George Wendt, best known for warming a barstool in the classic sitcom “Cheers,” started his career onstage and has returned repeatedly, including to his native Chicago, where he’ll next appear as the lead in Bruce Graham’s Funnyman at Northlight Theatre, Sept. 11–Oct. 18.
I was lucky enough to see you as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray on Broadway. Is that the only role you’ve ever done in drag?
In Minsky’s, I did a bit where I posed as a woman, but it wasn’t proper drag; it was ridiculous-looking. And I put on a wig for a Harry Shearer film about the Bohemian Grove.
You now live in Los Angeles, but you seem to keep one foot in your hometown theatre.
I do a fair amount of Chicago theatre, starting out at Second City; I was there for six years. And this is my second world premiere with Northlight. The first was Richard Dresser’s Rounding Third, also directed by B.J. Jones. I attempted to do The Odd Couple with Tim Kazurinsky a few years ago, but I came down with chest pains right before tech, and Marc Grapey had to step in.
You’re okay, though?
I hope. We’ll see what disease I come down with on this one. This play is so meta for me—there are references to, “I gotta call that heart doctor, my pulse is racing.”
Palpitations aside, what else do you have in common with Chick Sherman, the fictional actor in the play?
A lot. Chick is my age, and he’s done a lot of different jobs but he’s only remembered for one role, as I am for Norm on “Cheers.” He’s got a catchphrase that people shout at him. And he was an absentee father who put work first, which hits home.
And he’s cast in an avant-garde play.
Right, sort of a Theatre of the Absurd piece Off-Broadway in 1959. And he’s thinking, “Do I really wanna do this? My fans want comedy, and I don’t understand a word of it anyway.”
I see that you once did a reading of The Zoo Story, but other than that you’ve mostly kept it light—there’s nothing too heavy or outré on your résumé.
I did Art, but that was a comedy, too. You know, that Zoo Story was a benefit reading with Stacy Keach, and we got a lot of laughs. Also with 12 Angry Men—we were shocked that after rehearsing this courtroom drama for weeks, we go to New Haven and there are all these laughs! Our director, Scott Ellis, told us after that: “I didn’t wanna tell you guys, but yeah—that’s how it played on Broadway, too. These characters set themselves up and take these outrageous positions, and when they get their comeuppance, the audience just roars.”
Can comedy be taught? What’s the key to being funny?
I couldn’t tell you. I’m reminded of a story Gene Saks told me about his first play on Broadway. It was a drama with Edward G. Robinson, who does this impassioned 11 o’clock number, if you will—it’s not a musical, but you know what I mean—and after he finishes, the audience is just sitting there stunned. The next line is Gene’s, and it’s something innocuous, like, “Pass the butter.” So Gene goes to the dressing room beaming: Wow, my first big Broadway show, a big laugh. And then a voice comes on the intercom: “Mr. Saks, Mr. Robinson would like to see you in his dressing room.” And Gene thought, Oh, he’s going to congratulate me. And Robinson is there in his ascot and his dressing gown, and he says, “You know that laugh you got? It’s a bad laugh; you don’t want that laugh.” The next night, he gets a bigger laugh, and again it’s, “Mr. Robinson wants to see you,” and, “What did I tell you about that laugh, kid?” So Gene is sweating bullets at the third performance. When it comes time, he whispers the line as small as he can—and it stops the show with laughter. Gene’s point: He had no idea what makes something funny or not. It’s probably behavior. And, of course, witty lines.
Is it true that you were expelled from Notre Dame?
It’s true. I did party a lot, though I wasn’t expelled for partying per se. I had a 0.0 GPA the first semester of my junior year, which wasn’t every year–up till then I was rocking a solid 2.0. It sounds like an old Second City sketch: “What happened, son?” “Dad, there was this party and everybody went to Denver.” But it’s true: I went to Denver with two other guys in a Triumph sports car.
Do you still hanker for the sitcom format?
I’m on one now called “Clipped” on TBS. It’s fun, and raunchy as hell. The next episode is my wedding to my partner of 42 years, who’s played Reggie VelJohnson. It’s a big gay wedding—or as we call it now, a wedding.
Do you have a favorite bar or restaurant where you’re a regular?
When I’m in New York, I go to Rocky Sullivan’s in Red Hook.
What are your favorite guilty pleasures?
Hot dogs and live rock ’n’ roll.
What brand of rock are we talking?
Post-punk, that’s my thing: X, Blasters, Los Lobos, Bob Mould.
What about the Replacements?
Oh yeah. There’s a funny story; they were here at the Palladium recently, and I was like: “I can’t stand for that long, my back hurts.” My friend told me there was a VIP section with seats, and he said, “Do you want me to call somebody?” I said yes, and he checked and said, “Ooh, it’s going to be tough.” Then he calls again and says: “Oh, no problem.” He got past the manager of the Replacements and they said: “The last time the Mats played the Palladium, back in 1991, the only celebrity in the room was George Wendt. So he’s in.” I like that they remembered.