When comedian Louie Anderson was promoting his best-selling book "Dear Dad: Letters from an Adult Child" in late 1989, he promised to take a year off from performing.
Writing about his unhappy childhood as the son of an alcoholic and abusive father had been a cathartic journey of understanding for Anderson, but he wanted time off to get his "life back together" and to tackle another personal problem: his obesity.
Anderson took his year off from performing, and now he's back--lighter in both body and spirit.
He's currently on a 15-city tour with comic Rita Rudner, which checks into the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim on Saturday night. The tour culminates in mid-April with a two-week engagement at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
"I'm back into it again," said Anderson, 37, by phone from a Manhattan hotel room last week. "I'm going to work a lot this year."
During his year off, Anderson began a diet and started writing a new book in which he talks about "what makes a person fat and how you can overcome that. It's another journey, a series of stories about things that happened in my fat childhood to my fat adulthood."
At his peak, Anderson weighed 410 pounds. He's lost at least 60 pounds: "Only 150 to go," he said with a laugh. "I'm doing it very slowly. I'm not doing an Oprah. My goal is to heal my insides and the outsides will heal themselves. As soon as you change your behavior your weight will disappear."
Anderson also did some soul-searching during his time off: examining whether he could continue doing comedy, particularly whether he could continue to joke about his late father and his unhappy childhood. (Jokes like: "My dad never hit us. (pause) He carried a gun. Oh, he never shot us. (pause) He'd just go 'Click-click!' ")
"I wanted to move away from it and figure out how to disconnect the burden of having that kind of trauma," he said. "I used to bring that all up on stage with me. I wasn't happy. I wasn't able to, I guess, separate the two. I think through a lot of hard work I've been able to figure out why I felt like that.
"Now when I perform it seems to be a much lighter performance in the sense I'm having more fun. I didn't have fun before. I do now. And I think it's a lot more fun for the audience."
One of 11 children who grew up in a housing project in St. Paul, Minn., Anderson stepped on a comedy club stage for the first time 13 years ago. At the time, his entire act consisted of fat jokes. "My first joke ever written was, 'When I was born I weighed 60 pounds. The doctor had to bring a crane in to slap my (behind)."
Over the next four or five years, Anderson said, he devoted the first 10 minutes of his act to talking about his weight. "I did the fat jokes because if I didn't mention it people would say, 'Doesn't he know how big he is?' Then I became conscious of the fact it wasn't a cool thing" to talk about.
Anderson, who is also working on a documentary about being a "fat comic," said he doesn't talk about his diet on stage, at least not yet.
So what is on the comedian's mind these days?
"I talk a lot about being addicted to television, as we all are in society," he said. "A lot of people are being treated in hospitals for remote control trauma. Their thumb is in a permanent crinked position . . . . 'Wheel of Fortune' is my favorite show. Some days your day is so horrible that getting a puzzle right makes you sleep better."
He's also concerned about religion and whether heaven and hell really exist.
"If there is a hell," he said, "does that mean I'm going to hell with Saddam Hussein? Is there a sub-chamber for him? Are there different departments in hell? There's got to be some sort of, like, different hell plans: Am I going to be on the top floor or down in the furnace with Hitler?
"And the Catholics make me mad. They can do anything they want and one minute before they die, if they repent, they're in. They've got it locked up."
He also talks about "how hard it is to get through the day and how, if you reach 100, everything should be free. Why don't we have an incentive to reach 100? You should get a brand new car at 100. Even if you can't drive it, you can sit in it."
Anderson, who also discusses the recent Persian Gulf War, George and Barbara Bush and the role drugs play in our society, said his act is always evolving. He's also concerned with such issues as the homeless, deteriorating schools, government officials who lie, ministers who betray their flocks.
"I just feel like I'm a conscious person and these are all problems," he said. "It seems like we're barraged with this stuff every day. Why can't we discuss it and make light of it?"
Lately, he has even been developing material that sheds comedy light on a seemingly humorless subject: Death and the funeral business. Such as:
"The idea that funeral directors take advantage of us just like car dealers: 'Do you want your mom in the $200 Vega or in the Rolls-Royce?' What are you going to say?"
Anderson said he hasn't given up on creating an entire routine on the subject of death, a comedian's ultimate challenge.
"I believe that that's it--that that's the topic," he said. "If I can make that funny, I can quit comedy."
Who: Louie Anderson.
When: Saturday, March 23, at 8 p.m. With Rita Rudner.
Where: Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim.
Whereabouts: Take the Santa Ana Freeway to Harbor Boulevard, go north on Harbor and turn east on East Broadway. The Celebrity Theatre is three blocks east of Harbor Blvd.
Where to call: (714) 999-9536.