Inside the dust jacket of his new book Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, comedian and actor Louie Anderson explains, “I started out writing these letters to my mom, but a few friends said I should write a book.” Hey Mom, which is out now in bookstores, consists of letters Anderson wrote to his late mother between 2015 and 2017. Its inception and creation runs parallel to his casting as Christine Baskets in the acclaimed FX series Baskets, which garnered him an Emmy in 2016, but as Anderson explains to Uproxx, their separate trajectories are not one and the same.
They are, however, inseparably linked. The common denominator for the pair — along with Anderson’s new stand-up special, Big Underwear and his Emmy Award-winning cartoon series, Life with Louie — is his mother. Her influence on the comic is so strong, in fact, that he wagers his drive to talk to her will encourage readers to do the same with their parents. “I hope that after you read it, you’ll write or call your own mom — or dad, sister, brother, cousin, nephew. Or have lunch with them. Or breakfast. It doesn’t have to be lunch. But do it now. Don’t wait like I did.” As I told Louie over the phone, I didn’t wait at all.
After reading the review copy of Hey Mom, I did what you predict a lot of readers will do and called my parents.
Oh good, and how did it go? Did it feel good?
It felt great, though I had to explain why I sounded somewhat erratic.
Yeah, I should have put in there. “Just call them, but don’t say all the stuff you want to say to them right at that moment. It will scare them!”
Hey Mom is very much tied to your character on Baskets, and you use your mother as inspiration for Christine Baskets, but what came first? The idea for the book, or getting the Baskets role?
Getting the role on Baskets. That’s very close, though. I would always talk to my mom things like, “Hey mom, what are you doing? How’s it going? How are you? I hope you’re with Roger, Kent, Rhea, Mary, and all the rest. And how’s Dad? Is he behaving himself?” The kinds of things you do that make some people look at you funny. They’ll ask, “Who are you talking to?” I got the part, and then one day after doing this, after talking to my mom, I thought, “I feel like I should write this.” I had an overwhelming urge to write my mom the first letter, so I wrote it, and it resonated with me. I sent it to a few of my friends and to my team, all people I like and respect, and they all loved it. They loved the letter. And then, of course, as any good person in show business will do, they all said, “You should turn this into a book.”
Whenever I had an idea or a thought about something I’d want to tell mom, I’d always begin with, “Hey mom” and ask, “What about this? What do you think of this?” Later on, when I could concentrate on it, I revisited these thoughts and expanded them into full letters. But they always began with, “Hey mom,” and only then would I write down what I wanted to say. “Do you think we’ll ever be able to solve the homeless problem? How did you feel about giving up your daughter? How did you make that work in your head?” All the things that are in the book. They came from real places and real thoughts. Some were good and easy, and some were very difficult and really troublesome.
It’s obvious after reading Hey Mom that your mother had a strong, positive influence on your life, but there’s also a line in the first letter when you admit you wished she’d been harder on you.
I think that you need guidance, but you also need things like this, and maybe I wouldn’t have been so lazy if she hadn’t left me off the hook for so many things. Maybe I wouldn’t have eaten so much if she would have said, “Hey, have you thought about how much you’re eating?” Or any of those other things. Moms notice all that stuff. They know it all. They see it all. I think they’re afraid, because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I think parents have to hurt your feelings sometimes in order to tell you the truth. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of people tell me the truth in my life, thankfully. I don’t like it, but who likes it? In those cases, I think it would have gone a long way with my mother saying it, because she had so much sway over me. I probably adopted a lot more of her routines and beliefs than I did from my dad.
You write that whenever things got busy with Baskets or touring, the book’s importance fell to the side a bit. Do you think the action of constantly thinking about your mother, of things to write to her, affected your performance on Baskets at the time?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I guess so, because this book has occupied my mind so much. Sometimes I don’t know what came first and what came after. I have to ask other people about those things. I have to ask them where I’m coming from for certain things, and I have to be careful not to let the idea of the book influence the performance. I have to be honest about the performance and where it’s coming from. It messes with your head, because they give me an award for it, and I wonder, “Did I get it or did my mom get it?” Stuff like that, though I think I’ve been pretty honest about it all. And of course my mother was such a powerful woman, and had such a powerful influence on me. She was a mother and she was the mother that I knew. I had five sisters who were all very much like their mother. So whenever I go for a gesture, or whenever I just go for something in the moment, I go from what’s in my heart — and she’s such a part of my heart. I think she gets the nod.
