Laughing Matters — Louie Anderson at Comic Relief

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When Louie Anderson made his national television debut on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, he had his routine down cold. The show’s bookers saw Anderson many times during their trawls of The Comedy Store, but they were resistant to him for a long time, claiming he wasn’t the kind of comic Carson would like. So Anderson kept working on his act. By his estimate, he had more than a half dozen different Tonight Show sets ready to go by the time he got the call. With club-tested self-assurance, Anderson took the small studio stage and led with a joke referencing his weight that he knew always killed: “I can’t stay long, I’m in between meals.” It got a ten-second laugh, and the crowd was his. After the spot, Carson, a comedy kingmaker like no other before or since, called Anderson out for another bow, popping up from his desk to shake the young comedian’s hand. Anderson was Carson’s kind of comic after all.

Anderson’s first Tonight Show, and most of his early television appearances, were dominated by, to use the term he himself used, fat jokes. Knowing his size would be the first thing anyone would notice about him, Anderson had a satchel full of the self-deprecating gags at his disposal at all times. If a set was flagging, he could always pull a few out and bring the energy back to where he wanted it. They were the endlessly useful hammer in his comedy toolbox.

I always appreciated Anderson most when I got to see him use his other, more complex tool. He was a master craftsman of comedy, and it was a pleasure to see the breadth of his artisanship. When he appeared on the 1987 edition of the Comic Relief, the second staging of all the all-star comedy benefit for homelessness, there’s not a weighty wisecrack to be found. Instead, Anderson deftly delivers a routine based on his upbringing, flush with the same well-observed humanity that would inform his stellar, Emmy-winning performance as Christine Baskets many years later. It’s a tight, perfect set that demonstrates definitively that Anderson was one of the real greats in his field.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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