In 'Hey Mom,' Louie Anderson Has A Laugh With His Leading Lady

Mar 30, 2018
Originally published on March 30, 2018 7:57 am

Comedian Louie Anderson would like to introduce you to his mom, Ora Zella Anderson. She died years ago, but he's been thinking about her a lot lately.

In his new book, Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, he's written a series of letters to fill her in on all that she's missed — like the breakthrough TV role that she inspired on the FX show Baskets.

Anderson plays the sweet, sometimes flustered mom, whose son Chip is played by Zach Galifianakis.

From the mannerisms to the disapproving glances, Louie based the character on Ora Zella. So when he won an Emmy for the role, he got up on stage and shouted, "Mom, we did it!"

Anderson's new book is a tribute to his mom, who raised a huge family in poverty in Minnesota.


Interview Highlights

On what his mom was like

Fiercely motherly, fiercely loyal to her children, you know, she was a know-it-all. When you have 11 kids — my mom had 11 kids — so if you have 11 children, you have to become a know-it-all, 'cause there's 11 people asking you.

Or you make it up. And you have to make things that seem dumb, beautiful. You know, that's who my mom was. She could make really beautiful things. I reference that in the book; she could make tiny little things unbelievably beautiful. The vegetables, for instance. When she would cut the vegetables up, it was a serenade to the vegetables: "I love clean celery, Louie," "Hey, Louie, will you peel me a cuke? I just love cucumbers." And then, "Louie, get the little salt dips out for the radishes, so that we can dip the radishes. You know they do that at the White House."

But it was just to make us ... feel better, or know what was possible. I don't know. I think she might've been a rich kid. I think, I knew that she probably lived pretty good and very proper as a little kid. And then she met my dad, and it was all down hill from there.

On why he wrote Hey Mom more than 25 years after her death

I've always talked to my mom ever since she died. I'd go, "Hey Mom, what's going on? Are you up there with Dad? Are you with my other brothers and sisters who passed on? Hey, what a day I've had." Or, you know, I've always had that voice, that narrative.

I think we all have narratives of somebody that we like to talk to.

On his parents' relationship

When he didn't drink, [my dad] was a decent human being, but still a very tortured human being. And when he did, he was the dragons from Game of Thrones. He was very vicious, and you never knew if he was going to breathe fire on you or not.

My mom and dad grew up in this era where you didn't take off from your husband when you had 11 kids. Where are you gonna go in the '50s? Where is she gonna go? What is she gonna do? 'Cause you know what my dad always did? He worked — one or two jobs, no matter how drunk he got.

On loss and grief

We never really learn how to deal with a loss. We just keep stuffing it down and make up for it in unhealthy ways a lot of times. And so, I don't think in this society we mourn enough. You know, that process of the funeral is always amazing to me: Get 'em in the casket, get 'em in the ground.

You're busy, but you've got to grieve the loss. That's why people are at work, and they're crying. I'm always on the verge of tears because I think everyday, you know, you should bring yourself to tears. Everyday you should be that passionate, and you should have a good laugh everyday. And you know, you should discover something new everyday. I don't feel bad about crying or being emotional. I think it keeps me healthier.

Danny Hajek and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Comedian Louie Anderson would like to introduce you to his mom.

LOUIE ANDERSON: My mom, Ora Zella Anderson - I like to always say her name.

GREENE: That's beautiful.

ANDERSON: Yeah, it's a great name - isn't it? She was very lovely. You would've really liked her.

GREENE: So that's Louie Anderson, one of our country's most enduring stand-up comics. He lost his mom years ago, but he's been thinking about her a lot lately. In his new book, "Hey Mom," he's written a series of letters to her, filling her in on all that she has missed, like his breakthrough TV role that she inspired. It's on the FX show "Baskets." And Louie Anderson plays the sweet, sometimes flustered mom. Yeah, you heard me right. He plays the mom. Her son, Chip, is played by Zach Galifianakis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")

ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Oh.

ANDERSON: (As Mrs. Baskets, yelling) Chip.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Mom.

ANDERSON: (As Mrs. Baskets) Oh, my God. Don't scare me like that. Are you OK, Chip?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I'm fine.

ANDERSON: (As Mrs. Baskets) OK, Chip. Give me a glass of Kirkland and a Klondike bar, kid (exhaling).

GREENE: So the mannerisms, the disapproving glances - Louie based all of it on Ora Zella Anderson. So, when he won the Emmy, he got up on stage, and he shouted.

(SOUNDBITE OF 68TH PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS)

ANDERSON: (Yelling) Ah, Mom. We did it.

