Entertainment & Arts

My Life With Louie Anderson: Guest Column From Longtime Friend Carl Kurlander

Carl Kurlander, who went from being director Joel Schumacher’s assistant to writing St. Elmo’s fire with him, wrote a look back on that film for Deadline as well as a tribute when the director passed away., Kurlander today shares memories about Louie Anderson, the comic and actor who died last Friday in Las Vegas at age 68. Kurlander, a senior lecturer at the U of Pittsburgh and producer of Chasing Covid and others, here discusses the empathy Anderson showed to most everyone around him, and many career breaks he provided, actions informed by the slights and hardships he faced in his own life.  

Louie Anderson is being mourned by millions. He’s a widely beloved figure. Some knew him from his stand-up; Comedy Central named him one of the 100 greatest of all time. Others from his Emmy winning cartoon Life With Louie or Emmy winning performance on Baskets. Others still from his turn as Maurice the gentle fast food employee in Coming To America. Or as the host of Family Feud, or the author of five heartfelt books about his own journey that he hoped would help others.

I was one of the lucky ones who got to call Louie a friend, and got to work closely with him. He made me and others in his orbit feel like family. That was particularly an achievement because Louie came from quite a family of his own– one of ten brothers and sisters who were frequently the source of material for his act. I was fortunate to meet many of them while working with Louie on his book The F Word: How to Survive Your Family. But our friendship began many years before that.

I first met Louie as a screenwriter. We were put together by Robert DeNiro’s lawyer Harry Ufland, who pounded a baseball bat he kept by his desk into his hand as he talked to Louie and I about writing a Christmas movie based on Louie’s act which was all about his family. Louie made jokes about his gruff father (“My father never hit us. He carried a gun…”) and his mother, who’d turn into a thief the minute she entered a restaurant, stealing pats of butter and adorable milk creamers she could not resist putting in her purse. The movie was to take an honest look at a loving, but dysfunctional family with the siblings fighting ferociously amongst themselves until they realized their parents might be dying, stranded in a winter blizzard. Louie saw the tender moment of how the prickly father character, trying to comfort his long-suffering wife as their old Bonneville was running out of heat, would pull her close. Drawing on his own father, who once was a trumpeter in Hoagy Carmichael’s band, would softly sing to his wife their song: “Build me a kiss to build a dream on.”

I never got to write that feature because Louie was also developing a pilot at NBC and lost his TV writers when they left to write on a new show, The Simpsons. With the script due in a week, Louie and the folks at NBC asked me to come on. This was the late 1980s, when stand-ups were ruling the airwaves with mega-hits like Cosby and Rosanne. Louie saw a way to make his show different, adopting a device from old Jack Benny and George Burns shows and playing a version of himself who would come out in a bathrobe and talk directly to the audience. (This was pre-Seinfeld.) In the pilot, Louie’s agent was asking him to do a TV commercial where he would be “dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts.”

Louie Anderson
Louie Anderson in 2018

Louie did not want to do it, but then his younger brother Tommy came to visit (we both had young brother Tommys.) The siblings would get into a knock-down, drag out fight when Tommy plopped into one of Louie’s chairs made out of twigs, and broke it. (Louie really had furniture made out of twigs.) Tommy runs away and Louie finds him, and makes peace with him by telling his agent he will only do the commercial if both he and Tommy can get “dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts.”

A few days after we handed the script in, I got a call back from NBC exec Kevin Reilly telling me that his boss Brandon Tartikoff had loved it enough to order six episodes. Kevin hung up to call Louie and tell him that Brandon was so excited he was inviting Louie to join them in New York for the big upfront promotion for advertisers.

A few minutes later, Kevin called back and said Louie was passing on doing his own show. Louie called me and explained he had seen the craziness that massive fame brought to his friend Roseanne — whom he had encouraged to move to LA when he saw her unique voice in a comedy club in Denver– and that he thought now was not the right time for him to star in a sitcom. His gut told him he should try to lose weight and spend more time with his elderly mother.

With any other show biz friendship, that would have been the end. Louie was turning down potentially millions for himself, and what surely would be a career-changer for me. But there was something about Louie that was more human than this often cold-hearted business. He bought his mother a condo in Carson, Nevada where she spent some of her happiest years. He got to spend some real quality time with her before she died in a car accident shortly after.

So Louie and I stayed friends. I would traverse up a staircase of what felt like a thousand steps to the deck of his Hollywood Hills home, constructed by one of his handy brothers, to play poker. I would visit Louie in Vegas where, on top of watching him perform, my funniest memory was when he had me meet him and Larry, Henny Youngman’s grandson, who was as big as he was, at the Big and Tall Store in a shopping mall. I remember entering and being ignored completely by the salesperson. But then the floors started to shake and Louie and Larry entered, and the salespeople swarmed to them like the staff in that Rodeo Drive boutique in Pretty Women that kissed up to Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. As Larry and Louie posed in various outfits, I fell on the floor laughing.

Louie knew he had to mention his size to let the audience know he was aware of it, and win them over early on. His first joke on the Johnny Carson show was “I can’t stay long, I am between meals.” Johnny loved him and invited him over to the couch, making Louie a star overnight.

Louie began his stand-up career while working as a social worker with troubled children when, on a dare from his co-workers, he took the stage and immediately got laughs. But whatever his profession, Louie felt he had a mission to help people, something he would carry with him his entire life. In his act, he would joke about his own dysfunctional family, turning pain into laughter, and took time to talk to the audience about their own families, and letting them know, however crazy those dynamics were– they should do whatever they could to reconcile differences and love one another.

