Five years ago, a Twitter account with the handle Chicago Party Aunt appeared out of the digital mist as if conjured to life by the spirit of Bill Swerski and those old “Saturday Night Live” Super Fans sketches from the ‘90s.
An affectionate riff on a specific and proudly old school Chicago personality, the Chicago Party Aunt’s bawdy white lady exploits are legendary (in her own mind). Consider this exchange: Last month, the Billy Goat Tavern tweeted out a photo of two bar stools with the caption: “Every bar stool has a story.” Chicago Party Aunt’s reply: “I made out with Mike Royko on the one on the left!”
Now she’s the star of her own Netflix animated comedy and she has a name: Diane Dunbrowski. Or just Dye-yaaan in Chicagoese.
The account’s boozy namesake is the creation of Chicago sketch and improv veteran Chris Witaske, who has remained anonymous until now. His co-creators on the show, Jon Barinholtz (“Superstore”) and Katie Rich (a writer on “SNL”), are also alumni of the city’s comedy scene, as is Lauren Ash (also of “Superstore”), who voices the title character.
Despite the Chicago-ness of the Twitter account and the show itself, Witaske actually grew up in St. Charles. “I’m a western suburb kid,” he said. “But I will say: Grandparents are from Chicago. Dad is from Chicago; I don’t know why he moved us out to the ‘burbs for my childhood, but I lived in the city for many years after college.”
I talked with Witaske, who is based in Los Angeles these days, about how this still-active Twitter account that’s filled with Chicago in-jokes became a Netflix series.
Q: What’s the story behind the Chicago Party Aunt as a Twitter character?
A: So, I know a lot of ladies who are like this (laughs). I have a lot of aunts who are like this character. And I worked at Mike Ditka’s restaurant for five years after college and I saw a lot of Chicago Party Aunts come through that place. I think I just kind of soaked it in, observing these women in their natural habitat. And I thought it would be a great character to churn out jokes on Twitter — to put everything through her point of view — and it turns out I was right, because people really connected with it.
Q: She’s the female equivalent of a Grabowski.
A: Completely, a hundred percent. I grew up watching that “SNL” sketch with the Super Fans, so that was an inspiration. But it’s also kind of different: It’s this very specific woman who you see a lot in Chicago with the spiky hair and the bedazzled jeans and she’s not afraid to have some wine with lunch. I was just back in the city recently, I threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game, and I saw probably seven Chicago Party Aunts just walking around.
Q: You originally used a photo for the account’s avatar before changing it to the animated version of Diane. I’m assuming that photo was a stock image you found?
A: I literally Googled, “Short, spiky haircuts for women,” and that photo popped up. I think it’s from a haircut book at Fantastic Sams or something like that, and I used it when the Twitter account was very small. And then it grew and I was like, oh (shoot), I don’t own this image (laughs). The model has never reached out to me.
Q: The character both on Twitter and the show is very much about sloppy but happily consensual adult behavior …
A: And she’s not ashamed of it! In her words, she’s banged every Chicago C-list celebrity. She’s not afraid to share that she has a past of great exploits all over the city. I think that’s part of what’s so fun about her, that she’s not ashamed to put that all out there.
Q: I’m wondering how you thought about your approach on that, especially as a guy writing these tweets.
A: It was an evolving thing and I learned as I went. But I always just wanted it to be funny. That was my main goal, just crank out funny jokes. And on Twitter, you’re not going to get censored. Similar to Netflix actually; I think if this show was on a network, we wouldn’t be able to get away with the things that we are. But I think she’s just sex positive and not ashamed of her past.
Q: You ran the account anonymously until now. Did your relatives who have some similarities to the Chicago Party Aunt know it was you?
A: Well, some of them don’t know how to use Twitter, so …
Some of my aunts, in fact, have multiple Facebook accounts for some reason, because they forget their password and have to create a new account.
But I think they take it as a point of pride. Diane has a great heart and is lovable and loyal and family-oriented, so I think they’re proud that it’s loosely based on them.
Some of my Chicago comedy friends knew it was me. My parents knew. But I did want to keep it anonymous for a long time because I thought that was part of the fun of it. And now I’m like, I’ve been doing this for free for a long time and I also want to get credit because it could help my career. So now it’s been unveiled.
Q: How did it go from a Twitter account to a TV series?
A: The Twitter thing started growing, I started it in 2016. And for a long time it was just a couple hundred followers. And then it started getting thousands. (The account currently has 54,000 followers.) And then Wilco was retweeting it and Andy Richter was liking it and Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch.
Q: WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling is mentioned quite a bit in Chicago Party Aunt tweets.
A: I’ve learned that Tom Skilling doesn’t run his own Twitter because he’s so focused on the weather. But I’ve been in contact with some of the people who do run his Twitter account and they tell me he is aware and he’s flattered (laughs). Poor Tom, he’s the sweetest man in the world and here I am tweeting at him every day like, “You left your underwear at my house last night!” This poor man does not deserve this.
As the account got bigger, I started to think that maybe this could be something. Maybe it could be a TV show. And we were even thinking about it being live-action. But then it was like, animation might be more fun and we might be able to get away with more. So I was kicking it around and a producer named Richie Schwartz, who is a Chicago guy himself, he found me somehow and said, “Hey, I’m a producer and I think this would be a great TV show.” And I said, “I was just thinking the same thing!”
So we put together a group of other Chicagoans and people with more television experience, which is when we brought in the Barinholtz brothers (in addition to Jon, Ike Barinholtz and his creative partner David Stassen are also involved in the show) and my friend Katie Rich. We pitched it, a bunch of places were interested and Netflix won out. And here we are.
Q: Diane seems like a product of the South Side, from Beverly or Bridgeport, so I was surprised that on the show she lives in Wrigleyville.
A: You’re right. But Wrigleyville is such a party neighborhood and when people think of Chicago, Wrigleyville is a point of interest. So we put her in Wrigleyville, but she grew up on the South Side.
Q: You could have taken Diane in the direction of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and made her sort of irredeemable and intentionally terrible, but she’s a decent person, all things told.
A: I think when we first sat down to make this, the first thing we wanted was to be funny. Then we said we wanted it to be a love letter to Chicago. And then we said we want it to — you know, we all grew up watching John Hughes movies and they’re funny, but there’s also heart and pathos. We didn’t want her to be a jerk or too much of a drunk screw-up.
Diane has a heart of gold, and even though she says the wrong thing and gets too drunk, she means well and really loves her people and her family. So that was important to us.