Dec. 12 – Life with Louie – “A Christmas Surprise for Mrs. Stillman”

LifeWithLouieXmasTitle

Original air date December 18, 1994

In the mid 90s comedian Louie Anderson got his own animated show. I have no idea how or why. It was apparently a Fox thing to find stand-up comedians and give them their own show, they just usually took the form of a late night show or sitcom. Life with Louie was a cartoon about Anderson growing up in Wisconsin with his family, even though the real life Louie Anderson grew up in Minnesota. It seems like a trivial change and I have no idea why it would have been done that way. Maybe they were hoping for a Step by Step crossover? The show ran for 3 seasons spread out over parts of four years from 1994 – 1998. It was actually pretty highly acclaimed during its run and even won an Emmy. Despite that, it feels like a forgotten cartoon from the 90s and that’s only amplified by the fact that it’s never had a proper home video release, even though Anderson once claimed it was coming (that was over 10 years ago).

real louie and tommy

The real life Louie Anderson (left) with brother Tommy.

Fox apparently had some high expectations for Life with Louie because it got the prime time debut treatment. The pilot first premiered on the night of December 18, 1994. As you could probably have guessed based on that date, it was a Christmas episode! It’s also a pretty good excuse to bump animation into prime time when it can be marketed as a holiday special. Fox did this quite often which is why Eek the Cat even got the prime time treatment. Each episode of Life with Louie would begin with Anderson himself in live action to set up the plot of the episode, and at the end he usually got to return to summarize everything. During the episode he would also provide narration while voicing the child version of himself and his dad. It’s a simple and effective way to tell a story, and Anderson is actually pretty good in this role. He comes across as gentle, and he is happy to slip into his dad’s voice during these pieces for some cheap comedy.

The premiere episode is titled “A Christmas Surprise for Mrs. Stillman.” After the intro, the episode starts off with Louie riding in the car with his mom (Edie McClurg), brother Tommy (Miko Hughes), and dad, Andy. This sequence basically gives us a brief introduction to the main cast. Louie and Tommy are happy to see Christmas is incoming, while their dad just grumbles about everything. He’s a complainer and a grump and will be the source for much of the show’s humor. Louie is a bit laid back and sarcastic and he likes to make little quips under his breath in response to something his dad said, while his dad will usually respond with, “I heard that!” His mother, on the other hand, comes across as a kind, sweet, nurturing soul. She’s a bit of the stereotype of the midwestern maternal figure. The snowy backdrop, kind mom, grumpy dad, kid brother, shitty car, and narration from Anderson really give this a strong A Christmas Story vibe, which will only be amplified the further into the episode we go.

louie and jenny

Louie and Jenny, who will become a more integral part of the show following the pilot.

The next morning, a bunch of snow has been dumped on the town and Louie is excited that school has been cancelled. Tommy is too, even though he’s too young for school. His mom gets them bundled up to go out and play in the snow and it brings back memories to see kids stuffed into giant coats that heavily restrict arm movement. She also hands Louie a cup of hot coffee to give to his father, which he responds by saying he’s not going near that bathroom! She assures him his dad isn’t in the bathroom, but rather is outside shoveling the driveway so he can go to work.

Louie and Tommy go outside and find the old man grumpily shoveling. He takes the coffee and the two boys go off to help their neighbor, Mrs. Stillman (Liz Sheridan), find her newspaper. Louie tries to trick Tommy into thinking there are monsters under the snow, but the little kid is smarter than he looks. After Louie finds Mrs. Stillman’s paper he and Tommy go off to have a snowball fight with the neighborhood kids. Many of these kids will become recurring characters and friends of Louie, but this pilot episode does nothing to establish their relationship with Louie at the moment.

louies mom

Louie’s mom is the moral center of the show.

