Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: For someone who’s arguably still best known for his work as a stand-up comedian, Louie Anderson has nonetheless managed to create a back catalog filled with a remarkable amount of diversity. He starred in his own sitcom (The Louie Show), created his own animated series (Life With Louie), hosted a game show (Family Feud), did a buddy comedy (The Wrong Guys), appeared in two of the most iconic ’80s comedies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Coming To America), and—perhaps most impressively—was a contestant on Fox’s celebrity high-diving show, Splash. Having dried himself off, Anderson can currently be seen playing Zach Galifianakis’s mother on the FX sitcom Baskets.
Louie Anderson: I was working at the Plaza, downtown Vegas. I was doing a regular residence show there, and I was driving to work, and my old agent called me and said, “Louis C.K. wants your phone number. Can I give it to him?” And I go, “Yeah,” because I figured he wanted me for some project he was doing of some sort. And then he calls me a little later, and he goes, “Hi, Louie.” And I go, “Hi, Louie.” Because you hardly ever get to say that when you have the name “Louie,” we both giggled about that. And then he said, “Zach Galifianakis and I are doing a show together, and we want you to do a part.” And I said, “Yeah!” Just like that: “Yeah!” And he goes, “We want you to play his mother!” And I go, “Yeah! I’ll do it!” And the next thing I knew, I was on the set of the pilot, wearing a wig and a dress!
And it was a weird thing to—like, it might be one thing to think about putting on a dress, but when you’re actually putting on a dress, it’s a weird thing, because you’re going, “Huh. I’m putting on a dress. Do I leave my underwear on? Do I get some other underwear? Is there something special I should wear?” All that dumb stuff. Because believe it or not, I’d never really worn a dress before. I’d never had any interest in putting on my mom’s clothes, except to think, “Well, they are nice clothes…” And then they put a wig on me, which was super tight—because of my giant head—and a little uncomfortable, and then they put the makeup on. But I remember kind of looking at myself in the mirror when they were putting it on and thinking, “Oh, my God, I look like a cross between my sister and my mother!” [Laughs.]
Everybody was so great—Jonathan Krisel, Louis C.K., Zach, and Martha [Kelly], and all the people involved. One of our goals was to keep it secret that I was playing Zach’s mom. I think they wanted it to be a reveal, a fun thing. Many people are laughing when they see me, but I’m playing it all pristine. I’m playing it not-Louie. I’m not being Louie. I’m just being the character that I think it should be. I had to make a decision as to whether I was going to change my voice or not, but we decided for me not to change my voice, and I think that was the best thing ever, because I think it would’ve made a big difference in the character. I don’t think it would’ve been as good.
It was a lot of work, and it was really fun, but then I had to wait all this time, and people were asking, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I’m doing a little TV show on a network you don’t even know.” I had to lie all the time. And then finally I started saying it was on FX and that it was Zach’s show, and that I played Zach’s trainer. [Laughs.] But I didn’t know what to say! And then about a week before, they revealed that I was Zach’s mom, and it was a great relief to me. We’d shot all the episodes by then, and it was a big cathartic experience for me, because not only did I get to kind of bring my mom to the screen—she was a lovely person and very funny, and she probably would’ve been a great entertainer—but I also got to do what I think is my best work ever… but as a woman!
It was an interesting experience for me. It was the most rewarding thing I’ve done since Life With Louie. So you never know: If somebody asks you to put a wig and a dress on, you shouldn’t just say “no” right away. [Laughs.] You should at least see if there’s money, fame, and satisfaction involved.
The A.V. Club: What did you think of the series itself? It has a unique tone, although maybe not so unique when you consider the comedic sensibilities of its creators.
LA: Well, I think what’s so great about it is that it represents all of the people who were involved in the creative process: Louis C.K; Jonathan, who’s from Portlandia; and Zach. Jonathan describes it best of anybody. He calls it a slapstick drama. [Laughs.] You know, Jonathan made a great observation at a luncheon—I think it was well before the series but after the pilot, because we were getting all the scripts—when he said, “Think of this as a three-and-a-half hour movie.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” And then, of course, for a second I started doing the math: “So then how many episodes…” But then I was, like, “Forget that, Louie, and just listen.”
