When comedian and actor Chris Witaske joins our phone call, the background noise emanating from his end of the line isn’t your typical car horns, birds or children. It’s the muffled shrieks and screams of an amusement park. Weirdly, in some ways, that’s what Witaske experienced while creating his new animated Netflix series Chicago Party Aunt, a three-year process that took him through the initial excitement and apprehension of in-person collaboration to the lows of a global pandemic, only to level off with Zoom meetings.
Witaske, who began his career in improv at Chicago’s Second City, has been featured in a slew of popular productions, such as the film Lady Bird and Judd Apatow’s TV series Love, which were well received by audiences and critics alike. However, they weren’t Witaske’s projects.
With Chicago Party Aunt, Witaske has his own self-described “baby,” one which he’s learned a lot from in terms of parenting an idea through the creative process and trusting that other people are similarly well-equipped and comedically well-intentioned when it comes to handling his infant.
For Witaske, making his television series was a process of letting go of control, which appears to have permeated all aspects of his being. Throughout our conversation, he reflects on the tight grip with which he used to grasp life and the ultimate move of letting go.
THE NEWS STATION: Growing up in Chicago, did you always have an inclination that pursuing comedy was something for you?
CHRIS WITASKE: I grew up outside Chicago in the suburb of St. Charles and lived in Chicago proper after college for about ten years. My dad was a big comedy fan and kind of raised me on old SNL episodes and all of the comedy classics. When I was about thirteen, my dad took me to a show at the Second City Theater, and that night changed my life because I saw that all of my comedy heroes, like Bill Murray and Chris Farley, started at this place. I signed up for improv classes the next day and I’ve been doing it ever since.
TNS: That one Second City experience prompted you to take the classes?
CHRIS WITASKE: The show was just so funny that night and I laughed my ass off with my dad. It was really a romantic moment being in this cool theater. In the lobby they have all of the photos of the famous alumni, so seeing that paired with the show was kind of life changing for me.
TNS: Given that your dad was with you on this life-changing evening, did he play an integral supporting role in your early comedic pursuits?
CHRIS WITASKE: I think both he and my mom saw the interest I took in [comedy] and that it was something I became very passionate about, so they were super-supportive throughout. Growing up in the suburbs, my dad would drive me into Chicago to take these classes. Every week we were making the trip into the city and he would then wait for three hours while I was in the class. I was lucky that my parents were really supportive of [comedy] early on.
TNS: So you’ve begun this journey into comedy; you’re taking classes. Was there an early good omen that validated comedy was what you should be pursuing?
CHRIS WITASKE: In addition to Second City, I also took classes at Improv Olympic, which then changed their name to iO because they got sued by the Olympics. I was taking a teenage class at iO and my teacher saw that I had a knack for [improv] and told the owner of iO, Charna Halpern, that I should move up to the adult classes. I remember that was a big moment for me because she said that I should essentially graduate and, even though I was a teenager, enter the adult classes. That was an early “win” for me.
I took their whole program, went to college, majored in theater and started my own improv group, but then moved right back to Chicago and stayed on the path to eventually perform on stage at Second City, which was a dream come true for me.
TNS: Which is super-cool because it’s as if things came full circle for you.
CHRIS WITASKE: Second City was always just my goal. It was my life dream. I got to do it and so now everything else just feels like icing on the cake. With my film and television career, it’s really an added bonus.
TNS: On the film and TV front, how did the @ChicagoPartyAunt Twitter account start, how did you develop the character and how did it subsequently evolve to the screen with the animated Netflix series Chicago Party Aunt?
CHRIS WITASKE: You can stay in Chicago so long, but once you reach the top of the mountain, you have a choice if you want to keep pursuing [comedy] or move, so I moved to the West Coast. I’d had an agent and manager sign me when I was in Chicago, but when you first move to Los Angeles, it’s like you’re starting all over – clean slate.
I had a lot of free time on my hands in between auditions, so I started this Twitter thing just for fun. It’s based on a couple of my actual aunts and I started it as a way to crank out jokes. For a long time, it was just my comedy friends following it, but then all of a sudden it started to grow. Stephen Colbert was retweeting it and it was getting thousands of followers. Around that point, I thought I was on to something and that perhaps it could be something [larger]. This producer, Richie Schwartz, reached out to me, who’s also a Chicago guy. He said, “I’ve been following your account. I love it and I think this could be a TV show.” I said I was thinking the exact same thing, and now here we are.
