Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, “The Oddly Informative New Quiz” needs no introductions, nor does its host Peter Sagal. For over 14 years, listeners across America have played the trivia game in the cars, laughing at the jokes and the panelists along the way. Personally, I’m pretty bad at trivia, but I wanted to know more about the show from a comedian’s point of view.
I went into the NPR office at Navy Pier on a Monday afternoon last month. Peter had just stepped away to grab lunch, so I talked to the writing staff for a bit. Lucky (or unlucky?) for me, it was “Sandwich Monday.” Each week the writers try out a new sandwich and then blog about it. “For some reason they (KFC) sent us an email about their Double Decker sandwich to promote it. We asked them to send us some and they hand delivered it. “Sandwich Monday” was born from there.” While I stayed as far away as possible from the Burger King veggie burger as I could, I did get a little deeper into the process of the show.
Serial Optimist: Hi, so you’re the writers. Tell me about your background.
Eva Wolchover: I’ve been with the show since 2009. I was a journalist major in college. I came here after working at a newspaper. I was also an intern at Car Talk.
Ian Chillag: I bounced around public radio a little while. Then I got laid off from that and did the freelance unemployed for a little while. Then I came out here from New York about 4 years ago. I did a little bit of work writing for these guys from there, before they made an honest woman out of me.
Emily Ecton: I’ve been here for 10 years. I worked for PBS and I’m also a kid’s book writer.
SO: Oh! What books?
Emily: Probably a bunch you haven’t heard of, like Project Jackalope is the most recent. That’s one under my name and I also write under the name Emily Fairlie.
I write mysteries for kids.
SO: Wow. Do you consider yourself a comedian?
Emily: Not a comedian, more of a writer. Funny, hopefully. A lot of the panelists are comedians, but a lot are just funny people or journalists who just happen to be funny.
Ian: Well none of us get on stage and do it, which is so different and hard.
Emily: Sometimes we stand on the table and do it.
Ian: Yeah, we have a little brick wall that we can pull down.
SO: In case you need to do a tight five?
Ian: Yeah. I think Miles has been on stage, right?
Miles Doornbos: Not in a long, long time, but yes. I was an improv guy for a long time. I moved to Chicago with the idea that I was going to continue doing it. I was in Michigan doing it for a long time, but then I got here and had to start paying off loans instead of getting into more debt.
SO: What was the interview process for the show?
Eva: I just got thrown into the mix. I spent a week researching, sending out stories. I guess I had the right inclinations on what we would use on the show
SO: What’s your favorite part of putting the show together?
Miles: You know, sitting around shooting the shit, making jokes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That’s a lot of fun with these guys. I like writing the show too.
Eva: I actually really like editing which is what we do on Fridays. It’s something I had to learn when I got here. I didn’t have a background in sound or anything. I do like the writing too, but I think since it’s (the editing) still new for me it’s fun.
SO: Do you each have a part of the show that you work on or do you all just know that A B and C need to get done?
Miles: Pretty much just fill in the gaps on what needs to be done.
SO: Any celebrities that you’ve geeked out over or are you over it?
Eva: Oh, no there are still people. Like we had Hugh Bonneville from “Downton Abbey” on in December. I was pretty excited about that one. A lot of our guests are on the phone, so it’s a little, you know. It’s exciting, but it’s different.
SO: While he’s not here, any good embarrassing stories about Peter or Carl?
Ian: What did he say a couple of weeks ago on stage?
Miles: (laughing) Which time?
Ian: Umm… He had a gaff on stage. He referred to John Boehner as Boner.
Eva: We actually call him that in our meetings. He just forgot to translate it.
Miles: He said “Whitey Boner” though, which makes it so much better.
SO: He seems like he’d be a good guy to work with.
Emily: He’s just like he seems on the radio. That’s him.
SO: And what about Carl?
Ian: Carl IS cool. I would use that word for him.
SO: I feel like he’s either a nice older gentleman or filthy and…
Ian: No. He’s a nice older gentleman, a real charmer. When he met my mom he held her hands the entire time they talked, for like five minutes.