And it was really great advice, because it was all shot on location, and it was a show that grew every week that we shot it. Every week it was finding itself more and more in the scripts, and all of us were getting more comfortable, and by the end it was a very, very nice family. I’ll tell you how you know when you’re on something good: when everybody starts to tear up when they’re leaving, when they’re wrapping for the season. You know, when you say, “All right, we’re done with McGillicuddy. That’s a wrap for McGillicuddy!” And everybody applauds, but everybody’s sad, because McGillicuddy’s going to be gone! You know, it’s like family going off to college or war. You have this intimate relationship with these people, and then—bam!—they’re gone.
AVC: It’s surprising—maybe even a little startling—how easy it is to accept you in the role of Zach’s mother. There’s that moment of laughter, possibly an expression of how crazy it is, but even as early as by the end of the first episode, I had bought into it.
LA: Yeah, I tried to disappear, if that makes any sense.
AVC: I’d argue that you succeeded.
LA: Well, it had a lot to do with Jonathan and Martha making me feel so comfortable, playing to the character and not to me. Not to Louie. To Zach, I was his mom, and I played it that way all the way through. It was really fascinating, especially in the times that we live in, with all of the gender stuff. Not too long before I did Baskets, I’d seen Jeffrey Tambor in a few episodes of Transparent, and I was, like, “Wow, he’s magnificent in this!” And I don’t know if it influenced me, but just as any person sees other things that are similar in a sense, the way he played it—he played it so deadpan! So when I did it, I just tried to represent my mom. And given the reception, I guess it worked. I mean, could I have asked for anything more?
AVC: Your big break in stand-up was when Rodney Dangerfield booked you for The 9th Annual Young Comedians Special, and your first acting role—in Cloak & Dagger—took place the same year. Which came first?
LA: Geez, that’s a really good question. Let’s see… I think Cloak & Dagger would’ve been, but I’m not positive. I’ve got good anecdotes for both, though, so I’m good either way. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, let’s do Cloak & Dagger first, then, since that was your first time actually acting.
LA: Yeah, and I was trying to get my Screen Actors Guild card. Everybody tries to get their SAG card if they want to be an actor. People might say that it was their dream to be an actor, but for me, I was a comedian. I already had a job. [Laughs.] But I felt like there could be money there, and comedians don’t make very much money, or they didn’t in 1984. And I can’t remember for sure, but I think that was before I did The Tonight Show, so I was going, “Hey, I can get $700 for this—and I can pay the rent!”
It was the kid who’d just had the big smash with E.T. [Henry Thomas], and I think Dabney Coleman was in it. I just had a throwaway part, really, if you think about it. But I thought I did the right job on it. I’m not a natural actor, you know? I’m a comedian, through and through. And I really love my lines. Those are the lines I want to do. But I feel like I did okay, and I got my SAG card, and I made friends with Jackie Burch, the casting director.
That’s an important note, and here’s why. Jackie Burch did John Hughes’ next movie. So when she did that, she brought me in, and John Hughes liked me. But I was a terrible actor. [Laughs.] But he liked me, and he encouraged me. I made him laugh, I guess is the bottom line, and then he gave me that part in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as the flower man. It’s just a nothing part in one sense, but it’s such an iconic movie that people will ask me from time to time, “Are you in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?” “Yeah.” “Okay, I thought so!” It’s just one of those weird things, but the relationship I got to have with John Hughes… He was always so nice to me, and I was such a big fan of who he was and what he was trying to do that it was really fun.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1984)—guest
The 9th Annual Young Comedians Special (1984)—himself
AVC: Getting the opportunity to do the Young Comedians Special was a major breakthrough for you in terms of public awareness.
LA: Oh, yeah. I don’t know what year Rodney came and performed at the Carlton Celebrity Room, which is our Vegas-style showroom in Minnesota, but I said, “Let’s go down and see Rodney, everybody!” And I said “Let’s get some balloons!” Which seems ridiculous, but I did. I said, “Let’s get some balloons to welcome Rodney. And I read that he likes Scotch, so I’m going to get him a good bottle of Scotch!” So I went in the liquor store, and because I didn’t drink, I said, “What’s a good bottle of Scotch?” And the guy said, “Glenlivet.” And I said, “Yeah, give me a bottle of that!”