(APPLAUSE)

GREENE: So, maybe some of you can relate to this, you know, wanting to still connect to a parent you've lost, realizing just how much they've shaped you. Louie Anderson's new book is a tribute to his mom, who raised a huge family in poverty in Minnesota.

ANDERSON: You know, when you have 11 kids - my mom had 11 kids. So if you have 11 children, you have to become a know-it-all because there's 11 people asking you...

GREENE: You better be the one to know something or else...

ANDERSON: You got to know, or you make it up.

GREENE: ...Everything's going to fall apart.

ANDERSON: Or you make it up. And you have to make things that seem dumb, beautiful. You know, that's who my mom was. She could make really beautiful things - I reference that in the book. She could make tiny, little things unbelievably beautiful.

GREENE: Yeah.

ANDERSON: The vegetables, for instance. When she would cut the vegetables up, it was a serenade to the vegetables. Look at these. You know, I love clean celery, Louie. Hey, Louie, will you peel me a cuke (ph)? I just love cucumbers. And then, Louie, get the little salt dips out for the radishes so that we can dip the radishes. You know, they do that at the White House.

But it was just to make us look - I guess, feel better or know what was possible. I don't know. I think she might have been a rich kid. I knew that - I knew that she probably lived pretty good and very proper as a little kid, and then she met my dad, and it was all downhill from there (laughter).

GREENE: But it - so she passed in 1990. Why write this book now?

ANDERSON: I - you know, I've always talked to my mom, ever since she died. Go, hey, Mom - what's going on? Are you up there with Dad? Are you with, you know, my other brothers and sisters that - who passed on? Hey, what a day I've had. Or, you know - I've always had that voice, that narrative.

GREENE: You talk to her.

ANDERSON: Yeah, the narrative. I think we all have narratives of somebody that we like to talk to, you know?

GREENE: But you liked the experience of writing her. And that became this book because the book, I mean, is a series of letters to her.

ANDERSON: Yeah, because I kept having questions. What about Dad? What did you see in him? What was the thing? I don't mean it even in a - I mean, there's irony there, but what do your parents see in each other? You might know what you see in people, but what did they like?

GREENE: Well, and it's a question that's very difficult for you because your father was such an alcoholic.

ANDERSON: Yeah. You know, he was - when he didn't drink, he was a decent human being but still a very tortured human being. And when he did, he was the dragons from "Game Of Thrones." He was that kind of - he was very vicious, and you never knew if he was going to breathe fire on you or not.

GREENE: But did you ever figure out, going through this process, what your mom saw in him? Did you ever get your question answered?

ANDERSON: I think he was so funny, and I think he was a really great trumpet player, and I think he was a charmer. He would sing to her. When he was bad, he'd go, (singing) Honolulu baby, where'd you get those eyes. (Sniffling) Sorry.

GREENE: It's OK.

ANDERSON: You know, that's who he was. So I think - and especially my mom and dad grew up in this era where you didn't take off from your husband when you had 11 kids. Where're you going to go in the '50s? Where is she going to go? What is she going to do? Because you know what my dad always did? He worked one or two jobs, no matter how drunk he got.

GREENE: Can I - I just want to give listeners a feel for what this book is like. There's a little bit of Page 46 that I'd love you to read for us.

ANDERSON: Yeah. This letter is called, "One Thing I Really Miss." Louie, grab the roast. Isn't that a gorgeous roast? I never thought a word like gorgeous applied to something like a roast. But you did because you knew how to make anything beautiful and valuable, the way you made us feel, no matter how much danger we're living in, Mom. Thank you.

GREENE: So Louie Anderson told me that his mom's death was the hardest thing to write about in this book. He is still coming to terms with her being gone.

ANDERSON: You know, we never really learn how to deal with a loss. We just keep stuffing it down and make up for it in unhealthy ways a lot of times. And so I don't think we ever - you know, I don't think in this society we mourn enough. You know, that process of the funeral is always amazing to me. Get them in the casket. Get them on the ground. All right. Cover the ground.

GREENE: It's almost like a way of coping, I feel like...

ANDERSON: Yeah, it is. Of course.

GREENE: You know, at least you're busy. You're busy.

ANDERSON: You're busy, but I - you've got to grieve the loss. That's why people are at work, and they're crying. I'm always on the verge of tears because I think every day, you know, you should bring yourself to tears. Every day, you should be that passionate, and you should have a good laugh every day. And, you know, you should discover something new every day. I think, I - you know, like I don't feel bad about crying or being emotional. I think it keeps me healthier.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEODORE SHAPIRO'S "BREAK THROUGH")

GREENE: Louie Anderson, thank you for coming in and chatting.

ANDERSON: Thank you, David.

GREENE: His new book is called "Hey Mom." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.