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Louie Anderson’s Next Chapter

Louie Anderson is a living legend. With a career spanning forty years, Anderson boasts a résumé that includes three Emmys, numerous film and television appearances, late-night talk show comedy sets, and comedy specials, in addition to multiple producing and writing credits.

The comedian is celebrating a new chapter in his lively career with the release of his book Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, a collection of letters to his late mother, Ora Zella Anderson, who remains one of his biggest inspirations.

Throughout the years, Anderson — whether while hosting Family Feud or on his Nineties animated series, Life With Louie — has done vocal impressions of his entire family. Most recently, Anderson channeled his mom to win an Emmy for the role of Zach Galifianakis’s mother on the FX comedy Baskets. Anderson shines while playing Mrs. Baskets, a Midwestern older woman who adores Costco, buffets, and everything conventional.

Anderson just released a comedy special, Big Underwear. He sat down to speak with the Voice in New York City while on his book tour and fresh off an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Anderson, who recently headlined a show at the Cutting Room in midtown, reflected on a life in comedy, and gave some advice based on what he’s learned during his decades in the business.

How are you feeling today?

Well, you get on these jags, and you just talk about yourself, and you try to make sense of what you’re talking about. Hopefully you’re answering the questions. And it’s 5:45 in the morning, and then it’s 6, and then it’s 6:30, and then 7:30 and then 9, and then 11, 1, and now here we are at 2:30. And you think, “Can I still say anything that I don’t know? Is there anything interesting?”

But you know, you just do your thing. And I try to pay homage to my mom, and the book, and the interview process, in which it is really important to stay present.

What made your mom laugh?

She made, like, absurdity, rather than to get mad. Let’s say you drove around for a half-hour to get a parking spot. And you couldn’t get one close. And then you’d park somewhere. And as you’re walking up to the front, there would be a parking spot that would open up. And you’d have to make the decision, do I go get the car — and you hold the spot? I think that was the kinda stuff that made her laugh.

So sorta like physical comedy?

Maybe “absurdity” is not the right word. She loved silliness. She loved a good joke.

When you were growing up with all your siblings, was there a competition for laughs? Was humor something important in your home?

My brother Roger was much funnier than everybody else. So, there was really no competition. And I really wasn’t developed as a comic then. And I didn’t really have a sense that I was gonna be a comic, or be funny. But people would laugh when I talked, and I would go, “Huh!” I’m being serious, but they would laugh.

I think I had a funny way of saying things, even as a kid.

When did you know that you were a comedian?

Not until October 10, 1978, when I first went onstage. I did it on a dare. I mean, I always thought I was funny because people would always laugh when I talked, but that was the first time I prepared some jokes and went onstage. And it was only gonna be a one-time thing. I wasn’t trying to become a comedian.

Where was that?

It was just a little club called Mickey Finn’s in northeast Minneapolis, and it was open mic night. I showed up, and I went on, and all my family and friends were there, so it felt like I did really well. It was gonna be a one-time thing, and here I am — forty years later — still doing it.

I feel like maybe you lucked out. Do you think if you bombed that night you would’ve gone back?

Good point. I dunno. It would’ve been a terrible experience. I probably wouldn’t have. But, you know, is it luck, or was this all the plan? Do you sometimes feel like you’re in a plan, and you wish you knew what the next move was?

So, I dunno. That’s a good question, though. I think I was supposed to be where I am right now.

What does it mean to be successful?

I guess what marks success is being able to produce something that you created. In this case, success for each person is different, but for me, it’s being able to accomplish a goal, like writing a book, and having the book be either well-received, or well-written — or both — and have it work! Have it be something I can be proud of.

It seems like you like to stay busy. Can you just talk a little bit about your schedule?

I do like my time off. I can just lay around, and watch TV, and play a little golf, and read a little, and write a little. When I get into a groove, I like going and working for a couple of weeks, maybe even a month. I’ve had kind of a big stretch of working lately.

And then, in the middle of this whole book tour, I realized that I’m gonna be changing what I’m doing. I can feel it. What am I doing? What should I be doing? And where am I going next? And I have a glimpse of it from doing the book. ’Cause in the book, I touch on some serious, important things to me that I really want to make happen.

I think my next thing is to give back by trying to help people who need help, or need comfort, or need some sort of assistance. I think that’s my journey.

Do you feel like you’ve always been a giver?

