George Wendt has become accustomed to being greeted with good-natured shouts of “Norm!”—a reference, of course, to his beloved Cheers character. But lately the 68-year-old Chicago native has been bracing himself for a coming onslaught of insults. On September 9, a cabal of friends and collaborators will lovingly razz the veteran actor at his comedic alma mater, Second City. I Can’t Believe They Wendt There: The Roast of George Wendt will feature Bob Odenkirk, Keegan-Michael Key, Julia Sweeney, David Koechner, Betty Thomas, Jeff Tweedy, among others, as well as roast master Jason Sudeikis, who happens to be Wendt’s nephew. The cheapest tickets start at $500 (yikerz!), but 80 percent of that money goes directly to two charities: Gilda’s Club Chicago and the Second City Alumni Fund. They say we roast the ones we love, and that’s certainly true in the case of Wendt. But speaking over the phone in advance of the event, he sounded like he might take things a bit personally.
What do you expect people to roast you about?
Being lazy, being generally sort of a ne’er-do-well. I’m sure they’ll bring up some crap I don’t remember. I know that I do suck at improv, though.
My understanding is that you desperately wanted to perform at Second City when you were younger.
Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything else I knew I wouldn’t hate. I got hired on to the [Second City] touring companies, and [at the end of shows] we would take suggestions, hang them on a corkboard, and stare at them. I felt like such a dullard. [My mind] was a complete blank. Other cast members, particularly Nancy Kelly, would come up with ideas and grab me. Once I was onstage with something somebody else had laid out, I was kind of OK. So it’s not so much the improv that bugs me, it’s the idea part. At the risk of sounding New Agey, if you’re thinking, you’re dead.
I’ve encountered Second City alums who travel to the coasts, and their experience at the theater is ultimately meaningless when it comes to casting. People say, “What have you done?” and if you point out Second City, they say, “Yeah, but what else?” What was your experience like after you branched out?
Back in the 80s, there weren’t a thousand people with a Second City background. There were only a few dozen. So it was a calling card.
How does your time in Chicago permeate the work you’ve done since leaving?
This may sound pompous, but one thing I took was respect for the audience. Our original audiences at Second City were all University of Chicago types and other assorted artists and eggheads, intellectuals, and sophisticates. They were one step ahead. You can’t be pedantic like I’m being in this [interview].
Television is very different today than it was during your Cheers run. The prestige shows attract film directors and movie stars. What are your thoughts on returning to TV?
I know it’s cliche to say, but it’s a great time for TV. Movies—honestly, jeez Louise! How come everybody flies? Somebody gets in a fight and they’re doing somersaults. I guess I’m an old fogey, but movies are weird. Good movies aren’t generally playing in the malls. TV, on the other hand, is superrich, detailed, dramatic, character stuff. People won’t sit still in theaters these days.
I’d imagine you could get on TV again. You’re George fuckin’ Wendt.
I don’t think so. Yes, I totally want to, but I can’t catch a break. I sound like the guy who hit the lottery once but wishes he could hit the lottery again. I’m not gonna get a whole lot of sympathy. I did do a fancy HBO pilot with the whole Girls team, and it didn’t go. I’d love to do a really cool show, and barring that, I’d do a crap TV show because, um, I’ve blown all my money.
You’ve done a lot of theater in recent years. It’s said film is a directors’ medium, TV is a writers’ medium, and the stage is an actors’ medium. What is your experience like on the stage versus on a sitcom?
I remember seeing John Malkovich talking to David Letterman [on The Late Show]. Letterman said, “I understand you prefer theater to feature films,” and [Malkovich] goes, “I don’t particularly like my performance to be framed, focused. It’s not something I particularly need help with.” In theater, you’re still saying the playwright’s words, and the director obviously has huge input. Once they fuck off, you and your fellow players and the audience give it a good run. Theater is by far the most fun. The multicamera sitcom, which has sadly gone away I guess, was a nice blend, because we had a live audience.
How do you feel about multicamera sitcoms generally?
They feel a bit proscenium. When I first got Cheers, I remember Del Close said, “It’s just a form, remember that. It can be done well or it can be done poorly, like a sonnet. You can write a shitty sonnet or a great sonnet.” [On Cheers] I was so green, I didn’t even know where the cameras were pointing. I was just playing to the audience. We all did.
Is the tradition of roasts meaningful to you?
I haven’t paid much attention to the Comedy Central ones over the past decade or so, and I vaguely remember the Dean Martin ones. So many of the comics were ballbusters and insult comics, and that doesn’t seem to be much of a style now. I dunno. I’m not terribly comfortable with the concept of this roast.
Just lack of self-esteem. I’m flattered they went to me. I’m a bit of a pussy as a public figure. I tend to not shoot my mouth off. I spend a lot of time reading stuff my more courageous friends will write. I don’t go straight balls-out and make statements on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t need the grief, honestly. I’m too self-centered, too focused on trying to keep my little world together. It’s equal parts cowardice and laziness.