A Chat with Louie Anderson
Louie Anderson spends his days far from his native Minnesota, with good reason. It’s in Las Vegas where Anderson has made his mark, notably with a theater named for him at the Palace Station Casino.
Anderson opened his new show, “Louie LOL,” in the 250-seat theater on Sept. 7.
The author of three books, and creator and star of the Emmy Award-winning animated series “Life with Louie,” Anderson’s career got a boost in 1981 when he met and began writing jokes for Henny Youngman. A year later, he was off to Los Angeles, where he struggled to make a trio of career goals come true. Since then, he’s achieved all those goals and more.
Congratulations on the new theater. That must be a big deal.
Yeah, it’s nice. It’s the thing that I’ve been wanting for a while and found a situation that would work out for me and would work out for them, so it was a nice mutual thing.
What’s involved when you have your name on a theater? Do you have proprietorship? Do you have responsibility for who’s there when you’re not there?
I have a producing partner, Joe Sanfelippo. We have a deal with the hotel that we’re running the room, so to speak. They like to know everyone that we’re having there, just as a courtesy more than anything else. And all big corporations have a point of view so if I booked someone who didn’t have their point of view that might be a problem but it’s unlikely with me that that’s going to happen. But basically what it is is it gives me a chance to showcase people I think are funny. There’s prestigue in it, but I’m the first headliner they’ve really had come to the Station on a permanent basis and I’m thrilled about it. I’ve been playing Vegas for 25 years and I feel it’s like my home away from home.
Out of an average year, how often are you in Vegas?
I would say throughout my whole career that Vegas was at the very minimum a third of my year was spent in Vegas at any given time. I worked 11 years at Bally’s and several years and at the Desert Inn. I had a real home at Bally’s and I had a real home at MGM there with the Excalibur. Now I feel like this is it. This is a permanent home for me. There probably won’t be another Vegas thing for me after this. I think this is it. I don’t see myself going to a different hotel or a different situation at all.
Do you have a contract for how many years you’ll have this theater there?
Yeah, I have an open-ended. You know how contracts are. Nowadays you have a year-to-year contract, like a five-year with a year-to-year deal. But in Vegas, if things aren’t going well, you’re out. I think Terry Fator has a 10-year deal, but if he stops selling tickets that thing would change in a hurry. There’s always a mutual thing with Vegas. It’s a different kind of place. It’s not like Broadway.
Was playing Vegas always one of your goals starting out?
Yeah. I had three main goals. I remember them. Get on the Tonight Show. Get my name up on the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip. They put your name up on the wall permanently. And to become a headliner in Vegas. I was really lucky. I got on the Tonight Show. It took me a long time to get on the Tonight Show. And I’ve always loved working in Vegas because I have an act that people can enjoy. People from Iowa and people from New York City hopefully can enjoy the same show. My cartoon plays overseas now and a lot of the English-speaking countries where it plays people are coming to see my show because they grew up on the cartoon over there. I’ll get somebody from the Netherlands and several people from England because they’re showing my specials over there. It’s always amazing to me. It’s a nice thing. Comedy is a bigger playing field than it used to be and the world is also shrinking. There’s lots of people coming from other countries to Vegas.
Do you think people who come to Vegas will be looking to see your show specifically?
Two things happen in Vegas. You always ask what’s a good show to see from the cabdriver and you ask something else. You ask who’s here that I already like. You have fan-driven shows and there’s always a show, like people in Vegas go see every show usually, if they hear good things about it. I think word of mouth plays into about 30 or 40 percent of the tickets in Vegas. If you don’t have a good show, people will talk about, say it’s not a good show. If you have a good show, you’ll build your audience. It’ll get bigger. That’s my goal every night is to give people a great show so they’ll forget what their troubles are. That’s always my goal, for that 75 minutes you’re in my showroom with me that you’re going to have a good solid laugh and you’re going to forget your troubles for at least part of that time.
Are you going to reach out to cabdrivers?
Yeah. For the first month I’m going to take cabs to work and back.