No. I think that I was selfish, and a “taker” at some point in my life. Probably not as much as I have put on myself at times.

I think at the end of the day, I come from a family, like, if you had $3, you would give people $2 if they needed money — or maybe even the whole $3. Because you would realize the $3 would make such a difference for them.

What is something that you can only learn after years of doing comedy?

Well, first of all, you can only learn comedy by doing comedy. You can’t practice and become a good comedian. You have to go up, and have success, and failures. You learn on the fly. Stand-up is, like, the most interesting thing, because even after forty years I still work on certain jokes to make ’em better.

Because underneath every joke is a better joke.

And most people don’t ever go for the better joke. But people who are successful comedians go for the better joke. And then the better joke under that, because they want to have something significant. They want it to mean something to them.

When do you know a joke is expired?

When people don’t laugh anymore. When people go, “Unnnnhhhh.”

But do you think that sometimes it’s the audience?

Hardly ever. I think it’s always the performance. Even a bad audience will laugh at a good joke.

What do you want the audience to take away from seeing you?

All the trash that they brought in.

No!

I want them to be walking out mumbling about their family. Or something I said that resonated with them.

When I get home from a good show — be it a movie, or live show, or stand-up, or music — I’m either singin’ the song, or sayin’ the lines from the play. Or if I’m at a stand-up thing, I’m laughing about the thing and reminiscing.

If I talk about family, I want them to be walking out thinking about their family.

When I think of you, you’re just so polite. Can you give any advice to young people in show business that they might appreciate?

The best advice I could give somebody who’s doing stand-up, or in show business at all, is, first of all, get your eye on the prize that you’re going for. I wanted to get my name on the Comedy Store marquee, I wanted to do The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and I wanted to be a host of a talk show.

I kept my eyes on those things, and I got to do all of them. I filled in for Joan Rivers for a week once. Then I knew exactly what it would be like to be a talk show host, so I could knock it off my list, ’cause I no longer wanted to do it — although I do think I would be a good talk show host. I’m not motivated anymore in that direction.

If your goal is to get a special, how will you get a special? Work it backwards. Let’s say you’re gonna get a comedy special. You work backwards. What did it take for that person to get that comedy special?

That’s what I could tell them. Work as hard on your comedy as you do at getting laid and getting drugs.

By the time this publishes, you will have performed at the Cutting Room, which is a special place because that was Joan Rivers’s room! Tell us what that means to you.

Of course Joan is always in my heart, and I love Joan, and I’m sorry she’s gone. But she’s always gonna be with me. She was a big influence on me, and a great, great, great joke writer. I’m going to be able to do my stand-up from my new special, Big Underwear, that’s out right now, if you wanna get it. I’m going to be able to talk about Baskets and how that part came to me, and also I’m gonna be able to reminisce about the week I’ve had promoting Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, my new book.

And then I’m going to talk about families like I always do. And I’m looking forward to it. I hear it’s a great room. I have never been there. And I’m looking forward to that.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

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I’m Sending Up Susan Lucci Again!

Just in time for the Oscars, along comes You Like Me, the riotous recreation of celebrity awards acceptance speeches, created by Michael Schulman and Rachel Shukert.

Next Saturday night at Ars Nova–the night before the actual Oscars–you will gag to the procession of performers re-enacting the gratitude, groveling, self-aggrandizement, sincerity, awe, and purposeful forgetting of names as immortalized by various trophy holders in golden boy history.

Last time around, I spoofed Susan Lucci‘s well-earned tour de force when she finally won the Daytime Emmy for All Children.

And this time?

I’m doing it again!

After all, just like Susan herself, I know the words.

Here’s last time’s performance, to refresh your mammaries.

Oh, and if you want to see me do Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, and Kiki Dee, come to 54 Below this weekend.

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Kathy Griffin On Paula Abdul, Michele Bachmann, and Anderson Cooper!

The caustically hilarious Kathy Griffin is playing Carnegie Hall on November 12 as part of the New York Comedy Festival—a career turn that surely merited a high-culture ring on the ding.

Here’s how our enjoyably trashy little symphony of a chat recital went:

Hey, Kathy. You’re going to Carnegie Hall! One blowjob at a time. Is that the saying, or did I get it wrong? I fucking love Carnegie Hall because the acoustics are amazing.

You’ll sing? Yeah, I’ll do operatic arias in between dick jokes. [laughs] Anyway, this is a treat for me. I almost never get to see other comedians.

