Louie Anderson on Baskets Demands Your Attention

Don’t let the fact that he actually won an Emmy keep you from praising Louie Anderson as though he were unheralded.

This week’s episode of Baskets, “Reagan Library,” is deceptively simple and conventional.

It features a story we’ve seen time and time again in our entertainment. An aging mother from flyover country (just because Bakersfield is in California doesn’t mean you can’t fly over it) must drive several hours to bail out her son from prison for criminal mischief. While in the hotel, awaiting her son’s hearing, she has a meet-cute with one of her son’s criminal copatriot’s carpet salesman father.

The woman and the carpet salesman, Ken, spend a lovely day at the Reagan museum, since she is after all a child of the ‘80s. At the end of the day, her child is able to go free on probation and Ken’s daughter isn’t. Still she receives the phone number from Ken, shares a hug with him and flashes a small smile suggesting that maybe everything is going to be alright. Maybe the weight loss routine she’s on for her diabetes is finally starting to work. Or maybe she just finally found an empathetic, companionate soul so many years after her husband died.

It’s simple, it’s conventional, it’s perfect. It’s the best half-hour of Baskets yet and likely to be one of the best half-hour episodes this season. Oh, and that woman is played by a man: stand-up comedy legend Louie Anderson.

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Baskets is only one season and four episodes in and Louie Anderson’s performance as Christine Baskets has already received a lifetime of accolades. You’ve probably read them. Google “Louie Anderson” or “Baskets” and you’re likely to find an article praising the performance before anything else. He also won the 2016 primetime Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy.

Still, improbably, I worry we’re not praising it enough.

Acting is a a craft as much as it is an art. Actors train most of their adult lives to understand the particulars of performance. We have high school plays, college majors and countless other schools and programs devoted just to acting alone. It’s hard. One has to understand the context and history of performance dating all the way back to before Shakespeare and then use that knowledge in combination with one’s own skill and creativity to craft an able performance that is both somehow believable and revelatory.

But then there’s the art aspect of acting. What is art? I don’t know but as Supreme Court justice Pottwer Stewart once said “I know it when I see it.”* And sometimes real art, real magic comes from a source without all that work. Without having to study Hamlet exhaustively in theater school. Sometimes a Jackson Pollack just translates his pain into paint and throws it at a canvas and the whole world realizes “holy shit, that’s it. That’s what we were looking for.”

*He may not have been talking about art but something definitely close to it.

Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets is that. Not to damn Louie Anderson with faint praise but he’s not an actor. Anderson became known as a stand-up comedian first, having gotten his big break on Johnny Carson’s iteration of The Tonight Show. Then like countless other comedians from the ‘80s, he tried his hand at scripted television. This mostly did not go smoothly. He was recast on Perfect Strangers, a show he helped create in 1985. And then 10 years later, his attempt at a sitcom The Louie Show couldn’t make it past six episodes.

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That’s not to say Anderson didn’t find success. His animated comedy Life with Louie was a rousing success and won two daytime Emmys. He also continued to perform stand-up comedy, appear in commercials and host a new pre-Steve Harvey version of Family Feud. Anderson has always been successful, he’s just not necessarily been an actor. Then Baskets came along.

The casting of Louie Anderson as Zach Galifianakis’ character Chip Baskets in Baskets is now the stuff of modern TV legend, or at least just an incredibly reliable soundbite. Galifianakis was brainstorming with producer Louis C.K. about how Chip’s mother should be portrayed. Galifianakis kept coming back to the voice he envisioned her having to which Louis C.K. replied “You mean like Louie Anderson?” So they got Louie Anderson.

Acting is indeed a craft and it’s important to bring up because what Anderson has done in his performance is different from craft. It’s something human or otherworldly or maybe it’s both. In his speech upon winning best supporting actor, Anderson spoke of his mother and how she raised 11 children despite her husband being mean to her.

“No matter how tough it got for Ora Zella Anderson, she never lost her humanity. She had so much of it that it dribbled on to me. I didn’t want it. But I found it. And this part has helped me find it.”

The acceptance speech is a sweet tribute to Anderson’s mother. It’s also one of the most succinct theses statements for the power of acting I can recall. “She never lost her humanity. She lost so much of it that it dribbled on to me.” In the moment where Anderson is celebrating an award for a craft, he instead reveals how little of the “craft” side of acting went into the performance. In this instance, it wasn’t just effort or education or excellency that created Christine Baskets. It was empathy. Anderson knew another human, his mother, who did her best to make his life livable. And the sheer power of that humanity imprinted itself somewhere deep within its guts, just waited to be released one day on a half-hour FX comedy about a failed adult clown.

Louie Anderson is not an actor and what he’s doing on Baskets isn’t really acting. I can’t quite describe what it is. It’s more like magic or transformation than a craft. It’s like Christine Baskets existed inside of him for many years and then one day Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. asked him if he wanted to let her out. Probably because Ora Zella Anderson has always been somewhere within Louie.

I’ve used the term “magic” a lot here but I think the real word I’m looking for is empathy. Louie Anderson’s performance as Christine Baskets is magical because it’s empathetic. Sure, there’s a physicality at play that really helps. Galifianakis was right, Louie Anderson’s voice was the voice they were looking for to play Christine. And the rest of his body somehow perfectly inhabits the creation that is Christine Baskets. It’s the empathy though where the magic comes in.

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Anderson plays Christine so seriously, so earnestly that she can’t help but feel real. Examine the events of “Reagan Library” more closely and you’ll realize there is never a moment when we see a flash of Louie Anderson onscreen. It’s always Christine. Christine has a particular way of doing everything. Listen to her malapropisms when she assuredly tells Chip that everything is going to be on an “upward trajectady (sic)” now. Or watch how she delicately, somewhat disappointedly eats a bland chunk of hotel breakfast pineapple off the back of her fork. Or just notice Christine’s eyes light up when Ken gives her a Reagan necklace she had her eye on.

The whole thing sounds absurd on paper. Hell, it is absurd. A Reagan obsession? An adult failed clown son? Louie Anderson as a woman? But it works. We have so much television now that shows can’t help but make things harder as a challenge to themselves. Baskets could have been an absurdist TV show or it could have been a sincere TV show. Both of those are too easy and have been done before, however, so it’s tried to do both. Thanks to Louie Anderson’s performance and the entire “Reagan Library” episode, it’s succeeded in pulling off that paradox.

Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets is also the kind of performance that rarely wins awards. To the Television Academy’s credit, Anderson got the biggest award available in his field just a year into the performance. Still, I don’t want that to be enough. I don’t want to live in a world in which we’re not constantly marveling over this performance because he got his Emmy. So I’ll keep advocating Louie Anderson’s performance as though there are no trophies in his trophy case and as though every pop culture website on Earth isn’t doing the same as me. Because the performance deserves it. It’s human, it’s empathetic, it’s magic. And I know it when I see it.