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Louie Anderson made vulnerability funny

Louie Anderson performs his stand-up comedy routine at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas in 2017. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Louie Anderson was, by far, the funniest stand-up comic I have ever seen perform live.

About a decade ago, when I was an unemployed and depressed recent post-grad who had no sense of my future, I visited my cousins in Las Vegas, who were able to score some discounted matinee tickets to see Anderson at a resort club. Although I was vaguely familiar with the comic because he had produced and starred in a 1990s Saturday morning cartoon from my childhood, “Life With Louie,” I had zero expectations for the event. I certainly had nothing better to do.

About an hour later, however, I was guffawing so hard at Anderson’s everyday observations, endearing familial impressions and lithe, in-the-moment wit, that he started heckling me for being too enamored with the show. “Do you need some help over there? Yikes.” Of course, his derision only made me laugh harder.

For Anderson, it was probably just another Thursday afternoon. For me, it became a flashbulb memory, a reminder that art has the power to not only divert people from their dispirited ruminations but also help them reframe their despairing mind-sets. And quite honestly, the comedian wasn’t too peppy that day. If anything, I appreciated the underlying pathos in his dry (famously nasal) deadpan delivery.

Anderson, who died Friday at 68 of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had a gift for entwining humor with vulnerability. He was a raconteur who could allude to hard truths about the human condition but without ever disheartening the audience. Whether he was imitating his beloved mom’s love for retail markdowns or sharing the realities of being on a medically prescribed diet, he made life’s fundamental sadness relatable. In turn, that relatability sparked knowing, empathetic joy in his audience. His pain connected with ours. The pain, of course, was never the whole story.

Louie Anderson, comedian and Emmy-winning TV actor, dies at 68

He exuded sweetness. He was known for impersonating his harried Upper-Midwestern mother, Ora, and skewering his 1950s and ’60s childhood growing up as a poor, chubby kid in St. Paul, Minn. He remained visibly boyish into his 60s, his gap teeth and blond mop lending to his cheeky, cherubic persona. He was honest about his struggles, particularly regarding his difficult childhood and his lifelong issues around weight. He never exactly invited us to laugh at him or the family members he frequently embodied onstage, but to feel with them.

In an interview with Conan O’Brien in 2019, he shares an anecdote about making a birthday coupon book as a kid for his mom, who was married to an abusive alcoholic: “ ‘I’ll wash the dishes, I’ll do the laundry, I’ll kill dad for you.’ ” The audience laughs. “It’s a true story,” he swears. They laugh even more. He relays that, one day, he came home and heard his father greet him: “ ‘There he is. Hitman Louie. Ya gonna kill me, Louie? Here I am.’ ” Anderson chuckles, cutting the tension of what could be a story for a therapist. He says the coupon became a running joke in the family. He also provides a fuller picture of his dad, describing the man’s musical talent and pride in his children. There’s no villain in this moment. Anderson built community with his audience by unraveling the gauze on his old wounds.

Anderson was known for “clean,” family-friendly comedy, which led to the semi-autobiographical Fox animated children’s series “Life With Louie,” which ran from 1994 to 1998, and his work as the host of the syndicated game show “Family Feud,” from 1999 to 2002. Clean comedy can sometimes pigeonhole comics; Rosie O’Donnell and Bob Saget spent years trying to shed their sanitized images after gaining notoriety for kid-focused fare. Anderson seemed to reach for basic human truth over any particular type of branding. He held various film and television roles during his nearly 40 years in Hollywood.

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His final major act was perhaps his most resonant. In 2016, he won a Primetime Emmy for his transcendent role on FX’s surreal and existential griefcom “Baskets,” starring as the Costco- and Ronald Reagan-loving mother of a frustrated professional rodeo clown played by Zach Galifianakis. (He was nominated three times in the supporting actor category for the character.) Channeling the specter of his own larger-than-life mother, who raised 11 children, Anderson crafted one of the most lovable and memorable TV characters of the past 20 years.

In any other hands, Christine Baskets could have been a one-note caricature — historically, “gender-bending” in comedy is the joke itself — but Anderson made you forget the questions of gendered performance. The role isn’t drag; Christine’s mannerisms aren’t amplified to critique performative femininity or masculinity. The series may be absurdist in construction, but Anderson as Christine is not heightened. He plays an ordinary no-nonsense woman, a widow in the dusty suburbs of Bakersfield, Calif., who just wishes her sons would lead stable lives. With a blond bob and an array of sensible sweater sets, Anderson melts into the role. (His transcendent work predates the disappearing acts that defined the lead performances of cult comedies “PEN15” and “Chad.”)

Emotionally shut down after her husband’s suicide and a lifetime of her own mother’s nitpicking, Christine focuses on the quotidian details of her condo lifestyle. Viewers aren’t positioned to mock her consumerist obsessions but see our own aggrieved matriarchs in her opinions on Arby’s fries and bulk purchasing. In Christine, I saw my own twice-widowed grandmother, a woman who loved home shopping networks and taking me to Costco for hot dogs. A woman who carried shame about her body through nine tumultuous decades, despite all her incredible accomplishments.

Anderson imbued Christine with humanity. Throughout the series, the character grapples with her diabetes and the expectations of caring for herself. She’s uncomfortable swimming in front of other women her age because of her size. In one of the most beautiful moments from the series, following an episode where she comes to terms with her maternal guilt, Christine drives to an isolated Pacific beach to do her water aerobics in private. It’s dark, and she’s alone. In her red floral swimsuit, she steps into the ocean, and we see her finally take a breath.

The image is liberating but also comforting. She’s letting the water wash away her years of indignity. The moment, and Anderson’s natural warmth, helped wash away some of my deep-seated bodily shame, too.

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