If it’s not clear Chris Witaske is a Chicagoan from the way he enunciates his “a” vowels, appearing on Zoom wearing a Twin Anchors T-shirt in the Chicago Bears colors of navy blue and burnt orange gives it away. The old-school restaurant is a North Side institution. (Good luck getting a table during the holidays!) It’s blocks away from the Second City, the improv house where Witaske got his comedy start alongside Aidy Bryant and Lauren Ash.
Like most Chicagoans, Witaske, who is the creator of Netflix’s new animated series Chicago Party Aunt, enjoys telling you he’s a Midwest native. Witaske grew up in an unassuming suburb (St. Charles), attended a Big Ten college (University of Iowa), and planted himself in Chicago proper for a decade. After climbing to the top of the city’s comedy scene, he moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, only to suffer from a bout of homesickness.
Like many sad people, he turned to Twitter. Inspired by his family back home, Witaske created a parody account as Diane, a middle-aged woman living in Chicago’s Wrigleyville party neighborhood with a penchant for two-toned spiky hair, Malört liquor, and the band Styx. The account caught the eye of comedy writer Katie Rich (SNL); actor Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project); and Ike’s brother, Jon (Superstore). Together, the four Chicagoans pitched the show to Netflix and cast Ash as Diane and Broadway star Rory O’Malley as her gay nephew, Daniel.
If Seinfeld is Jerry Seinfeld’s New York and Insecure is Issa Rae’s Los Angeles, then Chicago Party Aunt is Witaske’s Chicago … as viewed through the eyes of one of his aunts. “Someone said you already have your Homer Simpson, and now you just have to build a world around it,” Witaske says in an interview with Vulture, in which he discusses perfecting the Chicago accent, dining with comedy idol Bob Odenkirk, and being in those Progressive insurance commercials.
Is there anything cathartic for you about this project done for your own self-preservation now fueling your career?
I truly started this for fun — to have a place to write jokes and be creative. Actually, just two days ago, they put up a billboard in Los Angeles, so I drove to it. I turned a corner, and all of a sudden, there it was: this huge-ass billboard. I had this moment where I was like, Holy shit. This thing that I started in my underwear is now gonna stream in 190 countries. It’s like, What the fuck? I would say very cathartic.
One of the lines that I really enjoyed was in the first episode. Diane’s sister says, “You’re just like Chicago: a huge mess whose best days are behind you.”
I’m glad that stuck out to you. That’s one of my favorite lines in the whole show. It was kind of our thesis statement. Here’s this woman who is stuck in her glory days. She had the most fun in the ’80s or whatever, when she was rocking out to hair bands, wearing leather pants, and partying with all these Chicago celebrities. But now the world is changing around her, and people are evolving. I don’t know if you’ve been to Wrigleyville lately, but it’s so different from what it used to be. It used to be dive bars and auto-mechanic shops. Now there’s an oyster bar right across the street from Wrigley Field.
Can you tell me about doing an aunt-and-specifically-gay-nephew plotline?
When we were fleshing this show out, we were like, “Well, who should she hang out with?” The obvious answer was she needs a nephew, because who is she the aunt to? There’s a sex columnist named Dan Savage, whom I’m a big fan of. He is from Chicago, and he’s a fan of the account. He once tweeted [something like], “When I came out of the closet to my Chicago party aunt, she took me out that night and got me so drunk that I slept through the SATs the next day.” That tweet inspired the character Daniel.
Chicagoans love to complain about incorrect Hollywood portrayals of Chicago. So I’m curious if you’re prepared for that.
So far, Chicago seems to be pumped about it. The only shit I’m getting right now online is from these anime teenagers who don’t like the animation style of the show because it’s not, I guess, anime or something.
Overall, it feels like Chicago has been very supportive, but I’m sure we’re going to get shit. If there’s one little thing that isn’t exactly right, I’m sure we’re gonna hear about it. [Laughs.]
You said previously you didn’t want to do SNL’s “Da Bears” version of a Chicago accent too much.
When I started this Twitter account, I did a bunch of radio and news interviews where I was doing the voice. I kept it anonymous, but I was doing this very thick [accent]. You could tell it was a guy. So when it came time to cast the part, I bet we auditioned close to 100 women, trying to find the perfect tone. It was important that it wasn’t too cartoony, even though it’s an animated show. We wanted it to be grounded and not so over-the-top that it’s obnoxious. So that’s when we found Lauren Ash, who is an old friend of mine from Second City. Her audition, she nailed it and totally got it. It wasn’t too much.
You’ve done Second City, iO, and Annoyance Theatre. Is there anything in the Chicago comedy scene that you didn’t get to do?
I saw my first Second City show when I was like 13 with my dad, and that night changed my life. My goal in life was to do Second City. I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to do already. So now everything is just icing.
Funny you mentioned “Da Bears.” I also grew up watching SNL. I was very inspired by that. That sketch was written by Robert Smigel, who is a very prolific SNL writer, and Bob Odenkirk. Now Bob is like a mentor of mine. His wife is my manager, and I just got an email from Robert Smigel the other day saying, “I can’t wait for your show. It looks so funny.” He gave me his blessing, so that was a very cool moment.
Being a comedy kid from St. Charles, that’s got to feel great.
Oh my God, like crazy. Bob and I are like friends now. We go out to dinner and stuff. Mr. Show was a huge inspiration for me. So yeah, it’s cool.
Where did Diane grow up?
A lot of people think that Diane should be a South Sider. I agree, but then you also see these women on the North Side. Wrigleyville is the ultimate party neighborhood, and it’s close to Boystown. So where we landed was she and her sister, Bonnie, grew up on the South Side, maybe like Bridgeport or Beverly. Then she moved to the North Side. She’s got the whole city covered.
Was there a reason you didn’t make her, if she’s from the South Side, a White Sox fan?
I think she’s probably one of those people who just — if there’s “Chicago” in front of the name, she loves it.
To level up in comedy, you need to leave Chicago eventually. So what does it feel like to bring the city you clearly love into your professional projects?
I like L.A., but if the industry was in Chicago, I would have never left. It’s my goal one day to have a place back in Chicago and split my time. So hopefully this show gets ten seasons, and I’ll be able to do that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or anything else you’d like to mention?
I’m in these Progressive car-insurance commercials right now where I play a guy turning into my dad.
Oh, you’re in that?
Yeah. I’ve been in a handful of them. Anyway, they’re popular commercials. Nobody realizes that I’m the guy behind Chicago Party Aunt, so I think people might get a kick out of that if they knew.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.