometimes she breaks everything in the china shop. But one thing: She loves those kids.
Almost to a fault.
Mostly to a fault, but they’re all evolving. I’m hoping that we get a next year out of it, and I’m hoping I get another chance to bring that character to life, because I get as much out of that character as the audience does.
A lot of gay men have flocked to the character, possibly because body shame is so widespread in our community.
I tell you what’s so great: I have gotten a lot of response from gay couples who come to my show who are really in love with Christine. What Christine provides is a fearless person. One thing I’ve worked on with the character is that she’s not ashamed of herself unless someone brings it up, and then she is very hurt; she can’t believe it. But she is proud of herself, and she wants to do better, and she wants to be healthier, but she is who she is. She loves herself and she accepts everyone else too, for the most part, for who they are. I’ll have people come up to me in suits and ties, and they’ll lean over and go: “I just love Christine Baskets.” I’ll go: “What?” And they’re gone. And I’ll yell: “Me too! I love her too!”
I think that many of us who have been through that body shame, we all feel like Christine does, where she puts on a good face, but she knows deep down she should be thinner, she should be healthier. I think at the end of the day, Christine goes: “Well, I’m just going to do it. I’m not going to let anyone stop me,” and that’s what we need most in life. I’m just so happy that people love her, because my mom loved everybody and that’s what I really exude with that character. I think we all need to love each other more, especially now.