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July 23, 2014

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Still afloat: Comic Louie Anderson’s career a lesson in resilience

Louie Anderson is not only wide, he's deep.

The 49-year-old comedian recently finished writing his third book exploring the depths of the relationship he had with his dysfunctional family.

The first two, "Dear Dad Letters From an Adult Child" (Viking Press; 1989) and "Good-bye Jumbo ... Hello Cruel World" (Penguin; 1994), were best sellers, in which Anderson wrote about his alcoholic and abusive father and a mother whose answer to stress was food. (Both of his parents are now deceased.)

In "The F Word: How to Survive Your Family," which is scheduled for release Oct. 9 by Time-Warner Books, Anderson explores ways for family members to cope with each other.

"I offer 49 tips on how to survive family situations," said Anderson, who is appearing at the Rio's Samba Theatre through April 7. "We don't get any kind of instructions on how to deal with families. In the book I talk about the family matrix how interlocked we are, especially with our parents."

But the focus is on coping with family gatherings.

"The family reunion: What's the best way to go to a family reunion?" Anderson said. "And family holidays I'm talking about that kind of stuff."

Anderson talked about a lot of different kinds of stuff recently as he lounged around his Rio suite dressed in a jogging suit, nibbling on fruit and sipping a diet drink.

"The worst thing about Vegas is you can live in a room, a hotel, for 20 days without leaving," he said. "There's nothing you need that you can't get."

In his room he spends a lot of time answering the telephone and listening to books on tape.

"I'm a big audio reader," he said. "I don't read as well as I listen. I don't comprehend the same. I think the writer's voice is more clear to me when it's read out loud, rather than when I read the book."

While writing generally comes easily to Anderson, he said his most recent effort was difficult.

"I didn't want to make it a thing where I'm complaining about my family," he said. "I thought, Hey, enough about how families are rough and life is hard.' What this book is about is what you can do about it. I take a more positive approach than I did in the previous books."

This will be the last of the books Anderson will write about his family, he said. Because it will be the last, he said he wanted to do something special. Fans will be able to order an autographed leather-bound edition ($75) of the new book, and for the price he will include a free hardback copy of the out-of-print "Dear Dad," also autographed.

While any book written by Anderson is bound to have humor, he says he covers a lot of serious issues in "The F Word."

"My real goal is to share, in a humorous way, what's going on with me, and hopefully how it applies to other people," Anderson said.

He says he has forgiven his father for his failings. "I miss my parents," Anderson said. "I think that what's really important is to understand that people really don't do any of that negative stuff on purpose. They're doing the best they can.

"I don't think people are deceitful on purpose, not in family situations. There's a point where you have to go, 'This is crazy Uncle Al, and he's always going to be crazy.' "

Anderson's well-publicized conflicts with his parents and 10 siblings are, in part, responsible for his being asked to host "Family Feud," which recently completed its third year of syndication and begins taping the fourth year in May. The show airs locally at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday on KVBC Channel 3.

Richard Dawson, whose trademark was kissing all the female contestants, was host of the program when it first aired from 1976-85. Ray Combs (who committed suicide in 1996) hosted the show from 1988-94.

In 1994 Dawson returned to host the show for one season. Then Anderson took over.

"I don't kiss," Anderson said. "I give them snacks."

Anderson was living in Las Vegas almost four years ago when he received a call from his agent in 1998 saying producers of the game show were interested in him as a host.

"It was one of my favorite shows," Anderson said. "But I didn't know if I wanted to be a game-show host."

A friend convinced him to give it a shot.

"He says to me, 'You do comedy about your family, you wrote books about your family and you had a cartoon show ("Life with Louie") about your family. I think "Family Feud" works for you.' And that's what really spurred me into it," Anderson said. "The first year was kind of hard -- I was trying to find my own footing, but the second and third years were nothing but fun.

"There's nothing more fun than giving away money to people. And you can't make up the answers these people give. I asked a lady to name a way you prepare chicken and she said, 'Thaw it out.' "

Louie, Louie

When Anderson launched his comedy career in 1978 he was working at a job in his native Minneapolis. He was a counselor in a transitional home for children -- a facility for those who couldn't be returned to their parents but whose behavior wasn't so bad that they needed to be locked in a cell.

"I was a supervisor at the shelter," he said. "I didn't have a degree in counseling or anything, but I was very good at it. I started out as a night guy and worked my way up.

"I could relate to (the kids') difficulties, what with my dad being an alcoholic with 11 kids in the family growing up in the (housing) projects. I used humor in my counseling."

On Oct. 10, 1978, Anderson debuted on a stage at a Minneapolis comedy club after friends dared him.

"Every comic remembers their first time onstage," he said. "Some friends of mine and I were at a comedy club and I didn't think the guys performing were funny, and my friends said if I thought I was so funny I should get up there."

The next week Anderson took the dare.

Comedy clubs were just beginning to become a national phenomenon and Anderson said a local newspaper and the local PBS station were doing stories on the topic. His debut performance appeared in the paper and was aired on TV.

"There had never been this comedy-club movement before, so they were doing this story. Being as how I was a first-time comic, they covered it and I did well," Anderson said. "When I was up there, I just enjoyed it so much."

He began working professionally in local clubs and then on the Minnesota college circuit. From there he worked at clubs in Chicago and Kansas City.

Anderson was befriended by legendary comedian Henny Youngman, and became his personal joke writer. Youngman gave the young up-and-comer the credibility to get gigs on such major stages as the Comedy Store in Hollywood, Calif., and eventually Anderson landed a guest spot on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

Life with Louie

"I love writing, but you can't find any single thing that gives you more pleasure than doing live stand-up," Anderson said. "There are no producers, no directors -- just you, the audience and the microphone.

"I used to feel guilty that I got out of that (impoverished life) and I felt responsible for the whole family, but now I feel less of that. It's a survivors thing."

Anderson reflected on being depicted in cartoon form on the defunct "Life with Louie."

"The great thing about 'Life with Louie' is I got to re-create my family the way I wanted it to be," he recalled. "I got to remove the abuse and the alcoholism from my dad and I made him a human being with a lot of humanity.

"He really did have a great sense of humor. He was a famous musician, played coronet and trumpet with Hoagie Carmichael. But he didn't perform when I was growing up. With 11 kids, he couldn't work on the road."

While growing up was tough for the comedian, life as an adult hasn't been a bed of roses, either.

"I've been through my thing with alcohol and drugs, but what I didn't lose sight of was what is my end goal, which is not to be a more famous person," Anderson said. "My goal is to equally use my fame and influence for what good it does. At the end of my life I want to be a whole human being, not a famous, popular human being -- and I want to make a difference.

"If I'm to leave anything to my family, what can I leave them? Not fame and fortune -- but what about success? What about a whole human being, a caring person?

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