Having known poverty growing up in the projects of St. Paul, Louie would set up charities to help the homeless. Raised by an alcoholic father, he would host a non-alcoholic New Year’s celebration as a safe space, and write a bestselling book Dear Dad, in which he spoke candidly about growing up around his father’s drunken rages and his own struggles to come to terms with how that affected him. Louie would get thousands of letters from others thanking him for helping them deal with traumas they had experienced growing up.

Louie was generous of soul. Whether friend or stranger, he would take interest and counsel folks on how to get what they wanted in life. Years later, when I became a professor, one of my students, Tom, was out in L.A. and about to give up on his dreams, when he volunteered to get fries for Louie at Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset, down the street. Tom came back with a vat of ketchup and the fries well done per Louie’s specifications. Louie took note, and asked him what he wanted to be in show business. Tom said, a producer. Louie asked him to think about some time in his life when Tom got something he wanted. Tom mentioned he had always wanted to play the drums, but his folks wouldn’t buy him a kit, and so he asked his friend’s mother if he could borrow the drums her son wasn’t using. Louie saw grit in Tom’s eyes, and invited him to come watch an experimental talk show at a comedy club Louie was doing. Tom went, and quickly became Louie’s assistant, and went on to produce the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi among others.

This was one of countless stories, like the time Louie befriended a young business major from North Dakota who would not only help him manage his business, and who Louie would mentor into a comedian who would open his shows. Perhaps the story most illustrative of Louie helping others achieve their dreams was Jhoni Marchinko, who was working as a personal assistant when they met at the Comedy Store. He knew had Jhoni had a deep longing to become a stand-up and saw something in her. He gave Jhoni $20,000 to go to his hometown of Minnesota where he would make calls to get her stage time and work in the clubs for a year, to hone her voice. Jhoni returned a working stand-up who was booked at clubs in L.A. almost instantly, but who found her greatest success becoming Executive Producer of the show Will & Grace where her sharp, distinct voice not only help make the show a ratings juggernaut, but changed public perceptions about gay people.

There are countless stories of Louie doing things like that, big and small, for close friends and strangers. He is in many ways responsible for my marriage. I had met a headstrong young woman, Natalie. I was in a constant off-and-on-again relationship with her, as we would bicker over everything. Louie joined us at an Ikea, and amidst a platter of Swedish meatballs, brought out his social worker counseling skills to point out how we obviously deeply we loved each other, under all our skirmishes. Decades later, Natalie and I are still fighting, and loving each other, with one of our greatest points in common– our unabashed love for Louie.

Louie has scores of nephews and nieces and grand-nephews and nieces that he was close to. A few of them he has had open for him in his act. Our daughter Campbell still considers Louie an Uncle and treasures a stuffed bear he got her called Patches, which intentionally came with a stitching flaw.

Louie was the first to admit that he was not perfect and he was always honest about his own failings. They ran from a weakness for Krispy Kreme donuts to a penchant for ignoring his own advice about gambling (his joke about Vegas was “look at your house, look at their house, you’re never going to win.”)

Louie Anderson in “Baskets”
Everett Collection

Louie made endless jokes about family in his act and when he was host of The Family Feud, but when we wrote The F Word; How to Survive Your Family, Louie was honest about his own struggles to find harmony with an extended family he loved, but often unintentionally hurt or was hurt by. Having been successful in show biz left him with a kind of survivor’s guilt Louie never lost about having made it, and continually feeling that it was his responsibility to take care of his whole clan. Louie was honest about how, in his family, food became love, and how he knew how that had taken a toll on his health. He would lose hundreds of pounds and try not to be frustrated that it didn’t seem to make a dent.

But Louie always did things despite his size, as evidenced when at sixty, he went on a crazy show Splash in which celebrities jumped from a high dive. Louie didn’t even know how to swim. And yet, the country watched as Louie fearlessly took the leap from the high board.

Louie and I talked about writing other movies, but knowing he was better at stand-up than acting, Louie confided in me that he would never be a great actor until he was old enough to play his father. Ironically, his greatest acting gig came when he got a call to play Zach Galifianakis’ mother on a new show on FX. As the character Christine Baskets, Louie would steal the show, playing a version of his mother with a kindness and humor that let the world in on what those who had the privilege of knowing Louie got to experience all the time: his deep and endless heart, with a splash of slyness that let you realize Louie was always the smartest guy in the room– even when dressed in caftan and Sunday tea hat.

Louie Anderson was a complicated person. He had started a documentary, Complicated Laughter, where he spoke frankly about his depression, how his comedy was connected to his pain, and the moments he had considered ending his life. But Louie was a fighter not just for himself, but for humanity– all the humans he cared so much about.

Near the end, Louie was surrounded in his hospital room by so many people from his past and present, people who he had cared about so deeply and who felt the same towards him. Beloved is what one talks about in show business, and Louie was and is that. There were fellow stand-ups, friends knew he from show business, family from his Anderson lineage, and a close group of people who felt like Louie’s family.

He will be more than missed. His heart, his big spirit, his work will live on in each of us and in millions who never got to meet him, but will take comfort and bathe in the warm laughter and joy watching Louie’s joyous stand-up performances. Like the social worker he started out as, ultimately Louie was a healer.

Louie originally became a social worker after getting caught stealing hot snow mobiles as a teenager. The judge saw something in Louie and instead of sentencing him to juvie, offered him a chance to help other troubled kids like himself. One of the last times Louie visited me, we talked about how great Louie would have been in a show like that, playing the crotchety old counselor working with those kids who knew all the angles.

I’m sure Louie is pitching that now to whoever is running that crazy network up there. As Jim, his friend Louie knew from his counseling days said, Louie touched many lives and those of us who were lucky enough to know him along with way, will remain connected to him for the rest of our days. On behalf of everyone who will sorely miss you and forever keep you in our hearts, Love You Louie.

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