TNS: A lot of times the TV-making process can be much more complex, but it sounds like everything came together very organically.
CHRIS WITASKE: The thing too is I just started this for fun. I had no aspirations when I started it. I think it goes to show if you do what makes you laugh and you do what you have fun with, a lot of times that ends up being the best stuff.
TNS: The “creative magic” can be diluted sometimes if you’re creating for somebody else or trying to make your project be a certain way rather than let it be what it wants to be.
CHRIS WITASKE: I’ve now been in Los Angeles for eight years and I’ve auditioned for countless projects that I don’t really connect with, don’t really find funny or that aren’t my sense of humor. It can be kind of soul-crushing after a while to be honest. I think it was a valuable lesson for me like, “Oh, I can make my own stuff and do what I think is funny and it can translate.” Chicago Party Aunt is now going to be streaming in 190 countries [laughs]!
TNS: For those who haven’t watched the show, what can they expect to see in it?
CHRIS WITASKE: What I’d done with the Twitter thing that I started in 2016 was I would tweet out jokes on the regular as if I was this woman and just put everything through her POV. When it came time to make a TV show, somebody said to me, “You already have your Homer Simpson and now you just need to build a world around her.” That was really fun to then be able to figure out who [the character] would hang out with and what her family would be like.
What you can expect watching the show is seeing this woman who is inspired from the Twitter account, but it’s her getting into these crazy adventures in Chicago. She hangs out with her nephew who moves in with her in the first episode, and she’s sort of the life of the party and she isn’t going to give up on her partying lifestyle, even though the world is changing around her.
TNS: The show took you through quarantine. What was it like working on a television series when the world was shut down?
CHRIS WITASKE: We’re coming up on three years from when we first pitched this project to Netflix. Then one day, all of a sudden, the world shut down. It’s funny. I had no idea what Zoom was when this project started, and then we were in a Zoom writer’s room writing the majority of the show. It was very weird, but we adapted, and like everybody else, didn’t have a choice.
TNS: How did the creative process differ from in-person to Zoom?
CHRIS WITASKE: There’s definitely a different kind of vibe when you’re all in the room together and you all jell. In improv they call it “group mind.” So it was hard at first to adapt, but we found it. We also found we were able to be a little more productive on Zoom because people don’t bullshit as much. You just kind of get to it. But I definitely prefer in-person over virtual.
TNS: Do you think “group mind” can apply to two people?
CHRIS WITASKE: It definitely can. The other thing is all of the writers we put together for this, we all started in Chicago together. I brought in a lot of friends who have an extensive background in improv. At Second City they teach you to collaborate and work together and play off of each other’s ideas, so it was very helpful that we had a collaborative mindset going into this thing, and we all kind of spoke the same Chicago improv language.
At certain points, I almost had to take a Buddhist philosophy of “just let it go,” trusting the process and trusting my fellow collaborators. I think I did evolve in that way during this process. It was hard. At times, we would butt heads and it was hard for me to give up control of my baby.
The best thing that I learned was to be able to just let go and trust that other people want what’s best for this and other people are funny and creative and have their own cool ideas. The coolest thing was watching the show and there would be a great joke that I’d laugh at and I wouldn’t remember who’d pitched it. I didn’t know if I wrote that joke or if somebody else wrote that joke. We all had worked on this thing together and it doesn’t really matter who came up with the joke as long as it’s funny.
It really is analogous to a good sports team or a good band, whereby everyone is chipping in and working toward the same goal, whether it be winning the game or putting on a good concert.
TNS: Did the creative process and allowing others to take ownership of your character allow you to relinquish control in other areas of your life?
CHRIS WITASKE: It did, and I was talking about this to my therapist recently. She said she thought [the show] was a really good experience for me because I have such a tight grip on things and ultimately you don’t have control, you can’t control other people and sometimes you have to radically accept things for how they are. I think I was definitely able to apply that to other areas of my life, and this project was a good life experience and learning lesson for me.