Big Funny: Founder Bill Chott and his fellow improv tricksters aim to bring back the glory days of St. Louis sketch comedy

At his 40th birthday roast — an evening he has billed as "XXX-rated" and pimped like a (Twitter-savvy) boxing promoter — Bill Chott takes a seat at the front of the house. Sans stage, with its peeling plaster, and painter's lamps standing in for spotlights, this "theater" ain't the Fabulous Fox or even the Playhouse at Westport Plaza. But to Chott (pronounced cot), the shabby basement at 2715 Cherokee Street feels like home.

The recently divorced comedic actor has been splitting his time between his native St. Louis (where he lives in Overland with Mom and Dad) and Los Angeles, where he is to head the following day for some television taping and auditions. His birthday is still a month out — and Chott does plan to party hard in Hollywood on that day — but the St. Louis bash is a chance to celebrate how far his four-year-old improv school has come in just the past few months.

The Improv Trick has finally found a permanent dwelling in the increasingly hipster Cherokee 'hood. Chott has hired a full-time director of operations. The student roster continues to grow, and a program for at-risk neighborhood kids is in the works. As Chott will say at the end of the night, "When I first started, I thought, 'Hey, maybe we'll do that improv show.' We've created a whole community, and I couldn't be prouder."

Chott (back row, center) performed with the Second City touring company in the mid-'90s alongside Tina Fey (front row, center) and Amy Poehler (front row, right).
Courtesy Bill Chott
Chott (back row, center) performed with the Second City touring company in the mid-'90s alongside Tina Fey (front row, center) and Amy Poehler (front row, right).

Larger than life in size (pushing 300 pounds), guise (imagine a bald Drew Carey), energy (maybe it's the chain-smoking), artistic gifts (song, dance, ad-libs, magic, impressions) and "friends" (12,265 on MySpace, 2,233 on Facebook), Chott's a guy who his closest associates say is "always on." But this sweltering summer night he gets to sit back, gulp a rum-and-Coke and sport his best shit-eating grin for the career cracks ("Bill has been in more terrible commercials than erectile dysfunction"), the bromance gags ("When we were kids, we swore if we ever made it big, we'd help each other out. [Pause.] Thanks for all the posters, Bill") and the flesh jokes ("Everybody wants a piece of Bill. [Pause.] And there's plenty to go around").

It even gets a wee bit sentimental: "How do you measure a man? Do you measure him by his achievements? By his contributions to society? By his cock? No, you measure a man by the size of his heart. And Bill Chott's heart — like his ass — is a triple-XL."

Chott started his career in comedy with the Second City, the Chicago-based gold standard of improv theaters that spawned the careers of John Candy, Bill Murray and Mike Myers, to name but a few. But industry insiders say Chott was born with more than funny bones.

"He can sing, he can do comedy, he can do improv, he can do serious stuff, he's got a million characters, he's the full package," says Ali Reza Farahnakian, owner of the Peoples Improv Theater in New York. "He's got what people in the business call 'insurance,' which means when you walk out onstage, the audience is immediately on your side."

Chott's most prominent comedic acting role came in 2005 when he played a Special Olympian in the Farrelly brothers' flick The Ringer. Most of Chott's work takes the form of "character" parts: a serial killer who keeps severed heads in the fridge (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), a murder victim who also suffers from a chronic hunger disease (CSI), a regular at a strip club (Dancing at the Blue Iguana), a dorky TV producer (Vibe), an alien groupie (Galaxy Quest).

Chott's curriculum vitae may not afford him flashy Hollywood wheels (he drives a '98 Ford Escort, royal blue), but as Second City vice president Kelly Leonard observes, "Bill has always worked."

At the roast it's 29-year-old BJ "Honkey" Lange, a performer and Improv Trick student, who nearly rips the roof off the place ribbing Chott's résumé.

"Where do people go to find stuff out about people? They go on the Internet. [Pause.] Because nobody fuckin' knows you, Bill, I'm sorry," Lange begins.

"According to Wikipedia, which is the most reliable source of news, 'Bill Chott was born July 23, 1969.' Now, I know he's an old fuck, but I can also say it's ironic as shit — 69 — considering he's never seen a vagina.

"...Now listen here: 'Bill left St. Louis in 1992 for Chicago, where he worked with the improvOlympic and Second City. He became one of the crème de la crème of Second City and performed with such people as Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert—' whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute!

"First of all, did Wikipedia actually say you were the 'crème de la crème' of Second City? Did you write this shit yourself? And second, what the hell happened to you? You went from working with modern-day comedic greats to working in minor films with Johnny Knoxville?

"'Bill toured the country with Second City and began working on The Dana Carvey Show, reuniting him with Carell and Colbert.' These are actual quotes! Reuniting you with Carell and Colbert? I guess the coattails were too hard to get on when you had one hand in the pie at the craft-services table!

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