Interview: Louie Anderson performs tonight at the Englert Theatre

Louie Anderson
More recently, Louie Anderson has been headlining in Las Vegas.

Comedian Louie Anderson

Englert Theatre — Friday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m.

Louie Anderson brings his stand-up act to the Englert Theatre tonight, giving attendees a chance to catch one of the true breakout stars of the 1980s comedy scene.

Early in his career, Anderson was performing at the famous epicenter of ’80s comedy, the LA Comedy Store, and then shot to fame when Showtime picked up his self-sponsored stand-up special at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis — the city where he began his comedy career.

He went on to have considerable success with stand up and a variety of television projects, including his own cartoon series, Life with Louie, and The Family Feud. For the last several years, he has worked as a headlining comedian in Las Vegas.

Little Village recently spoke to Anderson about how he found his niche as comedian poking fun at family life, his appreciation for midwestern audiences and his thoughts on the late Robin Williams, a comedian he knew well from his days performing at the Comedy Store.

Little Village: Is it true you began comedy when some friends dared you to go up on stage at a Minneapolis comedy club?

Louie Anderson: Yeah, back in 1978.

And you were just hooked from then on?

Yeah, I was hooked, and that first night I did well. I did a good job and people were responsive. And I thought, “Hey, this would be a good job! You go up for ten minutes and just have a lot of fun.”

A few years after that, I moved out West. People like Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers had been in Minnesota and came to our club. They had seen me perform and they encouraged me to move out to either the East coast or the West coast. I went out out West, and I ended up at the Comedy Store out in Los Angeles.

It was really a fun time. It was such a big time in comedy, and I didn’t even realize it then when it was happening. Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy, those guys were all regular performers at the Comedy Store at the time. And I was just thrown right into the mix of that big-time comedy. And it was a dream come true. It was the time of my life.

And even back then, your focus was on doing humor about your family, or family life in general?

Yeah, my mom and dad, my sisters and brothers, that’s always been a big part of my act. I created them as these characters in my stand up. And then I created my cartoon from that. Everybody has a family of one sort or another, so people can really relate. That’s the main reason I do it.

Did your act come together for you right away around that focus on family humor?

In the beginning, I used to talk to the crowd a lot, and started out as kind of a caustic comic, an insult comic. One night, a comedian named Roman Dicaire said, “If you do that family stuff, and if you do a clean act, I think you’ll become famous.”

I don’t know why that resonated with me so much. But he was right. I got a lot of jobs that other people wouldn’t get. I got to open for Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Glen Campbell.

I got to open for almost every act in Vegas because my act was clean. And that was a great experience. That is where I kind of fell in love with Vegas as a performer.

That little comment that Roman made. I was lucky I was listening.

You’ve been performing mostly on the West coast, in Las Vegas in particular, do you enjoy coming back out to the Midwest to do shows?

Definitely. Iowa is the heartland to me. I am working on a new special, and I’m going to do my greatest hits at this show, the stuff people want to hear, but then I’m going to try out new material too. It’s a good place to do it because I consider Midwesterners smarter crowds than most.

They read. After all, they’re in the house for nine months out of the year. They’re also just good audiences. They know what real comedy is. Johnny Carson came from the midwest.

That heartland really does prepare you for the broad landscape of life. Not only do we know how to tell jokes and get them. We know how to fix a carburetor.

You recently started a podcast, and I noticed the comics you’ve had on the show have been, like yourself, comedians who play Las Vegas often. Is that focus for the show?

Well, the focus of the podcast is the entertainer’s journey. The journey a person took to get where they are in show business. I know a lot of people in show business, and even if you know somebody for a long time, it doesn’t mean you know what their journey was to get there. I thought that would be interesting to me, at least, and maybe interesting to listeners too.

But the Vegas background is a part of it, for comedians. People who want to be actors go to New York to be on Broadway. People who want to be movie stars go to Hollywood. And with comedians, one of their main goals, is always really simple: Headline in Vegas. Get to do the big room.

You recently did a very thoughtful interview with Time magazine about Robin Williams and his passing. Do you consider comics like him in a category all their own?

The thing with comedians like Robin Williams, and also Richard Pryor, who believe it or not, was a real influence on me, I loved how he could talk about real situations — the thing about those comedians, when they went up on stage, they kind of filled up the room. They were these special lights in the room. Everyone was like, “Hey, this guy is really good.” But, it was more than that. They had a purpose. They were here for a reason.

Unfortunately, sometimes those lights burn so bright they are hard on the instrument itself. All those artist who have that light, I think they have an equal amount of darkness in them. I think it is really hard for them, sometimes, to survive that darkness.

But what a gift we had with Robin Williams. The nicest guy in the world. A part of me still can’t believe it, that Robin is no longer here. I am doing an interview for a PBS special that they are having on him, and I am still like a little shocked at the whole thing.

I thought it was interesting how you mentioned, in that interview, that a strength of Williams was being able to be vulnerable in front of an audience. It’s also a perspective that seems to speak to how you transitioned in your career, going from being an insult comic to doing more relatable material for a broad audience.

I kind of went with who I was. I tried to emulate like Jack Benny and his gentle approach. Also, Jonathan Winters. He had a very gentle approach too. That is really what I had to offer and that was the place that was best for me. It must have been, because I am still doing it.

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