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Interview: Peter Sagal (Again)

By Karl Klockars in Miscellaneous on Jul 10, 2007 4:00PM

peter_sagal_07_10_07.jpgSo, Constant Reader, the question you're asking yourself is: "Didn't Chicagoist already interview Peter back in March December of 2005?" Indeed we did. (Damn our inability to read correct dates!) And there we learned a lot about the inner workings of one of our favorite NPR offerings. So when a little bird told us that "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" was going to be taping a show at Millennium Park, we figured, what the hell? Let’s say hi to the guy again.

In the past two years, WWDTM has dramatically increased its visibility on NPR. The show is booking huge guests (and got some national press when Tom Hanks joined the program in advance of The Da Vinci Code) and is now taped live every week. Sagal himself has upped his profile with a new book about Vice, and lo and behold — as we're typing up this entry he pops up on the "Today Show." Incidentally, in a completely unscientific poll of two Chicagoistas, with two interviews and a few tapings under our belt, we've decided that we are the Semi-Official Blog of "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." (The plaque is being inscribed later this week.)

Plenty from Peter about skepticism, 9/11, and the death of the Chicago Mai-Tai after the jump.

Chicagoist: Rather than ask you a bunch of questions about the nuts and bolts of “Wait Wait” — we kinda covered that the last time we spoke — I thought I’d start by asking you how you ended up on Penn Jillette’s old radio show?

Peter Sagal: Oh, wow! That was very cool – in fact, I just listened to that. I was in Las Vegas, and I was invited to speak at something called “The Amazing Meeting.” This is, of course, James Randi, The Amazing Randi, devoted to skeptics and the topic was “Skeptics in the Media,” and it turns out that I have fans among the leadership there – a wonderful guy, whose name is escaping me right now* – but he’s been a fan of the show, he invited me to visit, and then they finally got me an invitation for me to actually be a speaker. And I was flatterered! Anyway, I went. It’s hard to find a collection of cooler people.

*Update - Peter emailed us with this information: "That would be Hal Bidlack, Jr. PhD, a former Air Force officer and instructor at the Air Force Academy, a scholar and a gentleman, and one of the nation's foremost experts on Alexander Hamilton. He often performs an impressive one-man show about Hamilton, of which more info is available here."

Other speakers included Christopher Hitchens, Penn and Teller, who are kind of the unofficial sponsors, the guys from South Park were there, the Mythbusters were there – I mean, my god, can you imagine a cooler group of people to hang out with? Plus, the head of Scientific American was there, some really cool guys from MIT Media Lab, it was great. I love Vegas, but I’ve never been there and had no time to gamble, which is one of the funner things to do.

Mac King was there, who’s a friend of mine, the magician. Life was good. So to answer your question, Penn was – as you know – used to be doing this radio show, and his great problem in doing this radio show problem was finding the time to do it, amidst everything else he would always be doing. So what he did was they took over James Randi’s hotel room, and he and his co-host just shuttled all the guests from the convention up to the hotel room one after the other, and tape the show, so I got my turn.

C: Well, it strikes me as a little odd having you associated with a bunch of atheists and skeptics. Did they invite you because you share their beliefs, or just because they happened to like you?

PS: I think it’s mostly the latter. There’s a strong overlap between our demographic of the show, and their demographic. So everyone there was delighted to meet me, which was very flattering. But the topic was “skepticism in the media,” and I think I was invited in part because I make my living making fun, in part, of the media. So they thought it’d be nice if I did that for them. So I did.

I have to say, it was fairly well received. I took the assignment quite seriously – I wrote a little speech, and it was nice.

C: Over to the “Wait Wait” side – you guys have been getting some very A-list guests lately.

PS: Isn’t it great? It’s really been fabulous.

C: Well, that’s because all celebrities are a bunch of commie pinko liberal leftist NPR listeners, correct?

PS: You know, we all get our orders from the Comintern. What was it called, from the old Communist regime, der Komissar? Where the American communists used to get their orders from back in the old days?

C: I’ll look it up.

