Q&A with Chris Witaske
The former St. Charles resident is living his dream in L.A. with a role on the Netflix series, Love
Photo courtesy of Suzanne Hanover/Netflix
From a young age, performing was always a part of Chris Witaske’s life, starting with the magic shows he put on as a kid growing up in St. Charles. But when his dad introduced him to improv via Chicago’s Second City, Chris was truly hooked. He signed up for improv classes at Second City the following day, the start of what he hoped would be a career in comedy and acting.
Eventually, working at Second City became Chris’s first dream job. More recently, he landed another dream job when a part was actually created for him — a rare thing in show business — on Love, an original Netflix series. As Love continues its run, Chris has continued to expand his resume with his own interview show, So You Do Comedy.
When did you first get bitten by the acting bug, and what got you interested in acting?
CW: I started out as a magician with my best friend from childhood, Tim Stopka. We would perform at neighbor kids’ birthday parties. Our grand finale was making my sister/lovely assistant, Carolyn, levitate. Then when I was around 13, my dad took me to see my first Second City show in Chicago. After seeing that show (Slaughterhouse Five, Cattle Zero), which was insanely funny, and seeing all the photos on the walls of all my comedy heroes — Bill Murray, John Belushi, Chris Farley -— I knew I wanted to do comedy. I signed up for improv classes the next day.
Did you receive a lot of support at home or school, or were you encouraged to go in a different direction? Did you have any particular mentors that helped guide you to this career?
CW: Tons of support from everyone. I think my parents were happy that I found something that I really enjoyed and had a passion for. The acting teacher at St. Charles High School, Mrs. Bundy, was really supportive along with my English teacher, Hana St. Gean, who was so cool and helped us start an after-school improv group. I also did an internship at the Pheasant Run Theater, where Artistic Director Diana Martinez took me under her wing and showed me how a professional theater operates. Diana is the best and we still keep in touch.
How did taking classes and working at The Second City help shape your career?
CW: Taking classes at Second City at a young age taught me that people could actually do this as a career. Before that it was all a mystery to me. Then when I started actually working at Second City, it was a total dream come true. Best job in show biz.
What were you doing prior to moving to Hollywood and what inspired you to just pack up and move out there with no job specifically lined up?
CW: I was working at Second City right up until I decided to move out west. I got signed with a great agent and manager who saw me perform at the Chicago Just for Laughs festival, and they kind of convinced me to make the move. Also, it’s kind of the natural progression for a lot of Second City performers to either move east or west once they’ve done their time on stage.
When you moved to L.A., what surprised you the most about the city and the whole Hollywood/TV/ movie/celebrity scene?
CW: Los Angeles is a weird place to move after you’ve spent your whole life in the Midwest and it definitely takes some getting used to. A lot of the stereotypes are true — talking about what highways/streets you take to get places, everyone eating kale, fake people. But there’s also a lot of great stuff about L.A. It is weird at first when you start seeing celebrities at the grocery store, but then you get used to it.
Do you have any good “struggling actor” stories about unusual jobs you had or places you lived to make ends meet?
CW: Oh, I worked a lot of jobs in Chicago that I look back and laugh about. I was a dog walker, a preschool teacher, and for a long time I was the only male host at Mike Ditka’s restaurant in downtown Chicago. I eventually became the maître d’ of the cigar bar, where it was also my job to make sure no one asked coach Ditka for an autograph while he was eating. I also lived in Wrigleyville for five years in a bedroom the size of a small, walk-in closet.
How did you land your role on Love? Describe the character you play and how he is like you and different from you.
CW: There’s a great casting director in L.A., Allison Jones, who casts so many great projects — The Office, Parks and Rec, all the Judd Apatow movies — and she had come to Chicago and saw me at Second City. She brought me in to audition for Love. I auditioned for three different parts, all of which I wasn’t quite right for, so they finally just wrote a character for me and named him Chris. I still can’t believe it. My character is basically a dumber version of myself.
What is So You Do Comedy?
CW: So You Do Comedy is a monthly live interview show that I host at the UCB Theatre in L.A. where I sit down with some of my comedy heroes and ask them how they got started in show biz. I’ve had five shows so far and my guests have been, Bob Odenkirk, Fred Willard, Andy Richter, Laraine Newman and David Koechner. My guest for June is Martin Mull. One cool thing about living in L.A. is that you have way more access to these kinds of people and so many of them are willing to be interviewed and help out up-and-coming actors.
What has been your favorite show to work on and why?
CW: Love has been such a blast. Everyone involved is really great, the scripts are funny and real and I get to improvise a lot on set. It’s a dream job. We’re working on Season 2 now which should come on in February and is going to be awesome.
When you come back to St. Charles or Chicago, what do you like to do and where do you like to go?
CW: In St. Charles, I love walking through Pottawatomie Park, so beautiful right on the Fox River. I also love going and seeing my great friend Joe Gagnepain’s art work all over the suburbs. You can check out his work at www.artbyjoseph.com. In Chicago, I go to my favorite pizza place, Pizano’s, and then I visit Second City and the Annoyance Theatre.
Who have been or currently are your biggest comedic influences?
CW: Bill Murray is my hero. My dog’s name is Murray. Also Bob Odenkirk, George Carlin, Larry David, John Candy, Harold Ramis and Fred Willard.
What are your fondest memories of growing up in St. Charles, eg: activities you were involved in, favorite places to hang out with friends, special experiences?
CW: I got cast in am improv/sketch comedy group at the Steel Beam Theater in St. Charles. We wrote our own original sketch revue, just like Second City. I remember having a blast performing those shows. Lamorne Morris, who’s now on New Girl, was also in that group. I also have fond memories of when I graduated from high school in 2001, and for our senior prank, a group of us put the Homecoming pirate ship parade float on the roof of the school. That was a proud moment for all involved. I also used to love going to the Manor Restaurant, which is no longer.
What are you most proud of?
CW: Making my parents proud.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
CW: I would love to be developing my own projects with friends out here in L.A. and continuing my acting career. Also hopefully doing more interviews for West Suburban Living Magazine.
1. Favorite movies and TV shows?
Waiting for Guffman, Spinal Tap, Nathan For You, Better Call Saul, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Teachers on TV Land (my girlfriend Katie’s show), Mr. Show and ESPN’s 30 for 30.
2. If not acting, what?
Probably a high school history teacher or a concert promoter.
3. Best advice you’ve received and from whom?
From my Mom, “You have to follow your heart.”
4. Three words that best describe you?
Goofy, happy-go-lucky, kind
5. Best thing about growing up in the western suburbs?
Great people and the open space to explore, play and park your car.
6. Favorite thing about L.A.?
The most creative/talented people from all over the country move here to follow their dreams. I think that’s pretty cool.
7. Favorite person you’ve interviewed?
Interviewing Fred Willard was really special for me. He was so funny and nice.
8. What do you miss most about Chicago?
The people and the food.
9. Favorite subject in school?
History and speech.