Louie Anderson’s Mom is Great Because He Doesn’t Play for Laughs
Baskets, the new and very original comedy starring Zach Galifianakis has plenty going for it. The hilarious performances by Galifianakis which are often touched with more than a little sadness makes Baskets the physical embodiment of the tragic clown. And then there is the unbelievably charming performance by newcomer Martha Kelly as lovelorn optimist Martha. But the character which has received the most attention and affection is Louie Anderson’s portrayal of Galifianakis’s mother. But while the surprise nature of the casting may have generated the most initial attention, the reason the performance resonated with audiences is simple. Regardless of the gender-bending nature of the performance, Christine Baskets is a rich and nuanced character– as rich and nuanced as the other two leads. And Anderson falls into the character so seamlessly, within a few minutes you forget you are watching a well-known comic male playing a familiar suburban mom.
Oddly, Anderson has never truly been known as an actor as much as he was a comic personality. He has worked on TV plenty, but nobody was expecting him to do as much character work as he does in Baskets. In fact, his only regular series work previously has been in series originated by Anderson; The Louie Show and Life with Louie. But if you look at a show like Life with Louie, the origins of a character like Christine are clear…almost inevitable. Even her voice is similar to the character on that show. One would expect that Anderson has been observing his mother (and mothers like her) since childhood. And he captures details that go beyond her female traits.
Recently, Louie explained that in creating her character, “I tried not to act like a man doing a woman. I tried to be the woman. The character is a version of my mom, but a combination of my five sisters and my sister-in-laws” The approach is admirable, even a bit transgressive. There have been plenty of very recent films and TV projects that have overstressed gender specifics to the point of feeling stereotypical about what makes us male or female. But I would argue that Anderson is selling himself a bit short in his own description of the work he did. He didn’t just try to be a woman…he created a very specific character, who happens to be a woman.
The key to comedy is so often using the most specific details to make something feel universal…creating a sense of deja vu that we’ve been in or around this world before, or know these people. And it would be hard for anyone not to think of someone they know when they see Christine Baskets. The way she asks Martha if she’d like to meet her cats or is amazed by the variety of flavors available in vitamin water feels like more than a few moms we’ve all met. Just a little too critical of her children, but unbelievably loving as well. The kind of mom who makes her own kids shudder with embarrassment, but will easily win the love of her kids friends who all get a kick out of her.
Anderson doesn’t change his voice significantly to play Christine Baskets…it isn’t necessary and wouldn’t have been honest (after all, plenty of women have deeper voices). The only distinctly feminine touch Anderson has added so far is the way Christine twirls her hair, a blonde wig, when watching TV.
Anderson’s portrayal of Christine strikes me as part of a very specific tradition of drag performance. Anderson’s character isn’t the exaggerated version of drag we are used to when the term is used…that is its own kind of performance art. Rather, the performance of gender is secondary to the character, and could have been played as easily by a woman. There are no jokes, direct or indirect, about Christine being played by a man, and the writers and performers never make her appearance a joke. Christine falls in the tradition of characters like John Robert’s impression of his mother from his online videos (The Tree, My Son is Gay, as well as his voice work on Bob’s Burgers), the cast from Kids in the Hall, British actors Alastair Sim and Alec Guinness, and even the great Divine. Not the Divine from John Water’s earliest films, which was its own kind of brilliant, campy, drag performance. But the remarkably affectionate performance by Divine in the film Hairspray as mother Edna. Loving, brassy, mama bear Edna was such a shockingly specific kind of mother, audiences instantly felt they knew her, loved her, and laughed with affectionate joy…never at her the idea of gender, but the things she was saying and doing as Edna. The same things we would laugh at if the character were performed by a woman.
Perhaps there is something to take note of that most of these types of performances are men playing versions of women they have known…often their mothers. The problem with an impression is often the sense of foreignness the actor stresses about the character…what are the most obvious things they do. But that isn’t funny. It is the little things that make these impressions so funny…the things we notice that require study and consideration of why they’re doing something which might only later strike us as odd…the little things they do which make us laugh because they become familiar. All these female characters have that same sense of familiarity, and give viewers the same sense of familiarity that infuses the performances with the gentleness of a bemused family.