PS: Three things: First of all, the efforts of our producer Mike Danforth, who’s been with the show for six years now, and this is his gig: getting these guests. And he just works it; he’s become quite a genius at weaseling and manipulating publicists and cultivating contacts and getting to the right person and saying the right thing to that person. His efforts have been astonishing, and have really paid off.

Secondly, I think it’s a credit to the success of the show. I mean, more people listen to it, we have something like 2.5 million listeners now, and more than 430 public radio stations. So we’re actually well known, we’ve now gotten to the point where when Mike calls a publicist and says “Hey, would X want to be on ‘Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me?” they’ll at least have heard of the show, and in a couple of cases, like Tom Hanks and Brian Williams, they were self-professed fans of the show! Which was really gratifying.

C: Was it a couple weeks ago that Brian Williams called in just for a quick segment – not even a “Not My Job” portion of the show?

PS: Yeah, that was great! That was terrific. We were calling around – we had this idea that it’d be funny to interview a serious journalist on the topic of whether or not President Bush’s watch had been stolen. And we called Brian’s office and they’re like “Oh, he’d love to do it!” So the fact that these people are willing to abase themselves by coming on our show and being silly speaks a lot to their self confidence.

The third reason was that there’s this wonderfully self-perpetuating cycle that really works on the minds of publicists. The publicist’s nightmare, understandably enough, is to set up a prestigious client with some gig, and the prestigious client comes back and says “What the hell was that? I was on some dinky little radio show that nobody cares about, and you made me look bad!”

So by virtue of our past success, if we’re able to say to somebody that “Oh, Tom Hanks was on the show,” or Ted Koppel was on the show, or Barack Obama was on the show, then the publicists are like “Oh! Well, in that case…” We have a track record. So if the client gets mad at them they can say “What can I tell you? Barack Obama did it.”

C: I think one thing about the show that most people don’t realize is that for an hour of show, you really do about an hour an a half of program. And some of it ends up on the cutting room floor.

PS: Yeah, depending on how stupid we’re feeling. It may take a while to get around to the good stuff.

C: What’s the process that goes into editing a program for broadcast on a Saturday morning? I’m assuming there’s some pretty good stuff that ends up getting left behind, just for purposes of fitting a time clock.

PS: It is. I can only speak secondhand, because I’m not allowed to participate in the editing process for fear that I would sit there and say “Oh no, you need more of me.” [laughs] The show is edited by Rod Abid, our senior producer, and Mike Danforth, producer aforementioned. Pretty soon, once we train her up to the job it’ll be edited as well by Melody Kramer, who just joined our staff.

And basically, there are two overriding things: there’s time and there’s content. Time, obviously not only the…whatever it is, 54 minutes that the entire broadcast is, including things like credits and stuff like that take a few minutes off. But we have to hit our time posts – we have to do three segments to the show, and you’d be surprised at how complicated it gets, when you say “Well, you need to get to this minute, you need to finish talking about this subject by this point.” So a lot of times what our editors are doing is just massaging the material to fit into those relatively generous time constricts.

The other thing, of course, is content. If you’ve ever seen our show, you know that there’s some things that work, and there’s some things that don’t work. And we’d rather take the risk of something not working, than restrict ourselves to the sure-fire stuff. A lot of times we’ll launch a topic and have no idea of where it’s going to go. Sometimes, it doesn’t go anywhere. Sometimes it goes somewhere, and then we’ll include it in the show.

The last issue is – I seem to be speaking in threes today, as a college professor once said to me that’s because we’re Indo-European – the last issue is appropriateness! We have to keep reminding ourselves that our show is broadcast at the time in most of the country when people are eating their breakfast. That, however, is one of the great reasons why people should come down and see the show live – because we say things we could never say on the radio.

C: And presumably, that inappropriateness going to be something that comes into play when the show moves to Millennium Park for an evening.

PS: Exactly! Yes, exactly. I don’t know whether the chance of four to six thousand people will make us less likely to say inappropriate or rude things, or in a perverse way, more likely – but I’m willing to find out.

