George Wendt returns to the Kilkenny’s Cat Laughs event 19 years after his first appearance, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
GEORGE Wendt, who played the character Norm Peterson in the 1980s sitcom, Cheers, had an enviable entrée on the show. The set-up rarely changed: he would swing through the door of the Boston bar. “Afternoon, everybody.” He’d go to hang his jacket on the coat rack when the whole bar would burst into life: “Norm!”
Then whoever was working the bar would get down to business.
Coach: “What’ll it be?”
Norm: “Fame, fortune, fast women.”
Coach: “Oh, yeah. What about a beer?”
Norm: “Even better.”
Or if it was Sam, played by Ted Danson: “What would you like, Norm?” “A reason to live. Keep ‘em coming.”
Or a gauche Woody, played by Woody Harrelson: “Hey, Mr Peterson, got room for a beer?” “No, but I’m willing to add on.”
Wendt, who returns to Ireland this week for an appearance at Kilkenny’s Sky Cat Laughs Comedy Festival, 19 years after appearing at the maiden festival, was part of the Cheers ensemble from its first season in 1982, although he says it took a while for the show to take off with the American viewing public.
“The tipping point was the very beginning of Season 3. We were behind The Cosby Show in the line-up, and I guess people were too lazy to change the channel back in those days. Bill Cosby was a hit right out of the box, a No 1 hit as soon as it hit the air, so we sort of rode in the draft of Bill Cosby.”
Wendt, despite the German surname, has Irish, south-side Chicago blood coursing through him: three-quarters of his background is Irish. His maternal grandfather, Tom Howard, was a legendary photojournalist who took one of the most famous newspaper pictures in history.
The murder trial of New York magazine editor Albert Snyder scandalised America in 1927. His wife, Ruth Snyder, and her lover strangled him to death with a picture-frame wire, which, screamed the tabloids of the day, “killed the greatest thing in the world — love!” Ruth Snyder was the first of the pair to be executed in January 1928. Wendt’s grandfather sneaked a camera into the execution chamber strapped to his ankle, which he operated with a cable that ran up his leg.
The picture he took of Snyder the moment she was killed, which was published in the New York Daily News under a banner headline, “Dead!” led to consternation.
“The picture was in his flat,” says Wendt. “I would stay over there fairly often. My parents were pretty social, so we were getting fobbed off onto the grandparents quite a bit.
“It scared the hell out of me — that photo. It was very stark. I knew all about it. It was an amazing image.”
Wendt earned his spurs in the entertainment business with the revered Second City troupe in Chicago where he met his wife, Bernadette Birkette, who, incidentally, used to play his wife Vera, an unseen character in Cheers.
Stephen Colbert — who will take over from David Letterman as host of the Late Show on CBS — is another Second City cast member. Wendt has worked with him over the years.
“He’s a very clever man,” he says. “He’s developed this character — an arch, conservative idiot; I wonder if he’s a bit like Steve Coogan’s character, Alan Partridge — who seems very sharp, but in reality is incredibly dull and dense, who just doesn’t understand the hypocrisy as he speaks it.”
Wendt was one of the performers who replaced Harvey Fierstein, the original Edna Turnbald, in the hit musical Hairspray. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing drag role, which was a new departure for Wendt, who is synonymous with beer-swilling, sports-loving Americana.
He nearly came a cropper during one performance, he remembers. “The orchestra pit was in the middle of the stage. There was one moment in the production where I was riding a hot-dog cart, being pushed by a strong, young man. We’d ride across the stage and it would go flawlessly every night.
“One day the boy was sick. His understudy for the evening was nowhere near as strong so he lost control of the hot-dog cart and it went down into the orchestra pit. It went down real fast, and I had to drag it back out with him, while the conductor was shoving from the bottom. I pulled a hamstring, which I thought was pretty cool. I felt like a real jock: ‘Yeah, I got a bad hamstring. I was in my high heels, but they were too high.’”
* The International All Star Improv Hosted by George Wendt, 2pm, Saturday, 31 May, Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel (King’s Ballroom), Ormonde St, Kilkenny.n www.thecatlaughs.com.
MEMORABLE NIGHTS IN KILKENNY
There have been many memorable nights at the Cat Laughs Festival since its inauguration 20 summers ago. Jane Russell, the festival’s chief executive, singles out a corker by Glaswegian Kevin Bridges in the Ormonde Hotel and a particularly bawdy night of laughs by three North American veterans who are all back on the bill this year: Lewis Black, Dom Irerra and Mike Wilmot.
“It was a couple of years back,” she says. “It was a late-night gig. The guys took off, heckling each other. The gig got momentum and the whole place was doubled over, with tears rolling down faces. You couldn’t repeat anything that was said on stage on the night. It was just one of those gigs that had a magical quality to it.”
This year’s roster includes Tommy Tiernan (inset), Dara Ó Briain and Barry Murphy, who has appeared at all 20 festivals, and talent from such countries as Australia (Adam Hills), Canada (Glenn Wool), Scotland (Bridges) and the US (Rich Hall).
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