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Ike Barinholtz Deep Dishes On His Chicago Party Aunt Influences And Surprising Guests - Exclusive Interview

Ike Barinholtz has played his fair share of quirky characters, and now he's helping craft a slew of them for his new Netflix series, "Chicago Party Aunt." 

Comedy fans probably know him best as the chaotic, down-on-his-luck Nurse Practitioner Morgan Tookers from "The Mindy Project," but before he became Mindy Kaling's onscreen sidekick, he appeared in other comedic projects like "Disaster Movie," "MADtv," and "The League." In between shooting all six seasons of "The Mindy Project," Barinholtz appeared in "Neighbors," "Suicide Squad," and "Blockers." In addition to acting, he has quite a few writing and producing credits — he directed a handful of "Mindy Project" episodes, and he both wrote and directed "The Oath."

Looper spoke to Ike Barinholtz for an exclusive interview during which he dished on Chicago's influence on the show, classic rockers Styx, and how Mindy Kaling helped influence the show's vibe on and off the screen. Barinholtz also revealed what it was like working with RuPaul and Lauren Ash.

RuPaul: From Drag Race to hair stylist

RuPaul has a great role as a fabulous hairstylist named Gideon. How did that casting come about? What was it like working with him, and did he have any input in his character, lines, or plot points?

I have been obsessed with Ru for a very long time. I'm a little bit older, so I remember the '90s, and "Drag Race" is just ... my wife and I love it. The episode with [Lady] Gaga on "Drag Race" is really one of my favorite episodes of TV ever. And so, when we were creating the character of Gideon, kind of from minute one, it was like, what if RuPaul did this? Do you think Ru would do this?

And none of us know Ru. I've met him once. We know some of the same people, but we sent him the script. And God bless Ru. It's like, yep. And as with the case of a lot of the characters, you initially kind of write him or her a certain way, and then the actor brings a whole new dynamic and elements to it that you never really thought of.

So yes, Ru, just on who he is, had a ton of input into how Gideon was formed, and I still can't believe he's on the show. It's incredible.

Weiner's Circle or winners circle?

What scene do you think is the funniest from the show?

I'm not being biased, because I wrote the episode. I don't know if you're familiar with Chicago, familiar with the Wiener's Circle, which is this kind of very famous late-night, hot dog stand type of place, kind of a Chicago institution. And I spent many, many, many, many nights there, and I love it very much. I was like, "We've got to have some kind of big climax-y, finale thing inside the Wiener's Circle." And so that seemed to me, I feel like it's very emblematic of the show.

It's funny. It's about friends having a big fight, which we've all been through. And then if you're from Chicago, there's a little bit of extra specialness with like, "Oh my God, I've been drunk at the Wiener's Circle at midnight, and I've seen this happen." So I think that scene, which I think is in episode five, is probably my top choice.

Mindy Kaling's lasting impact

You've worked with some incredible casts over the years: "Suicide Squad," "The Mindy Project," and "Neighbors." Did any experiences you had on those sets help inform the direction that you took in "Chicago Party Aunt"? And is there anyone you worked with from your other roles that you'd love to see on the show at some point?

Well, yeah. I would say Mindy [Kaling] for both. While I had never done an adult animated show before, at its core, we wanted it to kind of feel familiar enough — where it does still feel a little bit like a sitcom. And having spent six years on "The Mindy Project" and the writing and producing side of it, I really kind of just stole exactly what Mindy taught us and found that's really kind of the best way to break stories — whether you're doing a live-action or a comedy. And I would love to see her on the "Chicago Party Aunt," and she will definitely season three, have to be some kind of nemesis for Diane.

I love that.

I would love to see her energy go up against a Diane's.

Brothers in animation

You got to work with your brother Jon on the show. What was that experience like?

It was great. I've gotten to work with him a few other times, but it was all really more just about acting. And we worked a lot on this very intimately, and I'd like to credit my parents with raising two kids who get along. 

Because when you're in a writing process, it's a lot like being in a submarine, lower stakes, but you get very intimate. And you have to be critical of people, and there's a lot of debate and arguing sometimes. And if you can do that with someone that you have 37 years of baggage with and still every day be excited to see their face, I think that's pretty good. So it was a pretty wonderful experience, very lucky.

Did you butt heads on anything specific?

There was never anything big that we fought about. The things that we always ended up arguing about, not just Jon and I, but the writers at large, were all super hyper-specific Chicago things. I remember like a month in or so, one day, we got in a pretty big argument about hot dog topics. And I said that like, yeah, I like Chicago style, but I don't like the kind of the neon relish on top — too sweet. 

And someone, I think it was my brother, was like, "It's not really a Chicago dog. It's something customized that you do." It got a little loud, and one of our other writers was like, "I'm surprised it took a month for us to get to this point where we're just arguing about hot dog toppings." [Laughs]

From Superstore to super chaos

Lauren Ash is comedy gold, and she, of course, worked with Jon on "Superstore." What was it like working with her, and did everyone sort of know right away that you wanted her to be the lead, or did that develop down the line?

Everyone has known Lauren for a very long time. Jon, my brother, was literally cleaning the floors in Second City when she was on the main stage. And obviously, I've now watched her countless times on "Superstore," just absolutely destroy. 

And as we started developing the character, we were really kind of looking for just that kind of powerhouse element: someone who doesn't take any s***, tells it like it is, has very strong opinions, and is not afraid to let you know it, but is also fun and bouncy. And you just want to get close to her and tell her to stop and then run away and come back. She just has that energy, and she just absolutely killed it. And yeah, it's really great to hear ... When you first see the animatic cuts come in and you hear Lauren's voice, it just feels really great.

She definitely grounds the show.

Yeah. She's a very, really special talent.