C: How do you get ready for a show in front of a few thousand more people than you’re used to? Are you preparing for the Millennium Park program any differently than you would for a regular show at Chase?

PS: You know what the funny thing is? I don’t think we’re gonna do anything different. It’s going to be our regular show – we’re hoping for a really significant guest that we can’t announce yet, but I mean, that’ll be something. And of course it’ll be a little bit different to play to x-thousands of people rather than a mere – well, mere, I should remain grateful to them, the five hundred people that show up at Chase.

The hardest thing about it, weirdly enough, is actually going to be to work hard to ignore the fact that there are eight thousand people – we’re all taking bets on how many people will show up – is to ignore the fact that all those thousands of people are in front of me. Because there will be 2.5 million people listening at home on the radio. And it’s important, particularly when taping a loud and raucous crowd like we did last week in Portland, Oregon, to remember that they are but a fraction of the people who are actually listening.

And it’s easy to ignore that much larger audience in favor of the much more visible one in front of you. And that happens in both subtle ways, subtle when I start shouting, where I start responding to things that I see; not so subtle when I start making faces and doing visual humor. You have to avoid both of those.

But other than that, are we looking forward to it? We did this before in the summer of ’04, when Millennium Park opened. And it was just crazy great, it was really fun. I got to make my “watch out for the brown acid” jokes, which I’ll probably return to, because I don’t have many more jokes to try on huge crowds. Yeah, it should be fun.

C: The last time Chicagoist spoke with you, you did a rundown of the places you hang out after the program is taped. Since then, we’ve seen the demise of Trader Vic’s--

PS: Which is a tragedy! Because Thursday nights, the night we do our show, had been Mai-tai special night. Which brought us a tremendous amount of joy. We have tried many, many bars and restaurants around the central downtown area. For a long time, our sort of default bar has been the Elephant and Castle down on Adams St. That’s just the place to go when we don’t know where to go, and they’re always glad to see us there, they treat us well, and they make excellent fish and chips.

And they also do leave the basketball games on, which is very important to members of our staff. I just told this to a paper – basically I’m in this for the cast party.

C: You had mentioned Stocks and Blondes as well.

PS: Well, we tried that a couple times. That did not find favor entirely with some of the panelists with more delicate sensibilities. Particularly those who wanted, probably, a more fine dining experience. We haven’t been back to Stocks and Blondes for a while. I loved it. I’m from New Jersey, so there’s part of me that will always love a rundown bar.

C: There’s a piece from the NPR website about a list of your top five moments of “Wait Wait” – one of them is the program directly after 9/11. Can you recall what was the first joke you told on that first program back after the tragedy?

PS: I can remember the first thing that made us all really laugh. I don’t remember a joke per se. I remember the first story we did – I happened to listen to it recently. The first story we did was about how Regis Philbin was offering to send Kathie Lee Gifford to Afghanistan to take on the terrorists. Which we thought was mildly amusing.

But then, I forget how it came up, but there was a guy, a mobster in jail, who used a pay phone in jail to call the city to offer them the use of his personal trash compactor, which he happened to own. You know, to help with the cleanup. And I tell you this now, and it’s kind of amusing, maybe ironic. At the time it seemed hilariously funny! And we were laughing, and laughing, and laughing…

And I’ve got to tell you, if you go back and listen to that show – in which, by the way, P.J. O’Rourke makes his “Wait Wait” debut as a “Not My Job” guest – it ain’t that funny, objectively speaking. Certainly not anywhere near our best show. But there was something so relieving in even attempting it, that there was a tremendous amount of relief. Which is the classic cathartic experience of humor. And people, as I think I say in that little article, wrote into us and said “It is such a pleasure to be given permission to laugh again.”

And that’s what it was. Stuff that wasn’t that objectively funny was really funny just by virtue of the fact that we were inviting people to laugh at it.

C: You guys usually tape on a Thursday – was that just two days after everything happened, or was it a little later?

PS: No. You remember that 9/11 was a Tuesday. All the entertainment shows of NPR were all cancelled that weekend in favor of round-the-clock news coverage – which, when you think about it now, was really kind of pointless, because nothing was happening. The buildings had fallen down, everyone was dead or not, and that was it.

