What Louie Anderson Learned From Playing His Mom on TV

The comedian opens up about the “gut punch” of channeling his own mother to play Christine Baskets, and becoming more empathetic towards her feelings.

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If you’ve seen an episode of Baskets, you’ve probably fallen in love a little bit with one of television’s most charming mothers and sleeper star, Christine Baskets.

Played by comedian Louie Anderson, Christine is the sweet, Costco-loving mom to Chip and Dale, both played by the series cocreator Zach Galifianakis—and one more than worthy of appreciating this Mother’s Day. Anderson’s performance is a tribute to his late mother, Ora Zella Anderson, whom he thanked when he won his first Emmy for an acting role. “Every little thing your mother does, at some point in your life, you’ll find yourself doing it,” he said in the press room after his Emmy win. “Just embrace it, and realize that they won.”

The comedian plays the character inspired by his real mom in full drag; donning a wig, dresses, and his mother’s mannerisms to play a sort of “everywoman,” but he never hams it up with clownery. Instead, Anderson plays Christine with so much sincerity and sweetness that she only ends up being funny seemingly by accident, or by virtue of just being herself. The actor has mined his family for comedy before, especially with his critically acclaimed cartoon Life With Louie, which was based on his real life growing up in Minnesota, but once he stepped into the shoes of Christine Baskets, for the first time Anderson felt like he was fully considering his mother’s feelings.

Baskets takes the “sad clown” archetype and catapults it to the next level. Chip and Dale are both buffoonish bullies in their own ways, and it’s not always an easy watch. But Baskets is also, as Anderson would say, a relatable tale of “a family trying to get somewhere.” We’ve ranked Christine Baskets before as one of the best moms on television, and with each passing season of Baskets, it becomes clearer and clearer why she is deserving of the title. For three seasons, Christine has supported her son Chip, a clown-school dropout who must return to his hometown after failing in Paris. Now, as the series returns to FX for season four on June 13, she finally gets the chance to make decisions for herself.

We don’t give our moms enough credit for all that they do, and sometimes it takes literally stepping into their shoes (or playing a character that looks, sounds, and moves through the world a lot like them) to fully realize the emotional sacrifices mothers make all the time. Just in time for Mother’s Day—the annual holiday where most people usually scramble at the last minute to compile a bouquet of flowers and a card in a pinch—Anderson reflected on the experience of channeling his mother, the gender pay gap in Hollywood, and why he’s had a difficult time separating himself from his mom while playing Christine.

What’s Christine’s big arc this season, now that the family’s rodeo business has taken off?

At the end of the third season, she got proposed to at the big party. This season is about, will she or won’t she get married to this guy? It’s such a big journey for her after losing her husband all those years ago. Now she has to decide to, instead of being the mother, if she’s going to be herself. Is she going to be able to have a life of her own? Is she going to be the mom taking care of everybody or is she going to be taking care of herself?

It seems like that’s a tension for a lot of moms, that sacrifice.

I agree with you. I wrote this book recently called Hey Mom and I realized my mom just lived for us. I think she gave up living for herself in some ways. Of course, my dad didn’t make it easier. Moms make that decision when they really should—you know how animals kick their kids to the curb when they get to a certain age? Especially Americans tend to take care of them, and I think that’s how we ended up with the millennials, who are smartly completely dependent on their parents to take care of them, which is a good deal when you think about it.

Speaking of your mom, what parts of your mom do you tap into to play Christine?

Generally, head to toe. I kind of stole her whole identity. What’s the TV show where they would walk into the person and take over their whole body, I can’t remember it? The whole idea is my mom. I don’t know in my life if I’ve become my mom or if I’ve retained any idea of who I am. This character has taken over. When I went back to work, I morphed back into that character and I feel more comfortable as that character than as myself. Does that make sense? It’s so comfortable being in this character or body. She’s not afraid. She’s afraid to do things, but she does them. She has doubt and apprehension, but she’s brave. I think that’s who my mom was.

Also, she’s a teenage girl who just wants to be accepted by her friends. She’s in that vein. This season tests Christine as a mother, as a fiancée, and as that teenage girl. I cried a lot of real tears. Mourning the character if this is the last season, and celebrating her. I have been going through this tremendous emotional arc of, was my mom ever this happy, as the character is? That was a gut punch. When you become a full-fledged adult, which I sometimes am able to do, you get a sense of, wait a minute, was my mom ever able to obtain this happiness that I’m in? Or did she live in constant self-doubt and depression? But I think I wouldn’t be able to portray this character if my mom didn’t have time to find true happiness. I’m hopeful that she did, but I’m not sure that she ever felt as loved as she should’ve. If there’s any solace or justice, at least my mom, in this character, is finding true love from the fans of the show.

How do you think your mom would feel about your performance?

She’d love the clothes. She’d love how good her hair looks. She’d love the fact that people were into it, but also she would be criticizing me on how I’m doing the character.

Which parts would she criticize?

