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Interview: George Wendt reflects on comedy, theater and the White Sox before the Chicago Humanities Festival

Written by
Laura Rote

You probably remember this friendly face fondly—a beer in his hand and a smile on his face as Norm on the long-running NBC show Cheers. But George Wendt has done a lot of acting in his decades-long career, from musical theater (Hairspray, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) to Portlandia. This month, he talks to Chicagoans about his crazy journey as part of a conversation with fellow local funny guy David Pasquesi (TJ & Dave, Stolen House). It’s all part of the spring Chicago Humanities Festival, April 28–May 1.

On April 30, Wendt joins Pasquesi to talk Chicago-style improv. When he first heard the festival’s theme was “style,” he laughed. “I was like, ‘Well, maybe my daughter can help you. I’m not exactly a stylish guy.’” When it comes to comedy style, though, Wendt's got it, even if he is quite modest. “My background is in Second City and improvisation, but I’m sort of out of the game,” he says.

We recently caught up with Wendt in advance of the event to see just where he’s been and what he’s looking forward to these days.

What was your comedy experience in Chicago?
“My first teacher was Josephine Forsberg, the late, great improv matriarch,” Wendt says. Both he and Pasquesi worked with Forsberg as well as Del Close, though Wendt says the teachers’ styles could not have been more different. “Del was not for beginners, and I was green as can be,” he says, adding that Forsberg was nurturing where Close was biting and sarcastic. “In Josephine’s class we didn’t take suggestions, we just explored the space until something started happening, and then we began. I thrived in that environment,” Wendt says. When he was hired for Second City, though, that process changed to rely on audience suggestions. The troupe would write them down, go backstage and make something up. Wendt hated it. “I was and remain a dullard at that. I looked at those things and nothing.” Every night, he felt panic. “I couldn’t think of anything for the life of me. Thank god my fellow players would think of something and rope me in. Once I was on my feet I was okay, it was just staring at those stupid suggestions. Now they don’t do that.”

How often are you in Chicago?
While Wendt lives in LA and spends much of his time in New York, he always finds time for Chicago. He grew up in Beverly, his wife (Bernadette Birkett, whom he met at Second City) is from Austin, and both come from large families who still mostly live in and around Chicago. “If we’re not working in Chicago, we’re there a lot.” He won’t throw out too many favorite local spots—“I don’t even know half of the cool things that are going on. I heard Anthony Bourdain does.”—but you might catch the South Side native at a White Sox game. He jokes about switching teams, you know, “as a career move to be a cool guy” with the likes of John Cusack and Jeremy Piven. But no, he wouldn’t dare. “The few, the proud, the White Sox fans,” he says.

Did you ever imagine this is where you’d be in your career?
The short answer? Never. “I was such a late bloomer,” he says. After college, Wendt traveled around Europe for a couple of years, trying to keep as much distance between himself and his hometown as possible (as young people tend to do). “Finally I just thought, ‘Look, there’s one thing I wouldn’t hate, and that would be if I could work at Second City.’” He’d seen performances there just a couple of times and, honestly, didn’t realize how difficult it was to get a gig with the comedy group (if he had, he swears he would have botched it). He inquired about workshops and signed up. “For the first time ever…I applied myself. I dug in and did the work and really enjoyed it,” he says. “I had no concept of a career in show ‘bidness,’ let alone getting on one of the best sitcoms of all time. None of that was anywhere near anything I thought about. All I wanted to do was be in Second City.” About a year later, he secured a spot in the touring company. Once five or six more years passed, he really started to think of himself as an actor and started taking voice lessons and acting classes with other Chicago groups like St. Nicholas and Victory Gardens.

So what does the future hold now?
A lot of theater. While Wendt was most recently in Chicago for Funnyman and loved his time working with Northlight Theatre, he’s got even more touring shows—musicals, actually—in the works. Sometimes even he’s surprised by his schedule. “Why am I the fucking musical theater guy? It’s so weird,” he says. “I’m not a proper singer or a dancer, but I will do what I’m told.”

You can win tickets to Chicago Humanities Festival by entering hereGeorge Wendt and David Pasquesi take the Studebaker Theater stage in the Fine Arts Building on April 30 from 4–5pm. Tickets cost $12 for members, $15 for the public and $10 for students.

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