chat room

Peter Sagal of ‘Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me’ on Competitiveness and Republicans

Host Peter Sagal of
Peter Sagal Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

NPR trivia staple “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is leaping from the radio to the movie theater tonight with a live cinecast, bringing the show’s dorky, lovable news quiz to theaters around the country. Vulture caught up with host Peter Sagal to ask him all of the super-fan questions that have been plaguing us for years. Like, Why don’t all of the panelists prepare? Seriously, guys, read the front page of Yahoo news or something.

Okay, I have a nuts-and-bolts-y question. Do you think it’s more fun when the panelists study or don’t study?
It entirely depends on the panelist. I’d much rather, for example, have Mo Rocca not know the answer. And I’d much rather have Paula Poundstone know the answer. When Mo doesn’t know the answer, he’s so hilarious about his attempting to guess it, and Paula is awesome because she will always have something interesting to say. Paula cannot emit an unannotated thought.

Do you think the emphasis on studying changed since Faith Salie started as a panelist?
Oh, you picked up on it. Faith is a Rhodes Scholar! Faith is big on preparation. Honestly, I think people look at her and think, Oh, that’s Faith, brown-nosing again, trying to be the teacher’s pet. I don’t think anyone’s saying, “Oh, I should study harder to be like Faith!” Actually, at one point, years ago, and I can’t even believe we tried this because it’s so obviously a bad idea, we offered to prep the panelists on what the answers might be. Because nobody cares if they win or lose. There’s nothing at stake! But they all reacted like, No! We don’t want to know! The real fun of our show is the expression of surprise, the genuine reactions. So it’s great when they’re as befuddled as the listeners. The less prepared they are, the better it is in a weird way.

Maybe I’m too competitive. I would study. I would stuuuudy.
There was a temptation, when we first started doing the show — this is back in history, during the Pleistocene — it was very competitive, and somewhat serious. This was so long ago, but I believe that if you won, you got to come back the next week, and since it meant a paycheck, we really tried to win. And it was unpleasant! We made a really conscious decision not to give a flying fig if the quiz was serious or if you won anything. I really do trace the success of our show to that decision: Nobody cares who wins or loses.

Speaking of losing, I’ve only heard this a few times: when the celebrity guest offers to do the message on a listener’s voice mail [if they lose, instead of Carl Kasell doing the message, which is the prize when listeners win].
It happens from time to time.

But not that much! Martha Stewart offered, and Jimmy Fallon — are you surprised that more people don’t offer that? I feel like they should.
It’d be nice if they did. But the best offer we ever got — and I don’t know if it happened — was when David Simon was on the show, he offered to have the real-life model for Omar from The Wire to do it, which we thought would be totally cool. “If you call the king, you best leave a message,” or something like that.

Is there a dream guest for you? Someone you’ve been trying to get that you think you never will?
I would love to get more Republicans on the show. One of the things I really envy about Jon Stewart is how many times he’s able to get Republicans on his show. And that’s to his credit: He’s seen as somebody who will talk fairly with everyone, who’s interested in everyone. And I am, too! But because we’re NPR, and we have that reputation — which I think is unfair, both specifically to us and nationwide — and because it’s silly, I think a lot Republican people [won’t come on]. I’ve been really eager to get a major Republican politician on the show, but circumstances are such that it’s getting harder and harder to do that these days.

Well, they’re not super well-known for their humor.
I would love it — I would love it — if John Boehner would come on our show and be charming and funny in a way that we haven’t seen. I would love that. If he told some jokes about his skin color, and people understood that he could do self-deprecation, and then went on his way and thought, That was a good experience. I was able to show a side of myself I don’t normally do. That would be awesome! That would be awesome for the country.  But the person we really want on the show, who we’ll never get, is George W. Bush.

NPR’s Peter Sagal on Preparation and Republicans