Lincoln Square Comedian Makes It Kinda Big

By Mike Fourcher | Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Monte chows a bagel at the Rockwell Beans and Bagels. Credit: Mike Fourcher

You might have recently seen him on a U.S. Cellular commercial talking about diner food that ran in heavy rotation during football season. Or maybe you’ve seen him talking about diner food on Channel 26′s “U And Me In The Morning”. Or if you’re a real comedy aficionado, you’ve seen him at the Lincoln Lodge doing his diner food bit Off The Eatin’ Path“.

Monte — or “Monte LeMonte” as he allows himself to be called — has been working Chicago’s comedy circuit for almost 25 years and living in Lincoln Square for the past ten. He’s a local guy that’s starting to break through — like some of his former colleagues, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers.

We sat down with him for an interview at the Rockwell Beans & Bagels, 2601 W. Leland, Chicago, IL.

Despite his diner reputation, he ordered a soy hot chocolate and told us about his favorite Lincoln Square restaurant, how he got started and driving escorts around Chicago.

Listen to the unedited interview using the link below.

CenterSquareLedger: I only know your first name. And on stage you’re just “Monte.” Do you have a last name?

Monte: I do, but I’ve been branding myself as Monte, since 1986. For a while people didn’t think it was a big deal — sometimes people give me a hard time over it. And then people think that if you don’t give up your last name, there some issues there. But some people, they keep asking, and it becomes an issue, so I came up with a generic Monte LaMonte. James is my middle name. I actually have a cool last name.

CSL: Can you at least tell us where you’re from?

M: I’m from Chicago. The Hermosa Park neighborhood. Actually I lived in the Austin area until I was in third grade. Then I lived at Hirsch and Luna and then Kostner. I’m from Chicago.

CSL: How long have you lived in Lincoln Square?

M: Ive lived in this neighborhood since I was 29 — so nine years, almost ten years now. I’m going to be 39 this year.

I moved out from my parents when I was 20. I moved into Logan Square. I loved it because I was on the Boulevard and I was close to my parents — my old neighborhood — and then the landlord sold the building and I had to move. I couldn’t find a nice apartment. The only apartment I could find that was nice and clean and big was up here. I freaked out at first. “Why did I move here?” I didn’t know anyone. I was going nuts. Now I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

CSL: How long have you been doing comedy?

M: I was a drama major in high school. I was doing plays and theater. Truth is, I wasn’t that good. We did “Rossum’s Universal Robots”, we did some theater of the absurd — but all I really remember is “RUR”. We did like old poems that we turned into plays — I forget. It was a long time ago.

CSL: Pretty much, your whole adult life.

M: Yeah. Professionally, like making money for it. After high school I didn’t do anything for a long time, for a few years. And then in the early 90s I started taking improv classes with Jay Leggett — he was on “In Living Color” and whatnot. This was before he was on “In Living Color” of course. I took classes with Jay at the Improv, when it used to be on Wells and Grand Avenue, way back in the day. And then after that, I started taking classes at Improv Olympic with Charna Halpern and Del Close. I actually was on an improv team where Amy Poehler was my coach and with Matt Besser from Upright Citizens Brigade.

While I was taking classes, the higher ups were like Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch. I know them. Not well, we’re not like good friends. I mean, I couldn’t call them up and say, “Hey, what’s up? It’s Monte!” They’d probably just hang up on me. Actually, that one team I coached, I was on it with Seth Meyers. So I know a lot of those people from back in the day.

CSL: Tell me about the early days. How did you get hooked?

M: It was more of a scene. It was very easy to do nothing and have a title, so it seemed like you were doing something. “I’m an improviser! I’m doing comedy!” But you were really doing nothing and got away with doing nothing. People wouldn’t look at you like you’re a fricking bum.” They looked at you like you were a performer. That’s for me.

That’s what kept me in it, what kept me from getting a real job. I could always tell my parents when they said, “You gotta get a job!” I’d say, “I can’t! I’ve gotta take improv classes!” It was an easy out, you know. But luckily, someone got me an agent. “The agent needs characters, and you’re a character!”

Actually, my first booking was a commercial with Todd Phillps, he directed “The Hangover”. Actually I called him, and he did just hang up on me. I called him once because I worked with him.

His first big movie, “Road Trip”, I auditioned for it and I got a call back and I was sending a tape to Ivan Reitman and I didn’t get the part — Tom Green got the part.

