Have you ever played Oscars Bingo? You know, where you and your friends write bingo boards filled with awards-season cliches and hyperspecific references to the year’s nominees in order to actually pay attention to a ceremony that’s so notoriously long the host typically makes fun of its torpid endlessness? I’ve found it’s a fun way to engage in something supposedly worth watching that might otherwise be a drag, though it doesn’t improve the ceremony or make it memorable. I still remember the year my old roommate Sam crafted bingo sheets for the 2011 Oscars because mine had a square that said “Trent Reznor dresses like an adult,” and I got to check that off when the industrial figurehead who will always be caked in mud at Woodstock ’94 somewhere in the back of my head went to collect his trophy for The Social Network score. I remember little else of that ceremony.
I thought of this when ESPN personality and Chicago Red Stars co-owner Sarah Spain recently tweeted an image of a drinking game card for Chicago Party Aunt, an adult animated comedy that debuted on Netflix last week. The card is filled with tired Chicago truisms that also serve as the bread and butter of the Twitter account it’s based on, which is also called Chicago Party Aunt. There’s a square that reads, “When the Bulls are mentioned, take 3 shots. One for Jordan, one for Rodman and one for Pippen.” Another: “Malort mention = Malort shot.” The purpose, I suppose, is to get you blotto off the most basic references to this city that anyone who has scanned Tripadvisor’s Chicago listings or paid attention to pop culture the past few decades can get. I sought obliteration before the end of the first episode.
The show and Twitter account are the creation of comedian and Saint Charles native Chris Witaske, who played a blandly likeable bro on Judd Apatow’s Netflix series Love. For about five years, Witaske anonymously LARPed as a middle-aged Chicago woman on Twitter, dispensing crude aphorisms that can be reduced to the namesake. These pithy, reductive missives about living and partying in Chicago often involved local institutions. Witaske’s in-character, ostentatious mash-notes to WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling, for example, were among the quirks that charmed a lot of locals; the “@ChiPartyAunt” account accumulated more than 50,000 followers and earned Witaske’s Twitter experiment adoring press from reporters who know better. Witaske revealed his identity in July to announce and promote the Netflix show.
I suppose the gimmick worked well on Twitter, where this unknowable caricature of a blue-collar Chicagoan could interrupt your feed with an unexpectedly raunchy come-on directed at a public figure who is on the platform out of some sense of professional obligation. On the show? Not so much. Comedian Lauren Ash (not a Chicagoan, but in fact a Canadian) plays the titular character, hard-partying hair stylist Diane Dunbrowski, whose understanding of Chicago culture hasn’t changed since the 1990s despite living in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying Wrigleyville. Ash’s voice turns up to 11 whenever she unloads surface-level references to Chicago phenomena, and her affected accent is closer to the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota than anything in the 606 zip code.
There are other characters on the show. Dunbrowski’s gay nephew, who hails from the wealthy suburbs, gifts her the name “Chicago Party Aunt” and moves in with her by the end of episode one. (Like most of the show’s characters, he’s forgettable; it’s hard to tell if the writers want viewers to actually like anyone on screen.) But most of these one-dimensional figures are often secondary to the things viewers are loudly told to recognize as distinctly Chicago. The show doesn’t simply parade Chicago places (Roscoe’s Tavern, Wieners Circle, Guthrie’s Tavern, Wrigley Field) and things Chicagoans consume (deep dish pizza, duh). These references are the foundation of the program; they take the space normally reserved for unique storytelling and character development, and such visual or spoken allusions often serve as the punchline (and even the setup) to a tacky joke.
Most of these unwitty asides—including a reference to Rahm Emanuel canceling a plastic surgery appointment—just sit there unappetizingly like a tavern-cut pie left under a heat lamp for three days. The worst jokes, including one in which Dunbrowski invokes the city’s north-south dichotomy to describe her body, make me want to move to Wisconsin and pledge my undying love for the Packers. Chicago Party Aunt’s pandering festers beneath low-hanging fruit. The show treats viewers like infants playing peek-a-boo, as if making a reference to Al’s Beef should automatically delight people who pay Illinois taxes.
Chicago has been the setting and focus of a handful of recent TV programs I’d rather watch but are not as easily accessible to me as a new Netflix program. (Hulu’s premium subscription can get me access to The Chi, but I don’t make “Hulu premium subscription” money.) And there is something attractive about seeing this city displayed in the awkward style of Netflix’s adult animated shows; the drawings are coarse and sometimes look like they were made as an afterthought, which is fine when it’s a program designed to entertain people who watch TV while simultaneously looking at their phones. Part of the problem with Chicago Party Aunt is it wants to lean into both the whimsy of cartoon playfulness and the hard-defined specificity of its inspiration, and it doesn’t quite capture the joy of either. It’s a show that can dream of a Chicago in which Skilling is one of Dunbrowski’s regular hair-salon clients, but can’t imagine a reality in which she’d want to dine anywhere better than Gibsons Steakhouse.
As I watched six of the show’s eight episodes (I’m surprised I made it that far), I wondered what anyone might get out of a program that doesn’t attempt to do anything new or interesting in television besides change the scenery. I’m not sure it matters; Netflix released two other shows and three movies the same day Chicago Party Aunt debuted. Subscribers who binge the third season of Sex Education in a day may move on to Chicago Party Aunt when the credits roll, or maybe not. Chicagoans who delight in seeing ourselves on the screen—and I can’t pretend I don’t get joy in watching the city I love beyond the point of rationality on TV—began to disseminate images specific to our reality on social media almost immediately.
There’s something funny about that; to witness WGN investigative reporter Ben Bradley tweet a Chicago Party Aunt image depicting Bears fans peeing into a trough to make a joke about the flawed accuracy of a show based on a fictional Twitter character who invaded our realities the past five years. On the one hand, I’ve got to hand it to Witaske for keeping the bit going as long as he has, and amassing an audience primed to love this show before it debuted. On the other hand, no I don’t.