“Louie, you don’t have my look right. You don’t have my hands right.” But she held her hands just like I do mine. “I don’t think I sound like that.” And you know, everybody in my family or who knew my mom says, “Oh my god, that’s your mom.”

Did you have siblings growing up?

I had ten.

Were any of them like Zach Galifianikis’s characters Chip and Dale?

Yeah, one of my brothers was like Chip. Maybe my brother Tommy was like Dale. Tommy would go full bore on an idea before he thought it through. Chip is like a hybrid of who Christine could’ve been as a person. I think Christine fancies herself as artistic, and Chip wants to be an artist, and wants to be liked, too. Christine’s a bit of a smotherer, she gets all up in your business.

Was your mom like that?

Yes. In the best, most roundabout way. She’d say, “Now, what are you up to with that whole thing?” You’d ask, “What are you talking about?” and she’d say, “You should watch out.” My mom once said, “I don’t want you hanging out with that kid. His eyes aren’t right.” [Laughs.] One of my favorite lines ever.

Are there any catchphrases your mom had that you incorporate into Christine’s dialogue?

Oh, yeah. She’d do this “Ow!” Christine does that all the time. Those kind of phrases, and “Let me tell you, kid.” She was very loving, demanding, and domineering at the same time, so you’d never figure out what was going on. Does she like me? Does she just want me to get her something? Is she complaining?

Had you ever portrayed a character similar to your mom before Baskets?

No, this was my first time. I did her in my stand-up act, but never on screen.

You said your mom would’ve loved how Christine dresses, but what was your mom’s style?

She was ahead of her time. She used to wear pantsuits. She was very comfortable in stuff that Christine’s wearing. She had a classiness about her, my mom. But she could pull off clothes, and I never knew my mom got up before us and got ready and then made breakfast. I thought she just always looked like that.

That’s another one of those mom sacrifices, or magic tricks, really.

Yeah! When I get ready to play that character, I’m getting ready to be presentable. That’s what women are up against. That’s kind of a shitty deal.

How does playing a woman like Christine change your perception of what women are “up against,” as you said?

I have a lot more empathy for my sisters. And all women, but my sisters especially. Men just smell their shirt and see if they’re ready to go out. There’s a giant double standard. It’s starting to get evened out, but there’s a resistance to it, which is crazy. I noticed on TV today there was a women’s hockey team, national I think. They’re going on strike because of the pay and there’s no medical. Those women are standing up and saying, “Well we’re not gonna play.” They’re basically giving up their livelihoods with no guarantees, and the men are always more compensated for it. People say they don’t do the same things men do, but don’t have a women’s hockey team if you can’t pay them a wage.

What do you think about the equal-pay conversation in your industry, then? Do you see a change happening in Hollywood?

Why can’t you pay people a wage they can live on? It seems that people have a side hustle for everything. I grew up in the projects, so I get the whole poor thing. The disparity is gigantic between the poorest and the richest, and the chasm is getting deeper. I say, tax everybody more and do what you have to do to even that out because I want people not to suffer. I want people to do well. Everybody I know, even people who are living well, seem to have a side hustle to have enough money. Writers, actors. Everybody’s taking every little bit and shaving it off so that they can make more money, which is not the way it should work. I’d rather pay higher taxes and make less money and know that my fellow man and woman, my fellow humans, will be taken care of. I was poor. We had to decide if we were going to shut off the lights or the gas because we could only pay for one of them. I am grateful and humbled by the idea that I’ve had this success.

You were nominated for your first Emmy and won in 2016 for playing Christine Baskets. How has that sort of success or critical acclaim changed your work as an actor?

I’m in meetings all the time about doing more stuff, so that’s a single thing. I have a lot of gratitude, but I think that’s the first time I did work I could have been recognized for, you know? I think I hold some of the responsibility in that. I got lucky enough to get into a situation where I’m doing a tremendous part that Zack and Jonathan Krisel have made. Jonathan Krisel, the director, helped me walk through it, and the work that Zack and I have done this year is easily, to me, the best work of the series. We’ve had so much fun and it’s been very meaningful, and meaningful for him. There’s a need for Christine Baskets, and Chip and Dale Baskets, to be on TV because they’re a family trying to get somewhere. They’re a family trying to go somewhere, trying to do something. They’re a family who’s struggling and they’re a family who will not give up, and that’s what I love about them. You can have a hit show, and we’re not necessarily a hit show, but I think for the people that watch us we mean a great deal.

Do people recognize you more on the street now?

I have people who run up and hug me and tell me they love Christine Baskets. I get these things on Twitter, “I want Christine Baskets to be my mom” or “You remind me so much of my mom.” I love that. My mom’s humanity makes it possible for me to be able to portray that character. Her undying love for people, whether she knew them or not. She was so kind to human beings. I remember I was at my mom’s funeral, at the wake. And a guy came up and said, “I just wanted to say hi. I met your mom once and she was the kindest person I’d ever met. I had to stop by and share that with you guys.” None of us knew this person. I think she was placed on this earth to display that kindness and make it possible for people to be less burdened.

Related: Thank You to the 20 Best Moms on TV