Peter Sagal - Host of "Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me!"

By Chris Karr in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 13, 2005 3:41PM

When he’s not writing about dinner with porn stars, Peter Sagal is better known as the moderator and host of NPR’s radio quiz show “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!” Chicagoist had the opportunity to catch a taping of the show several weeks ago at the newly christened Chase Auditorium in the Loop. Last week, we sat down with Peter over a cup of coffee to talk about his role in the show.

Chicagoist: How did you become involved in radio? Carl Kasell & Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal: My story is kind of an insult and a reproach to anybody who actually devotes their time and energy to planning and training for an career in radio. I just fell into it out of dumb luck. It’s really unfair – I sometimes think I should come up with a better story.

What happened was that I had never been in radio. At all. In my career post-college, I had kicked around a lot of things, but I became a writer. Specifically a playwright and screenwriter. I was doing ok, actually. Better than most and not as well as some. But I managed to make a living doing that. And one day, I got a phone call from a friend of mine in the theatre and he said, “I heard about this new show they’re putting together for NPR. They’re looking for funny people who read a lot of newspapers. And I thought of you. Are you interested?”

Now I should say that at that time while I was doing all these different things, I was listening to NPR. In fact, if you’re a single guy and a writer, you spend a lot of time alone in your apartment. There were days where the only other human voice I would hear were people from NPR. So I was a huge NPR geek. And like a lot of public radio geeks, I would sit around saying, “I could do that. Why don’t they put me on the air? I can be pompous just as they can! What’s the problem here? What do they have that I don’t?” And God heard. So I got my chance.

This was all transpiring during the summer and fall of 1997. I got a phone call from a producer – a gentleman named David Greene – who at that time was helping to create this new show called “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!” and they were doing a nationwide talent search – looking for people to be on the panel. They had already selected a host or were in that process as well, but I wasn’t in the running. In the due course of events, I became one of the panelists on the show. So, when the show went on the air – that was my gig. I was introduced as Peter Sagal, playwright from Brooklyn, New York.

The show, shall we say, had its problems. It was having an awkward adolescence on the air. The producers here in Chicago decided that the primary problem was the host. He wasn’t working out too well. And somebody – even though I tell this story on frequent occasions – I still don’t know who this person was who initially said, “What about this guy Sagal? He sounds harmless – let’s give him a try as host.” So I got a call at the beginning of 1998 saying “We’re thinking of trying you as the host – what do you think?” And without getting into the details of my personal life – it came at a remarkable time. My wife and I – I was no longer single – had just had our first baby. We were living in New York. We didn’t want to raise our child in New York. She’s from the Midwest. We were trying to figure out what to do, where to go. I wanted to live in a big city, she wanted to go back to the Midwest and all of sudden came a job offer in Chicago. Which, in case people didn’t notice, is a big city in the Midwest. Which was strange because it never occurred to us before.

So, I came out to Chicago in May of ’98 for what was supposed to be a nine-week trial and I’ve been here ever since.

(More below the fold...)

Chicagoist: Can you tell us about some of your work prior to “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!”?

Peter Sagal: Well, I was a theatre geek in college, meaning that I pretty much ignored my studies and spent all my time at the theatre either directing or acting and putting on plays. This was at Harvard where there was no theatre major – so I have no training in that either. It’s been a hallmark of my life where I avoid becoming qualified for anything I’m about to go out and do. But afterward, I went with a lemming-like crowd of Ivy League graduates out to L.A. to seek my fortune in the film and TV business.

I ended up working in the theatre business in L.A., which is pretty dumb. It’s not, let us say, a respected art form in that city, despite the efforts of a lot of cool people I met there doing it. But I ended up getting an amazing education working as a literary manager for a large theatre downtown. Sort of the L.A. equivalent of the Goodman or the Steppenwolf. I read a lot of new plays and met a lot of playwrights and I conceived the idea that I should go out and be one of them. Again, this is the hallmark of my life – watching qualified people do something and saying “I should do that! What do they have that I don’t?” And that ignorance – not knowing the answer to that question – given the multitude of things that they have that I don’t have allows me to go out and pretend I know what I’m doing. So I began writing plays and for about ten years I had the itinerant, sometimes risky, sometimes very exciting, sometimes very depressing life of a freelance playwright.

I ended up moving to Minnesota where I was given a fellowship by The Playwrights’ Center there. It’s where I met my wife – who was classically one of the actresses in one of my plays. My plays started getting produced in places around the country. Those plays started getting attention from Hollywood. One of them was optioned for a film. I was hired to write a screenplay. A screenplay, that without my knowledge or participation, became the basis for “Dirty Dancing 2”. And that’s where I was when this call came out from the blue involving radio, and my life made a hard left turn.

Chicagoist: Can you describe the typical week before one of the shows?

