Louie Anderson's 'Life with Louie' Was the Perfect Intro to His Sweet Yet Sad Comedy
The '90s kids' cartoon was always funny, but it had a touch of melancholy that set it apart.
In the '90s, there was a brief, odd run of kids' cartoons built around the star personas of adult celebrities who, in theory, didn't have that much appeal to children. For every success story like Howie Mandel's Bobby's World, which featured the Canadian comedian as the voices of an imaginative tyke and his protective father, there were more bizarre failures like Bruno the Kid, an inexplicable action series about a 10-year-old spy voiced by Bruce Willis. But Life with Louie, a show created by the comedian Louie Anderson, who died Friday at the age of 68, was the best show of that era, a hardscrabble animated sitcom that reflected its creator's kind, benevolent worldview.
Many will rightfully remember Anderson for his stand-up, his appearance in Coming to America, or his Emmy-winning role as the mother of Zach Galifianakis's twin-brother characters on FX's comedy Baskets. But Life with Louie, which ran from 1997 to 1998 on Fox's Saturday-morning lineup, was a great introduction to Anderson's whole deal as a performer. Episodes would often open with the comedian explaining a problem or riffing on a memory. Then they'd flash to the past, where Anderson provided the voice of his 8-year-old self, a bright, nervous kid prone to getting into mishaps and fond of saying his catchphrase "All right!"
Most importantly, Anderson also voiced his father, Andy Anderson. Though Louie himself was born in Minnesota, one of 11 children, the show was set in Wisconsin. Andy, a Packer fan obsessed with his own glory days on the gridiron, was a uniquely withering yet sweet take on the cranky sitcom dad, inspiring fear and wonder in equal measure. You can basically find any episode of Life with Louie on YouTube now, and a random episode, like "Dad Gets Canned," displays the show's unique combination of warmth and bite.
Anderson often spoke of how his Baskets character was inspired by his mother, and he wrote a book in 2018 called Hey Mom that examined their relationship in the form of letters addressed to her. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, he noted that his father was an alcoholic and abusive; he always wanted to know, "What did she see in Dad?" In an interview with Marc Maron, quoted in a tweet from Maron's longtime producer Brendan McDonald below, you can see Anderson thinking through his own conflicted feelings about his father and the harsh world he grew up in.
Watching clips of it now, Life with Louie feels like an act of tenderness toward his own father, an attempt to make something joyful and silly out of an often complicated life. Even when it aired, Life with Louie existed in a strange space between the more barbed satiric sensibility of The Simpsons and the kid-oriented family cartoons at the time. (I remember Fox's The Tick, a show I watched with my own dad, scratching a similar itch.) The Louie writers, which apparently included The Shield creator Shawn Ryan for one episode, had a clear fondness for the mid-century era of American Midwestern life the show was set in, but there also was an archness to the portrayal of the time period.
The Louie on the show wasn't your typical kids' show protagonist. Like his father, he had a temper and preferred to be left alone, free to watch TV or float in the pool. There was a sadness about him, even as a kid. "I think I’m a melancholy person," Anderson told LA Magazine in an interview last year. "There’s a melancholy part of me that kind of enjoys being melancholy. It’s kind of a 'poor me' thing, don’t you think?" Along with his killer comic timing and his light observational touch, Life with Louie captured that outlook.