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From St. Paul to stardom, Louie Anderson never forgot his Minnesota roots

Louie Anderson, who died Friday from cancer, rose from poverty on the east side of St. Paul to become one of the most influential comedians of his generation.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Louie Anderson stepped into the national spotlight for the first time on Nov. 20, 1984, when his five-minute comedy routine on The Tonight Show dazzled millions of American television viewers and left even host Johnny Carson laughing uproariously.

The 31-year-old from St. Paul, who just years earlier had counseled young kids as a social worker in Minnesota, delivered a performance for the ages, mixing in his trademark self-deprecating humor with a healthy dose of Midwestern-style jokes.

“I am from Minnesota. Any Minnesotans here?” Anderson asked the live audience, drawing cheers. “Could I get a ride home with you?”

Jeff Gerbino, who had known Anderson from the Twin Cities comedy scene since 1978, happened to be in the NBC studios that evening and recalled his friend’s “powerful, amazing set.”

“He got more laughs than Johnny did that night,” Gerbino said in an interview with KARE 11. “Johnny was genuinely laughing, really laughing, to the point where he was kind of slamming the desk.”

That appearance opened all the right doors for Louie Anderson.

In fact, according to a 1984 Star Tribune article published on New Year’s Eve, staff at the Tonight Show “told him he generated more mail than any other comedian in the history of the show.” At the time, Anderson estimated that at least 18 million people had watched him that night, although the most important viewers – those from his home state of Minnesota – “were seeing my dream come true. It all changed after that night.”

Anderson, who died from cancer Friday at the age of 68, would use that appearance to build a remarkable career as a comedian, actor and writer over the next four decades.

But he never forgot his roots.

“Everybody in Minnesota was proud of Louie,” Gerbino said. “Louie was Minnesota, and Minnesota was Louie. Even though he may have been in Las Vegas or California, Minnesota was always in him.”

Born on the east side of St. Paul in 1953, Anderson hailed from humble beginnings, growing up in a housing project as the tenth of 11 siblings. The family didn’t have very much money, and as Anderson would often recall both publicly and privately, his father struggled with alcoholism.

“Very strict father,” Anderson said in that 1984 Tonight Show routine. “The kind of guy who hates everybody.”

And in 2018, for Comedy Central: “He was notorious. People were terrified of my dad.”

Anderson, who graduated from St. Paul’s Johnson High School, leaned on his mother, Ora, for emotional support, and often drew on those experiences in his comedy, too.

Specifically, Anderson modeled his character in the Emmy-winning FX show “Baskets” after his mom.

“He had brothers old enough to be his father. He learned how to do what any good comic does – echo those voices, transmute them and put them on stage,” Gerbino said. “A lot of comedy comes from pain. And Louie had a lot of pain. But he was able to take that pain and put it out there and make it funny.”

Although Anderson moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, seeking more opportunities on a national scale, he visited home often and fostered new relationships over the years in his native state.

Tom Oszman of TC Media Now first met Anderson at an event about 20 years ago. The two struck up a fast friendship, after realizing they grew up just blocks from each other in East St. Paul and Maplewood. Bonding over a shared love of the same pizza places and bowling alleys, they visited each other often, either when Oszman traveled to the West Coast or when Anderson was home in Minnesota.

“He always appreciated that he came from Minnesota. While he lived in Hollywood and LA, and eventually Vegas, he wasn’t flash,” Oszman said. “While his humor could play to every coast, and everywhere where there’s tall buildings, I think Middle America, middle Minnesota, that’s where his humor was born and I think that it translated very well.”

Oszman last saw Louie Anderson in April.

“It’s a big loss for all of us. He’ll be long missed. I’ll be thinking a lot about him,” Oszman said. “But luckily, the gift of Louie that he’s leaving us, is lots of hours of entertainment that’s going to be watched and enjoyed forever.”

Anderson’s 1984 Tonight Show appearance, for example, remains available on YouTube – with roughly 2.4 million views as of Friday evening.  

Few people knew the young Louie as well as Jeff Gerbino, who described himself and Anderson as part of “the original five Twin Cities comedians.” Together, they worked side-by-side on the nascent stand-up scene back in the 1970s, introducing a new style to audiences and creating memories that have lasted to this day.

“He just got better every week,” Gerbino remembered. “Every time he’d get up there, he had a natural ability that made you like him.”

In later years, Gerbino would open for Anderson and accompanied him to Chicago, Milwaukee and large venues in other cities.

He watched his friend’s career growth with awe and amazement, starting with that Tonight Show routine.

“That first appearance blew everyone away,” Gerbino said. “The same guy you saw on stage, was the same guy you saw off stage. There won’t be another one. That’s it. He’s in the Top 100 comedians of all-time. He is that guy. There wasn’t a lot of phony with Louie, so what you saw was what you got. He was a great guy. And I will miss him dearly.”

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