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It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke: “Hey, you heard about the time that Louie Anderson played Zach Galifianakis’s mom on a TV show?” But that bold bit of casting instead turned out to be one of the most creatively rewarding element of Baskets, the FX comedy series that stars Galifianakis (who co-created the show with collaborators Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel) as a sad-sack rodeo clown, Chip Baskets, who returns home to the suburban wasteland of Bakersfield after a mostly disastrous sojourn in Paris. As the story goes, Anderson was the second choice for the part of Chip’s mother, Christine, after British actress Brenda Blethyn passed. But when the script came his way, he accepted the job without hesitation, and proved his commitment to the role the minute he stepped on set. “I didn’t try to ham it up at all or be the comedian,” the 63-year-old stand-up veteran tells Yahoo TV. “I’ve tried not to be Louie Anderson in this part — I’ve tried to be Christine Baskets.”
And Anderson went to Daniel Day-Lewis-like lengths to stay in character. “I put ‘Christine’ on my trailer door and asked people to call me Christine, not Louie. I wanted everyone to get used to the idea that it was a character I was going to play all the time.” The resulting transformation is a marvel to watch: though Anderson’s face and voice are instantly recognizable, Christine nevertheless emerges as her own woman and, for many critics (including Yahoo TV’s Ken Tucker), the best character on Baskets. And Emmy voters agreed with the critical consensus; Anderson is up for an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series statue, the first Primetime Emmy nomination of his three-decade career. He spoke with us about how much of his own mother’s DNA is inside Christine Baskets and why June Cleaver remains one of the best-ever TV moms.
You’ve said that you modeled Christine Baskets in part after your own mother. What was the defining characteristic about her that you most wanted to bring to the role?
Her hopefulness, and the way she could make little things seem exciting. She would say things like, “You see these little salt dishes here that you can dip your radishes in? They’re from Prussia, and they’re very rare.” [Laughs] Somehow that made the experience of eating a radish more exciting to her. That was something she did that was so beautiful — finding excitement in the most mundane things. I tried to instill that in Christine, like when she’s talking about Dasani water [in the episode “D.J. Twins”]. They’re just bottles of water, but she wants to find something special about them. That’s what my mom did. Even though we were in this bunker with my dad and his abuse, she was always able to find a hole in that bunker and find a ray of sunshine we could concentrate on. My mom neutralized my dad’s fury with a simple gesture of love. [Anderson wrote about the abuse he experienced growing up in his 1991 memoir, Dear Dad: Letters from an Adult Child.]
The Baskets family doesn’t have a similar history of abuse, but Christine does seek to protect her sons from life’s disappointments and setbacks even as grown-ups.
Her attitude is that if you hang on long enough, you can get a foothold in the rock wall of life. She’s the AAA of the family. When something goes wrong, she’s there, and even though she doesn’t have all the tools, she does the best she can to fix the flat in their lives.
Do you think she was jealous or simply overprotective when she conspired to get Penelope, Chip’s surly French wife, sent back to her native land?
I don’t think Christine believes she has any competition. Maybe in her darkest hour, she has a lot of doubts, but she’d never admit to anything like jealousy. And she understands Penelope as a mother: Here’s another distraught child and in some weird way, they might be good for each other. But Chip does everything she can for Penelope, and she’s ungrateful. So she believes that Penelope is more of a threat to Chip’s happiness than she is a threat to Christine. Christine definitely wouldn’t have done that out of jealousy. Nothing makes her happier than to have her children with her, but if push comes to shove, she just wants them to be happy. She’d like for them to get married and live with her in her house! That’s how my mom was.
In addition to your real-life mother, do you have any favorite television moms that you drew inspiration from?
TV moms are really fascinating, because we really do grow up with them. I loved Marion Ross as Richie Cunningham’s mom on Happy Days. And Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show — I always thought of her as a mom and she resembled my mother a little bit. June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver is one of my favorites, her and her husband who never had a job. [Laughs] My mom had 11 children and was always in the kitchen or the laundry room, and June was also only ever in the kitchen or the laundry room. If you notice with Christine, though, she’s everywhere.
We’re meeting Christine as a widow, but there have been references to her married life and what she was like as a younger woman. Do you have her backstory worked out in your own mind?
I think she had an unhappy marriage — not when her husband was well, but when he was unwell and she couldn’t reach him. Christine is all about saving people, and I don’t think she could save her husband [from committing suicide]. She couldn’t make her husband as happy as she wanted, and I think that was probably a problem for her.
Was it difficult to match your conception of the character to the show’s often tricky comic tone?
We shot the pilot in a fairly short amount of time and under secrecy. That’s Louis C.K.’s modus operandi: He’d rather just roll something out and see the honest reaction to it, rather than do a big “Hey look at me!” thing for six months and then release it. I got to the set, got the outfit and wig on and embraced it right away. I was like, “You’re playing this mom.” When I came on set, they laughed when they saw me, but a laugh like, “This is fantastic,” and not “This is cartoonish.” That was a really good thing. I’m lucky that I have my mother’s intuition, because I stepped right in line with their direction. I’m also lucky that I didn’t have 100 scenes in the first episode. I had one scene, and there was a good chunk of time to connect with Chip. I was in my element, because the scene took place in Christine’s kitchen, and I was able to use my mom’s delight in something like different flavors of a mango drink.
You submitted the fourth episode, “Easter in Bakersfield,” for Emmy consideration. That’s something of a turning point for the series; with that episode, Baskets becomes a portrait of a family, and not just a portrait of Chip.
Yeah, that’s when everything solidifies. It’s an episode I love because it ties in Christine’s past, present, and hopefully future. You get to meet her mom, and see that she’s done her damage [on her daughter]. And then you see the reconnection between Christine and Chip; they’re sitting there together like two peas in a pod by the slot machines. That’s what it’s like with families, it has to get messy before it can get better. I just got all the new scripts for Season 2 last night, and I’m really excited about them. Everyone has a lot to do; the Baskets family is super-busy and adventurous next season!
This is your first Primetime Emmy nomination. Is it gratifying to be nominated for this show in particular?
It’s great, because otherwise people would have been like, “You got robbed! I voted for you — I’m so sorry!” I’m really happy I got it, and it’s a very fulfilling thing. People scoff about the idea that being nominated is a great thing, but I know how many people I competed with. I watched all the nominees, and there were so many great performances in my category that I don’t know how people even pare it down to five or six nominees. The rest is out of my hands. As Christine says, “I have a good feeling!” [Laughs] Even though she could be completely wrong, she always has a good feeling.
Are you also pleased that your performance is being recognized at a time when gender is an issue in the forefront of the public consciousness thanks to series like Transparent or real-life issues like the North Carolina bathroom bill?
Transparent is fantastic; it’s so powerful on every level and so honest. And I think Christine does something really [positive]. Casting me as Christine and not making it cartoonish says something about the times we live in. In a different time, like the ‘80s or ‘90s, that casting would have been ridiculous. Now it’s, “What a clever idea!” There’s a reason why we’re so interested in dramas that play out family situations and talk about how people live. I think television is responsible for changing many things, not just in this country but the world. For example, I’ve always felt like the fall of the Soviet Union had as much to do with Dynasty and Dallas as it did anything else. People saw it and started thinking, “We want to live like that!” Television was originally given to us as an educational tool, and I think it still is.
Season 2 of Baskets will premieres on FX in 2017.
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Tony Hale on His Emmy-Nominated ‘Veep’ Meltdown
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‘Drunk History’ Co-Creator Derek Waters Talks Emmy Nom, Teases Season 4’s ‘Hamilton’ and ‘S–tshows’ Episodes