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George Wendt Sweats His Upcoming Roast & Looks Back On His Second City Days

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 8, 2017 9:41PM

George Wendt's Second City headshot

By Tony Boylan

George Wendt is a little nervous; despite decades in comedy, a career role as a wisecracking barfly, and years of seasoning at the world’s premier institution of improvisation, mixing it up with fellow comics and trading barbs is not his forte. So that might be bad news for the subject of Second City’s first ever charity roast at the Old Town theater Saturday night.

“Insults and ball busting and roasting—none of these are in my wheelhouse,’’ Wendt, 68, told Chicagoist recently. Wendt grew up in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood and trained and performed at Second City from the early 1970s until 1980. “I figure I’m just going to roll over like a submissive dog and show them my throat.’’

“I Can’t Believe They Wendt There’’ will raise money for both Gilda’s Club Chicago and the Second City Alumni Fund, an organization that has raised more than $500,000 in support of both performers and staff who have run into health or other problems. The roast is a bit of a family affair: emceed by Jason Sudekis, Wendt’s nephew, and featuring Wendt’s wife, Bernadette Birkett, whom he met at Second City. Birkett played the voice of Wendt’s never-seen wife, Vera, on “Cheers,” and is known for roles on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show” and in “St. Elmo’s Fire.” The well-known panel of roasters also will include Bob Odenkirk, Keegan-Michael Key, Betty Thomas, David Koechner, Tim Kazurinsky, David Rasche, Julia Sweeney, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and former Cub Ryan Dempster.

Organizers hope to raise about $100,000 on the event, which is now sold out, but has other charity items that people can bid on even if they can't attend.

Wendt discusses the event from the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania where he is about to premiere the musical “Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story’’ in which he plays J. Edgar Hoover. He hopes that will do well enough to tour, but it’s not as if he needs it to round out his schedule. Following Rock ‘n Roll Man, Wendt is off to Toronto to star as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman’’ and then he’ll play Santa in “Elf’’ for two weeks in Boston and another two weeks at Madison Square Garden.

It’s quite possible his jaunt of less than 24 hours to Chicago this weekend is the only getaway he has until early January. But making time for these causes was very important to him. “I have a very strong connection to these causes, a big, personal connection,’’ he said. In addition to his acquaintance with actors, waitstaff, dishwashers and box office workers who have needed help from the alumni fund, he was a contemporary of Radner’s at Second City.

“What Gilda taught us is there are a lot of horrible things that happen in our lives, but it doesn’t define you and change you unless you want it to change you,’’ LauraJane Hyde, CEO of Gilda’s Club Chicago, the cancer support organization named for Radner, said. “We joke that if we have two groups going on—one a wellness group for victims and the other a support group for
families—you might hear gales of laughter from one room and silence or crying from the other. Often the laughter is coming from the group of people who have cancer. ‘’

Second City owner and CEO Andrew Alexander is involved with the boards of Gilda’s Clubs in Chicago and Toronto and says her courage in the face of cancer served as partial inspiration for the alumni fund.

“For me it was an alignment of Gilda Radner, whom I worked with and hired in Toronto, and the fact our alumni are aging and have run into economic issues related to health problems,’’ he said.

“Over the years we’ve had (Second City) family members in need of help and they were addressed with one-off fundraisers that predate the fund. It’s cliche, but charitable works start at home,’’ said Alexander, who hopes the roast, or something like it, becomes an annual event.

Saturday night will be a long journey home for Wendt, whose very first paid work in the arts was custodial. After taking improv classes for more than a year he was invited to do the Second City children’s show one Sunday, a mash improv games, birthday recognitions and other hijinx that used to be described as “Sunday, Sunday, the little bastards’ fun day.’’

Wendt was too excited to ask why he had been told to show up three hours before the 2:30
showtime, but upon arrival was told to sweep up the cigarette butts scattered from the previous night’s audience. The house porter, Tony the Broom, didn’t come in until the late afternoon so someone else pulled the duty on Sundays.

“Welcome to the theater,’’ he was told by the late Josephine Forsberg, Wendt’s chief trainer and mentor at Second City. And while Wendt speaks of Forsberg with sheer reverence, it’s clear she’s to blame for how defenseless he will be Saturday night. Improv was taught in a very different way back then, more pure theater than stand-up comedy that now starts with pre-loaded premises. When students began a scene with a preconceived notion she would tell them to stop thinking, stop writing in their head, and act in the moment. Improvising didn’t involve a premise, she
would tell Wendt.

Then he joined various casts in the touring company, Chicago mainstage and in Toronto, and
found many of the actors did have premises. One practice that was once a staple of Second City performances involved a couple of cast members taking the stage immediately after the main body of the show in order to gather suggestions from the audience. Then, after a break just long enough to sell another round of drinks, they would come back out for the improv set.

“We would have the sheet with the suggestions on the wall backstage and everyone would be tossing around ideas,’’ recalls Wendt. “I would look at those things and feel like such an absolute dullard. I never got any inspiration from any suggestions. I would just look at it and go ‘nothin’, nothin’, nothin’. I got nothin’.

“But things have changed,’’ Wendt said. “All of a sudden I’m cool again because the fundamentals have gone back to the way I was taught by Josephine. Now they don’t take the suggestions any longer.’’

‘’I Can’t Believe They Wendt There’’ is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. at Second City Theater