No cheap tricks here

There's a great animated cameo from the band Styx at the beginning of the season. How involved, if at all, were they in the episode? Did they voice their own parts? What was that process like to get them on board?

That's another thing that probably was the biggest source of conversation in the room, was just which Chicago-originated celebrities will be on the show. And I think if you're someone of a certain age and you spend your whole life in Chicago, Styx is maybe as important as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. They are, they are Chicago or Chicago, but a little bit downstate. 

They're from Chicago. Cheap Trick is from Rockford, I think. All of this to say, yeah, I think they were, I think they did do their own voices. I can't remember, but I do remember at one point reaching out to a friend. I texted one of the producers, "Let me reach out to my friend who's buddies with Dennis DeYoung." And the producer wrote back, "That's awesome." So, yeah, but them and Andy Richter and there's just ... We really just got some super fun Chicago-y folks to come on board.

Were there any fights over which band?

Yeah, Cheap Trick. That came up a lot. There was lots of talk of Van Halen. It's that very specific sound of just every single bar in Chicago playing one of those songs from 1980 to 1993. Poison, a lot of Poison. Yeah. So that's definitely Diane's band.

Next season, we'll have to get them all in the room.

We got to get them all.

A full episode.

She has to go to some big Lollapalooza, like a Lollapalooza for older people. You know what I mean?

And people like me, who just love '80s hair bands. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah! And us, and us.

Creative Juice or creative cult?

So I got some major pyramid scheme vibes with Daniel's job at Creative Juice. Is there a story behind that?

We were discussing funny jobs that you ... funny places that pop up in gentrified areas. And there's one place that is in L.A. All of us except for Katie [Rich], who still lives in Chicago, are Chicago transplants to Los Angeles. And there's a place in Los Angeles. I don't want to say the name because I don't have proof of this, but they're all about healthy, organic juices and stuff.

And there's a theory that it's not organic, and they literally are just going to the supermarket and branding it as this. And we were just kind of talking about that one day about how kind of tough it is to prove that. It's just a funny little scam. Everyone's a little bit of a scammer at some point in the show, and we want Daniel's place of work to embody that a little bit.

The Diane project

You were an executive producer on "The Mindy Project," and you're filling the same role on "Chicago Party Aunt." How did the EP duties change from a live-action show to an animated series? And did you learn anything from producing "Mindy" that you took with you to this role?

Yeah, definitely. A big part of the learning curve from going from live-action to animation is patience. When you're shooting the "Mindy" show, you're breaking the stories a few weeks in advance. But by the time you have a table read, you're shooting it a couple of days later. And then you're seeing a cut of it a week later. 

So it's all very accelerated and fast. And in animation, we try to bring the same energy to that, but do it in a way where you can maintain it over, literally, a several-year period of time. And then I think just story-wise, I A had lot of fun in the "Mindy" room, but I just thought the way that Mindy and Matt Warburton kind of, the way they broke stories in that room, it was just very fruitful. 

And so we try to impart a lot of that into our room and to really, really spend time early on talking through these stories that are going to make up the episodes, to make sure that they're rich and that they have heart and they kind of touch a lot of the cue zones we're all looking for. That's something I took from "Mindy." Also, we had pretty good snacks before COVID, and that's another thing we took from "Mindy." We staffed the room as good with good treats for our little fingers.

Play ball, Mike Ditka

Did you guys record in a studio, or was it at home because of COVID?

We ended up recording in studio. For the first half of 2020 or so, we were doing a lot of scratch recording from home. I think kind of for our show, it just was more helpful for folks to come in, but it was insanely ... Still to this day, if I go in, the protocols are so insanely rigid, which I really appreciate, just because it was scary and it kind of still is, but it's just to walk into ... 

Once you're in the booth, then all that melts away. And then when you've got the EPs, you got cast sometimes popping in on the Zooms and stuff. So once you're in there, it felt great. But yeah, everyone made their way into a booth.

Is there anyone that you tried to get on the show that didn't pan out for whatever reason?

That's a good question. Let me see, let me see. I'm pretty sure we reached out to Mike Ditka, and I don't think we heard back, which I think Mike doesn't do this kind of stuff. He doesn't. He was definitely someone that we would love to have on the show at some point. I think he's kind of the big one. 

We were really lucky with not just our main cast, but with our guest stars. They really got some just great people, especially in kind of Season 2. We just break into like some really, really, really fun names of some of our cool, famous friends. So we've been really lucky. But Ditka. We're coming for you, Mike.

One day.

One day.

The tapestry of Chicago

Is there anything about the depiction of Chicago that just isn't realistic at all but that you wanted to keep in the show for laughs?

I mean, obviously, there are parts of Chicago where not a lot of funny stuff going on right now, and it feels hard to kind of draw comedy from that in the first season of a show like this. The area that we really focus on is an area that I grew up right by, about a mile away. The reason we selected it is because we have a character who is ... She's not of this time, she's of an older time. And while she accepts that, she still doesn't know how to behave in a new kind of world.

And that area, Wrigleyville, has gone through a pretty insane facelift-slash-gentrification-slash-turning into something totally different. And so, to kind of put her in that backdrop, we thought would really just thematically kind of shine a light on this character's attempts to kind of keep up with this world, even though she doesn't want to. But we also do hit all the kind of hits of Chicago.

Like we've got the Field Museum, which is one of my favorites. Like I said, we've got the Wiener's Circle, we got the lake. We got Wrigley Field, which is kind of right behind her house. We got to Midway Airport. Who doesn't love Midway, Chicago's second-best airport?

But I think if we get to do more episodes, we get to open it up into newer areas and just start to really kind of just build a mosaic of the city. Because it really is just ... There's no city like it. The way it's kind of set up, the way it's laid out to people, it's really unique.

"Chicago Party Aunt" debuts September 17 on Netflix.