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Food for Thought : Louie Anderson Finds Inner Peace--That’s No Joke

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are two distinct Louie Andersons, but as he himself might observe, that’s OK--there’s plenty of room in his body for both.

One is the popular comedian, whose sardonic, incisive routines knock ‘em dead on talk shows, Showtime specials and nationwide tours (he performs Thursday night at Universal Amphitheatre). In the course of an interview, he can deftly slip out of a serious political discourse to disarmingly uncork his latest joke: “For all his troubles, Clinton’s new health plan is really good--you know, where you get the syringe in the Diet Pepsi.”

The other is the sober-minded writer whose emotionally naked accounts of repairing his tattered self-image after growing up in a dysfunctional family have inspired thousands of fans. His bestseller “Dear Dad” was a series of letters Anderson wrote to his then-recently deceased father, an abusive, alcoholic man; he subsequently received 10,000 heartfelt letters from readers who could relate (“I never got 10,000 letters about my comedy,” he notes).

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His new book, “Goodbye Jumbo, Hello Cruel World” (Viking, $20), deals in an even more revealing fashion with his lifelong efforts to come to terms with being overweight.

Likewise, the two Louies are conflicted over the upcoming direction of his career. The first Louie is anxious to graduate to TV and film (he’s turned down such offers in the past); the second is more than willing to chuck everything for the humble, solitary life of a writer.

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In the course of a recent lunchtime conversation at one of Anderson’s favorite Hollywood restaurants, the comic contradicted himself a number of times. But he was neither dishonest nor duplicitous; he was merely sharing his feelings of the moment.

Having shed, in the past few years, his lifelong weight-related doubt and self-loathing, Anderson’s future is unmistakably bright; all he has to do now is decide what he wants to do with it.

“For the first time in performing, I feel really comfortable,” he says. “Writing (“Goodbye Jumbo”) changed everything in my life. I was able to be freed up from that burden, and that low self-esteem and self-hatred that you get into. I decided that I was gonna change all that, and I was not gonna hate myself anymore. That I had gone through enough guilt, and enough shame, and I wanted to move on. And that I had something to offer. And I wanted to offer that, and I wanted to enjoy myself.”

“Goodbye Jumbo,” despite its deceptively light tone, unearths many of Anderson’s most painful memories. In it, he recalls how his mother would compensate for the immense grief her children endured by overfeeding them, and ruminates over his many attempts to lose weight, only to put on more in the long run. Anderson writes that he frequently used food as a surrogate for love.

Anderson has lost nearly 100 pounds--he’s at about 300 pounds now--but it’s no longer the obsession it once was. “It took you 40 years to get fat, you got to take 40 years to get thin,” he says.

“I wanted to burn this book,” he admits. “I hated to have to publish this book. I don’t think we’re taught to say the things I said in this book. Unfortunately. Isn’t it good, though, to share all that, so that we can all get better at talking about these things?”

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His twin careers as comic and author don’t line up neatly, Anderson says; in fact, they work against one another. “These books make me less popular as a comedian. Because people read them and say, ‘That’s too serious, and I can’t watch his comedy knowing about this.’ ”

He admits there have been times in his career when he has blended the comedy and the pathos with mixed results. Three years ago, when “Dear Dad” had just been published and his mother had just died, his stand-up performance became particularly introspective. While he defends the material, he now concedes that presenting it in his comedy forum may have been a mistake.

“I really understood it one time,” he recalls. “When I was at a rock show, this singer was going on and on about something and I thought, ‘Aw, who cares? I came here to hear you sing.’

“And immediately, the words echoed in my head. And ever since then, I’ve been very conscious about people paying money to see a show--they came to laugh and have a good time. So if I slip something (serious) in, it’s usually at the end, and it’s usually a short thing, and I don’t do it because it’s cool or show-bizzy.”

At this point, however, his ambitions run far beyond standing on a stage and telling jokes. Though satisfied with his latest cable special, “Louie in St. Louie,” currently running on Showtime, he wants to expand his audience to network TV and directing film, having worked for the past four years on a documentary he says will be “like ‘Truth or Dare,’ only it’ll be ‘Truth or Donuts.’ ”

Still, in the course of the conversation, the feeling emerges that Anderson’s true passion lies in writing. “I’m constantly wanting to quit and just write, because you can do it in your underwear,” he says, adding, “I guess I never realized I wanted to be a writer until I began writing.”

He speaks with enthusiasm about the writers he’s read and listened to on books on tape--more than 400 books in the past year, by his count. “I never go into a bookstore and spend less than $100,” he says. “This is better than eating, this is better than drinking, this is better than drugs, this is better than gambling--this is $100 well-spent.”

And writing novels, he believes, will allow him to finally and definitively blend his two disparate personae.

“When I’m able to merge those things, funny and serious, on an equal level, then I’ll be successful,” he says with a laugh. “On the next day after I do that, then I should die.”


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