The End of Life with Louie

Louie Anderson (1953-2022) passed away two months ago, in a crazy cluster of celebrity deaths that included Peter Bogdanovich, Betty White, Meat Loaf, and Bob Saget. On January 21, when Anderson’s passing was announced, I was elbows-deep in my Meat Loaf encomium, and didn’t have the mental energy to pen TWO tributes to plus-sized Baby Boomer entertainers, and so, knowing his birthday was coming up in a few weeks, put the tribute on ice.

Anderson’s career broke during an era when I wasn’t watching a ton of TV, and so while I was vaguely aware of him, and had seen him for a minute here and there, believe it or not it was not until his ground-breaking critically acclaimed role on Baskets (2016-2019) that I got any sort of sustained snapshot of who he was. Which is ironic, isn’t it? The 30 years prior to that having been a process of peeling back and self-revelation that inched toward that point. He played a woman on the show, essentially basing the character on his own mother. So we have some kind of drag/trans theme happening today — for Louie shared a birthday with Gorgeous George.

Exploring the totality of his career, though, is jaw-dropping. Stand-up comedian of genius, sit-com auteur, wildly popular gameshow host. And if he’d been born in an earlier era, the weighty wunderkind (he weighed over 400 lbs at his peak) could easily have been a major sideshow star. I don’t say that disparagingly. Having written about nearly 300 sideshow freaks, including almost two dozen professional fat men and women, I regard the Born Different as just another, quite legitimate branch of show business. Now that half the country is clinically obese (I would imagine I’m at least borderline that myself by this juncture of middle age) it should hardly be controversial to point it out as an attribute. It’s practically like eye color nowadays. (Hey! I just noticed that Louie shares a birthday with Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle! If only he had played him in a bio-pic!)

Good Lord! I just watched Anderson’s first performance on The Tonight Show in 1984, and man he killed! I have rarely seen a set THAT sure-fire. In a manner that no one would endorse today, he launches the set with a rapid-fire succession of hilarious fat jokes, which reminded me both of vaudeville and the self-deprecating one-liner craftsmanship of Rodney Dangerfield. Extravagant imagery, and all at his own expense. And then he manages to segue to that “exaggerated autobiographical” style I associate with Bill Cosby and many others, where anecdotes from real life and real memories from his Minnesota childhood are magnified for humor and universal recognition. Over the decades, through a whole variety of media (stand up specials, sit-coms, books, interviews) he began to fill that picture out and make it realer, discussing issues that effected him, such as his father’s alcoholism and abuse.

From popular appearances on TV shows like Letterman, Leno, and Arsenio, and movies like Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America (1988), by 1994 Anderson had amassed enough recognition to get his own animated sit-com on Fox, the influential Life with Louie, which ran until 1998. During its run he also launched a much less successful sit-com The Louie Show (1996), with the unbelievable stellar cast of Bryan Cranston, Paul Feig, Laura Innes (Kerry Weaver on ER), and Kimmy Robertson (Lucy on Twin Peaks). Unthinkably, the show only lasted six episodes. After Life With Louie went off the air in 1998, Anderson built a new identify for himself with a new career: game show host! Having already been an enthusiastic guest and panelist on such shows as Hollywood Squares, he hosted a new version of Family Feud from 1999 through 2002. He then moved on to his long-running Las Vegas show, Louie: Larger Than Life, which ran 2003 through 2012.

Through his many projects: humor books, stand-up comedy specials, appearances on talk shows, etc, one thing Anderson never did was come out as gay. There has been much speculation about it over the decades. He was married twice to women, once in 1984 and once in 1985, both marriages lasting around one month each. In 1997 he was blackmailed by a young man who claimed that Anderson had propositioned him in a Las Vegas casino. Anderson paid him off initially (after all, he was starring on a family show) but eventually reported him to the police, resulting in publicity. Over time, his persona seemed to become more effeminate, and with his role on Baskets, he seemed to have turned a new corner. Trans? Who can say? And who needs to? He probably had his own thing going on…which is true of all of us, and really no one else’s business. At any rate, he chose to take the secret (or the clarification) with him to the grave. Cancer took him at age 68.

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For more on variety history, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.