SO Note: The writers get into a conversation about JK Rowling’s new book, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.. It’s all seemingly typical banter of a team that gets to do water cooler talk for a living.
Check out the review of Burger King’s veggie-burger on the Sandwich Monday blog. Also, check out Wait Wait producers Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth in their popular podcast How To Do Everything. Also, here’s a link to Emily Ecton’s website where you can find out more about her books
Soon, Peter is back from his lunch, first, taking a moment to taste the veggie burger.
Peter Sagal: Oh my god, that is AWFUL. I feel like my jaw just sprung. It’s terrible.
SO NOTE: Peter and I go into a conference room to talk one on one without the distractions of the team or the gross sandwich.
SO: I want to talk to you from the point of a comedian. Actually, back up, tell me about your background.
Peter: Oh. It’s not that of a comedian at all. I was a geeky kid growing up in New Jersey. I went to Harvard, because I was an overachiever. Mostly did theater at Harvard, I was an English major, and imagined that I would make my living as a playwright or a screenwriter. I went out to LA to get in with the whole industry thing and then took a weird turn into the theater. I quit my job, started writing plays and basically lived for 7-8 years as a freelance playwright.
SO: What kind of plays?
Peter: Fairly serious plays, which surprises people now. Plays about fairly serious topics. My most successful play was a play called Denial, which was about Holocaust denial. It was a courtroom drama. It happened nicely. I wrote a play, that play got optioned to film, so I was making a living actually. Probably if that life had preceded, I would’ve ended up doing what all my playwright friends did which was go to LA to write for TV or become a teacher depending on where I wanted to live and how much money I wanted to make. Instead, one day I got this phone call from a friend of mine in the theater and he said, “Hey I have these friends at NPR who are putting together a new show. They’re looking for funny people who have read a lot of newspapers and I thought of you! Would you be interested?”
I said “Sure!” I auditioned by phone and the next thing I know, I had been cast as a panelist on the first version of Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me which went on the air in January 1998, produced here in Chicago. I remember saying to my agent, “Man, I love doing this show. It’s awesome, because even if it’s terrible (and if often was), the great thing compared to the theater is that you get to do another one next week.
Well either God heard or fate or somebody, because they decided that they didn’t like their host and they thought that I could be a better replacement. They were kind of desperate, because it really was failing in public. And that was in May 1998, I moved out here. I’ve been doing it ever since. Now all the sudden I’m a comedian.
SO: Have you ever taken an improv class?
Peter: Nope. I mean I have friends who have done improv, but I was never good at improv, because I was always too self-conscious.
SO: How much of the show is improvised? I mean I’ve heard it live before. I know you do the retakes at the end, but a lot of it feels so off-the-cuff.
Peter: It is. If you hung around here all week, which I don’t recommend, because it’s kind of dull. We sit around, we stare at computers, we write news, we find stories, send them to each other in emails. We start telling jokes about them. “This is funny… No that’s funny…”, whatever and we start trying amusing each other. We end up with a script that’s about 30 pages long and as soon as we get on stage and put the panelist on stage and certainly the “Not My Job” guest, and sometimes the listeners, everything goes off the rails. And we want it to! It’s a weird process where we prepare a lot to be spontaneous.
SO: How many writers do you have?
Peter: Basically the entire staff you just met is the writers. It’s me, Emily, Eva, Mike and Ian (Miles is the intern). On infrequent occasions we’ll hire another writer to come in and do punch-ups or help us with our special history show, but it’s really just us. And of course the panelists contribute a huge amount. They write their stories, their “fake” stories. They’re practically writers in terms of improvisation.
SO: How much do they know ahead of time?
Peter: They don’t know anything. All they know is… ok like last week’s show we found this story about student’s correcting celebrity tweets in Brazil. So we were like, “Our frame is weird ways of teaching, so each of you come up with a story of a weird method of teaching.” Paula (Poundstone) and Amy (Dickinson) came up with their story and we gave Maz (Jobrani) the real story and said, “Write this up in an amusing way,” so they all have the same tone. We don’t want one person reading AP copy and the others reading funny stories. Then they go through an editing process. We make sure it fits the frame; it’s not too long. We make sure it’s juuust credible enough. With a couple of exceptions… we always like to make the game at least a little bit playable, so that someone at home can say, “Hmm, I think its number 2.”