What if they’re stealing your material? I’ll cut them.

Do you steal? I don’t think anyone else can have the story of confronting Michele Bachmann on an escalator and asking whether she was born a bigot or grew into it. Her response was that she was going to think about it. She thought it was a good question!

At least she didn’t start screaming. At a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that would so not look good.

Do you ever feel bad about stuff you’ve said? I don’t. All the time. I can’t stop myself. Unfortunately, I have self-diagnosed Tourette syndrome.

Are you self-medicated as well? No, but that’s a good idea. I should walk into CVS and say, “I have self-diagnosed Tourette’s.”

Maybe that’s what Paula Abdul does. At the Emmys, she ran from me on the red carpet! I was happy to see her upright. I tried to talk to her and said, “I’m more excited about your show The X Factor than you are.” She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about! But I get excited about seeing legends. I saw Edie Falco and said, “Are you going to the parties?” She said, “I’m going to bed.” You’re freaking Nurse Jackie and Carmela Soprano!

Yeah, but she lost. Speaking of bedroom action, are you good at it? I’m awesome. I fucking love it.

Are you a porn star? I’m not a porn star. I don’t have crazy skills or do wild shit. I’m a simple dirty girl who loves a good steak, a good fuck, and to make people laugh.

In that order? Number one is to make people laugh. Then a good steak, then a good fuck. Interview any famous conductor at Carnegie Hall, and they’d say the same thing. They’d like a good pointer or some good sheet music and a good fuck.

And a steak with a wedge of iceberg and creamed spinach. That’s a classic meal.If you’re getting executed on death row.

Speaking of which, were you really in the 1991 horror classic The Unborn?Yes. That was Lisa Kudrow’s old nose, hair, and boobs, and my old face. That was two faces ago.

Can you look at it? Not with any dignity, no.

It says on Wikipedia that that was your first. I mean your first film, not face.Might as well throw in the “first face”!

Do you ever miss being an actress rather than doing stand-up as yourself? Michael, how can you say that to me when I was on a super special Law & Order: SVU—or as my mother calls it, SUV.

I know. You played a lesbian activist. That’s also on Wikipedia. I don’t watch much TV. You don’t watch Logo’s A-List?

That’s not for gays. Michele Bachmann probably watches it. You must watch Drop Dead Diva.

Nope. You’re not even gay! You’re just gay to get more assignments! I’ll talk to the council. Did you ever win a GLAAD award?

No way. That’s bullshit!

But I think you have to apply and pay a $35 fee. Fuck that. You can go out and splurge with that.

Will you win an Emmy for Glee? No, because it was a small part.

But Ellen Burstyn won for saying two words. In that case, yes. I went to the Emmys with Kristin Chenoweth, and she lost for Glee, and I lost. The bitter pill was that Gwyneth Paltrow won, and she wasn’t even there, and we had to witness an assistant boxing up her Emmy and carrying it out, half-assed. I wanted to rip her fucking hair out. Do you follow me on Twitter? I tweeted about how I went to Cher’s, and we watched Dancing with the Stars and my Pants Off special in bed.

I am so jealous. Is she happy she has a straight son? Cher’s been rolling along with the cart—she’s rolled with straight daughter, gay daughter, transgender. I said, “I want to get a pizza,” and she said: “I don’t know how to order a pizza. I’m Cher!” If you could have seen the two of us, it was so fucking Lucy and Ethel. A pizza man in Malibu got a call from my assistant—”We need one large pizza with pepperoni, and it’s for Cher and Kathy Griffin.” We had to pull it out of the box and put it on the table. We’re too famous for that!

Gwynnie probably had to do that with her Emmy. Anyway, what will Anderson Cooper reveal in November? There are rumors. [sternly] I don’t know, Michael. Why don’t you call him?