So Rodney saw us after the show, ’cause we cheered him on during his show, and he loved comedians, so he had us back. And then we said, “Hey, Rodney, we have a little club in Minneapolis called Mickey Finn’s”—it was a 70-seat room—“and we would love to have you stop by!” Somehow everyone heard about it, because we had an audience. It was packed in there. Well, a big limo pulls up outside and a bunch of people get out, and then a… [Hesitates.] What’s the little car that used to explode?
AVC: The Pinto?
LA: A Pinto pulls up! A yellow Pinto pulls up in the driveway, and Rodney gets out. [Laughs.] Which was really fantastic, you know? So he comes in, and we all perform eagerly for him. It was like, “Rodney’s here!” He was the icon of our time, you know? He was gigantic!
So we all went on, but I wanted to go on last, and—I really thought I was something. I really did. I mean, I was a good comic, but I really thought, “I’ll show Rodney something!” So I went on. And then he went on, and he goes, “Hey, I hear if you play this place, you got no act!” [Laughs.] So he put us all in our place. In the nicest way. I mean, he didn’t really say anything. He just showed us. I mean, the laughs he got were astronomical compared to yours.
So Rodney and I stayed friends. It’s the weirdest thing. He brought up the fact that I brought in that Scotch to me for the rest of his career. He said, “That really meant a lot to me, that you thought about me. Nobody ever brings you shit.” [Laughs.] I thought that was really sweet, you know? But we became friends, and I was with him right up ’til he died. I was there the day he died, in the hospital there. It was quite traumatic for me and everyone else.
After I did The Tonight Show, Rodney calls me and says, “I know you did The Tonight Show, I know you’re not necessarily brand new to this thing, but it would be an honor if you would close my Young Comedians Special.” Which was really sweet. So we got to New York and did the special, and—you know who was on that one, right? Bob Saget, Harry Basil, Rita Rudner, Richie Gold, Bob Nelson, Sam Kinison…
AVC: And don’t forget Maurice LaMarche.
LA: Oh, yeah! I mean, everybody was on it. It was a good one! So around halfway through, they introduce Sam, and I go, “Oh, shit. We’re done for.” [Laughs.] Because he sucked every single thing out of the room. I mean, not on purpose, but…he just sucked everything out of the room! Luckily, I had enough time—another four acts—so that the audience would recover somewhat. Because Sam just—I mean, everybody at that place saw somebody who was brand new to comedy and did something that nobody else had done. So you’ve got to give it up for that.
LA: Yeah! That was another where the producer—David E. Kelley, you know, TV royalty—he liked me, so he had pity on me and gave me a part. I think I was in a big machine. I think I was having an MRI or something, and—oh, what’s the guy’s name? He was on the show, and he’s a great actor, but he’s also a director.
AVC: That narrows it down to probably either Peter Berg or Adam Arkin.
LA: Adam Arkin, yeah! I think maybe he directed that one, but I’m not sure. But I remember thinking, “Ooh! That’s Adam Arkin!” [Laughs.] Because I’m also a fan of television. So it was a good experience, but again, I’m not that good of an actor. Especially then. I think I’m a better actor now. I mean, I really think I know a lot about acting now. But I didn’t know a lot about acting then, and I never knew how to be myself. I never knew how to relax and just play it from me. I was always trying to deliver a line. So I had a wonderful experience, and David E. Kelley was very generous. I think a lot of people like my comedy and maybe tried to nice to me because of the joy I brought them with the comedy.
LA: You know, again, I think we got close there, and I think I was doing something I wanted to do and something I thought I’d be good at, but I think what would’ve helped me would’ve been to really let myself go and to be… not so nice. To be more like the mom character in Baskets. Real people are good and grumpy. They’re nice and mean. And I come from a nice and mean family. My mom was nice, and my dad was mean. [Laughs.] So I would’ve served myself a lot better if Louie Lundgren would’ve blown up at some of the people he was talking to. I think it would’ve really served everybody better. We’d probably still be on the air!
