Emmy spotlight: Louie Anderson (‘Baskets’) is TV’s craziest new mom on the comedy scene

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Crazy TV moms have a long history of taking home Emmy Awards, including recent winners Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Julie Bowen (“Modern Family”) and Allison Janney (“Mom”). Will Louie Anderson, best know as a stand-up comic, be the first male to win Emmy gold for such a role? Anderson plays Zach Galifianakis‘ mother on the new FX comedy “Baskets” and surprisingly his performance in wig and matronly dress isn’t just a one-note sight gag. Who’d have thought Anderson’s character, Christine Baskets, would develop into one of the most touching, sad and funny portrayals of the year?

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“Baskets” tells the story of Chip (Galifianakis), an aspiring clown who is forced to leave Paris and return to his mundane hometown of Bakersfield, California. And nothing puts the mundane in Bakersfield as much as Anderson as Galifianakis’ food-loving mother. Her main source of happiness seems to be discussing the new fast food locations opening in her town.

At first the casting of comedian Anderson as the mother seemed like just another bizarre joke in a series where Galifianakis plays both the main character and his evil twin Dale, but somewhere along the way the off-beat comedy became increasingly darker and realistic and Anderson emerged as a real actor giving a multi-layered performance.

The fact that he’s playing a character of the opposite sex became almost irrelevant. While lots of films and TV shows have explored transgender issues in recent years, this isn’t like that at all. Sure, the performance comes close to the situation in the movies and stage versions of “Hairspray,” but “Baskets” doesn’t have the same levity and antic humor of that material and requires a subtler touch. This performance is more in the vain of Linda Hunt‘s Oscar-winning role in “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982). Hunt though had the advantage of anonymity in her performance. Having no public persona at all prior to the film made her easy to accept as a man since most viewers didn’t know she actually wasn’t one.

Anderson doesn’t have that edge. He is clearly Louie Anderson the familiar comic … just playing a woman. And he pulls it off. He perfectly balances the real and the comic and is reminiscent of one of those great English actors who play Shakespearean women and Oscar Wilde dowagers for laughs but also as real people. After watching Anderson for a while I was reminded of Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” pondering what other roles his alter ego could take on; his conclusion was Eleanor Roosevelt. Anderson’s Christine is so well realized and so full a character I almost want to see this “actress” take on other roles. How about the mother in “The Glass Menagerie”? What about Lady Macbeth? If Meryl Streep hadn’t already done Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” I’d say Anderson would have been a good choice.

The Best Comedy Supporting Actor category has been in transition in recent years as the cast of “Modern Family” has gradually fallen out of the TV academy’s favor. Hopefully Emmy voters will take a look at what is one of the most unique and surprising acting turns of the year and give Anderson a chance. They just need to remember he’ll be contending for Supporting Actor, not Actress.

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Photo: Ben Cohen/FX

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