News with a twist
NPR's Peter Sagal reveals the magic formula behind the hilarity of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me
In its 43-year existence, National Public Radio has earned a reputation for providing a variety of quality, if somewhat dry, radio programming. But one of its premier institutions, the news quiz Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, challenges that stuffy distinction by giving a rundown of the week's news in a manner that manages to be funny, informative and bawdy all at the same time.
The show usually broadcasts from its home in Chicago, but occasionally it goes on the road, as it will this week when it stops by the Winspear Opera House February 7. This is the show's second visit to Dallas, and Dallas native Erykah Badu joins the program for its "Not My Job" segment. But if you were thinking about getting a ticket, you're too late: The show's been sold out for months.
“[A live audience] will boo and hiss and stare at us and throw things at us, and we’ll know we’ve gone too far,” Sagal says.
Host Peter Sagal sat down with CultureMap to talk about the show's popularity and how panelists — which this week include Paula Poundstone, Tom Bodett and Kyrie O'Connor — prepare for the show.
CultureMap: Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me has been on the air for 15 years now. Why do you think it’s remained so popular?
Peter Sagal: When we started the show, we sort of made an existential choice not to tailor it to what we thought the audience would like. Astoundingly, enough people find what we find funny to be funny. And when we write our show, we’ve always said, “What’s funny? What makes us laugh?” And if something makes us laugh, we’ll broadcast it.
CM: Along those lines, you all can get relatively risqué. Where do you draw the line?
Sagal: One of the things that’s really helped us with that is a live audience. When we were doing the show in a studio with no live audience, we were guessing what people would find objectionable.
Now we do it in front of a live audience, so we know. So they’ll boo and hiss and stare at us and throw things at us, and we’ll know we’ve gone too far and we don’t broadcast it.
But the other advantage we have is if we do something we love that really annoys the audience, and they go, “Boo! Hiss! I can’t believe you did that!" Sometimes we’ll go ahead and broadcast that so the people listening at home will know that we got punished for it, so it’s okay. It’ll go by because we got our just desserts. It’s all right.
“Paula Poundstone is by far our most beloved panelist. She’s more beloved than I am, which is kind of annoying,” Sagal says.
CM: Whom do you think people would choose as the most popular panelist or panelists?
Sagal: That’s easy. It’s Paula Poundstone. I apologize to all our other panelists, all of whom are amazingly talented and funny and witty, but we just know from listener mail response that Paula is by far our most beloved. She’s more beloved than I am, which is kind of annoying. I can just tell when the panelists are introduced to a live audience, when Paula doesn’t come running out on stage, people go, “Oh, well.”
CM: Are panelists ever given a heads-up on what questions or topics to expect, or are they truly flying by the seat of their pants?
Sagal: No, they never do. We tried once to warn them, and they rebelled. The theory being, “Hey, if you know that we’re going to ask you a question about this, then you will be able to prepare really funny stuff about it.” And they said, “No, we want to be spontaneous.”
I generally think that is one of the appeals of our show and one of the reasons we can stand out in a crowd of people who are making fun of the week’s news. When I ask the panelists a question, they don’t know what the answer is. So their reactions to it — their guesses, their riffing on it — is all real and in the moment.
CM: For your “Not My Job” segment, you draw from a wide range of fields. Is there any rhyme or reason behind whom you choose?
Sagal: There are three factors. First of all, it’s whoever is willing to come on the show. That’s the first circle of the Venn diagram. The second circle is people who I and/or the staff of the show are genuinely interested in and want to talk to. The other circle, which we’re trying to expand, is just people who would be really interesting to hear from in the context of our show.
Maybe one of the best examples of this is a guy named Jack Gantos; it’s one of my very favorite interviews ever. Jack Gantos is a well-known children’s author. He came on the show and told the funniest extended story you could possibly imagine, about being arrested on federal drug charges.
And so all these people who might have known or didn’t know who he was encountered this guy telling this hilariously bizarre story — true story — that they never would have heard otherwise. And I love to do that. I love to expose people who are well known or have a public position in a different way than the public knows.
“Gene Simmons sucked up all our horrible interview karma in one disastrous conversation, and we haven’t had to deal with it since,” Sagal says.
CM: How many dud guests have you had over the years?
Sagal: We have been very, very fortunate in that we’ve had very, very few dud guests. I don’t know why that is. It might be because in most cases when anybody comes on the show, they’re the kind of person who’s willing to go along with us.
But in terms of really awful interviews, one takes the cake, and that was Gene Simmons. He sucked up all our horrible interview karma in one disastrous conversation, and we haven’t had to deal with it ever since.
CM: For people here in Dallas, do you find your traveling shows to be all that different from the ones you have in Chicago?
Sagal: Back in the day, when we were doing most of our shows in the studio, the road shows were the only live shows we did, so they were huge events. Now it’s less different because we do every show in front of a live audience, but it’s still different, mainly because the venues tend to be larger. Our home theater has around 500-600 people in it when it’s full. We’re playing the Winspear Opera House, which is a couple thousand, so that’s different.
We’re all hams — huge, enormous Virginia hams, especially [announcer and scorekeeper] Carl Kasell. We’ll tend to go out of our way to get audiences to make noises indicating amusement. We’re like dolphins jumping for herring to get laughs, and if there’s a lot of people, we jump higher. I like to think our live shows tend to rise to the occasion.
CM: The show in Dallas is sold out. Does it surprise you that so many people want to see the show live?
Sagal: One of my favorite stories is from when we played the Paramount Theatre in Seattle a couple years ago. It’s one of the big rock venues in town. One of the stagehands came up to one of my producers and said, “Who the hell are you guys?” The line was down the block to get in and he was like, “I’ve never seen it like this!”
And it’s weird. We’re sort of this weird, cult thing. You either know us and like us or you’ve never heard of us. There’s really no awareness of us in the world except for people who listen to us. So when we show up, people come out of the woodwork. What can I tell you? Public radio listeners love the opportunity to get out.