Q&A with Peter Sagal
The host of NPR’s “Wait! Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” blends news with a dose of good humor
Photo by Andrew Collings/NPR
Presenting a 20th Year anniversary Show this month, Peter Sagal is the host of the funniest news quiz show on America’s air waves. A graduate of Harvard University, Sagal claims to have squandered that education while working as a literary manager for a regional theater, a movie publicist, a stage director, an actor, a playwright, an extra in a Michael Jackson video, an essayist and a ghost writer for a former adult film impresario. As host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!,” which airs Saturday mornings in Chicago and nationwide, Sagal has played coast-to-coast to sold-out theatres and in 10,000-person venues — where he says he is not afraid to “step out on stage and tell my dumb fart jokes.”
You started out in theatre. How did your career unfold from there?
PS: At Harvard I spent my time in theatre, which was a lot of fun. Then I went out to LA with my roommate and still close friend — Jess Bravin who now writes for the Wall Street Journal. We had this big plan. We were going to write screenplays together and make it in Hollywood. That didn’t happen. He went on to a remarkable career in journalism and I went to work for a non-profit theatre in downtown LA that did a tremendous number of new plays. It was a crazy, dysfunctional place but it served as a kind of boot camp in writing. Some of the new plays there were brilliant; some not so good. I thought I could be better. In 1990, I quit my job and started writing plays of my own. I managed to eke out a living for seven years as a professional playwright, which is hard to do in this country.
What kind of plays were you writing?
PS: My most successful play was Denial — about Holocaust denial — a subject that is of relevancy again. It was also about conspiracy theorists and so forth. It was optioned for film, and thus my Hollywood career finally began. It ended very shortly thereafter. I was hired on the basis of Denial to write a screenplay which, without my knowledge and participation, was rewritten to become . . . “Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights” (laughs).
How did you move to radio?
PS: I was living in New York and being a playwright at last, and I was enjoying that. But I got a call one day from a theatre director I knew, who told me a friend of his was involved with a new show at NPR. He said, hey, they’re looking for funny people who read a lot of newspapers and I thought of you. Would you be interested? I’m a newspaper addict. I read them all day when I’m home alone trying to write. Soon thereafter, I did a bunch of auditions for the new show, which was “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” I was hired to be a panelist for the first iteration of the show. It premiered the first week of 1998. Months later, I got a call from NPR’s David Greene, asking me if I would be interested in being the host. Apparently, people were not receiving the show well in the public radio community. They felt they needed to make a change very quickly. So I did it. At the time, I was living with my then-wife, and my daughter was a tiny baby. She was born a week after the show premiered. My then-wife wanted to move back to the Midwest where she is from. A move to Chicago seemed like a really good idea.
What made you choose Oak Park?
PS: It’s really kind of funny. As soon as I announced that I was moving to Chicago and had a baby, everyone I know who had roots in Chicago said, oh, you want to live in Evanston or Oak Park. It just seemed universal — you can probably trace it to my cohort of urban people who want to raise their kids close to the city but in a good school system. We visited Evanston. But here’s the real reason we chose Oak Park — housing prices were much lower so we could get more house for our money. I’ve been living here ever since.
When the show first started, did you ever imagine it would last so long?
PS: Not. At. All. I really loved doing the show, even in those early days when very few people were listening to it! It took over my life. I thought I’d be able to continue my writing career and that turned out not to be the case at all. There’s an old joke about the three sides of a triangle: I could have a writing career, have a radio job and raise a family. I could do any two of those but not all three. And so for many years my writing career kind of withered.
The show has a happy, convivial atmosphere, even when you’re talking politics. Is that what you try to achieve?
PS: It’s something we needed to do.
As a playwright, I had tried to challenge audiences and make them question what they thought. But that’s not what radio is for. That really became clear to me when we started doing our show in front of a live audience. People line up to say hello and sign autographs and take pictures before the show, and they talk to me. They say how much our show comforts them, especially these days but also at times like right after 9/11 for example. People say our show is kind of a balm. They don’t want to be challenged — they want to be cheered up! I came to understand that my job is not to
speak truth to power but to comfort the
uncomfortable — with fart jokes! The more that we can create a pleasant, convivial good time with our panel and guests, the more fun our audience has.
What else makes the show distinct?
PS: I think there are a lot of factors. We are on public radio — a commercial-free format so we’re not responsible to advertisers or for ratings. We also have a fantastically literate and intelligent and educated audience, which is great. We have the best audience in broadcasting. And we’re an interactive live show. It’s to a great extent improvisational, with the audience reacting to what we do. They’re a very integral part of it. We have just five people who put the show together and we have our panel and guests. We don’t brief them, so everything that happens is spontaneous, and you can feel that. All the people on the show are people I really like and admire — I would hang out with them anyway, without the show!
How do you decide the mix of guests?
PS: Over the last years we’ve been trying very hard to diversify our panel, bring in different voices — age, gender, ethnicity. And that’s been a lot of fun. I was the only person to interview U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (in 2007) after the conviction of Scooter Libby. One of the things I love is when we can get public figures who aren’t known for comedy to come on our show and be funny. I love that. Recently, former FBI director James Comey is a great example — the great divider, hated on both sides of the spectrum, Lyin’ Jim or an arrogant fool. And while he might be both those things, my hope is that people see he’s also a human being. If they understand that, we’ll all be a little better off.
Tell our readers about your new book.
PS: I’ve been a serious runner for about 12 years — I ran in the 2005 Chicago Marathon in sort of a mid-life crisis since I turned 40 that year. I fell in with a bunch of pretty serious runners, similar age and aspirations. I’ve run every street in Oak Park and 20 miles out to Geneva on the Illinois Prairie Path. I ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon and had just guided a blind runner across the finish line when the bombs went off. That’s a story. I started writing about running after that. The book is called The Incomplete Book of Running and it will be out soon.
Last thoughts for our readers?
PS: This is generally true of all comedians in the history of time: We’re all deeply insecure, but if somebody is laughing at something you said or wrote, at that moment they’re happy to know you.
Most surprising guest on “Wait, Wait ...” Bill Clinton — I didn’t know he would be on until the day before.
Worst guest ever? Gene Simmons from KISS. He amped his natural obnoxiousness up to 20.
Book you’re reading? The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. He grew up in Vienna and was in exile in New York in the 1940s, watching Europe on fire.
Fastest marathon time? 3.09 — at the Philadelphia Marathon in 2011.
Favorite place to eat out? I kind of like old-school places. There’s a great red-sauce Italian place in Melrose Park, Abruzzo’s. I kind of love old ethnic restaurants as opposed to the fancier more urban places that are opening up. My go-to is Katy’s Dumpling House in Oak Park.
Three words to describe yourself? These days, I would say cautious, hopeful, and grateful.
How do others describe you? Short. Bald. And, I don’t know, somewhat amusing.Edit Module