I was hoping that the new FX comedy “Baskets” that premieres at 10 tonight on basic cable would be half as funny and as enjoyable as the press conference for it last week kin Pasadena, Calif.
And tonight’s premiere, in which Zach Galifianakis plays a minimum wage clown at a low-rent rodeo circus in California who was briefly trained in France just about manages that neat trick.
Louie Anderson co-stars as his mother (you read that right), which might seem to be an odd casting choice.
Co-created by John Krisel and Louis C.K., “Baskets” is a sweet, strange little comedy with amusing characters. It is easy to root for thanks to Galifianakis’ performance as the twin son who has constantly disappointed his mother and himself and has a French wife who used him to get to the United States.
He is a pretty pathetic character but he does have one true love – being a clown. His career choice leads to such severe money problems that he sleeps in a barn after being kicked out of his apartment for failing to pay his rent.
“Being a clown is the most important thing in the world to me,” explains Chip.
Viewers just shouldn’t expect a comedy loaded with punch lines. Or laughs.
As Chip Baskets, Galifianakis plays a lovable failure as he has in other TV and movie projects. Well, as lovable as he can be when he mistreats a caring woman, Martha, who works at a local Costco, drives Chip around for free and is willing to do just about anything he wants.
How badly does Baskets treat her? When she starts talking about some serious pain in her life, Chip turns away in disinterest.
To say the least, the casting of Anderson as Chip’s mother, Christine Baskets, is interesting. And funny.
During the press session here, Anderson said his initial reaction when Louis C.K’s called to ask him to play the role was “What?”
Then Anderson saw it as an opportunity to play a mother who is more supportive to Chip’s successful twin brother and another set of unseen twins.
“I really used my mom as the base of it and then added mean people I’ve met through my life to add on to it and other moms,” said Anderson at a press conference in Pasadena. “And I have five sisters, so what I wanted to do was I wanted to really be Zach’s mom and not make it cartoonish, and so the moment I got there, they wrote ‘Christine’ on the trailer. Everybody called me Christine. I got into the outfits right away. They put the wig on, and once that lipstick got on, I was done for."
Galifianakis said the casting was his idea after the British actress he wanted to hire was unavailable.
“We were at my house, and I just said to Louis C.K., ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s just a voice in my head. The mother is a voice more than anything else,'” and I imitated the voice, and Louis C.K. says, ‘You mean like Louie Anderson’s voice?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he goes, ‘Should we call him?’”
“And then the next minute, the two Louies were on the phone, and I hear this, ‘Hey, Louie, it’s Louis.’ ‘Hey, Louis.’ ‘I’m doing this show with this Zach Galifianakis.’ ‘Uh huh.’ ‘We want you to be in it.’ ‘Uh huh.’ ‘Here’s the thing. We want you to play his mom.’ ‘I’ll do it.’ And that’s exactly how it went.”
Louis C.K. explained that Anderson was a prominent stand-up when he began his career in the 1980s.
“I always loved him because he’s a sincere stand-up.,” explained Louis C.K. “I just like that better rather than people that are sort of sarcastic or putting you on. Louie is a real ‘heart on his sleeve’ kind of a stand-up. So I always really liked him. And we met a couple of times over the years, and I knew him. He’s a very nice guy, but when we were talking about it, we were throwing around all kinds of names to play his mom, and then, also, we started just talking about stand-up, and somehow his name came up with how he’s one of the guys I always liked from the big ’80s boom.
“So we got his number and called him, and I remember that pause, because I called him, and I said, ‘We want you to play Zach’s mother,” and you could just hear the hum of his car, and then, ‘I love it.’ And the way he said that, I’m like, ‘That’s it. That’s your mother.’”
Martha Kelly plays Baskets’ female friend who tolerates his verbal abuse or at least ignores it. She plays the character in a deadpan monotone, a persona she created in her stand-up act.
“This is really Zach’s idea of how funny it would be for someone to be relentlessly rude to someone who’s really nice to them, and which I also find funny, because it’s so absurd,” said Kelly. “Why would anyone act that way? It’s hilarious to me. But that was definitely his idea.”
“It’s their relationship in real life, is sort of where it came from,” cracked Louis C.K. “He’s been testing this for years.”
“The reason it’s funny to me is Zach actually would never deliberately genuinely hurt someone’s feelings ever,” said Kelly. “That’s why it’s funny to me, is he says means things as a joke and he doesn’t mean it.”
“I think that Zach wishes he was mean in real life,” said Louis C.K. “The reason that I wanted to do this thing, when I first made a situation with FX where I could make other shows, he’s the first person I thought of right way, because nobody’s ever made me laugh like him. But also because I remember once I was in Vancouver with Zach. We were at a comedy festival ... He was on stage in front of maybe 18 people, because they didn’t promote the festival.
“And he’s dressed like Little Orphan Annie and he’s singing a song and he’s got confetti and all this. He’s just doing all this stuff. I’ve never seen a more generous performer, especially in today’s stand-up of just being like, ‘yeah, man, ‘and just trying to act cool. This guy puts out so much and he gives so much to the audience. And then, after the show, I’m talking to him and he said, 'Don’t you just resent these people that they want us to entertain them?'”
“He wants to be this frustrated, angry man, but he’s lovely. So I think the tension between those two things is part of what makes him very compelling to watch.”
Louis C.K. admitted the show is a big risk but added the production team has been given “a lot of rope” and guidance from FX executive John Landgraf.
“He said that what he saw was kind of a Chaplinesque character," said Louis C.K. "Somebody who you love to watch fail and feel for him, that there’s more feeling in it and there’s a sadness to the character and a funny he put it in a way that I think gave it some direction in terms of like that’s what’s somebody seeing who appreciates it. He’s a very thoughtful guy. And so the way he kind of said back to us what we had written, it helped us kind of go, ‘oh, yeah, that’s how this is working.’ So it gave us a lot of the direction, I think, too.”
After watching the second less satisfying episode, it is hard to see what direction “Baskets” is going. But failure would be nothing new to Chip Baskets.