You don’t have to be a news aficionado to appreciate National Public Radio’s Chicago-based “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” but the weekly comedy series, taped live every week for Saturday broadcast, is ostensibly a “news quiz.” One might be forgiven for forgetting the topical nature of the show, however, since WWDTM is fast-paced, funny and filled with a rotating cast of guests and panelists that make an hour seem like a few minutes. Similar in style to another long-running NPR gem, “Says You,” WWDTM is sardonically educational, tickling the funny bone while infiltrating our senses with knowledge. Whether it is call-in contestants or notable humorists such as Paula Poundstone giving the answers, it never seems to matter if anyone actually wins or loses (unless you’re vying for the opportunity to have the gold-throated Carl Kasell record your answering machine message). Quick wit and opportunities for socio-political satire are the order of the day and regular host Peter Sagal ties the proceedings together with a practiced ease that has made him one of the most beloved NPR personalities of the last two decades.
The immediately affable Sagal has a long career in show business as a playwright, actor, journalist and screenwriter. He is ignominiously famous as both the co-writer of the sequel to Dirty Dancing and as an extra in a Michael Jackson video, two topics of which he appears to be simultaneously proud and embarrassed. It is his steady gig as host of WWDTM, however, that has gained him the most notoriety and, although there are often stand-in hosts, it is Sagal’s presence that makes the show both lighthearted and irreverent. He is not afraid to tease his base, the liberal NPR audience, while conducting business. While interviewing the US Labor Secretary on a recent episode, Sagal quipped “Despite President Obama’s best efforts, this is still a capitalist country,” and in response to Secretary Perez’s quip that he once brought too many items into an express checkout lane, Sagal deadpanned, “I don’t know if you’ve ever been on NPR before, but right now 40,000 people are writing to us in anger.”
With “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” coming live to PPAC on May 12, Motif took the opportunity to interview Peter Sagal about his many endeavors, his feelings about Providence and, of course, the Michael Jackson incident.
Terry Shea: I know you went to Harvard, so you’re not unfamiliar with New England, but have you been to Providence before?
Peter Sagal: Yes! I have been to Providence, but it was so long ago I have to honestly say I don’t remember too much. Has it gotten any better?
TS: Well, actually yes. Have you been there since the ’90s?
PS: Ah, yes, it would have been the ’90s since I was last there. The reason I know Providence, actually, is that I applied to (Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist) Paula Vogel’s graduate drama writing course at Brown and was accepted, which was one of the most flattering things that has ever happened to me. I didn’t go, but I regret that.
This comment sparked a long discussion between Sagal and me about theater in general and theater in Rhode Island, specifically. Sagal noted that he has been fortunate enough to live and work in some of the great theater cities in the country and was happy to hear about the plethora of new companies that have formed in Rhode Island since his short time here. He questioned whether the talent pool gets diluted in such a small state and went on to say that as long as the audiences are there, then good theater will always thrive.
TS: That being said, your last play was written almost 10 years ago. Do you have any plans for more scripts?
PS: You know, I love it (playwriting), but it’s been a while. I love it, yet I never do it. It’s kind of like the old gunslinger movies where they call the aging shootist back into town and he’s not sure if he can hack it anymore. I like to say it’s like that Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles – I’m Gene Wilder without the alcoholism. Seriously, though, I couldn’t have imagined writing back then what people are doing now, the young writers. I went to see the play The Flick (Annie Baker, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 2014) and there were all of these tiny things going on that I missed because I’m an old man. But, I would love to write another play. There is no other experience like sitting in back of a theater watching one of my plays being performed.
TS: So, this tour of “Wait Wait” brings you to the Providence Performing Arts Center. Do you know or remember that venue from your time here?
PS: No, I don’t know it! Never been, tell me about it.
TS: It’s a beautiful old theater, lots of detail, balconies. Goes back to the 1920s and has been renovated a few times. Usually, it hosts touring Broadway productions and the occasional classic rock act.