In another bit very much reminiscent of A Christmas Story, Louie explains the intricacies of snowball fights. He also goes into detail about the pain of taking one in the ear. Now for some reason, Louie has removed the hood of his parka he’s been wearing this whole time for the snowball fight, so of course he’s going to get hit in the ear. It’s a little amusing watching him limp back home, explaining that for some reason a snowball to the ear always caused a limp, and the other kids all break in their snowball fight to basically sympathize with Louie. They all seem to share in his pain. Even his dad knows that look as Louie stumbles into the house, where he determines this is the only appropriate time he can utter profanity. He basically just shouts “darn it,” since this is a Fox Kids production, but it gets his parents’ attention. His dad then leaves for work, only for the plow to come by and plug-up the end of the driveway once more with snow.

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Louie’s dad, Andy, struggling to setup the tree.

That night, the family heads out to get a Christmas tree. They go to a lot where Louie is concerned his notoriously cheap dad is going to come away with a lousy tree. His old man is forced to pay $35 for a tree, which seems grossly expensive for this period in time. They bring it home where his dad orders Louie to fetch him his saw and the tree stand, and Louie makes a remark about how old the stand is. I’ve encountered many dads who insist the old, steel, tree stand is good enough so this little bit hits home. His dad fusses with the tree for an eternity before finally declaring it’s setup, then it tilts over discouraging Louie. Dad then tries to relax in his favorite recliner only to be reminded that the lights on the house still need to go up. This has been a running theme of the episode so far, and his dad finally heads out to do it.

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Those are some nice lights, Andy.

Dad Anderson does a notoriously shitty job at putting the lights on the house. He makes Homer Simpson look like a rock star. He basically just takes the string lights and tosses one end over the house and calls it done. He tosses another string up a tree and another across some bushes in front of the house before he heads in. Inside, the kids are watching Miracle on 34th Street and it’s the actual film super-imposed over their television set. I always found it weird when cartoon characters watched television containing real people. In a bit of interesting camera placement, we see the television from Andy’s eyes as he looks down the length of his body as he slumps back in his recliner. It’s the part of the movie where Mr. Kringle teaches young Susan how to act like a monkey, and it’s too stupid for the old man. He demands Louie change the set to channel 2, and we get to see Louie grab a pair of pliers as he goes to change the channel. Ah, old televisions.

louie tommy tv

Nice to see they paid enough money that even the JETIX reruns contained the Miracle on 34th Street bits.

As they fiddle with the TV, Louie’s mom looks out the window at Mrs. Stillman who is trying to clear away the snow from her driveway in the dark. She starts going on and on about how Mrs. Stillman is a recent widower, has no Christmas decorations, and her family has all moved far away and she has no money to visit them. She resolves to take Mrs. Stillman grocery shopping, and while she’s gone, she wants her husband to take their extra Christmas lights and put them on Mrs. Stillman’s house. He is not at all thrilled about this suggestion, but it seems old Andy has a hard time saying “no” to his sweet, little, wife. When mom leaves, Louie finds out he gets to help while his sister Laura, whom had not been mentioned up to this point and is only depicted as a shadow upstairs talking on the phone, has to stay in and watch Tommy.

hands up

Stick ’em up, Anderson!

Before they head over, Louie’s dad tests out the extra lights in the garage and is dismayed to see that they do indeed work. He and Louie trudge through the snow with the lights and a ladder and get to work. As Louie’s dad prepares Stillman’s house, it falls on Louie to untangle the lights which is quite a chore for a kid with sausage fingers who also happens to be wearing mittens. As Louie’s dad barks orders at him, the police pass by and see Anderson on the house. They mistake him for a robber, and order him to put his hands up which causes him to fall off the ladder. They start asking questions and the old man insists he’s just decorating the woman’s house on account of his wife. The story sounds good, until he gestures to his shoddily decorated home. The cops cuff him, telling him he should have pointed to another house, which forces Louie to emerge from the shadows to stick up for his dad. The cops buy the story at that point, and order Andy to do a better job with the Stillman house than his own.

louie ladder

Poor Louie struggling to rescue his dad from the roof.

