It began as an unremarkable night in 1985 at Catch A Rising Star, a premier New York comedy club. A 12-minute walk from my Upper East Side apartment got me to the haunt on First Avenue near 78th Street where the likes of Larry David, Joy Behar and Jerry Seinfeld showed off their developing stand-up chops. Thousands of New York City Marathoners ran past its big window each November. Robin Williams, Robert Klein and Elayne Boosler had played the showroom in the back. Sometimes, they’d just hang out in the front bar.
I walked into what locals simply called “Catch.” I found the usual, stand-up comics and civilians, drinks in hand, ventilating the bar with East Coast brio, gossip and bull hockey. Cell phones and social media were two decades ahead. Show biz agents might have pagers and enjoy professional courtesies with one of the house telephones. These days we call them landlines.
To my surprise, I spotted Louie Anderson standing alone. I walked towards him. “Louie! Louie! What are you doing here?” I thumped my chest, “Jeff Strate. Remember?”
With both grin and voice, Louie replied, “Hey Jeff, how ya doing?”
The last time Louie Anderson and I had been together was in St. Paul on Lafond Avenue near Hamline University in 1982. I shared a house with and paid rent to Dave Olson. Olson was KUOM Radio’s news director at the University of Minnesota.
He and a few of our colleagues from local TV and radio, classical music, the Brave New Workshop and the daily newspapers were giving me a kiss-off party. I was going to New York to work on a syndicated start-up, a daily magazine show named “Afternoon.”
I knew Louie from the emerging Twin Cities stand-up comedy scene in the late 1970s. Louie, Alex Cole and others played Saturday nights at Mickey Finn’s, a self-described “Night Club” on Central Avenue N.E. Finn’s shared a building with a labor hall opposite a White Castle, a perfect trifecta of sorts. I liked organized labor, sliders and good stand-up comedy.
Louie knew me for my work at University Community Video (‘Attack of the Burger Pods’), Channel 2 (‘Wyld Ryce’) and Channel 5 (‘Sunday Extra’). We’d see one another at Dudley Riggs’ Experimental Theater Company on the West Bank and other places where unleashed spirits hung out.
Dave’s house was lively with chat, beer and cheese curls. He gave Louie 9 or 10 minutes for a routine. This was before the second youngest of Ora Zella Anderson’s 11 children became famous, before Louie’s first appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and before his Christmas shows at the old Guthrie Theater. He was a smash on Lafond.
We loved this genial guy, his softness, his appreciation of family. We understood Louie’s urban-cured, Scandi culture, if not yet the pain his large family had endured with an alcoholic father. We laughed with his self-effacing humor, his set-ups and silent takes. His fat jokes were contextual, polite and smart. Louie was us.
In the front bar at Catch A Rising Star, Louie recalled his gig at Dave’s. “That’s before you got funny,” I quipped.
Louie sketched the highlights of his last three years. I hadn’t known that Rodney Dangerfield had seen him at Mickey Finn’s and had become a mentor; hadn’t known that Louie had moved to California and was now a regular at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. I had never heard of The Comedy Store.
But I had seen Louie’s debut on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson on Nov. 20, 1984. My mom Gloria phoned in an afternoon alert to my answering machine from her Eden Prairie condo in the Preserve. I watched Louie from my studio flat.
Louie asked me if New York was a good fit. It was. My first show had lasted only a year, but the New York version of “PM Magazine” had taken me in. The breezy and popular series had me costumed as a talent scout with a rakish fedora, aviator shades and a TeAmo cigar. As PM’s Phantom Agent, I produced short filmic profiles on improv groups, street performers, magicians, comics, tap dancers and singers. Three minutes of prime time on WNEW-TV in New York City was a big deal.
Even though Louie had been a hit on Carson, casino showrooms and Dave’s house on Lafond, “Late Night with David Letterman” wanted to see Louie live at Catch A Rising Star. At the time, Louie was performing in Atlantic City. Letterman’s talent scouts apparently couldn’t get visas for New Jersey, so Louie took a day for the audition in my neighborhood.
As the chatter in the front bar at Catch increased, I recall saying something to Louie like, “We’re both working tonight. I’ll catch your set in the main room. I’ll be there. Maybe I’ll spot a story.”
Having known scores of clubs and sorry saloons, I figured that Louie Anderson of St. Paul, Minnesota, had no need for my services as a chaperone.
I should have stayed in the front bar. From a small table in the showroom, I survived maybe 9 or 10 comedians with moldy references to the Bronx, nuns and Catholic girlfriends, Jewish mothers, Brooklyn chicks and the graffiti on the stalls in men’s rooms — an early social media platform.
The evening became more of an anthropological study of the dysfunctional than a talent search. The laughs that night were mostly amplified by beer or ignited by F-bombs. With Louie, the gathered could become hostile. I was worried. Louie didn’t do what he called “filthy.”