Is having your own theater going to interfere with traveling and touring?
You know, I’m probably going to travel and tour a little less.
I’m excited about the opera house up there because I’m always wanting people to get performance places alive and not to tear them down because, in my mind, it holds the spirits of all the great performers who ever performed there.
Is the show the same?
I’m rehearsing. This is the first time I’ve ever rehearsed my show on a regular basis. I’m in a brand new showroom. I want to get the beats right. I want the show to feel great. I’ve put some new elements in that I hadn’t done before, so I’m looking forward to that.
What sort of new elements?
In two different parts of the show I’m highlighting my dad in one and my mom in another. I become them in a sense, but not in an overly theatrical way. Just a few personal things I think people will enjoy and will like to see. Just a glimpse into what my parents were like.
You said you had three goals initially. Of those three, was there one that was the most important for you to meet?
Well, it would have been rough to never have gotten on Johnny Carson. That would have been a rough one. That would have been extremely disappointing.
Not everyone these days knows how important that was to comedians.
I always explain it to them like if they were on “American Idol.” It’s that type of thing. Or in the top final of “America’s Got Talent.” One of those type shows, but not just trying out but making it. If you made it to the process of getting on the Tonight Show, everybody in show business watched the Tonight Show along with the public. So they were interested in who Johnny Carson was highlighting and introducing to the world. I still remember that day when he said “Making his national television debut tonight, on the Tonight Show, Louie Anderson.” I knew right then that was one of the biggest things. In that minute, not even minute, that 30 seconds from him introducing me to me hitting my mark out on stage, I now had my career and my destiny in my hands. I knew if I scored that night I would be well on my way to having a much different life than I had at that moment walking out there.
Obviously it did change for you, but in what respect did things change?
If you just want to take a simple thing like monetarily, I had struggled and made a few hundred dollars a week doing comedy. When I got the Tonight Show, I made a minimum of $1,000 a night doing comedy. That’s like hitting the lotto in a sense. And NBC gave me a holding deal. It was just an automatic. Automatically, everything changed.
I imagine things changed within yourself as well, with any doubts about whether you could make it erased once you got to that level.
Yeah, of course. I always thought I would do well as a comedian. Maybe I was egotistical. I don’t know. Maybe I was superconfident. But I had worked really hard on that set to do on the Tonight Show. In fact, my first five sets were ready to go. I always thought it was important to be prepared. I always tell comics now that I talk to, “You know, you can’t wait long enough to become successful. When you’re successful, the more prepared you are the most successful you’ll stay.” Now sometimes comics think if they get five minutes and get on a show they’ll get a TV show and the rest will be a home run. I think that works about one in a million.
You’ve been mentoring young comedians with your Stand-Up Boot Camp. How did that come about?
I joined Kyle Cease, who’d been doing it. I said I have all this information. I should put it to use. A lot of people helped me and gave me some information. I always thought I would have appreciated a little more stuff that would have been helpful to me as a comic growing up. One of the things I try to impart on these comics is to stay out of other business and be smarter about what you’re doing. I made a lot of mistakes. Comics tend to be egotistical and I think sometimes I got in my own way.
Can you give me some examples of that?
I thought I knew everything. I probably should have taken more acting classes, and trusted other writers to help me develop my voice and listened more than I talked to myself. I think I would have been better off. Maybe I would have been even more successful had I been more prepared to act. Or maybe I should have taken some improv classes. Maybe I should have done more work on myself as a person. I come from a very dysfunctional family so trust was a giant issue. So maybe I should have figured some of those things and done some hard work there. I try to impart some of that. And also I always worked really hard as a comic and I just want them to know that none of these comics that they see out there that are really successful walked it in. They worked really hard. Comics really work hard on developing and honing a point of view that you think sounds really natural. I would imagine it’s that way for everyone. I remember Rodney Dangerfield, right up to the time he would perform a joke on TV, would be asking you what you thought of it and do you think it could be better. “Do you think it’s right? Do I have it good?”
