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Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! comes to a theater near you

©2004 NPR Photo by Tony Nagelmann

If you listen to Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! on WRVO each Saturday morning, you probably know that tomorrow night… Peter Sagal, Carl Kasell and the rest of the Wait, Wait... crew will beam their show live to movie theaters across the country. It’s the first time the show has been broadcast live across the country. WRVO’s Mark Lavonier had the chance to talk to Peter Sagal and asked him how the live show came about.

The full transcription is below.

Mark Lavonier: Tell me about how the “Wait, Wait cinecast came to fruition?

Peter Sagal: As you guys know, because we came to Syracuse about 4 or 5 years ago, we go on the road sometimes with our show, but as you also know we don’t get out as often as we would like. There are a lot of places that we would like to go to for the first time or love to come back to that we just can’t fit into our limited touring schedule. So this is sort of a way to do our show for our audiences around the country that love to see us live but who can’t get to Chicago to see us, or- and we can’t find a way to break the laws of physics and be in two places at once.

ML: You’ve been performing the show live for years now in front of audiences, on a stage where people watching and listening but really there’s no close ups at all. Are you doing anything differently to prepare for that?

PS: I feel that I should prepare by doing this, and I’m trying to do this as much as possible: I’m bald everybody! Just prepare yourself for that, I mean there’s really- I mean when you look like I do, with a face made for radio there’s really nothing you can do to change that. Just make sure to lower everybody’s expectations. That’s it. There’s no makeup in the world, my friend, that can fix the flaws I got. So just, everybody, remember how much you like my personality, is all I can tell you.

ML: Peter at this point, it seems like several hundred years ago Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me was broadcast from the studio with just the cast. And I can’t imagine that you miss not having the electricity of a live audience, but I was wondering if there are any things that you do miss about that time or have kept with the show that we might not know about?

PS: You mean you’re talking about that time when the show first started and we were just in the studio?

ML: Yeah, 99 to 2005 I think?

PS: Yeah pretty much, no there is nothing that I miss about that. Right now I am sitting in a studio in Washington D.C. at NPR’S spiffy new headquarters talking to you in a microphone talking to you and its fine I’m talking to you, I know who I’m talking to. When we were doing the radio show, I was sitting in a situation much like this- I’d sit there by myself in a fairly large room, with this apparatus and there would be people staring at me through a window with looks of concern on their face, sometimes hostility. It’s as close as I ever want to come to being executed, it was just not fun. But for me, an old theater guy, the real problem was we had this audience that they told me at time was numbering in the hundreds of thousands now it’s in 3.5 million. And I wouldn’t believe them because I was supposed to talking to these people I couldn’t see and I didn’t know if they were enjoying it, and I worried if they were enjoying it. Give me a theater full of people, and I could see if they are having a good time and I know if they’re not, I know when it’s time to stop and I know when It’s time to start something else. That just makes me so much more comfortable to have that feedback of an audience. In fact it’s hard for me to believe that we ever did the show in the studio. That seems like such a silly idea at this point.

ML: It’s kind of like having kids, it’s hard to remember a time when you didn’t have kids

PS: Yes.

ML: Being on the road must be an extra rewarding experience for you, taking the cast on tour as you have over the years.

PS: Well it’s really fun, particularly, we have a great time. We do our show in Chicago every week in a live audience. We have about 500 people, 600 people who come down and pack the theater, and that’s tremendous, it’s gratifying and it’s fun and I meet people from all over the country BUT, when you do the show, when you go on the road, when you go to a place like Syracuse or anywhere really. There are a lot of people that don’t get a chance to see you, they come out en masse and they’re very happy that you visited and so there is this sense of welcome. And again, radio is this notional thing people tell me that there are people I can’t see listening to our voices right now. Again I’m not sure I believe it, but you show up and all of sudden these people come out to let you know how much they like what you do. Well I recommend as an experience to everybody who can manage it.

ML: Tell me about when you meet a listener for the first time and they can’t believe it’s you.

PS: Well for one thing I enjoy saying for the first two minutes or so, just outrageous things. Lies, propositions, vulgarities, because I know they’re not hearing me, they’re just staring at my face, seeing my voice coming out, going “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe he looks that way, it’s not what I imagined.”  And then once they start paying attention, it’s gratifying, it’s pleasant, and it’s nice to be recognized. Radio is- and public radio in particular is- kind of a niche thing and I don’t expect to be recognized. I’m not the kind of guy who says “Yes, I’d like that pizza for Peter Sagal” and expect them to get all excited. Usually they say, “It’ll be ready in 30 minutes Mr. Segal.” And that’s fine! But, so when I’m actually recognized it’s like: What do you know, somebody likes what I do. This is so pleasant.

ML: I know myself and our listeners really appreciated hearing you talk to Robert Siegel on All Things Considered recently after the bombings at the Boston marathon which you ran, and you were about 100 yards away beyond the finish line when it happened.

PS: Yeah, I crossed in front of the bombs about 4 to 5 minutes before they went off.