Louie and his dad get back to work, and while the old man is on the roof, the neighborhood kids come by to sing Christmas carols. Their singing startles the old man, causing him to slip and fall off the roof. He’s able to grab onto the ledge, and the kids see him and they too mistake him for a robber and start pelting him with snowballs. Louie again makes the save and the kids help him get the ladder to free his dad. Once the kids find out what they’re doing, they all want to join in. They run off and get decorations from their own homes and start setting them up. Louie’s dad gets to be a foreman now and just barks out orders, Louie suspecting the louder he yells the warmer he feels.

andy zapped

You’re going to get electrocuted man, just lay back and accept it.

When Louie’s mom is seen down the road the rush is on to get the lights turned on. Something is off though and they won’t light, forcing everyone to scramble and check every bulb. Luckily for them, the Anderson family car is a piece of junk and it keeps stalling as they head down the road (Louie’s dad insists it’s not junk but a classic, a line that was common in cartoons and sitcoms in the 90s for some reason). Louie eventually finds the problem, one of the plugs wasn’t plugged in, and he hands it to his dad. It had been buried in the snow, so cartoon logic dictates that Louie’s dad get electrocuted once it’s plugged in. It works though, and Mrs. Stillman arrives home to a beautifully decorated house. She invites the kids in for hot chocolate and Christmas carols, where Louie reveals they found out she doesn’t have a tree or decorations because she’s Jewish. Louie’s dad is shown as being quietly satisfied with the job they did, and he even pauses to fix one of the little elf decorations as he heads home. He does insist he’s smiling because she’s going to get nailed with one Hell of an electric bill in January. The cops from earlier even swing by to compliment Anderson, and also to remind him he’s going to have to take it all down after New Year’s.

We’re next shown Christmas morning where Louie and Tommy unwrap gifts while their dad grumbles about how expensive each one was. Interestingly, there’s no attempt at suggesting anything was left by Santa Claus either by the characters in the cartoon or Louie the narrator. We also see Louie give his dad a Christmas present, some tools he had taken from his toolbox and re-gifted. His dad is actually amused by the joke, though he also expects a real present is coming his way. He’s asking about it as we zoom out on an external shot of the house to end the cartoon portion. Louie then comes in to say he’s giving his dad his jumper cables back this year, a joke that has always stuck with me for some reason in regards to this special. He wishes everyone a Merry Christmas as we go to the credits.

stillman and kids

And the kids celebrate with Mrs. Stillman, who despite being Jewish, knows a few Christmas tunes.

Life with Louie is a sweet show with some humor. It’s probably funnier to a kid than it is to an adult, and the dad character is definitely a bit over the top. There is some nuance and charm to the humor though, and I do like the dry humor from Louie himself. I do find it weird that Louie Anderson actually uses a lower voice when voicing the child version of himself and a higher voice for his old man. The family dynamics are a bit confusing since Louie basically has a hidden older sister. And in reviewing material for this post I’ve come to find out he actually has nine older siblings. I suppose just to keep things simple and tidy they chose to just focus on Louie and his brother while basically ignoring the others. It must have been weird for his real life siblings, but it works for the show.

The plot for the show is a sweet one and it is enjoyable and heart-warming. While it was kind of odd to see two different parties mistake Andy Anderson for a prowler, it did lead to some funny moments. The confrontation with the police might actually be the best part of the episode, though start to finish this thing is rather neat and consistent. The setting is also quite charming, and as someone who very much enjoys A Christmas Story I do like that it makes me think of that film. The show isn’t brilliantly animated, but it’s attractive enough. I also enjoyed the punchline of Mrs. Stillman being Jewish. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that no one in the neighborhood noticed the lack of Christmas decorations in prior years, but it’s funny so who cares?

If you want to watch this holiday edition of Life with Louie, you’re going to have to stream it. Since it’s not available on home video no one is particularly vigilant in keeping the show off of YouTube and other similar websites. I actually enjoyed this one, and it makes me want to revisit Life with Louie. Who would have thought a cartoon about the childhood of Louie Anderson would be good?


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