SO: Are you good at trivia?
Peter: That’s my one talent. In some ways I have the perfect job. I don’t know much about any one thing, but I know a little bit about a lot of things.
SO: What have some of the biggest changes in the show throughout the years?
Peter: The format of the show has really been stable or stagnant, depending on how you feel about it, from the beginning. Once I took over the show we did a recreating process through ’98. But by the end of ‘99/2000, the show was really what it is now. However, we’ve done a lot of changing within that format. Most significant one is that we went from recording in a studio with occasional live events to live all the time. Once we did it in front of a live audience, everything got better. Honestly how we spent 7 years doing it in studio is a mystery to me. What were we doing?
SO: Right, you can do callbacks; you know what’s working and can feel out the audience.
Peter: Exactly! One of the things, in addition to everything you just said is that the audience gives you permission to go farther. You don’t know if the people listening around the world are going to like it or not. If the audience likes it, you know it works. If you have a joke and it makes the audience go, “Boo!” you can broadcast it! Because people at home will be like, “Well, they just got booed, that’ll teach ‘em.”
SO: Who makes the decisions of “Ooh, that joke is too soon”?
Peter: Well, we rely on each other’s taste a lot. If someone says, “That just offends me, I can’t do that” generally speaking we listen. We have a number of safeguards to keep us from going too far. And the final safeguard is the audience.
SO NOTE: An example of this came that Thursday at the live show. The Zimmerman acquittal had just been announce days before. Rather than ignore the touchy subject, they made fun of the jury within the case (the all-female juror got pedi/mani’s throughout the trial, all which was billed to the tax payers) instead of the case itself.
SO: Have you ever said a joke that got you in trouble?
Peter: Yeah! We have jokes that got the show in trouble. Every now and then we’ve had to write a note saying, “Hey, we’re sorry if anyone got offended by this joke.”
SO: Because it doesn’t seem like you’re taking a non-bias view. It feels like a very liberal show.
Peter: I disagree with that. I think we have some very liberal people ON it. They’re not all, but mostly. I think that we, speaking for myself and everyone here, we try really hard to, I don’t want to say objectivity. You can’t be funny if you’re objective. I mean, the definition of being funny is to express an opinion. “That’s stupid”, then you say it in an amusing way why that’s stupid, right? But we try to be non-partisan and by that I mean…let me give you an example. A lot of times, well back when she was more significant than she is now, we made jokes about how stupid Sarah Palin is. She’d done this thing where she made up a word “refutiate.” Ian said, “well she’s not going to use a thesaurus, she knows they went extinct years ago.” I thought that was great, so we made the joke. Whenever we made a joke about Sarah Palin people would write in saying, “You hate Sarah Palin because you’re liberals!” I keep on trying to point this out. Thinking Sarah Palin is stupid has nothing to do with politics. Being a liberal means that you have certain opinions about the role of the government and the economy. You have certain opinions about marginal tax rates and whether the government should bill health care. Similarly being a conservative means you have certain opinions about these same things. It have NOTHING to do with Sarah Palin being an idiot, you know what I mean?
During the ’99 impeachment conflict I was sitting in the office and the phone rang. It was a listener and he was really angry. He was like, “How can you keep making these jokes about Bill Clinton getting a blowjob in the oval office. Don’t you understand that the Republicans are staging a coup d’état and by constantly making fun of Bill Clinton for getting a blowjob in the oval office, you’re helping them along.” And I said, “I think your problem isn’t much with us for making fun of it, but your problem is with Bill Clinton for getting a blowjob in the oval office.” All of that said, what I would want our show to be, and I don’t know that we always do this, what I want our show to be is a break from the constant broil, because you turn on cable TV and it’s always somebody shouting at you that you’re right and the other guy’s wrong. That really annoys the hell out of me. I don’t like being shouted at by anybody. One of the things that drives me crazy is the battlefield has gotten expanded to everything. I have a lot of thought on this. It’s basically just tribal combat now. It’s like the reds versus the blues the Guelphs versus the Ghibellines, my guy’s versus your guys and that has nothing to do with politics. It’s about a sport.
