As far as Keegan-Michael Key knew, there were no limits on the vitriol to be heaped on George Wendt at the “Cheers” actor’s Second City roast Saturday night.
“No holds barred,” he said. “There will be jeers.”
But just because he and his fellow comedians could disparage Wendt with unfettered abuse doesn’t mean they did. While the Sun-Times wasn’t able to watch the event itself, some roasters on the red carpet beforehand indicated they didn’t want to go too hard on the actor, revered by everyone on the dais.
“How are we ever gonna roast this guy? There’s nothing to roast,” added Key, a Second City alum best known for his Emmy- and Peabody-winning TV series “Key and Peele.” “He’s the perfect human being.”
Tim Kazurinsky, who starred in three Second City shows with Wendt before ascending to “Saturday Night Live,” professed a similar quandary.
“Why did they pick the nicest guy in the world to roast?,” he said. “Is Mother Teresa dead?”
Wendt, for his part, was ready for the worst. “I look forward to being clobbered,” he said pre-show. Even LauraJane Hyde, CEO of roast beneficiary Gilda’s Club Chicago responded definitively when asked if she was rooting for the stars to go easy on Wendt: “No.”
It was humanitarian instincts, not masochism, that led Wendt to agree to this public flaying. The roast was a benefit for two charities: Gilda’s Club, for cancer patients and their families, and the Second City Alumni Fund, aiding former performers and staffers in need of medical or financial assistance.
“It’s really not my cup of tea in general,” Wendt said of roasting. “It’s not my style of comedy. But I know that really I just have to sit there and have fun and laugh. So it’s a pretty easy gig.”
The host was Jason Sudeikis, another former Second City and “SNL” player now developing leading-man credentials on the big screen. He too expressed qualms about taking shots at Wendt, who happens to be his uncle.
“While I love a well-written joke and a well-delivered joke,” he said, “roasts as of late, with the exception of a few people, can be a little — I don’t know how they work out karmically for the people who are really rough on people.”
As Sudeikis listened in, Wendt said he’d been told planners “wanted it to be not as raunchy as a Comedy Central roast.”
Replied his nephew, “Oh. I didn’t get that note. NOW you tell me.”
High rollers spent $500 up to $3,000 for tickets to watch Wendt be slandered.
Despite their respect for the man ’80s TV viewers knew as Norm Peterson, some stars came ready to sting.
“He always liked beer,” Kazurinsky said. “He got the iconic role of his life. There was always a bit of Norm in George right from the get-go.”
Filmmaker Betty Thomas (“The Brady Bunch Movie”), who was not only Wendt’s contemporary at Second City but now is his neighbor in California, planned to go hyperlocal: “Those big tourist vans that come around looking for celebrities? There are none. They don’t come looking for George anymore. They don’t care. The bad part is that the Clydesdales come once a month and make a HUGE delivery there. And the streets are filled with … you know.”
As they do on Comedy Central, the roasters aimed their zingers at not just the man of the hour, but also at each other. They had to, Kazurinsky said,”because the main guy on the dais is such a sweetheart.”
Joel Murray of the famous Murray comedy clan from Wilmette, a Second City alum seen on “Mad Men” and “Shameless,” planned to take a shot at his friend David Koechner, the sometimes showy actor from “Superior Donuts.”
“In ‘Spinal Tap,’ there’s the amplifier that goes to 11?,” went the joke. “Koechner ONLY goes to 11.”
“SNL” alum Julia Sweeney, who doesn’t have a history of performing at Second City but hopes to soon, was resigned to being pilloried by her fellow roasters. “I’m just a big bag of things to make fun of,” she said.
Kazurinsky was happy to oblige: “Why is it only one-woman shows that she does? Because no one wants to work with her.“