AVC: It was a great cast. Bryan Cranston, Paul Feig…
LA: Paul Feig! Yeah, he hasn’t talked to me since. [Laughs.] I wanted to just be a ghost in Ghostbusters! What would that hurt? I wouldn’t even have to show up, I don’t think! And Bryan Cranston is the nicest guy in the world. And such a funny guy. When he did Malcolm In The Middle, he showed us how funny he was, but he was funny in a different way than most anyone had been before that. Let’s say this: his character in Malcolm In The Middle would fit into Baskets. That’s what I look at sometimes on TV now. I think about, “What characters who’ve been on TV would fit into Baskets?” And he’s definitely one of them.
AVC: What was the evolution of Life With Louie? Was that paralleling The Louie Show and one just managed to make it on the air before the other?
LA: Life With Louie came about because of Margaret Loesch, who was the head of Fox Kids, brought on Bobby’s World, the Howie Mandel project, and did lots of stuff there. She called my agents and said, “Hey, would Louie want to do an animated series about his family?” And I went, “Ah, I don’t know. I don’t know if it would work.” Because I had kind of a more rigid look at what my family was. I didn’t honestly know that my stand-up was—oh, I don’t know, what would you call it? I had kind of sifted the harder stuff in the family. So I said, “I don’t know.”
But then I met with this animator Matt O’Callaghan, who did The Itsy Bitsy Spider. So he took my first special, Mom, Louie’s Looking At Me, and he drew all these characters—Little Louie, the little brother, the mom, the dad—and put them under when I would do the voices, and then he put it on a tape and gave it me on a VHS. And then I watched it, and I went, “Yeah, I guess that could work.” And then Alex Taub, who did Judging Amy with Amy Brenneman—and since then he’s done Revenge and all this stuff—but before all that he was one of the main writers on Life With Louie!
So I was able to see the possibilities, and with Alex and Matt, we were able to collaborate on creating an interesting family. And then I wanted—and I think they agreed with me—to do things that would make a difference. I really made the cartoon with one reason in mind: I didn’t have a very good relationship with my dad, and we didn’t all watch TV together like we should’ve, like you hope for, like you’ve seen on TV, and I wanted to make it for moms and dads and their kids. That was always my goal. And then I wanted to put real things in it. We did a thing about the homeless and won a Humanitas award for that. And then we did “The Thank-You Note,” which was about my grandma dying, and I didn’t know where to send the thank-you note for the sweater she gave me. Oh, and then we did the one where I talked my dad out of killing the deer. We won some awards for that, too.
We tried to make it more than just a cartoon. It was a cartoon, but we tried to make it more than it was to begin with. And I have 300,000 followers from Turkey, Romania, Poland, and places over there that love Life With Louie, where it was translated into their language. They love it. They are absolutely in love with it. And it just goes to show you: no matter where you go, it’s always about family.
AVC: You got some great people to come in and do guest voices on the show.
LA: Yeah, we got really lucky, didn’t we?
AVC: To say the least: Ed Asner, Sid Caesar, Norman Fell, Shelley Long, Jim Belushi, Chick Hearn and Tommy Lasorda…
LA: Yeah, and we were the first people that the NFL let use their logo for the Green Bay Packers playing the Chicago Bears. I say to everybody that Baskets is my favorite thing I’ve done since Life With Louie, but Life With Louie is the one that means the most.
AVC: It was so odd to discover that you were in the original pilot for Perfect Strangers.
LA: Yeah! That was my first big break, getting that pilot.
AVC: So what’s the story? What happened?
LA: Those guys, Bob [Boyett] and Tom [L. Miller], they were kind of a big deal. They had lots of shows on TV. So I get it, along with Bronson Pinchot, and I was Cousin Louie. And I had a lot to do with the shape of the show, but one day I got a call from my agent saying, “They want to replace you.” And I go, “Well, why didn’t they tell me? These are all my friends, I thought!” But it was a great lesson. And I would’ve been a whole different person, had that been my path and my legacy, Perfect Strangers. Although I think I would’ve made the show different. But who knows? But I’m glad for Mark [Linn-Baker]. You know, I like him, and he was a nice person. But I think the problem was that both Bronson and I were the funny guys, and he had a lot more cred, because he’d just come off of Beverly Hills Cop. Plus, as I’ve said throughout this interview, I’m not a good actor!
AVC: It’s definitely a recurring theme.
LA: [Laughs.] Yeah! But, you know, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know how to do it, and if you don’t know how to do something, you just don’t know how to do it. But it was a good experience. I learned a lot about how to create a show and all that kind of stuff. But after that, I didn’t trust people in show business very much.