SO: Have you always been political?
Peter: I’ve always been interested in news and politics, but that started more or less when I was in college. Basically I’ve been interested in how things work. How things actually work. The movie Diner has this great moment and I use it for the epigraph in my book (Book of Vice). There’s a moment where one character turns to another and says, “You ever get the feeling there’s something going on that we don’t know anything about?” And that’s always obsessed me.
SO: Are you a conspiracy theorist?
Peter: No, but I’m really interested in conspiracy theories. I wrote this play, like I said about Holocaust denial which is a basically conspiracy theory, i.e.; that there’s vast conspiracy of Jews and the media convince us that this thing that didn’t happen happened. And there’s something about this conspiracy mindset that I really love.
SO: I find it fascinating.
Peter: Oh it’s amazing, because it’s a very emotional response. It’s kind of the emotional place where I’m coming from, but twisted. My thing is, “Something is going on. What’s going on? Who’s actually making this decision and for what reason?” And with conspiracy theorists it’s like “I can’t stand the way things are, so it much not be true. Things must have been distorted.”
SO: So you guys did a TV pilot in 2008.
Peter: We did a TV pilot in 2008 and then we did another one for BBC America at the end of 2011.
SO: The 2008 pilot did not get picked up. Did the BBC one?
Peter: No. It got broadcast, but nothing else happened.
SO: Do you have plans to make that happen again in the future?
Peter: It’s one of those things where everyone is like, “Why isn’t your show on TV? It seems a natural for TV.” And we’ve tried it twice and it didn’t work either time. I think it worked a lot better the second time and if BBC America had been interested in helping us make it better… we came out of that saying, “Ok that was better. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.”
SO: Is it because people just want to hear you in the intimacy of the car?
Peter: Certainly there’s no reason why something that does work on the radio couldn’t work on TV. What I said about the CBS pilot in 2008 is that we were both, not good enough and too good for TV. Too good meaning we were too smart and too literate and too complicated, well, we were too smart for network primetime TV, which is even more of a vast wasteland than it use to be.
SO: Although there’s also a lot of cool stuff going on in TV these days because they have to in order to compete with the Internet.
Peter: The other thing was that I don’t think we were good enough. As you said TV is getting good again. It demands speed and visual interest and you can’t just point a camera at a guy, particularly a guy who looks like me, and expect people to be like, “this is awesome. I love it.”
SO: You did the Cinecast with Steve Martin. Do you think you’ll do more?
Peter: Probably not, at least for a while. My joke for while has been that it’s a little bit like having a baby. You have to forget how awful it was before you’re willing to have another one. It was a lot of work; we were dealing not only with the logistics, but the pressure involved in doing it. It was added on to our regular show. Carl was ill at that time. That was his last show before a 2-month break.
SO: He’s ok now, right?
Peter: He’s ok now. He’s recovered and came back last week.
In thinking about it, I think it’s that we have this tremendous level of comfort with each other, myself and the panelists and everybody, because we know that we’re taped, not live. Any screw up we make is going to be taken care of, we’re protected from our worst selves, and so it gives us freedom.
SO: And the audience likes when you mess up.
Peter: Yeah! They like that we go down dark paths… There’s this sense of “Hey, we’re going to be in this room together. You’re gonna fuck up a lot, but it’s cool!” I’ve sometimes turned to the audience and said, “Never tell anybody that happened.” It’s fun! Now we had these cameras and behind the camera as 60-70,000 people who we couldn’t see. Thinking about it, I felt that I, and the panelists felt really restricted. We just couldn’t relax and we lost a lot of confidence. So the Cinecast… I don’t know.
SO: What do you think the future is for Wait Wait?
Peter: I often say, “Having a public radio show is like being the Pope. It’s very, very hard to get the job, but once you have the job, the only way to get out is to die.” That’s less true that it used to be. I think if we don’t do anything, we can go on forever.