And with that, I politely hung up and went about my next Verizon adventure. See you, Kathy! Let’s go out for steak.

musto@villagevoice.com

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Caveat Mentor

Two-time Emmy winner Daniel J. Travanti’s attraction to Oren Safdie’s two-character comedy-drama The Last Word . . . is understandable. In the role of Henry Grunwald, a former ad exec who’s decided to spend his twilight years writing plays, Travanti gets to act the lovable curmudgeon, the wounded old man who fled Hitler’s Germany as a child, the naughty septuagenarian roué who is something of a philosopher. It’s all showy stuff, and Travanti—virtually unrecognizable under a mane of long, white hair—delivers each side of the old codger’s personality with aplomb. Equally adept is Adam Green as Len, an NYU playwriting student who’s come to Henry’s office for a job interview. Len’s just as opinionated about playwriting as Henry, and none too patient with the older man. Henry pontificates and dictates bad dialogue for his plays, and Len gets in a few good one-liners along the way. All the while, theatergoers wait for the moment when the two will reach a sort of uneasy understanding. This moment doesn’t come easily—and when it does, it arrives with cloying cuteness in director Alex Lippard’s heavy-handed staging. Travanti’s (and, to a lesser degree, Green’s) attraction to Word is apparent. Its lure for theatergoers, however, remains a mystery.

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1958

  • As the demand for personal ads grows, the Voice launches “Bulletin Board” section for placement of personals.
  • Columnist Nat Hentoff joins the paper (and is still writing for the Voice today).
  • George C. Scott wins the Obie Award for best actor for his roles in Richard III, As You Like It, and Children of Darkness.
  • The Voice begins running with new subtitle: “A Greenwich Village Weekly.”
  • The Voice‘s first film review column debuts: Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal.”
  • A TV series depicting the lives of New York’s 65th Street precinct detectives, Naked City, airs on ABC. It is nominated for an Emmy every season it is on the air. (The show is cancelled in 1963.).
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    HBO Tells ‘Sopranos’ Publicist To Fuggedaboudit

    Sunday night, instead of attending the Emmys in Los Angeles, Frances Edwards sat at home in New Jersey watching the glittery ceremony on television. She was shocked when James Gandolfini, a/k/a Tony Soprano, lost the Best Actor award to Dennis Franz. She was thrilled when Edie Falco, who plays Tony’s long-suffering wife, Carmela, was named Best Drama Actress. But mostly she was sad that she couldn’t attend the Emmys in person to show her support for The Sopranos— a show she helped put on the media map.

    Until last month, Edwards was the widely
    liked publicist for the critically acclaimed series about the Mafia. On August 4, in the wake of news that The Sopranos had garnered 16 Emmy nominations, her bosses at HBO removed
    her from the show. Two days later, she was suspended from the network, ordered not to contact anybody connected with the company, and put under investigation for ethical misconduct.

    The GOP activist— who has written for The Wall Street Journal and was featured in The Economist as an example of the upcoming generation of black Republicans— now says she’s the victim of corporate communism. HBO suspended her, the axed publicist claims, because she’s a black conservative who doesn’t conform to the one-size-fits-all affirmative action mold. Edwards says she did her job too well for the white, liberal entertainment executives who run the channel and think minorities can succeed only with their help and guidance. “I’m the victim of the suffocating political correctness that has taken hold in some corporations today,” says Edwards, who was born in Grenada but grew up in the pleasant suburb of Ridgewood, New Jersey. “I’m a casualty of diversity run amok.”

    HBO counters that Edwards is creating a political smoke screen. The real reason she was ousted, the company insists, is that she constantly undermined superiors and attempted to solicit private clients among HBO talent. “I couldn’t care less if Frances Edwards is to the right of Genghis Khan,” says senior executive vice president Richard Plepler, who runs the corporate communications department and
    also heads HBO’s diversity council. “This is not about political correctness. This is about a smart, capable woman who nevertheless managed to alienate many in her department.”

    “The level of hostility, animosity, and mistrust which she generated in the company
    was absolutely unprecedented,” concluded one HBO executive, who requested anonymity.
    “She was promoting her own agenda with the talent, not the company’s. And HBO was legitimately concerned.”

    The migration of political correctness out of the academy and into the workplace is indeed a noxious social trend. On the surface, such measures as no-smoking policies, drug tests,
    diversity training, and sexual-harassment workshops may seem well-intentioned. But what these codes of conduct are really about is avoiding expensive litigation, polishing up the corporate image, and, most of all, controlling worker behavior. Which explains why, these days, big offices are often such joyless, buttoned-up environments.

    Diversity training aims to increase minority representation in the workplace. But Edwards believes that these courses, while encouraging diversity of skin color, discourage diversity of political opinion. “I’m philosophically opposed to anything that elevates group rights over individual rights,” she explains. “When you coerce individuals to change their views, oftentimes you create resentment that ends up being worse than what you’re trying to change. I don’t think that forcing people to think a certain way is the best way to bring about social progress. What corporations get out of diversity training is cover. If the NAACP shows up at the front door, the company can say, ‘See what we do? We make them undergo reeducation.’ ”

    But is the Edwards case really about white liberal paternalists picking on a freethinking black woman? Or is this more the story of a driven, ambitious publicist who overstepped professional boundaries and is now adopting victim status— just like the left-wingers she criticizes— to gain sympathy and to hurt the reputation of her soon-to-be-former employers?