So years went by, and I realized that, “Oh my God, I have Todd Phillips’ phone number!” So I called Todd, it was like 8:30 in the morning and I’m not thinking that it’s 6:30 on the West Coast. He actually answered it and said, “Is this Monte?” He knew! I’m like “Yeah, what’s up?” And then he said, “What are you — Click!” He hung up. And I realized, he must be sleeping. But we’re Facebook friends, I think.

So after that first commercial — it was for Miller Genuine Draft. [The agents] like you when you’re hot and I was making some money for them, so they started sending me out more and did some auditions and I’m still in the scene and I had a little status — just like commercials and stuff. The people that were the great performers — I wasn’t at their level — I was still an underling.

But my live show, I didn’t have anything to offer, I was just taking classes. I didn’t have anything to offer as a performer until like, five years ago. I did some stand up, and it wasn’t very good. I got kinda lazy. And then I found the food thing. It was the thing — and then I’m the food guy. The inexpensive good guy.

CSL: So that came together.

M: That came together through doing stand up. People liked my personality, but I didn’t have the material. So I’m still in the scene. I was like the Zha Zha Gabor. Just a character.

Then on a fluke I started writing stuff like, “Here’s a tip on a good place to get a hot dog. You know? I wasn’t writing reviews. I was into like doing, “Here’s a tip, from your buddy, Monte.”

CSL: In your stand up.

M: No, no. I was sending out emails. This was before blogs even. I was stealing people’s email lists. Because they weren’t doing BCC , they were just doing CC. Some people didn’t like it, but more people seemed to like it than dislike it. So one of my friends, who produces a comedy room, said, “You know, you should think of a live way to do this. Bring it to the stage.” But I didn’t know how to do it. I couldn’t think of it.

Then, one day I was at a wedding, and my friend Rock and Roll Vikki, she took a photograph of me eating a salad, from the side, and it was so funny and disgusting, yet funny. So I was immediately like, “Oh my God, that’s it. I’m going to photograph myself eating and tell about these restaurants that I like, and I’ll combine them.”

And my friend [Mark Geary who runs The Lincoln Lodge] set me up and gave me a spot. He gave me an opportunity and now the show does well. I think I’ve been doing it for five seasons now.

And now I do it on WCIU now also, on “U And Me In The Morning.”

CSL: Do you go to these places anyway?

M: The idea is that I’m giving you a tip. The premise is that here’s a place that I like and what I order and how it’s prepared. It’s not like a review. I’ve gone there a few times, tried out the menu, and that’s what I show in my live show. And then when I go, I know some of the restaurant owners and I say, “How you doing? That was a great burger.” But when I come in and take pictures, I don’t tell them anything. They don’t know what I do or why I’m doing that. Sometimes they’ll look at me and wonder, “What are you doing?”

One place called the cops on me. I was taking photos at La Brassa Roja on Montrose and Troy a few years ago. They called the fricking police on me. They were like, “You can’t take photos in here.” Yeah I can. So I just kept taking the photos. And I ordered, and when the waiter brought me my food, “I just want you to know, the owner called the cops on you.” What? Give it to me to go! Wrap it up! I’m not staying here. It’s ridiculous. So I took my food to go, and as I was leaving, he followed me out to my car. And I’m like, “What are you doing? Why’d you follow me out to my car?” He had a pen and paper trying to take down my plates.

You would think that would keep me from going there again, but I went there with my wife four weeks later and I wore a wig and sunglasses, because I really liked the meal there.

CSL: So are you finding that you’ve got to find new places to eat now?

M: I do. But there’s over 22,000 restaurants in the city. Anywhere you go, there’s a good restaurant. I don’t understand people that wait in line, like “I’m going to wait here for a burger.” I’m like, what are you doing dum-dum? You live in Chicago? Walk 30 feet and you’re going to find another burger just as good. There’s good food everywhere. I’ll wait maybe 10-15-20 minutes before they open. But don’t wait an hour.

CSL: Where would you say is the most overlooked great spot in Lincoln Square?

M: Honestly, I think right now, it’s not super inexpensive, but it is once you consider what you get — Mythos on Montrose. If you like great food, their pasticcio it’s $17. But literally it can feed two adults and maybe one child. So you only need one order. So if that’s just 17 bucks, if you and a date — that’s eight bucks a person. Maybe two people and a child, then you’re talking six bucks a person!

