For those who sleep in on Saturdays, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, National Public Radio’s weekly news quiz show, keeps an appropriate tempo. Wiseacres such as Paula Poundstone and Mo Rocca riff on current events while host Peter Sagal walks contestants through three-question rounds of quizzes, with the prize being the voice of Carl Kasell on their answering machines.
An hour in, after some banter with guests—who lately have been bigger and bigger wigs—Sagal and his panelists dive into “Lightning Fill in the Blank,” a rapid-fire speed round of questions on the news stories that dominated the past week. If you want to keep up on the week’s topics, it may be well worth waking up a little early from your weekend snooze.
Not that Sagal has sympathy for oversleepers. Alongside his nine-year tenure as the show’s host, Sagal acts, runs marathons, writes plays, screenplays and books—his most recent being The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them)—and has just added a blog to his Web site (www.petersagal.com). In fact, he says a day after taping a Wait Wait installment, a phone conversation with Xpress is the closest he has come to doing nothing in the past 24 hours.
“This is what I know about Asheville,” Sagal begins, remembering a theater collective in Black Mountain he attended years ago and the strange mix of people he ran into there. “If you’re weird in the South, that’s where you go—and I’m all for that, by the way.”
That last visit to the area came years before 1998, when Sagal jumped into the Wait Wait job as a way to escape New York and have a regular day job. At the time, he didn’t know the show would become his Big Thing.
“I thought I’d do it for a couple of years until I won my Oscar,” he says. “Nobody imagined we’d become basically a part of everyone’s public-radio weekend. My life certainly took a turn I didn’t expect it to.”
The show now draws an average of 2.3 million listeners every week, and the Nov. 15 show—which will be recorded at the Diana Wortham Theater—sold out in less than half an hour.
The phenomenon has Sagal wondering about news consumers’ turn to satire, and he has a couple of theories: “Our rise on public radio and our success has more or less paralleled the rise and success of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—I’d also include The Onion in there—whether this is all part of a historical phenomenon or just a weird coincidence.”
Of course, with NPR’s loyal listeners, Wait Wait had a built-in audience from the start. That crowd, Sagal believes, already pays strong attention to current events and is well prepared when the show airs on weekends.
But the rise of satire may lie in deeper social waters. Sagal says that more and more people are seeking out filters—such as Fox News or the blogosphere—for their news intake. “But for a lot of people,” he notes, “they pick the filter of satire to get their news, and that has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of the news cries out for satire.”
Why? Sagal hints that political discourse has degraded to the point that the traditional news-delivery system is no longer up to the job.
“If somebody comes out and says the homosexuals are putting fluoride in our water, which is why the birth rate is going down, the old model is Wolf Blitzer saying, ‘OK, you believe homosexuals are putting fluoride in the water. Now we have somebody else to present the other side of the argument, which is that homosexuals are not putting fluoride in the water.’ When of course the appropriate reaction to this is, ‘You’re nuts! How nuts are you? Are you off your meds?’”
And therein lies the heart of the discussion: While satire may involve riffing on names or fudging events, it tends to expose the larger truth within a story—namely that the story is ridiculous at its core.
“It makes more sense in a way to mock the world, given what the world has become,” Sagal says. “It’s certainly more powerful.”
Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! will record a sold-out performance at Diana Wortham Theater on Thursday, Nov. 15. The program will air on WCQ 88.1 FM, on Saturday, Nov. 17, at 11 a.m. and again on Sunday, Nov. 18, at noon.
who: NPR personality Peter Sagal
what: Signing for The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them)
when: Friday, Nov. 16 (7 p.m. Free. www.malaprops.com or 254-6734)