How Louie Anderson Became Zach Galifianakis’s Mom

The comedian talks about his emotional transformation into a character based on his own mother. Plus, watch an exclusive clip from Episode 2 of Baskets.

01.28.16 5:08 AM ET

Zach Galifianakis wanted British actress Brenda Blethyn to play his mother on his new FX show Baskets. When she wasn’t available, he decided to cast comedian Louie Anderson instead.

“I was driving to work in 2014. I think it was May,” Anderson tells me the morning after the show’s premiere last Thursday. “And my old agent called and says, ‘Louis C.K. wants your number’ and I said, ‘Charge him $100,000 for it,’” he says, laughing.

“There wasn’t any more information than that,” Anderson says. “And I think it was like 10 minutes later, Louis called. And he said, ‘Louie? This is Louis.’”

Today’s most highly respected stand-up comedian told the man who once held that title 30 years ago that he was putting together a new show with Zach Galifianakis and they had a part for him. “He goes, ‘We want you to play Zach’s mom,’” Anderson remembers. Without hesitation, he replied, “Yeah! I’ll do it!”

Galifianakis, who was in the room with Louis C.K. at the time, told the story from his perspective on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. When Galifianakis was thinking about the character of his mother on the show, he couldn’t get Anderson’s distinctive voice out of his head. So Louis C.K. suggested they just give Anderson a call and see if he was interested. Repeating Anderson’s version of the phone call nearly verbatim, Galifianakis confirmed, “That’s exactly how it went down.”

“He steals the show,” Galifianakis added of Anderson. “He is so funny to me.”

“Well, Louis C.K. doesn’t call you every day,” Anderson says of his quick decision to play an aging mother of two sets of twins—one biological, both played by Galifianakis, and one adopted—in his first recurring television role in nearly two decades. “If Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis are spending time trying to find you…” he says, trailing off as he pivots to a joke. “I know I didn’t owe them any money, I know I didn’t steal any of their jokes.”

Anderson had been imitating his own mother in his stand-up act for more than 30 years so the idea of playing a woman onscreen didn’t scare him. Plus, it meant some much-needed work. At 62, Anderson was in danger of being best-remembered by younger viewers for his participation in 2013’s embarrassing ABC game show Splash, in which he and other pseudo-celebrities comically jumped into a large pool from a high-dive board.

“They were offering me a job,” he says of the Baskets gig. “The most important thing in Hollywood is you just want people to think of you enough to think there is still gas in the tank.”

Anderson, who considers himself an “insecure stand-up comedian” at heart, made his television debut on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1984 and quickly exploded into the stand-up boom of that decade, taping his own specials and touring with friend Roseanne Barr. Perhaps the most successful TV project of his career was also his most personal. Life with Louie, an autobiographical animated series he created, ran for three years on Fox and won two Emmy Awards. Anderson thinks his role in Baskets is the “best thing” he’s done since.

Reviews for Baskets so far have been solidly mixed. The Daily Beast’s own Kevin Fallon wrote, “This is a show I hated. And that I loved. That I thought was stupid, and that I admired. That was so extremely not funny. And therefore might actually be one of the greatest comedies of the year.”

While the tone of the show seems to be confounding critics, Anderson’s performance has received near-universal praise. The New York Times’s James Poniewozik called his portrayal “striking,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman called it “brilliant” and Variety’s Maureen Ryan wrote that “it’s almost worth watching Baskets just to see Anderson play one of the most instantly amusing and sympathetic characters on TV.”

In the era of Jeffrey Tambor’s remarkable embodiment of Maura Pfefferman on Transparent, casting a comic like Anderson in what would traditionally be a woman’s role could be seen as a crass stunt. But it simply never feels that way.

Noting that he has mostly avoided reading any of his positive notices, Anderson jokes, “My head is already so big.” Less than 24 hours after the series premiere, he says, “I don’t mean to be boasting, but I have had hundreds of people contact me. I have had my family respond, which is really great. My nephew called me because I look just like one of my sisters who has passed away. And he was crying. So it was a little emotional for him. And he’s sending me my sister’s lucky ring for me to wear on the next season—should there be one. I just thought that was so sweet.”

Watch this exclusive clip of Anderson as Christine Baskets from Episode Two, airing tonight, Thursday, Jan. 28, below.

Anderson says he chose to base his portrayal of Christine Baskets, a church-going Costco shopper from Bakersfield, California, who has cats named after Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, on both his mother and his five sisters, who were a major presence in his Midwestern upbringing. “People are very nice in the Midwest but they’re very passive-aggressive,” he says. “I’m not as nice in the character as my mom was as a person.”

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“It really is an extension of my mom,” Anderson says, adding that he always aims to make his performance “as real as possible” without “affecting or cartooning it up.” He says he “felt like it was divine intervention” when he got the call to be on the show, that “somehow my mom, from the great beyond, was finally getting herself into show business where she truly belonged in the first place.”

Anderson’s mother did have at least one foray into show business, when she appeared by his side in an episode of Hollywood Squares. “I was thrilled to have my mom on that show and she loved it, she reveled in it. And she was funny. She got laughs,” he says. “And then, of course, she made me mad 10 minutes later, but that’s how moms are.”

He also got the chance to take his mother to the White House when he performed for President Reagan back in the ’80s, but unlike the Christine character on Baskets, Anderson’s mother was a lifelong Democrat. Upon leaving the White House, his mom promptly made a joke about wanting a chance to “fatten that Nancy up.”

When Anderson went in for his first costume fitting, an experience he says he found “so upsetting as a fat person,” he tried to pick out things his mom would wear. “I didn’t allow anyone to call me Louie,” he says of his time shooting the series. “I said you have to call me Christine.” The same went for his trailer, which had the name “Christine” on the door.

Describing the surreal experience of sitting down in the makeup chair with his wig and costume on, Anderson says, “I didn’t look like me anymore.” He looked like his mother.

“It’s so nice when you can find a pool within yourself that’s endless,” he says. “I mean, it’s hard for me to even be Louie Anderson anymore. I want to be Christine, she’s much more fun.”

Even if the show doesn’t get picked up for a second season, Anderson says, “I’m going to become her, I think.” He pauses, considering what that would mean. “Why not?”