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October 22, 2010

Louie Anderson defends Midwest's understated cool

Louie Anderson is an Emmy Award–winning stand-up comedian, best-selling author, and philanthropist performing the weekend at the Chicago Improv. But you probably remember him as the host of “Family Feud”, a position he held from 1999 to 2002. Originally from Iowa, Anderson’s stand-up routine centers around his life in the Midwest as one of eleven children born to an alcoholic father and enabling mother, as well as his struggles with his weight. He talked to the CHICAGO MAROON about his past, his favorite accomplishments, and aspirations.

CHICAGO MAROON: What inspired you to become a comedian? How did you get to where you are today?

Louie Anderson: The truth is that I did my first comedy thing on a dare. I was at a bar [where stand-up comics performing], and it was after work. I was with a friend of mine, and I said to my friend, “These comics are terrible.” He said, “Well if you think you’re so funny, why don’t you try it?” So I said, “Oh, I will.” The next week I signed up for it, got all my friends and family down, and it went really well, and I just kept doing it. It was a weird thing. I mean, I always used humor a lot in everything I did, but I never thought I would become a comedian.

CM: So you just sort of went with it?

LA: I did. I just said to myself, “Listen, I’m going to try it. It seems like it might be fun.” I actually thought I was funnier than those guys. So it might have been a little egotistical too. I really got lucky.

CM: In the process of fulfilling this dream of becoming a comedian, what was your greatest obstacle?

LA: I’d say coming from a dysfunctional family really was the hardest thing. My father was an alcoholic, and my mother was a bit of an enabler, so I didn’t know how forming relationships went when dealing with people. When you have a family that is really dysfunctional, especially with an addiction like alcoholism, it’s all about manipulation. I don’t think I was very good at getting what I wanted in any straightforward way. So I think that that helped me maybe in some ways, but hurt me in another way. But it seemed to work out. I guess the luckiest thing in my life has been that my talent has pulled me through regardless of the stupid things I did.

CM: Obviously, because you’ve become such a big success, you’ve overcome that. In fact, you talk about your family in your stand-up routine. It is almost as if you’ve turned it around.

LA: I definitely used it to my advantage. I did what I think all artists do. I think you take the things that are most difficult for you, and you try to shed light on them so that other people in difficult situations won’t feel so alone. I think you lessen the burden other people have and certainly lessen your own burden. You take the guilt and shame out of it by just [shedding] light on it, saying, “Here it is, this is where I grew up.” For me, I try to use humor to say, “There were fun things in my family too.” You think you’re the only one with the crazy family, so I’ve always tried to [show] that everyone has crazy people in their family.

CM: What do you feel makes you stand out as a comedian, that makes you a little different from others?

LA: I don’t think I’m like most comics where I’m making a bold gesture. I think I’m more of a subtle comic. Also, my act is pretty “clean.” I try to be quietly hip. My goal, and this might sound a little crazy, is for you to pee your pants a little bit when you watch my show. For you to laugh so hard that you lose control of one of your senses. I’m not going to attack any other people to get my laughs, outside of my family that is.

CM: Your being “cleaner” than other comedians, that seems to be very uncommon today.

LA: Maybe I would be dirtier if I thought it would give me more laughs, but it wouldn’t. It just doesn’t fit who I am. I don’t judge other comics who have to be bluer than me. Freedom of speech is so important; especially nowadays I feel that I want people to be able to express themselves. For me, it just doesn’t work.

My show is really a celebration of many things. One, Midwesterners are much cooler than you think, and smarter than you think. I’m always promoting us Midwesterners. Just because we have to wear funny clothes in the winter. If you put all of those people from big cosmopolitan cities on the West Coast and all the hip cool places in the world, they’d freeze their butts off, and they would be coming to us to help them. They wouldn’t look so cool then. I always think its funny that we don’t get the respect. My goal is to get the Midwest and the middle part of the country the respect it deserves in the entertainment business.

CM: Other than a comedian, you are a philanthropist as well. Can you tell me about your H.E.R.O. organization?

