One of the most sympathetic, compelling portraits of motherhood on television centers on a performance by a man. On FX’s Baskets, which recently completed its third season, comedian Louie Anderson plays Christine Baskets, owner of a “family rodeo” and mother of twins Chip and Dale (both played by Zach Galifianakis), a part for which Anderson won an Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 2016.
In the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, Anderson describes the experience of playing Christine not as trying to put on a character but, instead, as channeling his own mother, Ora, a South Dakota native who spent most of her life in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. When he steps out of his trailer, Anderson says, it’s as if he opens up a conduit to his mother (who has passed away), wherever she might be.
He’s also used his fond memories of his mother to write a new book, Hey Mom, in which he reminisces about how she protected him from a dangerous, hostile father during his childhood and prepared him for his long career in comedy.
In addition to Baskets, that career has included highly acclaimed standup work, the 1990s animated series Life With Louie (also an Emmy winner), and a gig hosting Family Feud. His standup is notable for pivoting between gently poking fun at himself (usually via his vast roster of self-directed fat jokes) and telling more emotionally risky stories about his life growing up with a large family.
I wanted to ask Anderson if playing Christine had taught him anything about his own mother. A lightly edited transcript of that portion of our conversation follows.
The image of a guy in a dress has this long history in television. It starts with Milton Berle, really. He would march out in a dress, and it was always played for laughs, and we’ve since better realized how harmful that could be in some ways. But Christine was never conceived of as a joke, and that was striking to me the first time I saw the show. I’m wondering what those conversations were like.
Less conversations. I never for once played a male in the part. And when I occasionally get close to it, I always see it. But I don’t do it. When I get ready, I’m getting prepared to flick my hair and purse my lips, as my mom did.
I think we have tics as humans, so I stole all my mom’s nuance and tics and put them on me to disguise Louie Anderson, to get him out of there. For the most part, I’m really playing [the characters’] mom. I never think, “This is funny because I’m in a dress.” You know what I think when I look in the mirror? I look really good. That’s the difference, I think. [I think] I look really good as a woman. I don’t say, “I look good as a woman.” I look in a mirror and say, “I’m really good.”
People are talking about how much they love the acting of it. I don’t know if you believe in any of that stuff, but I think there’s an open portal for all of us. And that’s what happens when you see really good parts, I think you’re opening yourself up to the idea that you are [the character]. I think of myself as a woman in there. I don’t ever think of myself as a man when I’m playing the part. I think I’m Dale and Chip’s mom. When I step into the trailer, I’m Louie. But when I step out of the trailer, I am not. I leave Louie in the trailer.
So I’m trying to imagine the way my mom must have felt. I knew how she carried herself because she was really funny in her own way, but she had so much style it was just unbelievable. But I didn’t know it as style. I just knew my mom could beat up your mom. [laughs] But mostly by looks, grimaces, and glances; she didn’t have to do much else. Or a mean little word. But not meant to be mean, but more to let people know that they’re being mean.
She had a tremendous amount of justice in her psyche. She knew what was right. She knew what was the right thing and the wrong thing, and she just needed a glance to let you know you weren’t doing it.
What’s the thing you didn’t understand about your mom as a child that you do now?
Maybe how lonesome she was.
I think my mom stayed with my dad, at the end of the day, because she loved him and didn’t want to be alone. I think that even though she was this unbelievably stoic figure, I think there’s a bunch of us who just don’t want to be alone, because when we’re alone, we’re no good. In the sense of, not bad people, but we’re not as happy. We’re not as connected.
This book was the hardest book I ever wrote, even though my dad’s book [Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child, published in 1989] was super hard to write. When you’re older, you’re more responsible for how you treat the people around you. People always say, “You were good to Mom,” but I could have been better. I wish I would have.
Have you come to a better understanding of your parents’ marriage, having written about both of them?
The time of the world then — late ’20s, early ’30s — you didn’t leave somebody very easily in those days.
Especially in Minnesota.
Minnesotans will hang on to the very last breath. I remember when my dad quit drinking when he was 69, and my mom turned to us and said, “I told you he’d quit.” I thought that summed up everything, to be honest. I think she realized she loved that guy no matter what, and she was not going to give in, and he gave in.
You mentioned that you feel like you’re channeling your mom in some ways. Have you had that feeling before, not necessarily in terms of channeling your mom, but in terms of feeling like you’re tapped into something?
Many times. When I’m writing. Onstage, when I’m crushing it, just free-form.
And when I did Life With Louie, when I read the dad character, because the dad character, I had to do it always at the end of all the reading. I’d do the narration, I’d do Little Louie, and then I did the dad. If I did the dad first, I had nothing left for the other characters, because I always thought my dad was there when I was doing it.
Maybe that’s just my nostalgic, sentimental person who I am that wants to think that, but Jesus. I don’t know if you listen to some of the stuff that we taped [for that show]. The dad character, we would just have a line, but I would just go off, almost all the time, and just go on and on. That was so much fun, and this is the character I always thought I would play in a sitcom — my dad. And look! I ended up playing my mom, which is just how life works, isn’t it?
For much more with Anderson, including a highly emotional reading from Hey Mom, listen to the full episode.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.