By JoAnn Richi
A variation of this article was published in The Arizona Republic Nov. 11, 1997
Louie Anderson, one of the nation’s top comics, walked off the stage at the Tempe Improve Theater in late l997, during a packed Saturday night performance. A heckler, needling the comedian about his weight, must have brought back one too many memories of the lifetime Louie Anderson has spent fighting calories and petty cruelties.
I had a chance to see him perform the next evening, and on that chilly night in Phoenix I watched Louie climb back up on that stage and do what he has been doing for years; hold a crowd in the palm of his hand and make them laugh until it hurts.
A massive man, taller and more imposing in person than he appears on TV, Louie Anderson still had, in his forties, the face of a little boy. Forty-three at the time of that performance, it was easy to imagine him at tenyears old. Except for the height, and the slightly hooded eyes, with a glint of menace in that older guy / little kid face, he didn’t look like he’d changed much since fifth grade.
This was a man who seemed both approachable and detached and there was a sweetness about him. Unlike the dreaded antics of most night club comics, he didn’t drill down into the hapless clubbers sitting in the front row to make them squirm for everyone’s entertainment. No profanity either, this man made it all look so easy, without descending into the gutter or going for the jugular.
“What is that? he asked a startled patron, sitting close enough to be the perfect patsy. “Is that a miniature TV? Lemme see that.” Holding up the offending appliance Louie joked; “ Hey, I’d rather be home watching the World Series too !” He handed it back, , looking down occasionally throughout the evening to ask; “What’s the score?”
Louie’s a class act. Most comedians, rightly peeved, would have ripped that guy apart.
The show was funny. Side splitting as Louie glided from one improbable observation to the next, each more vividly absurd. I was wiping away tears half way through it. He literally made me laugh until I cried. Anderson closed the show with a kind of Prairie Home Companion style comment.
A veiled reference to leaving the stage mid-set the night before perhaps, when images of a not-so-happy childhood reared up, hitting too close to home? Louie’s lived through the playground politics already, the verbal bullying, the taunts, the sticks and stones that won’t break bones, but will tear your heart out.
As a kid bundled up against the icy Minnesota cold, he knew to joke about himself before the jokes turned on him, and learned that if you can make people laugh, you can make them love you. Or so it may have seemed to this big kid, lost in a huge family dominated by an alcoholic father.
Stand up is a power struggle between a vividly lit comedian, alone center stage and a multitude of blurred faces indistinguishable in the dark.
What does it take to do comedy in front of drunks and verbal bashers? It takes skill, timing, stamina, and more than anything, the courage to stand up and take on that battle show after show.
There were probably people in the audience the night before who thought Louie should have just heckled the heckler and toughed it out. After all, it’s just a game and wise cracks and insults from the crowd are an occupational hazard that come with the territory. For those who make their living at stand up comedy, it’s no game. It’s their life, and Louie has been defending his since kindergarten.
Comedy ain’t pretty, and if anybody thinks he or she can do it better than ‘the fat guy’; go for it. Any nitwit can shout insults from the shadows, it takes a giant to step into the light and hold center stage.
Thanks for coming back, Louie. It was a great show.