Peter Sagal: Well, we’re talking on a Monday, so I can take you through this week. So, it’s Monday morning, 10:30 AM, I’m going to roll into the office. Other people will be rolling in about the same time. Obviously one of the things about the show is that it’s a quiz about the week’s news, so we have to wait for the week’s news to happen.

So, what happens on a Monday? We’ll look at listener mail, the producer who’s responsible for listening to listeners’ calls will listen to all of them and start picking contestants to play on this week’s show. The producers responsible for logistics will make arrangements to bring in all of our panelists for the week – Carl Kasell and the panelists doing the show. Another producer whose job is to book our special guest will get that all in place – I believe this week, it’s going to be Harold Ramis, who will be live with us in the studio. The rest of us will start looking around for those things we can start talking about before the week happens. For example, one of my responsibilities every week is to research and write the “Not My Job” quiz for our celebrity guests. Maybe I’ll do that today. We’ll start looking at the goofy news that happened over the weekend. We’ll all get a sense of what happened over the weekend that we might want to talk about.

And then it gradually accelerates through the week until on Wednesday, where we’re all staring at our computers, reading the news, trying to lock down what we’re talking about, what we’re going to lead the show with, what good quotes Carl can do. We’ll know what we’re going to ask the special guests about. We’ll know the other things we’ll do on the show – we will have an expert on the phone, we’re going to read some listener mail, and what kind of goofy stuff we might have come up with.

Thursday is utterly crazy, as we write the script. The script is written on the last day, primarily because we don’t know what we’re going to talk about because it hasn’t happened yet. Thursday’s a long day for everybody. We start writing the script in the morning. We start rehearsing the script. We rewrite the script. We deal with any crises that may have come up with people flying into town and not making it. We go over to the theatre to do a sound check. We prerecord stuff. We do the damn show at 7:30 PM. And then we start drinking heavily.

Friday is then a busy day for the people who edit the show. The show is edited - it takes five or six hours to do it - by our producers at the NPR bureau with the engineers there. Then the whole thing gets put on the satellite, starting at 11:00 AM Eastern Time on Saturday morning. That’s the first feed people hear in Chicago.

Then we fall asleep and do it again on Monday.

Chicagoist: How do you pick the panelists?

Peter Sagal: The panelists have all been selected slowly over a period of time and it’s weird. It’s one of those things when you look around when you have a tight group of friends and you ask, “How did these people get here? How did I meet them?” There are very odd stories. All of our panelists were found through sometimes dumb luck, sometimes prior connections.

Adam Felber, one of our stalwarts and longest serving panelist, was my neighbor and friend in Brooklyn. I’d seen him do improv. When I became host and needed someone to replace me in the panel, I suggested him among other people. And he amazingly had all the skills and talents to do the show. Charlie Pierce worked with one of our prior producers on another show. Roxanne Roberts was recommended to us by Scott Simon. Sue Ellicott was found by me through a mutual friend who knew her. Kyrie O’Connor – was someone whose blog we read, and loved and thought was just funny.

We brought in a lot of people to work on the show, and some of them worked out. Obviously the ones who are still with us have. If you were to ask us what makes them great… There’s a couple of skills, obviously – you must know a bit about the news, you must be funny, you have to be quick, you have to be able to respond in the weird context in which we do our show. Now, you have to be good in front of an audience, since we have a live audience every week. But it’s also like “Mission: Impossible” in the beginning. Where they pick everyone with their special skills. We want people with different skills. We want the bomb expert, the beautiful siren, the master of disguise. What we like to think is everyone brings something different to the table. Richard Roeper is not like Charlie Pierce, who is not like Roy Blount who is not like Kyrie O’Connor –they’re all very distinct. And they become characters.

One of the weird things about doing radio – very, very different from my prior life which was as writer of a form that prized the anonymity of the author – is that people get to know you. People feel that they know you. They respond to you as a person in a surprising way when you meet them, because you never met them but they know you. And all I have to do to explain this to myself is to go back to the days when I used to sit around the apartment and listen to Robert Siegel all day and think that I had that kind of relationship with him. And people do. What we’re trying to find for our panelists are people who come across the radio as personalities. They may not reflect their entire real personality. For example, Charlie Pierce is a very skilled and serious writer who has written amazingly moving things. You wouldn’t know that from listening to our show. He has a particular persona. Nonetheless that’s a full character that you get coming across the air. People know and respond – people respond to our panelists like a cast of characters and it’s really sort of gratifying and cool.

Chicagoist: Does “Wait! Wait!” invite many comparisons to “The Daily Show”?