PS: Great! We’ve actually played in a lot of theaters like that. It’s interesting, because back in the day if you wanted to be a successful big city, you built a theater. And many of those fine old theaters, the beautiful ones, have been in these cities that, at some point, experience significant economic decline. For instance, one of the most beautiful houses we ever played in was located in Akron, Ohio. Waterbury, Connecticut, is another one that has a great old theater. So there are all these beautiful small to mid-sized theaters around the country that have just always been around. But, in cities that didn’t necessarily have that cycle of decline/resurgence, in our home base of Chicago, for example, they tore down a lot of the old theaters to make parking lots. Eh, no one’s going to theater, but people have to park! Now, just judging by the plaques on walls when we go backstage in some of these places, back in the ’80s or ’90s or later, these cities started renovating these old theaters once they had a little money again.
TS: You must see a lot out on the road. Any favorite cities or experiences while touring the show?
PS: They are all wonderful and I can justify it! The great thing about home (Chicago) is I am at home and I can sleep in my own bed, use my home office, see my kids. Our home theater (the Chase Bank Auditorium) is really perfect for what we do – it’s only 400 seats and as I like to say, it has everything but charm. For our type of show, and this is a comedy show, we really rely on that instant response; we rely on that audience feedback. Are they antsy? Do we need to move this along? We can see what’s working and if you have to give them more of that. You don’t get that at 3,000 seat houses. But, that size house is also wonderful. You really have to be like an old school rock ‘n’ roll band. You adjust to whatever place you’re playing. But, that being said, when we go to another town to play, the people are there to see us, and we’ve built up all this goodwill in advance. We would have to be really bad to annoy them! And, it’s a great experience to walk out onto a stage and be greeted by 3,000 people. I highly recommend it.
TS: One of the joys of listening (or watching) “Wait Wait” is the variety of guest panelists. Can you tell us who will be joining you in Providence and also, who are some of your favorites to work with?
PS: Really, I’m happy with whoever. I know it’s a pat answer, but I’m always happy when I look to my left and see these amazing people and I just know it will be a great time. I don’t know exactly who will be with us in Providence. I mean, I do, it’s written down on a wall back in the office, but I can’t recall at the moment. I love them all, whoever it turns out to be.
TS: Ok, since this is an NPR show, I have to ask: What are your feelings on pledge drives?
PS: I’m lucky in that part that I don’t have to manage the mic during pledge drives. Usually it’s done as part of a pretaped thing. But, that being said, the public radio model is ridiculously fair. You know, every once in a while we pass the hat and you know exactly what you’re paying for. I can’t imagine any commercial endeavor doing that. Imagine taking the Prius out for a test drive and liking it and the dealer saying, well, there you go, it’s yours, and if you feel like it … give us some money … if not, that’s ok we’ll let you keep it! But, we’d love some money so that we can make more Priuses. Actually, many other businesses are beginning to adopt that model with online fundraising and so forth for their product. It’s like … I’m a Red Sox fan and like all sports fans I was leeching off the coverage of the Boston Globe for a long time, including a particular writer, Peter Abraham, but I never paid for it. You can get it for free! I then, finally, I said, “What am I doing? Pete Abraham has to get paid! I should pay for this!”
TS: I know we’re running out of time, so I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the question of you being an extra in a Michael Jackson video.
PS: Right! Well, it’s one of those things that always comes up, whether it actually means anything or not. The story goes: An old LA friend asked if I’d like a chance to be an extra for MJ and I immediately said, “Yes, because I know this is a story I will be telling for the next 50 years, no matter what happens.” So, most people seem to think it was for “Thriller”, but it wasn’t. Those people were dancers, not extras. This was actually for the marketplace scene in the “Remember The Time” video (1991). I was a snake charmer, I got all in costume and I was on the set, I got paid $95 and I was eventually not even used. But, I got to meet Michael. I said, “Nice to meet you,” and he said, “Nice to meet you,” and that was really it. So, in my obituary I expect the top line to be, “He worked with Michael Jackson and wrote Dirty Dancing 2 even though he didn’t mean to.”
Like the show he hosts, Peter Sagal emphasizes the quality of his experiences over their quantity. He has run marathons, appeared in TV and film, been in print numerous times and is comfortable on either end of an interview. For him, it seems fitting to crib a description from the aforementioned NPR show “Says You” when it comes to describing his life and his experiences – it’s not important to know the answers … it’s important to like the answers.
NPR’s comedic quiz show “Wait, Wait. . . Don’t Tell Me!” comes to the Providence Performing Arts Center on May 12 at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at the PPAC box office, 220 Weybosset St, by calling 421-2787, or online at ppacri.org.