There’s a wonderful moment in Big Underwear where the origin of a joke becomes a part of the joke itself. As a comedian, do you like to share this kind of information — how something in your act came about — or do you prefer to keep everything hidden?
People in the old days, I think, would have been really discouraged from doing such things. It wouldn’t have been looked on in the best light, but now it seems like people are interested in that very fabric of show business. To be a part of this world that we live in, where everybody knows so much already and show business has become a part of that knowledge, is to share what you know and how you know it, too. The origins of stuff, and things like that. Like when you asked me what came first, the book or the show. I think it’s totally okay. In the old days, however, I don’t think it was.
One of the things that was really good for me on stage is, I would come out sometimes and admit to the audience, “I’m really scared. I don’t know why I’m so nervous with you guys tonight, but I’m nervous. I don’t think I’m funny.” I’ve done that. I don’t do it so much anymore, because after 40 years of doing comedy you get really good at having a start and knowing what you’re going to say. But sometimes I’ll just say — and I think it’s good to say — that I’m scared or nervous or not ready. It’s interesting to me when someone admits something like that on stage. I’m hoping that it will be interesting to them.
Sometimes I’m quite brazen, though. I’ll say to the audience, “I’ve been working on this joke for a long time and I don’t have the right punchline.” Sometimes they’ll yell out stuff at me and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s close, but that’s still not it.” It’s just beneath the surface of the water. I’m just like that. I love being underneath the surface of the water. You can see the hints of things, but you can’t really make them out. You can’t really see what they are. I think jokes lay down like that. I think jokes are right underneath, that or I’m not looking in the right places.
And sometimes what the audience shouts, or something you might observe during such a moment, can spark something.
Yes, it might. It might really spark something in that moment. Also, it might free me up in the sense that that isn’t the right area for me to go at all, because I’ve found, or been given, a much better direction.
I read that you were turning your previous book, Dear Dad into a live show. You performed it in San Francisco recently. Any plans to expand it?
We’ve talked about it. I’ve just been so busy on tour that I haven’t had a chance to do anything with it. I want to do it, I want it to work, but I’m not sure I’m on the right track with it. I need to work harder on the narrative, the performance, and the material. At the same time I was preparing that, I was writing Hey Mom and thinking, “Oh my God!” I’m really thrilled that it was a much simpler book. It just poured out of me. When I wrote Dear Dad, I was a hurt 10-year-old in a 37-year-old body. It took more time, and much more pain, to get through. With this book, however, I’m much older and thinking more about what I’m writing. I’m aware of what kinds of effects it could have on me and others. I thought this was my chance to say all that stuff that helped me out, and that might help other people.
Between Baskets, Hey Mom, Big Underwear, and the Dear Dad show, you’ve been very busy lately. What’s the current plan going forward?
I’m off for a bit now. But knowing myself, when I got up this morning the first thing I thought was, “What kinds of things can I do? What kinds of things can I do to settle myself down and not go right back to work?” Because I have a bunch of stuff I needed to do at home, and that was kind of related to work, but I had to remind myself the whole time that I wasn’t supposed to be working. I should just be like Christine was in Vegas and plop down on the bed and exclaim, “It’s a miracle! It’s a Vegas miracle!” That’s one of my favorite things that I ad-libbed. It was so much fun doing that.
I loved reading about your mother in Hey Mom, and adore Christine in Baskets, but I will always identify with her cartoon version in Life with Louie.
I don’t know if you realized this, but Edie McClurg did the voice of my mom in the cartoon. I was originally going to do the voice, because I do it in my act all the time, but Edie was so perfect. She seemed to have that Midwest sensibility in herself, and it was so good. It was good all the way around. I think that the difference now… Well, I’ll go back to age again. The character is mostly the same, but the main thing about all these different incarnations of my mother is the presentation. Christine is very different from the voice I do in my act, but she’s not cartoony. She’s a real person, and I didn’t really change my voice. But on some level I’m channeling my mom’s voice, because it’s got more lightness in it than my actual voice has. I think there’s truth in that.
Well we’re at the end, but thank you for doing this.
And thank you very much, Andrew. I put a lot of love into this book. I poured my heart out. Can I ask you something?
What did your parents say when you called them?
We try to chat every once in a while, so it didn’t seem out of place. But my mother answered the phone, and she’s no fool. She knew something was up.
She picked right up on it.
Absolutely, but we ended up having a great chat.
Oh, that’s so great. I’m really glad. Please tell them I said hello when you talk to them again.
Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too is for sale in book stores everywhere, Louie Anderson: Big Underwear is now available to stream on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and elsewhere.