Louisville Improvisors artistic director Chris Anger comes from a long line of comics with heart trouble.
His great-grand-uncle, Lou Anger, was head of production at Paramount Studios in the early days of Hollywood, where he worked with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and managed Fatty Arbuckle. He died from a heart attack. His grandfather Harry Anger was a headliner in Vaudeville before becoming a producer and agent who discovered Abbot and Costello and Red Skelton. Same fate.
Last year, Anger, 55, went to the hospital with chest pains. That jump-started a period of reflection on his life and family that became “Dead Astronauts,” his one-man autobiographical show.
“I made the connection,” he says. “We all did comedy, and we all have heart trouble.”
Anger will perform “Dead Astronauts” Saturday at The Bard’s Town.
He’s not unaware of the delightful irony of a lineage of comedians with the last name “Anger.” When he did stand-up, he had a joke about how emigrants would change their names to reflect their professions or other characteristics when processing through Ellis Island.
“So I figure we got off the boat pretty pissed off,” he deadpans.
Anger debuted the show at the Slant Culture Theatre Festival last November, working with director (and Louisville Improvisors partner) Alec Volz while shaping his script. It’s a mindset switch to go from team-based improv comedy to scripted solo dramatic work, and Anger says working with Volz helped him a great deal.
“I needed that help. I think most people can be helped by a director,” says Anger. “[Volz] kept saying keep writing, keep writing. I thought, Jesus, man, this thing is going to be a mini-series. He finally said stop.”
Anger’s mind is particularly well-suited to improv comedy, Anger says, but the two modes of performance creation aren’t as different as they might seem.
“Improv, for me, is just kind of what I do. I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t really think about it much and for [“Dead Astronauts”], this was pretty important for me because I wanted to get it just right,” he says. “Improv helps me with writing. Improv, the way we do it and teach it, you need to learn how to tell a story, and add information, and build.”
Don’t ask him what dead astronauts have to do with his life (“you have to come see the show”), but he will offer that they symbolized a pivotal moment in his childhood, which also included battles with depression and a stint at a residential treatment center.
“This is back in the Sixties, so they called it boarding school. But I think if you’re doped up on medicine and surrounded by an electric fence, I’m not sure boarding school – you might think Swiss boarding school, but it wasn’t that kind of place,” he says. “And it actually wasn’t horrible.”
This isn’t about grinding family axes, though. Anger remains close with his father, record industry executive Harry Anger, who flew into Louisville last fall to see his show. Here’s the benefit to coming from a show-biz family: Anger’s father respects his son’s creative process.
“He didn’t quibble with anything. He loved it,” says Anger. “I’m the last person in our family who does comedy. Well, my mom’s pretty funny. But I think he appreciated hearing about the family history.”