AVC: So did you ever heard from them directly, or was it strictly through channels?
LA: Oh, I think they did some sort half-assed—I’ll be honest with you—approach to telling me they’re sorry. I don’t think they wanted to hurt my feelings, and I don’t think they knew what to do with me, and I don’t hold it against them, except that they could’ve just called me and said, “Louie, would you be the guy who cleans up around here instead?” [Laughs.] I just wish they would’ve said, “Hey, why don’t we try to develop something else?” I wish they would’ve done the Midwest thing. “Hey, you’re a terrible shoveler. We would like you to not shovel the walk for us anymore. Go shovel someone else’s walk.” And I guess they did in their own way, but it was heartbreaking for a kid from Minnesota, I can tell you that.
But you know what? God and the universe said to me one day, “You’re only going to get what’s good for you.” That’s kind of how I try to look at things. Isn’t that true, when you look back at things? “Ooh, I’m glad I didn’t get that!” You get more philosophical when you get older, with the more life experiences you have. But I don’t have any bad feelings towards anybody that was ever involved in any of that stuff, because I don’t think that people usually set out to hurt you. I think that hurt is all manufactured by yourself and your expectations. But it’s a great thing to watch, that pilot. In fact, I show a scene from it before my shows, so people can go, “Wait, what was that? Was he in that?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Okay, so it’s pretty clear that you view your acting chops as suspect, so do you want to flip a coin? Heads, you talk about Touched By An Angel, tails, Ally McBeal.
LA: I loved doing Ally McBeal because it was a really big chance to figure things out and do something different. Touched By An Angel, I think that was with Della Reese, and I liked her. I always tried to get the most out of the experience, even if I wasn’t very good at it. It took a long time to shoot that, I remember that. But I think what people were trying with me was to figure out who I was. They thought I was funny, but they were like, “How can we use this guy so he can regularly do this?” Does that make any sense? I think people were trying to figure out if my fat peg would fit in their square hole. [Laughs.] But Ally McBeal, that was David E. Kelley, too, right? So David E. Kelley does it again! I don’t even remember it, though. I should go back and look at these things—but probably not. It’s always better if you don’t. I quit reading the reviews for Baskets. After I read my hometown review, I quit reading them.
LA: I have to be honest with you, I loved doing Splash.
AVC: How did that come about? Did they just kind of come trolling to see if you might be interested in being a contestant?
LA: I think it came through my agent, but my manager came to me, and he showed me a tape from the Holland version. That’s where it was created. It was a clever idea. A bizarre idea, but clever nonetheless. Like, who would even think of that? It’s so ridiculous. It’s like Dancing With The Stars, but it’s Diving With The Stars! Nobody had asked me for a job in a long time, and I was sitting on the couch, and I just said, “Well, I’m going to do it! I’m going to try it!” I mean, why not try it, right? And it was the best experience ever. And I think I reminded people I was still alive!
AVC: So your official status on the show was that you withdrew from the competition, right?
LA: Well, I can tell you how it all went. First of all, the system they had for judging it was poor. I thought the people were arbitrary, and they didn’t give any points for a 400-pound guy doing anything. And people were rooting for me, but I didn’t get any rooting points! [Laughs.] I mean, the idea of a show like that is to take into consideration all the aspects of the person doing it. I mean, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, he was, what, 65 years old when he did it?
I was popular on the show, rating-wise, so every week they would do the thing, and I ended up in these dive-offs. I said, “This is all arbitrary. This all feels so”—well, I don’t want to say “rigged,” but it just didn’t feel right. So I came back after somebody had to withdraw. I think it was Kendra [Wilkinson]. So I came back, they’re thrilled I’m back, I’m excited, and I’m going to jump off the 10-meter, which they didn’t really… They were scared to death having me jump off the 10-meter, ’cause that could’ve been death. [Laughs.] I mean, let’s be honest, 400 pounds at that velocity hitting the water—that could’ve gone very badly. They wouldn’t let me dive in first, which I wanted to do. But so then I got done, and I was amazed that I did that dive. I was overwhelmed. That was kind of my chance to climb the rope in gym class, you know what I mean?
