Smarting off

The director-free director’s cut: Wait Wait host Peter Sagal says the live show allows for tangents, risks and jokes than could never go out over the radio waves. Photo by Ryan Muir for NPR
The director-free director’s cut: Wait Wait host Peter Sagal says the live show allows for tangents, risks and jokes than could never go out over the radio waves. Photo by Ryan Muir for NPR

“As opposed to somebody who knows a lot about one thing, I know a little about a lot of things,” says National Public Radio personality Peter Sagal. That doesn’t qualify him to do anything he says, “except for hosting shows in which I talk about a lot of things.” Luckily, after being tapped as a panelist for early editions of radio quiz show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me (first broadcast in January of 1998), Sagal was promoted to the position of host a few months later.

Wait Wait first came to Asheville in 2007; Sagal and his collaborators return to town on Aug. 1 for a show at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Panelists will be style writer Roxanne Roberts, standup comedian Brian Babylon and actor/comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. The episode will be broadcast nationally on Saturday, Aug. 3.

“Not only did we have a great time in Asheville just doing the show,” Sagal says of Wait Wait’s previous local stop at Diana Wortham Theatre, “but also, I got to stay there for an extra day or two to do a signing at Malaprop’s.”

He is the author of The Book of Vice (“From strip clubs to gambling halls to swingers clubs to porn sets — and then back to the strip clubs, but only because he left his glasses there — Sagal explores exactly what the sinful folk do,” according to the book description), which might make him a unique authority on Asheville’s “cesspool of sin” designation. It’s a city moniker that the Wait Wait staff especially likes.

“I hope that Asheville becomes the ‘cesspool of sin’ the same way that New York is ‘the Big Apple’ or Boston is ‘the hub of the universe’ or San Francisco is ‘Baghdad by the bay,’” says Sagal. “Seriously, I think that you guys should embrace that and it should become part of Asheville’s identity.”

He adds, “As North Carolina gets stranger, you guys are becoming this bizarre redoubt out there, and I love that about you. Defending sin and cesspool-ness.” Sagal says that, while Wait Wait travels around the country, he’s noticed that many states are becoming “weird centrifuges, where everything’s spinning around so quickly, politically, that all the people on one end wind up in one place.” But Sagal and company will put on their show at either end of the spectrum and in any city that will welcome them.

Prior to 2000, Wait Wait was broadcast-only. The move to live shows (that are recorded and edited to be aired later) started with a Salt Lake City production. It was actually seeing the live audience that convinced Sagal of the show’s success. “It’s one thing to sit around and listen to something because you’re doing your dishes and there’s nothing better on,” he says. “It’s another thing to pay money to come out and see us.”

As far as the show’s material — humor delivered in quiz format — Sagal says the five-person team relies on their own instincts and on each other to know what works and what doesn’t. If one person can’t convince the rest of the group that a joke is legitimately funny, it’s scrapped. “In general, we just try to amuse and make ourselves happy, and we’ve done that pretty much from the beginning of the show,” says Sagal.

The live shows, which Sagal describes as “the extra-special directors cut, except there’s no director,” adds another element. Because it’s live-to-tape, there isn’t added laughter or faked moments, and very little dialogue is scripted. Improvisation is key to the radio production and even more so in the live performance. “Our panelists will go off on bizarre tangents,” says Sagal.

“People come up to us all the time and say, ‘You should make the unedited version available,’” says Sagal. “The great thing about doing it live-to-tape, rather than live, is you can take risks. You can go places you’d probably be scared to go if you knew a million people were going to listen to it.”

Like the panelists, Sagal has a lot of experience to draw from. Besides being an author, he’s a playwright and a runner (he’s currently at work on a book about running), he competed on Jeopardy! in ’88 and, most recently, hosted the PBS series Constitution USA with Peter Sagal. Of the many differences between radio and TV, Sagal said the most notable was that “I didn’t have to be funny all the time. On Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, I have to make a joke every 20 seconds or I get shot. On this show, I got to have serious conversations about serious things, and I enjoyed that.”

Not that he wants to be serious all of the time. “One of my jokes is that we’re a quiz but we’re a really easy quiz,” Sagal quips about Wait Wait. “The reason we do that is that we’ve discovered that the No. 1 hobby of Public Radio listeners is feeling smug. That’s kind of true.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me (with panelists Roxanne Roberts, Brian Babylon and Bobcat Goldthwait)
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Thursday, Aug. 1 (7:30 p.m. Tickets sold out at press time. http://www.ticketmaster.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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