Sometimes it’s possible to read an artist’s body of work as more than the sum of its parts. To look at the public record of one creator’s work and not just see a collection of interests and paychecks, but a philosophy. On Friday, actor and comedian Louie Anderson died at the age of 68, leaving behind a career defined by his uniquely sweet standup presence and a pair of iconic performances bookending his television career: first, as a fictionalized version of himself in the animated series Life With Louie, and then as Christine Baskets in the FX dramedy Baskets. It all feels unlikely. It all feels like a gift.
A standup comedian for nearly 40 years, Anderson got his big break in the 1980s on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and steadily performed until the end of his life, frequently in Las Vegas, where he lived beginning in 2006.
Anderson joked about being fat, bullied, and overlooked in his standup comedy, but it wasn’t until that comedy was distilled into the unusually droll-yet-warm Life With Louie — along with another one of his pet topics, family — that Anderson’s work coalesced into what he’s known for today. Part of this is naturally what happens when someone creates a seminal work of children’s entertainment: They become frozen in time for an entire generation, an idealized paternal figure for any child in front of a fuzzy TV set.
That always seemed like the point for Anderson: He’s called the series the thing he’s most proud of, spoken about how he delighted in giving money away as host of Family Feud, and how his performance in Baskets is a tribute to his mother. Obituaries note that Anderson, one of 11 children, worked as a counselor before starting his career in comedy, a fact that feels significant. Even when he dipped into the absurd, like in the HBO Max dark comedy Search Party, Louie looked like a guy who had been there. He seemed like someone who knew intimately what it was like when life was miserable. He seemed like someone who, even if he didn’t end up being famous, had realized that it’s also possible to not let that misery define you and make you miserable.
Representation isn’t the end goal of all art, but recognition is a powerful force, and Anderson always seemed to show up at the exact moment you needed to recognize someone who got it, a grounding presence in the artifice of entertainment. One always got the sense that he didn’t feel like he was supposed to be playing to an audience this big, and that he was baffled he was. So he did the kindest thing possible in that position: He made art that made everyone feel like they belonged.