Peter Sagal: We get a lot comparisons to “The Daily Show”, which I find flattering because I love “The Daily Show”. When I’m talking to someone I need to explain the show to – like a guest that’s never heard it – I say it’s a combination of “The Daily Show” and “You Bet Your Life”. And I’m very specific. “The Daily Show” – obviously because it’s the primary example of a show that makes fun of the week’s news. People who come on our show need to know that we don’t take things seriously. Sometimes they’re a little surprised by that. We once had a guest – I think it was Andrew Sullivan – who was listening to us talk about stuff and was like “Are you sure this is NPR?” Every now and then, we get people to come onto the show who are big NPR fans – happy to do anything for NPR – but they haven’t heard our show. And we’re a little surprising because we’re not “All Things Considered”. People expect a certain type of seriousness, so our slogan for a while was “NPR – Without the dignity.” So we’re similar to “The Daily Show” in that we’re making fun of the week’s news and doing it in as irreverent of a way as we can get away with.

We’re a little bit like “You Bet Your Life” – the old Groucho Marx show – because we’re a quiz show. But we’re not a quiz show that’s particularly serious. Nobody ever went on “You Bet Your Life” in the old days with Groucho Marx to get a new car – it was about having fun. We are a quiz show – we do have listeners call in – that’s a priority. This is a show that you can play along with either by calling in or playing along at home.

That also indicates something else that makes us different from “The Daily Show” – even though we spend time writing a script and preparing for the show, by the time it’s done, we’re not a scripted show. We don’t have a staff of twenty writers. We don’t have a writer’s room where people are throwing out jokes. Most of the stuff you hear on the radio is spontaneous stuff that happened during the taping, based on that preparation. We write some jokes and prepare some material to be funny when we do it. One of the things that makes our show different and special and enjoyable is that it’s very spontaneous – we never know what’s going to happen when we start taping. Most of the stuff we broadcast is stuff that we didn’t anticipate.

Chicagoist: What news topic from the past year has yielded you the most material?

Peter Sagal: Well, it’s weird. What I want to say is… It’s hard because in the first year of our show, it was obvious. It was 1998 so we built our show talking about Monica Lewinsky. It was God’s gift to us that broke two weeks after we first went on the air. Since 9/11, the news has been much more serious. Last year we did a lot with the presidential campaign, just like everybody else did. This year – the Bush administration’s wheels coming off in many ways – the whole Katrina thing, and many things like that – as horrible as it’s been for the country, has been fabulous for us as people who make fun of the week’s news. There was a seriousness to both what they were doing and their demeanor that was not the easiest thing in the world to not make fun of. It’s almost as if the curtain came up a little and we were able to see the little people doing bizarre things. So, we’ve had our share of fun with them. Bless them. In a weird way, turns out – at least so far – that regardless of the election results’ effects on the world and country, it’s been great for us. God bless George W. Bush for getting reelected because so far he’s provided us with a lot of material and we’re very grateful.

Chicagoist: Where does the “Wait! Wait!” crew decompress after the Thursday taping?

Peter Sagal: We have a regular post-show drink date with everybody and we’ve been rotating between three places. When we want to be a little more upscale, we go to Encore Liquid Lounge, where we occasionally sit in the big oval booth in the back. If people don’t need to be impressed with expensive martinis and pretty good bar food, then we go to Stocks and Blondes to eat fried cheese. Very cheap there. But lately we’ve been going to Trader Vic’s because they’re going to close. We go there and drink and it turns out as a fabulous thing – our Thursday shows coincide with their five-dollar Mai-Tai specials. So we’re going down there and eating pu-pu platters and we’re drinking some Mai-Tais. It’s pretty fun.

Chicagoist: Any parting thoughts for our readers?

Peter Sagal: One of the funny things that happens is that we do these shows every week at the Chase Auditorium. People come up and at least one person asks me the same question: “Do you fly into Chicago to do the show? Will you be back in Chicago?” No! We live here! This is a Chicago-based show and if you were to look at the media productions in Chicago that have nationwide distribution, it’s a pretty short list. It’s “Oprah”, “Siskel and Eb-“… Excuse me, “Roeper and Ebert” – I’m sorry Richard. And Ira Glass’s show, and us. What am I missing? Jerry Springer – excuse me, Jerry. So it’s a pretty short list, but we’re on it. We are a nationally broadcast radio show coming out of Chicago. All of us live here. Rod Abid, the Senior Producer; producers Mike Danforth, Amanda Gibson and Emily Ecton; our engineers Robert Neuhaus, Lorna White, Bob Weston, Gary Yeck, Jennifer Loeb and Nicholas Gibson... we're all Chicagoans. We are all Chicagoists. We love it here and we’re glad to be here. So come down and support your very own homegrown, media-savvy, comic news quiz. Because only Chicago has one on public radio.

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If you’re a single struggling writer that sits alone at home all day and are interested in catching more of Peter in “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!”, NPR broadcasts the show weekly at 10:00 AM on WBEZ 91.5 FM. If you’re looking for computer-friendly versions of the broadcasts, the show’s archives are online. However, if you’re looking for the deluxe “Wait! Wait!” experience, round up some buddies, pick up a few tickets, and come down to the Chase Auditorium on Thursday evenings. It’s a great time and you’ll have the opportunity to catch the uncensored version, before it’s edited for general consumption. It's a good way to kill a Thursday evening.