He would ask comics, because comics might have a take on it that would make it a better joke. Rodney knew a great joke, but he knew a great joke — like all of us — could be better. Like under every great joke is an even better joke. It’s very rare that if you dig you won’t find a better joke underneath the joke that you’re settling for.
Are the comedians you’re working for interested, eager to hear this advice?
They’re very, very eager and interested. The ones who are able to capitalize on it are the ones who go out and take the big chances. It’s scary as heck to do standup comedy. I don’t think it’s a very easy thing to do, and I don’t think anybody who does it isn’t brave. I think it’s a brave thing to do; to get up every time and think the things you are going to say are going to entertain people is pretty brazen. So I always tell people you should respect yourself for doing what you’re doing. Because it is a good thing. It is a noble thing. It’s something you can’t take credit for, except in the laughter. You can’t go I’m a great comic. You can’t tell people I’m really funny. The audience is under the idea that you’re just naturally funny, that you didn’t really work at it. A lot of people don’t want to know what you went through. Just like you don’t want to know what somebody went through to write a song; you just want to enjoy the song. But sometimes you hear a song and you go, wow, that was not an easy deal right there. That song came from some real pain. And I think that the comedy comes from a real place too. And I think that really great comedy comes from the searching of one’s self and one’s good and bad points and one’s life.
There’s the old cliché that dysfunctional people make great comedians and you obviously have had a rough life, but at what point did you think you could be funny? What made you jump into that?
People always laughed when I talked. People would say you’re so funny and I’d go well I’m being serious. And they’d laugh harder when I said that. I thought, huh, I wonder what’s funny about me. I didn’t know it innately. I come from a funny family. People all talk like I do, my voice is not distinctive inside my family. And people always know who’s related to me because they sound just like I do. I think that what happened for is I’ve always been a kind of personable person and as a fat kid I learned how to make people laugh instead of getting beat up. It worked really well and I was really a sharp-tongued guy who people, maybe they were a little afraid of what I was going to say but I tried never to be really mean about it but I wanted them to know that I was not afraid.
Were you actually afraid to go on stage for the first time?
I was a little nervous, but not really afraid for some weird reason. Kind of excited by it and enthralled by it. I’m a Norwegian and Swedish, so we’re conquerors by nature.
You were in the orbits of some of the comedy greats. Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield. What do you learn from being with them, around them?
That you’re just as funny as they are (laughs). I’m just kidding. That they’re human beings. That’s the biggest relief I felt when I got to spend time with those people, that they are human beings. That was a giant relief to me because I had them up on pretty high pedestals. That they weren’t perfect, but they were really… all the comedians I’ve ever met were very vulnerable. I never met a comedian who wasn’t vulnerable like I am vulnerable. And it made me feel like part of something. It made me feel like I was a part of a group of people. I belonged there. And to have people like Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield and Johnny Carson and Bob Hope think I was really funny was really a good feeling. It was like meeting I guess your mentor in one way. Like meeting the parents you never had, the family you never had. Comedians, as rough as we are to each other, are pretty protective of each other at the same time. What I noticed about those guys were they were always funny. They really made me laugh all the time. And they also, all of them were deep. All those guys were concerned with the people in their lives and in their family and always asked me how I was doing. They were gentle souls. They were good people.
It’s great that you had that experience with them.
It was really great. I was really lucky. Especially to know Rodney so well and to be thought of fondly by Johnny Carson always felt wonderful.
Rodney got almost a generation of comedians started with his Young Comedians specials, which you were on as well.
You’re meeting all these young comedians who are trying to make it or become more successful. Now that you have your own theater, do you have a plan to give some of these guys a break?