So Brandi [Chastain], from soccer fame, she was really into it. Like, I took the whole thing like it was supposed to be a fun thing. I took it as the entertainment it was. First of all, a 400-pound guy in one of those outfits diving into the water? Who doesn’t want to see that? I want to see it! [Laughs.] So I said, “I’m not going to do a dive-off. There’s no way. I’m going to go out the way I want to go out.” And I said goodbye, and I gave her my spot. She really wanted it. Why not? I’d gotten everything I wanted out of the show.
But I think it made people realize that I was still alive, and I think I inspired a lot of people. I have people coming up to me all the time in the airport saying, “Hey, you inspired me to learn how to swim!” “You inspired me to start moving around more.” “You inspired me to start doing more for myself.” So that was good. But mostly I took it because nobody had given me a job. And you know what really matters in life, right?
AVC: Having a job?
LA: Well, that people think of you. But when they think of you, yeah, they give you a job! [Laughs.] I mean, I like working! My dad worked two jobs. I’m a working person. I like to work. So when I got the opportunity to do Splash, I took it. And when I got the opportunity to do Baskets, that’s where I really made a splash. That was a perfect dive for me. [Snorts.] God, I’m so full of myself.
AVC: Well, you’ve earned it, right?
LA: Well, I’ve worked hard, I have to be honest with you. [Laughs.]
LA: To begin with, that was probably the coolest thing that ever happened to me in my career, that’s for sure. Besides The Tonight Show. The Tonight Show was an important thing, but Coming To America was the coolest thing, because Eddie Murphy was on top of the world at the time.
I went to lunch at The Ivy in Hollywood. I liked the peppered shrimp, but I liked it because Brigitte Bardot and lots of movie stars were in there. I saw Farrah Fawcett in there. I saw all kinds of movie stars there. I’m a kid from Minnesota. I like seeing movie stars! So I’m there, I’ve got my shrimp, and Eddie Murphy comes in with his gang—well, not his gang, but he has an entourage—and Eddie said hello. He’s always very nice to me. He’s a very sweet human being, and he’s a great stand-up, and we knew each other as stand-ups. So I said to the waiter, as any good Midwestern boy would, “Hey, put Eddie’s check on my American Express card, but don’t tell him that I did it ’til I’m gone.” That’s the Midwestern thing to do. The waiter goes, “Okay,” so they did it and they put it on my card.
In the next day or two, I got a call from Eddie’s people—or Eddie. I can’t remember who called me. My memory is terrible. Maybe it was his manager who said, “Eddie’s doing a movie, he was very impressed that you bought him lunch.” But Eddie said, “Nobody ever picks up my check!” Because when you’re a celebrity, everybody figures you should pick up the check. Whoever has the job picks up the check, and whoever has the best job definitely picks up the check. So he says, “I’m doing a little movie called Coming To America, and I want you to do a part in it.”
It was the first time I saw giant fame, to be honest with you. We were working on Queens Boulevard at the McDowell’s, and Eddie had a big bus there for his dressing room, and every time the door would open, there would be 5,000 people outside the chain link fence they’d put around the area to keep the fans out, and it would bow forward every time his door opened. It was almost automatic. I was, like, “Jesus! He’s famous!” [Laughs.] But he worked very hard, and he was generous, and he helped me make the scene better, and so did John Landis.
Who knew that movie was going to be that big? But still every day somebody comes up to me when I’m out and says, “Hey, I just watched Coming To America the other day!” And I say, “Thanks!” So remember: sometimes buying people lunch can really work out well for you. [Laughs.]
LA: I was really sick and not feeling well when I did the show, and Jim took care of me. I always thought that was an ironic thing in hindsight. It was very upsetting when he died. He was just a wonderful man.
My dad loved the Muppets. You do a lot of things because your mom and dad liked them. I think if you look at what you’re doing in life, you’ll find out that a lot of the things you’re doing are things that you think your parents would’ve wanted you to do. Or you do it to remember them. But that was definitely a good experience. It was crazy, but Jim Henson was lovely. The whole crew, they’re lovely human beings. And the Muppets, they’ve been doing it for… I mean, when did Sesame Street start? The late ’60s, right? I interviewed Frank Caliendo for my podcast, and when I asked him who his first impressions were, I don’t know what I thought he’d say, but he said he used to imitate the Muppets.