    HBO prides itself on its groundbreaking, envelope-pushing, rule-shattering image. But behind the scenes, Edwards says, the situation is far different. She paints a portrait of treacherous office politics in the publicity department— where the best way to get ahead is to toe the company line. “HBO says I’m not a team player,” contends Edwards. “They say I don’t give enough information to my bosses. They say
    I’m not trusted by my colleagues. What they really mean is that I refused to peddle in the common currency of HBO, which is gossip. Not only am I considered ‘off-the-plantation’ because I’m black and politically conservative, I’m considered not a team player because I do my job with discretion.”

    Did her right-wing views ever get in the way of doing her job? “I hardly ever discussed politics in the office. In the entertainment industry, you can’t let people know your political views when you’re conservative. It’s career suicide.”

    Edwards claims her troubles began soon after she landed what she thought was a dream job at HBO, in 1997. She had impressed Plepler and HBO CEO Jeff Bewkes at a gala dinner for the Museum of Television & Radio. Plepler admits he was charmed by this gracious and eloquent black woman who spouted Tocqueville and Ayn Rand, and who subscribed to The Economist. Several months later, he offered her a low-level publicist post.

    To Edwards’s dismay, once installed in the publicity department, she found herself in charge of a “black press list” of African-American journalists and publications she was supposed to woo. “I didn’t realize until I got there that I was hired as the affirmative action candidate,” says Edwards, whose Caribbean lilt is sometimes mistaken for an English inflection. “I told them if they wanted a black voice on the phone to appeal to black journalists, I’m not the one for the job because of my accent. That made them very nervous.” Eventually, HBO broadened her responsibilities to include dealing with nonblack journalists. Then, in her first job review, she was reprimanded for not showing enough sensitivity to the diversity training program— she failed to volunteer, because she thought it was a waste of time. Later, her supervisors contacted her and told her the course was compulsory, so she signed up.

    HBO claims Edwards crossed the line from conscientious objector to ideological crusader when she gave her Persian assistant permission not to attend the class because it was “superficial” and “ineffective.” Ironically, the beginning of the end of Edwards’s HBO tenure came not because of her right-wing politics, but because she helped organize a bash for bleeding-heart liberal intellectuals who were all Sopranos fans. The July power dinner— held at a downtown Italian restaurant and attended by New York Post columnist Jack Newfield, Sopranos creator David Chase, Nicholas Pileggi, Mario Cuomo, and Pete Hamill— incensed Edwards’s immediate superior, Tobe Becker, who Edwards says told her: “You had no business being at that dinner.”

    “This was the pretext for me being put under investigation,” says Edwards. “I guess this little nigger was too uppity for her masters.” A few days later, Becker and her boss Quentin Schaffer approached Plepler and told him they believed Edwards was attempting to build up a private client roster culled from such HBO talent as Gandolfini, actress Lorraine Bracco, and Oz creator Tom Fontana. (Through their respective managers, both Gandolfini and Bracco denied Edwards had ever tried to solicit them as personal clients; Fontana declined comment.) Exiled from HBO’s Bryant Park offices, Edwards decided to fight back, retaining Milton Mollen— of Mollen Commission fame— as her lawyer.

    Writer Frank Renzulli, co­executive producer of The Sopranos, agrees with Edwards that it’s easy to get blackballed in the entertainment industry for having the wrong political views. “Showbiz has room for everybody, just as long as they think like us,” he jokes. “No matter what anybody says, there is a party political line you’re expected to toe. It’s not as ugly and repressive as the McCarthy era. But it’s definitely there.”

    Renzulli has nothing but praise for Edwards: “She’s a joy to work with, as opposed to another HBO publicist I had to deal with,” says the script writer. He’s talking about Becker, who after removing Edwards from the show, took over herself. “My experience with Tobe was very unpleasant. Her whole tone was insulting. It doesn’t surprise me that a person like Tobe could make such an unfair accusation against a person like Frances. Frances was the perfect person for the job. She did her job so well that she made her superiors jealous.”