We went on the air with our first show about ten days after the incident itself. But still, it seemed very raw. And it’s funny now to look back upon that time – we honestly thought our show would be cancelled. Because who in the world would ever want to listen to a show like ours again?

We all were thinking about, y’know, our producer had come from NPR News and he was thinking “Well, I can always go back to NPR News,” I was thinking about what the hell I would do, I have no skills in terms of journalism. It just seemed ridiculous that anyone would ever want to make fun of the news or make jokes at the news ever again.

Boy, were we wrong.

C: Off the top of your head, can you think of a few high points of the program since 2003?

PS: Well, it’s hard to say. The main things that have happened since I did that article in 2003… first of all, I don’t know if this was included but that first Millennium Park show in the summer of 2004 – yeah, so it wouldn’t have been [included] – was really amazing because our producer Rod got this idea, he’s sort of an architecture buff. He was really excited by the idea of playing part in the opening of the ampitheater.

I was very skeptical. We were going to be going on at 11 o’clock in the morning, right before some clown show, some circus act. Who the hell is going to show up for us, at this massive outdoor ampitheater. And I remember getting there at like - I think it was 10:30 in the morning that we went on – and I remember showing up there at like 7 o’clock to get ready, and there were already people there staking out seats. And I was like, “This could go well.”

By the time we finished, we had thousands of people [there]. The number of people is somewhat in dispute – I say about four thousand; our senior producer, who was delighted with how it went, said more like seven – because you can’t really tell from the stage. But the [seating] was filled and there was a number of people on the grass in back. That was amazing.

But the biggest thing I think that has happened to us is the fact that we now do the show live every week, as opposed to just special events, which we’ve always done. Now we’re live every week, and that is a new birth of hilarity. It was like the show was reborn, both in terms of its public profile, which we’re getting a lot more press – and also in terms of our success. If you do a chart of our growth over the years, it’s a relatively nicely steady upward line.

But then we started doing the show live, and all of a sudden it really took off. It just became, after that point, a show that if you’re a public radio station you really have to broadcast it, because it’s part of public radio. And it hadn’t been up to that point. And a lot of things came with that.

Having Barack Obama show up on his birthday in the summer of ’05 was really exciting. Having Tom Hanks do the show, this hugely successful international movie star was really exciting. Even Brian Williams, in his own way – the fact that all of a sudden we began to get notice and attention by significant media figures. John Stewart namechecked us, made a joke about us!

And then it’s like, “whoa!” It had always been my dream, and I think this is shared by everybody who works on the show, that we wanted to be more than just another hour of public radio, stuck in between Car Talk and whatever the next thing was. That we really wanted to be part of the national conversation. Not in a serious way, but in the way like “did you hear what John Stewart said about that, did you hear what Jay Leno said about that.”

I’m not sure that it’s happening, but I know because they tell me that people will go through their week listening to the news, and then at the end of the week they’ll say “I wonder what Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me will say about that.” And that was really my greatest ambition, that we would become something that – a news story isn’t quite finished until we get our shot at it.

C: Well, it means you’ve become part of the culture.

PS: Yeah, and that’s really exciting. That’s great fun. And it’s pretty fun to be a part of that with this group of people whom I’m associated with. It’s really cool.

C: How many people come up to you and ask you to do the voice message on their answering machine?

PS: A few; they’re desperate and sad, because obviously they don’t get it. [laughs] But I do get that on occasion. I don’t do it, though, because of course there are rules about this. You know, only Carl, and it’s only under certain circumstances.

C: You wouldn’t want to take away from anyone else’s victories.

PS: No, no – I wouldn’t want to do that. If I start giving them away, all of a sudden the price of the commodity, of Carl’s, goes down. We can’t have that.

Want to see "Wait Wait" live, in person, and for free? They'll be at Millennium Park next week, Thursday the 19th of July starting at 6:30pm. Peter's next book, "The Big Book of Vice," appears on bookstands this fall.