ML: Robert said during that interview you were remarkably calm, how are you feeling now?

PS: Now I feel a little less calm about it- weirdly- what had happened was, and this will make more sense if any of your listeners have been to a marathon: When you finish a marathon you enter what is called a finishing chute. It’s a long, in Boston it’s about 3 city blocks long, basically it’s sort of set up so that people cross the finish line and keep moving away from the finish line, to keep things from getting crowded up at the finish line, you need to keep it clear. So you move through (this is very typical) you move through you’re handed water, you’re handed your medals, you’re handed snacks, eventually you exit and you get your stuff back. We had just entered 100 yards into that coral, when the bombs went off. They were very close to us, we could hear them, they were very loud, we saw the explosion. But because of the way things were arranged, was the other side of the finishing line (which had a big structure around it) I couldn’t see, my view was blocked of the actually bomb site. None of us standing where we were standing knew what had happened. And then we were told to keep moving to the chute, so while America was watching on TV these live horrific images of the bombing, of the injuries, of the blood- we had no idea! I was getting a Gatorade and handing it to blind runner I escorted, saying “Is this ok?” I mean we knew something was wrong, we could tell by the looks on people’s faces. People had radios, people were getting their phones out, seeing what was on Twitter, but we couldn’t see it, so when I went on with Robert, and by the time they had cleared the area away and blocked anybody from coming in, I couldn’t get closer, I really hadn’t seen what you had seen. I knew something happened. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t see what you folks saw. And that explains part of it, the other part is: I’ve always wanted to be an NPR reporter, so once I had the chance- I wanted to do a good job. I’m sure if I had been closer, if I had seen what had happened in a vivid way, my tone would’ve different.

ML: Well you were remarkably poised and again we really appreciate that as listeners.  

PS: Well, my pleasure.

ML: Switching back to Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, I’ve read and obviously heard that your team is amazing at booking celebrity guests on the show. Has there ….

PS: We’re pretty good!

ML: Has there ever been one that asked special to be on the program?

PS: Well, actually, our first really big celebrity guest, I mean A-list guest was somebody who wanted to be on the show, his name was Tom Hanks. I heard he liked it, I put in a request, he was like “Sure!” So we occasionally get “X” wants to be in the show, “Y” wants to be in the show. Off the top of my head, I think the movie director, Barry Sonnenfeld was a recent person, who just got in touch with us and said “I love your show, I want to be on it.” Okay! And he was a great, great guest. If you haven’t heard our interview with Barry Sonnenfeld, I encourage people to go and listen, he told some really funny stories.  Um, so yeah- that’s really gratifying.  I mean I just met Conan O’Brien at an event at the White House correspondents’ dinner, and he it turns out, says he’s a fan, so we are going to try to book him in the show. And it’s really fun, and that’s gratifying. We have a wonderful listenership that sometimes, uh, well, it always includes people we like, but it often includes people we ‘d love to have on the show to interview.

ML: When you came to Syracuse last, the show recording was about an hour and a half at the most, it was later cut down for broadcast. With this live to theater event, are we going to see an extended version of the show?

PS: If you saw our show in Syracuse, you know what we do, we record a lot more of our show. We are going to do the same thing, it’s going to be our regular show, it’s going to be our radio show for that weekend, so we’ll record probably more than 90 minutes because not only do we have Paula Poundstone, who always makes us go long, but we also have for the first time ever a musical act. We have Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, who are an amazingly great funk band from New York. We also have special guest Steve Martin and I have a feeling we might want to talk to him for a while. So we’re anticipating it could go as long as two hours. We have a two hour satellite window from 8 to 10 eastern. So I have a feeling that we’ll fill all of that with all kinds of hilarity.  

ML: Fantastic. You are a fan of the old school, when it comes to quiz shows, and it sounds like you’ve done your research with homages that I’ve read that included Clifton Fadiman of Information Please.   How does standing on his shoulders now affect you?

PS: Well, it does and it doesn’t. I mean, I did some research early on, and we did a piece for NPR  about the quiz show, and it turns out the quiz show is almost as old as electronic mass broadcasting itself. Some of the first radio shows ever broadcast were quiz shows. And whenever you see a panel show like ours, and they’ve sadly died out in TV with a couple minor exceptions- but- I can’t even think of one right now, you’re going back to a bunch of trend setters of sort of ancestors. One was the great show Information Please with Clifton Fadiman; it was when they had three wits (smart people answering questions from the audience) with a host. The other- if that’s our paternal grandfather, then our maternal grandfather is You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx, which was both a quiz show and a parody of a quiz show. It was basically using the quiz show format to make jokes. And if you combine those two, you get us. And I’m really kind of proud sometimes that we are carrying that tradition forward into, I guess now, deep into the 21st century.

ML: Peter Sagal, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, and we are looking forward to seeing you on Thursday.

PS: Thank you so much we’re looking forward to being seen.

Mark is the local host of "All Things Considered" weekdays. He's also the host and producer of "Tuned to Yesterday" which showcases shows and stories from radio's golden age.