Interview: Peter Sagal of NPR's Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!

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 (Photo by Andrew Collings.)

When he was told that tickets for the three Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me shows at San Francisco's Nourse Theater in July sold out in six hours, host Peter Sagal wasn't particularly surprised. "As you can imagine, the Bay Area is a pretty good place for us. It's fertile ground for public radio listeners," he noted, adding, "I love San Francisco. It's hard for me to think of a place I'd rather spend three weeks in the summer."

What might surprise longtime listeners about coming to see a live show?
I'm even better looking in person. No, seriously, and I need to be upfront about this, we don't offer much in terms of visual appeal. It's a radio show. There are no dance numbers. No elaborate set changes — or sets, for that matter. We pretty much stand still because our sound quality demands that we mostly use wired equipment. Yet people really enjoy the show. In addition to the thrill of seeing us in person, I think the appeal is seeing that a lot of our best stuff happens in the moment. There's also a lot of awesome stuff that can't be broadcast, so there's always the "come hear the dirty stuff" appeal.

Do you know yet who the panelists for the San Francisco shows will be?
We haven't scheduled the panelists yet. We will certainly get some folks up from L.A. And Bill Kurtis will be there as scorekeeper.

How involved are you with scriptwriting for the show?
I am very involved with the writing. Thankfully, I don't do it all, because I work with people who are much funnier than I am. By letting them contribute, I sound a lot funnier.

One of the great glories and tragedies of my job is that we'll spend all week on a joke — writing and rewriting, arguing about which word is funnier. Then I'll try it in front of the audience, and it's immediately topped by something the panelists say off the top of their head. We can work on material all week, but if a panelist says something off the cuff that people go nuts over, our joke might not even air. But it's a small price to pay to broadcast a radio show that's actually funny.


When do you start working on a show?
With very rare exceptions we tape on Thursdays for air on Saturdays. Monday mornings we'll talk about the previous week's show: what we did right, what went wrong, lessons learned. As the week goes on and the week's news starts to take shape, everything sort of speeds up and gets more intense. We're often writing the script up to the very moment we walk onstage.

Do you have a favorite segment on the show?
I love the "Not My Job" interview, partly because it's a chance for me to talk to someone I really admire or whose work I'm interested in, but also because, more often than not, the guests enjoy it too. They're often people who do a lot of interviews, but rarely interviews so goofy.

I also love the top of the show, with "Who's Bill This Time?" which used to be "Who's Carl This Time?" It's where we get a chance to take a whack at the big story of the week.

Do many people ask to be on the show?
A lot of times not only do we get people who want to be on the show, but we get people whose staff wants them to be on. Paul Krugman, for example.

Is there anything else about the shows in San Francisco that you'd like people to know?
This is the first time that we've done a residency in another city. Usually the longest we spend in a city is two nights. Who knows? We may change and do a very different show. Maybe we'll get more mellow and self-satisfied, and stop trying so hard. Although, really, I'm invoking old stereotypes, aren't I? Those are like 1980s Tales of the City stereotypes. San Francisco is all about tech-fund billionaires now. The hard part for us is going to be learning a whole new set of buzzwords.