I figured that other than Letterman’s “people,” I was the only guy in a room seating more than 150 others who had even heard of Louie Anderson from Minnesota. New Yorkers scramble about in cocoons within a cocoon. It could get ugly, but it did not.
The next 15 minutes remain the funniest stand-up set I have ever sat in on. Louie was the medicine that made the migraine vanish, the air freshener that masked the odor.
Forgive me for not being able to recall any specific jokes. But Louie was clearly using material that worked. His set from a 1984 TV special featuring young comedians presented by Rodney Dangerfield can be seen on YouTube. His audition at Catch probably shares most of the same jokes. He’s playing to a live audience in what looks like Dangerfield’s club also on First Avenue.
It goes as follows:
Louie takes a hand mic off its stand to welcoming applause after Rodney’s introduction.
Louie to audience: “How ya Doing? Listen, I can’t stay long, I’m in-between meals, so bear with me on this.” (laughter)
A minute later:
“What originally brought me out there [California] were the Olympics. I don’t know if you recognize me. (laughter) Hula Hoop Contest.” (laughter)
“Tried all the events. Tried the pole vault. Drove that sucker right into the ground. (laughter) I did a good thing, though. I straightened out those uneven parallel bars. (laughter) Broad jump … killed her.” (laughter)
(Pauses to wipe his forehead and face with a folded hanky) “Sorry I’m sweating, but if I don’t, I’ll explode. (laughter)
Let’s face it. If I didn’t do these fat jokes, you guys would sit out there and go, “Do you think he knows that he’s that big?” Like I woke up one morning and (looks at his waist with surprised disappointment) … awww no.” (bigger laughter)
An ovation at Catch
Louie ended his Catch bit with a grateful “thank you” and a goodbye wave of his right hand. The room erupted with cheers and applause. A few of us stood as he left the stage with another wave.
I didn’t wait for the next act. I joined Louie out front. We talked some about doing a Phantom Agent story together for “PM Magazine” his next time in New York.
A few months later, a PM crew and I met Louie at Carnegie Deli near the theater district. He was with his pal Larry Kelly and Larry’s grandfather, legendary comedian Henny Youngman — “King of the one-liners.”
With them was Carnegie co-owner Leo Steiner, famous for his in-your-face Jewish wit, his enormous sandwiches and his role as the deli counter man in “Broadway Danny Rose.” The continuity scenes for the Woody Allen classic about a good-hearted but inept talent agent were filmed at the Carnegie.
We were there to videotape a scene for “Deli Vice,” a short parody of the cool and stylish undercover detective series “Miami Vice.” Our whimsy would be part of a Phantom Agent segment on Louie.
Henny, Leo, Louie and Larry improvised their lines — Henny to Leo as a maître d’: “Show me a table near a waiter.” The piece would work.
We moved on to tape scenes with just Louie and Larry at 86th Street and Third Avenue. They do bits at a hot dog stand, a pizzeria and a candy store. It’s a wrap. We thank one another. Louie and Larry hurry off for a cab or a subway station that would take them to Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. They want to play the ponies.
That was the last time I saw Louie Anderson in person. It was 1985. Louie and Larry crossing Third Avenue near a Papaya King, debating whether to take the subway or a cab out to a racetrack. My kind of guys.
Letterman’s people didn’t book Louie until Nov. 29, 1988, three years later. But soon after the Catch audition, Louie was playing the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Jeff Weihe directed the televised version of Louie’s first Guthrie show for KTCA-TV (TPT2). Weihe told me Tuesday that it was one of the most exciting, inspirational and fun shows that he has ever directed. It remains a beautiful program even in the soft, pirated copy that lives somewhere on YouTube.
At that time, Louie was being accepted into that posse of Minnesota muses that counted Garrison Keillor, cartoonist Dick Guidon, radio man Steve Cannon, humorist Lorna Landvik and impresario Dudley Riggs as members.
Most of us know that Louie did books, talk shows, animated series, movies, game shows, radio shows and podcasts. He had ups and downs, even thought about suicide.
The FX Channel comedy series “Baskets” helped lift Louie from one of the downs. It also got him three acting Emmys for his character, Christine Baskets. The family matriarch, Louie said, was an extension of his own mother who raised him, his six sisters and four brothers.
Louie wrote about “Baskets” a few years ago. “I felt it was divine intervention when I 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.”
Louie passed on Jan. 21. He was born on March 24, 1953.
Happy Birthday, Louie. You knew that moms do all the work. Ora Zella Anderson, who now resides in heaven, will get the first slice of cake.
Author’s note: Dave Gilbertson has written a beautiful personal remembrance of his longtime friend Louie Anderson. The Huffington Post published it on March 5, 2022.
Editors note: Writer Jeff Strate is a founding member of the EPLN Board of Directors and continues to produce television programs through Southwest Community Television (SWTV).
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