What we’re hoping to do, and it’s as much about maintaining our interest, as it is the audiences is to bring in new panelists. It’s been a lot of fun the last couple of years, you know, trying someone and then adopting them into the family.
SO: Yeah, how does a comedian get on the panel?
Peter: That’s a good question. It’s usually dumb luck. Sometimes we find them, some times people are recommended to us.
SO NOTE: If you work for NPR, now is the time to recommend me for the show.
Peter (cont.): They come on the show as a guest, we think, “that was really awesome, we’d love to have them come back.” That happened with Bobcat Goldthwait. Sometimes we go out and find them, like Alonzo Bodden. Sometimes it was really just being in the next room, like Brian Babylon. One panelists couldn’t get into town and one of producers was like “Brian, we’re gonna send you out there.” He rose to the occasion, he’s awesome.
So it’s really dumb luck. I want to be more aggressive in finding new people to be in the show, because I think the voices in the show are what make it.
SO: (“Oh my God” I think, “I want to get on this show!” But I remain calm.) That’s cool. So, you wrote a book.
Peter: I wrote a book, it’s called Book of Vice. I’m supposed to be writing another about running, but I’ve been busy.
SO: Yeah, you’re a runner and you ride a motorcycle, which both kind of surprised me.
SO: I don’t know.
Peter: Because I’m a dork.
SO: No. I even asked the writers out there, “Is he as cool as he seems to be?” They were all like, “You think he’s cool?”
Peter: You see what I mean?
SO: But I don’t think I imagined you would ride a Harley… I used to work at Harley Davidson by the way.
Peter: Harley-Davidson is so weird. I rode this Harley around for a documentary. I’d never ridden a Harley, because when I was riding them in the 80s, they were crap.
Constitution USA: The First Amendment
SO: What documentary?
Peter: I did a documentary for PBS called Constitution USA. The gimmick of the documentary is me riding around the country on this Harley and talking to people. It was this beautiful painted red, white and blue, “We The People” on the gas tank. I learned a couple of really cool things. A.) I loved motorcycling and wanted to get back into it, which I have done now. Secondly, that Harley’s are better than they use to be. It didn’t break once, nor did it shake my fillings out. But they’re still not my favorite motorcycle.
SO: What’s your favorite?
Peter: I just bought a Triumph Boneville.
SO: Never even heard of it.
Peter: Motorcycles have different kinds of genres in the way that cars do, but more specified. It’s as much about style as it is about purpose. With cars you have your family sedan, your SUV, your sports car and your compact, right? Motorcycles you have your cruisers, your sports bikes, your crotch rockets, your luxury tours, adventure tours… all these different things. It’s as much about esthetic as it is practicality. The guys who have Harley they want them big, they want them loud, they want them low and heavy. It’s sort of like a big thing that you ride like this down the highway and it rumbles. (Yes, he’s miming riding a motorcycle to me). People like me want smaller more practical motorcycles…
SO: Zipping around town…
Peter: The sort of thing you can zip around town, which you can’t really do with a Harley, unless you’re at a parade. If you want to just get on the open road and take off, that’s what this Triumph is.
SO: Cool. And you wrote Dirty Dancing 2?! How did that happen?
Peter: Remember I was telling you about my playwriting career? Well I wrote this play about Holocaust denial. Well what happened was, this movie producer, a fairly well known guy named Lawrence Bender loved it and said, “You should write a screenplay for me”. He hired me to write a movie ultimate that was based on his friend’s life. She was 15 in 1958 and was living in Havana with her family when the revolution happened. So I took that idea, just the idea of a 15-year-old American girl living in Havana at the time of the Cuban Revolution. It’s a fascinating story, the Cuba revolution. It’s really never been told…. and it (the screenplay) went nowhere. Then some years later, somebody came to Lawrence Bender and said, “You should make a sequel to Dirty Dancing here are the rights, get it made. They couldn’t figure out how to make the sequel, but someone said, “Hey why don’t we take that Cuba script you have sitting on the shelves, rewrite it, add a lot of dancing, take out all the politics, Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. That’s what happened. I had nothing to do with the transition from my screen about Cuba to Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, but I got to go to the premier and I got a screenwriting credit.
