It’s time to brush up on current events because NPR’s incredibly popular news quiz show “Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!” is being recorded live at the Johnny Mercer Theater.
WWDTM celebrated 20 years in 2018 and not much has changed about the hilarious show since its inception in 1998. Host Peter Sagal leads a rotating panel of comedians and writers in a series of news-related quizzes. Celebrity guests make appearances (or call in) for a segment called “Not My Job,” and listeners can call in and play to earn the most coveted prize offered by public radio — the voice of any of the cast members on their voice mail!
“A lot of people get distracted by the quiz aspect,” says Sagal. “What I say to people is ‘We’re really not a quiz; we’re a comedy show disguised as a quiz.’ And what makes our show interesting, I think, is not the questions and answers, but the people who are asking and answering them...We try to create ideal dinner party conversation and then we invite everybody to listen in.”
“Our show is difficult to do,” Sagal adds. “Even really talented comedians have trouble with our format.” Famously, even the comic Keegan-Michael Key of “Key and Peele” auditioned for the panel and didn’t quite work out.
In the era of “fake news,” comedy programs like WWDTM are a refreshing way to digest the week’s events. Sometimes they even seem to carry more verisimilitude.
“It’s weird and it kind of cuts both ways because nobody should be getting their news from me or Trevor Noah,...generally speaking, we’re not the news,” Sagal explains. “In my show, we make up stuff, so be careful, but there is a flip-side of that because we’re not the news, we don’t have the same strictures and rules — which are very good rules, by the way.”
Sagal is still glad that his colleagues at NPR follow the rules of objectivity and never saying anything that they cannot confirm. On the other hand, Sagal and the rest of the cast don’t have to follow those rules and they get to say things that sometimes seem more true than what real journalists are allowed to say.
“For example,” Sagal explains, “sometimes the best way to describe something is, ‘This is really stupid!’ and they can’t say that and we can...Sometimes the ability just to point out how ridiculously stupid something is feels truer than a lengthy discussion of its ins-and-outs, and I think that is where comedians have an advantage.”
When not hosting WWDTM, Sagal is an avid marathon runner. He published a book last year called “The Incomplete Book of Running.” Even though his bread and butter is making fun of the news, Sagal advocates disconnecting from media once in a while and getting outside for a run.
“You know what it’s good for? It’s good for working out all the stuff that, at least in my case, prevent me from doing a good job,” Sagal says. “You sometimes have to take your demons out for a walk to tire them out, so that you can move on to other things.”
WWDTM has had many celebrity guests in its 20 years of broadcasting, but Sagal doesn’t hesitate when asked who the best and worst guests were. “The worst guest we’ve ever had was Gene Simmons, the guy from KISS,” Sagal says. “He was a complete jerk, he was terrible. And he was so awful that I swore at the time — this was 16 years ago — that whenever anybody asked me that question I would immediately volunteer his name, as opposed to, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t like talking about the ones...’, no, I’ll tell you. It was Gene Simmons.”
Sagal’s favorite guests include people who he greatly admired as a kid, such as Leonard Nimoy, Carrie Fisher, Carol Burnett and Dick Van Dyke. “To to able to finally meet your childhood heroes and, to have been the case universally so far, find out they’re delightful people, and all of those years you spent admiring and loving what they did were not, in fact, wasted,” Sagal says. “That is a great feeling.”
Ironically, now that Sagal has been on the air for over 20 years, he’s noticed that the roles have reversed when he meets young fans. “It’s weird to realize that I am now in the same position that, say, Dick Van Dyke was talking to me,” says Sagal. “You almost have an obligation to be nice to those people so that they walk away thinking, ‘I wasn’t wrong’.”