Yeah, we definitely are going to have a Stand-Up Boot Camp night, a new person’s night. When somebody stops by my show that’s a comedian, I can’t help myself but to invite them up to do a few minutes. Every comedian wants to show off. Some comedians don’t want to, but rarely. I remember in Minneapolis we were performing and we really thought we were great. He was appearing at the Carlton Celebrity Room. We invited him back to our club afterward. He stopped and we all performed for him, like three or four of them. I went on last and I felt like I’d done the best I could have ever done. He got up and just made it really apparent of how gigantically great he was and what a big star he was. It was an automatic erasure of all of our acts (laughs). It wasn’t done in any kind of malicious way. He just went up, did five minutes, or 10 minutes, crushed the crowd. Then he did a little shout out to us. “These guys are good. You should come and see them. They’re good.” Just the nicest little thing. He hung out with us. He was a very, very sweet man.
How did you first meet him?
That night. I said, “Let’s go see Rodney. He’s going to be in town.” I knew he liked Scotch so I said let’s buy him a nice bottle of — what we thought was expensive Scotch — Glenlivit. I don’t even know if it is; I don’t drink. We brought that and believe it or not we brought all these giant balloons and we sent them back for him, like welcome and we love you, Rodney, and all that. He was very touched by that. He was very, very touched that we all came down to see him and he sent for us to come backstage. He’d bring it up all the time. For several years he would bring it up. “Man, you brought me that Scotch. That was nice of you.” I never forgot that. It really did affect him. Maybe nobody ever does anything like that, but as Minnesotans we’re nice people.
You and other comedians were doing this?
So he called me when I got to Hollywood and said I’m doing this thing. I know you’ve already done the Tonight Show, but I would really like you to headline the Young Comedians special that I’m doing. I’ll put you on last. And I was thinking, oh, I’d rather go on third or fourth.
Why is that?
Because 10 comedians, the crowd’s seen enough. It was a real monumental night, and I was nervous. About the fifth person that went on was Sam Kinison. Then it didn’t really matter what else happened that night, because people saw something absolutely brand new. Absolutely something they’d never seen before, comedy wise. Now that show did me a lot of good even so, but I even knew that night Sam Kinison had arrived. I watched the audience in their awe. Of course I had been working with Sam a long time. He and I had been working at the Comedy Store a long time up til then. We’d seen each other a lot of times and we were friendly. And good friends, really. I just knew that he was a giant star at that moment. That nobody had ever seen anybody like that. Everybody did well in that show. Don’t get me wrong. It was great for everyone. People still bring it up to me. But that was the kind of Rodney was. He wanted the world to know that there were great comics. He wanted to give people the break he never had. He was a generous people that way. He helped everybody.
What year did you meet him, when you gave him that Scotch?
Probably 1979. I don’t know. When was “Caddyshack”? It was after that.
I read you have a Showtime special coming up later this year.
Yeah. “Louie Anderson Presents”.
And whom are you going to be presenting?
It’s four comedians. It’s Lucas Seely. Chuck Roy. John Wilson. And Al Jackson.
How did you pick these four?
Chuck I’ve worked with a few times in Denver and he was at our last boot camp. Lukas Seely, he’s a boot camper. John Wilson, he’s a boot camper. Al Jackson, he’s a Florida guy. I just liked who he was. He has a great, sweet way of how he does things. It’ll be on in December, I think. It’s full circle, my life.
Is this going to be the first of a series of “Louie Anderson Presents”?
I would hope so. I would hope we’d be able to do more with that. I know somebody’s going to come out of boot camp and be a bigger star than I ever was.
Is that going to bother you?
No. I’d be thrilled. I don’t compete with other comics because I already know I’m the greatest (laughs). No, the great thing is I’ve always been very lucky. I’m not the kind of comic you compete with, because people might watch my act and say I can’t do that anyway. That’s not me. Because I’m not a joke-joke-joke-joke guy. Although in all my routines there are tons of jokes. I hide them very well. I’ve never been competitive with other comics. I’ve always been the first guy to go up to whether it’s Eddie Murphy or someone else and say, “Here’s a take you might use.” Because I love the idea of comedy.
Posted by L. Wayne Hicks at 3:42 PM 0 comments
Friday, September 3, 2010
Dan Schlissel of Stand Up! Records