Having Fun with the News
Even after six years and continuing success at the helm of National Public Radio's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, Peter Sagal '87 still can't believe he's getting away with it. "The fact that I have this job is an insult to those aspiring to host a show in radio," he says. "Ira Glass [of This American Life] started here as an intern at 18, cutting tape, and slowly crafted the show that he has today. I tripped over something and landed in radio."
Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me is a quiz show that covers the weekly news while generally avoiding the bothersome concept of seriousness. Panelists and callers compete by answering questions about current events in hopes of winning the opportunity to have veteran NPR newscaster Carl Kasell's voice delivering a personalized recorded greeting to callers "on your home answering machine." The games vary in format from questions to role-playing to limericks. They are usually filled with fluid and unrehearsed banter, and the show, Sagal claims, often comes across as deceptively easy to produce.
"The most irritating question I get," he says, "is 'So what do you do the rest of the week? To come up with each question that we ask on the show, I probably read 100 articles, my staff talks about 30, [of them], and we've written questions for 10. It hasn't been unusual to put in 90- to 100-hour weeks, but it's generally more relaxed. The news doesn't happen until the end of the week, anyway."
As a child, Sagal says, he was "mad because [the Watergate hearings] were preempting the television reruns in the summer of 1974." But after graduating from Harvard, he found himself reading entire newspapers as an excuse to avoid writing plays. (He concentrated in English.) "Procrastination is a tremendous force in my life," is his explanation. "I would even read the bowling scores."
Among the work that he did manage to accomplish during his pre-radio period was "a screenplay about the Cuban revolution, with drama and nostalgia...." It was eventually produced as Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, which was released this past February. "It's been altered," he acknowledges, "but my screenplay was deep in there somewhere."
Sagal credits his time at Harvard for getting him interested in discussing the news in the first place, if only to fit in. "Everyone there expects to be running the world when they get out," he says, "so you were expected to know what was going on when they talked about it. At Harvard, it's hardest just trying to keep up with the smart people."
No matter how amusingly digressive his panelists and guests may be, Sagal has his ways of keeping the conversation flowing. "I get to interview interesting people in ways that they're not used to being interviewed," he says. "I talked to Salman Rushdie about PEZ dispensers. I love it when they figure out that this isn't a typical interview, and when they realize that they can get a little goofy. You go away with the feeling that this person has had a good time with you."