SO: Ok, so I feel like if I don’t ask about Carl Kassel, people will be upset.
Peter: I know. He’s the heart of the show.
SO: What’s the best voice recording he’s done?
Peter: They’ve got one’s where he’s held in the basement, ones where he’s singing. Sometimes they’ll have him say, “Hi, this is the Browns”, I’m like, “what are you doing?” We have a bunch online for when people ask…
SO NOTE: Apparently this question gets asked a lot. There’s a whole page dedicated to his voice messages on the Wait, Wait site.
SO: Is there anything he WON’T say? Will he cuss?
Peter: He won’t do commercial endorsements, but other than that he’ll do anything, (except) he will not cuss. He’s not good at it. I think in all the years I’ve known him, 15 years now, he’s only cussed once and he said, “damn.” He’s a gentleman.
SO: And he’s been here with the show all along?
Peter: Yeah. If there’s any one thing that’s been present throughout the evolution of the show, it’s Carl Kassel’s role.
SO: What is either your favorite or least favorite part of putting together?
Peter: Gosh… well we’ve had a lot of great things. My favorite part of the show is the performance on Thursday. It’s really fun. Probably the worst part of it is that terrible moment on Wednesday or Thursday moment where you’re like, “I’ve got nothing to say. We’ve got no jokes that haven’t already been told. What the hell are we going to do?” But then somehow by Thursday night, we’ve got a show.
SO: Do you ever get star struck?
Peter: For years I said the only time I’d get star struck would be if Elvis Costello were a guest, because he’s been my idol ever since I was 15. Then he was on the show and I was a little star struck. The producers were like, “Yeah, you’re sucking up a little.”
One of the nice things I’ve learned to do is if I’m talking to someone I really admire, what I do is I gush about them in my phone call prior, “I just love you, you’re great, I’ve seen all your movies or read your books…” or whatever. I get it out of my system. Then when we talk on the show I can just be like, “Hey! Welcome. So what’s up with that.” My professional persona is less effusive than I am, really.
Every now and then someone will come on like Dick Van Dyke or Leonard Nimoy and I CAN’T help it. I remember saying to Dick Van Dyke “Will you be my father?” That’s fun too as long as it’s not every week.
SO: What advice would you give to who want to be writers or entertainers?
Peter: I am not a good example for anybody. This thing fell in my lap and it suited my talents, and it’s been successful. I can’t advice anybody to sit around and wait for a phone call. I have a friend, Jonathan Coulton; do you know who he is?
SO: Oh yeah! Absolutely. He’s great.
Peter: He’s an example of how you can actually do it. He was a computer guy and he realized he hated it and he really wanted to write and sing funny songs. So he just started to write and sing funny songs and putting it on the Internet. All the sudden he has a very nice career. I saw him in concert a few years ago. He said, “there’s never been any better time in human history to be unemployed.” Meaning, more than any other time, you don’t need anybody’s permission to do what you want to do. What people have to understand is that because it’s so easy to do that, people now expect you to have done it. People say to me, “I have a really good idea for a radio show. How do I get someone to give me a radio show?” I say to them, “Create your own radio show.” It’s the only way to do it, because nobody is going to listen to you if you say, “I think I’m going to be a good radio host.” People might listen if you say, “Here, listen to the 100 episodes of radio I made on my podcast.”
SO: Yeah, I listened to an interview with the VP of Development at IFC on the Connected Comedy podcast and he was saying, “You don’t need permission to create. It takes luck, but be prepared. Have your shit together.”
Peter: Yeah, have your shit together and be ready to go and if you make a pilot with your friends, make it awesome. Someone might see it and go, “My God, that’s awesome, do you have ideas for 13 more episodes?” It needs to be “Yes I do!” It’s the only way to do it.
And on that note of inspiration we end our interview. I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, because I knew he had a show to work on. I was going to be at that show, so I wanted it to be good. Of course it was. Thank you again for meeting with me and letting us see the inside process of a truly great show. If you’re in the Chicago area, I highly recommend you seeing the show live.