LA: Yes, the Homeless Empowerment Relationship Organization in Michigan. It is a mentoring organization. If you’re homeless, probably all of your friends are homeless, so it is probably difficult to get any traction in the situation you’re in. So we set up a mentoring system where people meet with homeless people once a week to help inspire and give them hope about getting out of their situation. [Homelessness] is a very slippery slope for a lot of Americans. And it is getting increasingly worse. They say there are a million people on the brink of being homeless. It is really sad to me, and I just think that what matters really is how much are we doing for others. And if that’s the weakest link in our society, we better help it get on its feet because it will affect us. You may not think it does, but it all trickles down.

CM: You’ve performed stand-up comedy, written books, created TV shows, and you’re creating charitable organizations. That’s a lot. If you were to be remembered for one thing that you’ve done, what would it be?

LA: Besides being a really good dancer?

CM: [Laughs]

LA: [Laughs] I would want it to be that I was a person who was willing to help other people. To me, that’s it. That’s what we really have to do: we have to help each other. People say, why do you give that guy money when you know he will just buy alcohol or drugs? And I tell them, “Because one of those guys is not buying alcohol or drugs. He’s buying food for his family.” And I want to tell you, I am not in the position of telling you who should or who shouldn’t get charity. I think charity is something you give without expectations.

CM: Back to your stand-up career, what is it about stand-up that you love so much, that’s kept you going?

LA: It’s the fact that every single show is somewhat different. That particular crowd of people, with my particular set of jokes, at that particular time. The experience is like live art.

CM: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

LA: You mean other than this interview? [Laughs] I guess when people come up to me, and they say, “Well, I read one of your books, and it really helped me. And it really helped my family situation. And I really want to thank you for that.” I love when I meet someone I don’t know, and they get something out of what I did, and I didn’t even know they were going to get that something out of it.

CM: You mentioned your books. Can you tell me a little bit about each of your books, and what inspired them?

LA: Sure. Dear Dad [is] letters to my dad about ten years after he died. They were not meant to be a book. They were letters, and then they became a book. They’re things I really needed to say to my dad, even though he was dead. It became a best seller, people really enjoyed it, and it helped a lot of people. I was trying to work something out, and through trying to work something out, other people were able to work some of their [own] things out.

Goodbye Jumbo…Hello Cruel World is a book that was written a lot about my mom and a lot about being a fat kid. My last book is called The F Word: How to Survive Your Family, and it is really 50 tips. You know, when you go to a family reunion and need tips to get along with everyone better. Always get there late and leave early. Make sure when you are going to a family function that your emotional gas tank is high. All my books were to show that I am a comedian, but I also have a serious side.

CM: Not only have you written books, but also you had your cartoon television series that ran for three seasons, Life With Louie. Was it your idea to turn parts of your life into a cartoon?

LA: Actually, there was a woman who ran Fox Kids who wanted me to do a cartoon. I wasn’t sure if it would work, then they made these drawings, put my voice underneath them, and as I saw them I thought, “Hey, that could work.” Then it just turned out to be one of the most fun things I ever did. And I was lucky enough to win two Emmy’s. A lot of people your age were young enough to have seen the cartoon, and were big fans of the cartoon when they were kids. Now they are growing up and coming to my shows, and it is so much fun.

CM: I had seen you on “Family Feud” as a child.

LA: That was a great job. That was the most fun job in the world.

CM: Do you have a favorite moment from hosting “Family Feud”?

LA: I think it came from a woman who was from Chicago. It is one of my favorite things about how genuine Midwestern people are. The question was “Name a way to prepare chicken.” And she said, “Thaw it out.” I just thought it was one of the most fantastic answers I’ve ever heard.

CM: What should we expect from you next?

LA: I’m working on a new book called Diary of a Fat Man and also a new webpage. It will be something new and unusual, a sort of daily videoblog about my struggles with my weight. Also, I’m working on Life with Louie: The Movie.

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