That’s why I love doing my podcast, by the way. Much like what you’re doing, I ask questions about the journey, because the journey—don’t ever kid yourself: The journey is the prize, and the prize is the journey.
LA: That was a great experience—another great experience—with a bunch of my comic friends: Richard Belzer, Richard Lewis, Tim Thomerson… You know, Sam Kinison was supposed to be the bad guy. But we ended up with John Goodman, so that wasn’t a bad connection, right?
AVC: Dare we ask why Sam wasn’t able to do it?
LA: Oh, you know Sam. I think he probably just didn’t want to do it. He probably heard the word “Wyoming” and said, “Forget it!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Just looking at the specifics of the film on IMDB, it’s clear that you guys worked really hard on your character names.
LA: [Laughs.] You know, I always think it’s funny when they have the [actors’] real names. I don’t mind it. I don’t ever feel like the name matters. But we really did have fun, and we really tried to do a good job in that. Belzer and Richard Lewis… I mean, two Jewish guys out in the woods, now that was funny. We should’ve just taped all the stuff of those guys. Of Richard Lewis going, “What is that? What is that?” “That’s a leaf. It’s a leaf, Richard. And that’s a stick.” “It looks like a snake!” But like I said, it was another great experience, and it’s another one where a lot of people like that movie. I think it was a big hit with kids and families.
AVC: The big question is, how did the Cub Scouts feel about it?
LA: They were behind it! I got awards for doing it and all that kind of stuff. So, yeah, they liked it. I think we got their cooperation, actually. I mean, how many people go to them and ask them?
Boy, you know, doing this feature makes me aware of how much I’ve done. Not bad, right? [Laughs.] And I’m still working! I think of all the other comics that didn’t get the light shined on them, just because it’s just how fame works, and it’s unfortunate. But there are so many great comics out there who are still working, and I still see them. We’ve got the Laugh Factory here in town, and Harry Basil, who I started out with on the Dangerfield special, he’s part owner of that, and he brings in all the old guys. So I go down and see them, and it’s so much fun, because those days in the ’80s… Those were beautiful days. That was a time in comedy that was really fantastic and so much fun. I still have lots of fond memories from it.
LA: Oh, well, that was fantastic. I used to sit on the arm of the couch, my mom would be in the kitchen and my dad would be in his chair, and we’d watch Richard Dawson. And my dad would complain about him slobbering all over the women. [Laughs.] And then my mom would pop in and give her answer, and I’d give my answer, and we’d play it. And then when they offered me that job, I said, “Yeah, I’ll take that job!” I’m a big game show fan. When you’re a poor person, you watch game shows. I don’t think people realize that. Maybe everybody watches game shows, but when you’re poor, you live vicariously through those people.
AVC: As a full-time freelance writer, I am familiar.
LA: Yeah, I’ll bet! You’re rooting for those people who are playing, you really are. So I feel very proud about my days on the Feud. I took the money and really feel like I talked them into—or had a big part in helping them—make [the grand prize] $20,000 instead of $10,000. I always rooted for everybody, I felt like I was funny, and I wasn’t Richard Dawson, but I was the best I could be at it, and I loved giving people money. It was a great three years. And it was a great thing for charities. You know, there was a thing called the Fireman’s Fund, for the firemen from 9/11 and their families, and we raised some money for that. We did some really good things. And we had a blast. I did five shows a day for 35 days. That’s 180 shows, and that’s how many episodes game shows do in a year.
AVC: So did they just come to you one day and say that they were going in a different direction?
LA: Oh, you never get that kind of thing from them. Your agent or manager tells you. They go, “You’re out. They’re gonna get a new guy.” But then I didn’t feel bad when, after three years, they got another new guy. And then three years after that, they got another new guy, and then another one three years after that. So I didn’t take it personally. Steve Harvey, maybe he’s getting the ratings I used to, but I don’t think anybody ever beat my ratings. Not that I’m competitive at all. [Laughs.] But you have pride in that, you know? You want your ratings to be good. But now that I’m 62, I don’t really care about the ratings. I don’t care about the reviews. I care about the work, and I care about the people that I’m working with, and I try to make the experience for them and myself as good as it can be.