And then thing that’s great about Mythos, and you gotta go here if you like Greek food, the one thing I push there is the pasticcio, because — it’s a Greek lasagna, I don’t know which one came first, but in America lasagna came first — usually when you get that, it’s in a sheet, it may be a day old. It sits out all day, maybe they made it at noon. But at Mythos, each pasticcio is prepared individually for the person. It comes in a clear glass Pyrex, and the béchamel sauce is amazing — they make their own béchamel. The noodles, it’s got a little hint of nutmeg seasoning — super delicious.

And it’s prepared just for you. It hasn’t been made at noon or four. It takes 45 minutes, but you get some time with your date. So you’re making time with your date. And if you like this meal, everyone is impressed.

The cool thing about it is that the owner is the chef. There’s two sisters that own it. One’s the hostess and the one’s the chef. And usually the waitresses.

CSL: Along the way, did you hold any weird odd jobs?

M: Yeah. One of the things that helps with what I do, because you need time to audition, is that most of the time I’ve been a driver. I used to be a driver for a doctor that made house calls. That’s how I found many of the restaurants, because I’d drop this guy off and wait an hour for him. Currently I have a job driving medical transport. But I used to drive an escort service. That was my first driving job — an escort service.

I got it in 1996. I was in a play, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and my director’s sister would visit, and she was a dominatrix in North Carolina. But she worked with this service that had escorts. In North Carolina they were making $150 an hour. And then she saw in Chicago they were making between $300 and $500 an hour.

So the escort service moved from North Carolina to Chicago. Since I was in the play, they were like, “Hey you wanna drive the girls” I was like, “Sure I’ll do it!” and I just drove these girls all over. They’re in there for one hour of companionship, and you have to wait for them. And that would take me to other restaurants. And I go in there and eat.

CSL: How’d you end up with Channel 26?

M: It was so weird. Things just happen because they happen. I had just done “Check Please”, the producer, David, I had pitched my show idea to him. He was like, I like the idea, but it’s not right for “Check Please”. You should look into WCIU or WGN, they might be more interested in what you do.

I get home, I have an email from Harvey Moshman, who used to produce “Wild Chicago”. He’d seen my clip on the internet, and he had seen it via an acquaintance who likes what I do. And then I went in — and Harvey Moshman’s working with Channel 26 — and I told him I could do my show right now. I had my computer and I did it for him. So he liked it and we taped three episodes and he showed it to some people, they asked for me to shorten it down, we did it again and they’re like, “We’re into it.” So I met with Neal Sabin, the head over there at WCIU and he was supercool. So they signed me on. They love me and I love them. I do it once a week.

It’s on between 6 and 9 a.m. It’s all spaced out in between other shows. Kinda like “Dinner and A Movie” on TNT. Similar to that.

CSL: Tell me about the U.S. Cellular commercial.

M: I’m not a spokesman for them. They were looking for customers that have an interesting hobby. And I was like, “I have an interesting hobby.”

CSL: Whose telephone number was that?

M: I have that phone. They gave me that phone.

CSL: So, did you get phone calls?

M: Yeah, contractually I had to answer one to two a day. I would take more. But you get 150 calls in a 4-hour chunk. It would air and you would get, “You have 150 messages.” Oh boy. In the beginning I listened to them all. And then I realized it would take two hours.

CSL: What would people say?

M: A lot of people, more often than not people would say, “Here’s a suggestion for a restaurant,” or a kid saying cute stuff or a lot of times it would be women, saying, “You’re so handsome!” And I was like, yeah, that’s what TV will do for you, it’ll make a fat guy like me look good. I couldn’t believe it. I was like: All these women!

CSL: Did you ever have any interesting conversations with people?

M: Yeah, I had a few old friends reconnect. The people I spoke with were nice. One kid said that, “you inspire me.” I had a few people say that. I had one guy who kept calling me with material. There were some people that thought I was like American Idol or something. But I’m just a customer! You’re not calling anyone that has any power! That was fun.

CSL: What comes next?

M: Well, I’m going to New York in the beginning of February. It’s so weird how things work. The same week the U.S. Cellular thing came out the WCIU thing came out, and then that same week I had an article in the Tribune, like a nice spread in the Trib.

From that article in the Trib, some guys contacted me and I’m going to New York to shoot some stuff to show off what I am and they’ve been pitching me for some foodie stuff. That could be what’s coming next. And more stuff with WCIU.

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