Time Out with Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!’s Peter Sagal

NPR’s Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me! is coming to LA this week. Host Peter Sagal reminisces about the show’s most surprisingly funny celebrity guests and why he only drinks lite beer in Los Feliz.

Photograph: © 2004 NPR Photo by Tony Nagelmann, courtesy NPR
Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!'s Carl Kasell and Peter Sagal.

In the 14 years that writer/comedian Peter Sagal has been hosting NPR’s wildly popular (2.5 million listeners a week) news-quiz comedy show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, he’s met—and quizzed—a cadre of impressive guests, from Tom Hanks to Salman Rushdie and Bill Clinton (after he was president) and Barack Obama (before) to John McCain. The hour-long radio program—which tapes in front of a live audience in Chicago and airs locally on KPCC every Saturday and Sunday at noon—is a fast-paced show with a sharp-witted cast of characters. Official judge and scorekeeper Carl Kassel is the smooth-as-grandpa’s-bourbon voice of the program (every week, a lucky listener gets a chance to “win Carl’s voice on their answering machine”). A revolving cast of uniquely funny panelists may include such comedy geniuses as Paula Poundstone, Mo Rocca, Roy Blount, Jr or Maz Jobrani. This Thursday, Wait Wait returns to LA (for its third time) for a live show at the Nokia. Sagal, who lives outside of Chicago with his wife and three daughters, has fond feelings for LA—it’s where he lived for five years after college, toiling in theater downtown and scraping together writing and acting jobs before he left for Minnesota in 1992 for a writing fellowship. “The thing about LA that I loved,” he says, “is that you could be anything you wanted. If you wanted to play Hacky Sack all day and just hang out? You can be that guy.”

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Time Out Los Angeles: Wait Wait has performed for live audiences across the country. What’s different about LA audiences?
Peter Sagal:
Other than the fact that everybody is gorgeous? One of the really great things about our show is that wherever we go we draw our crowd. There are public radio nerds everywhere—in LA, in San Francisco, of course, and nothing but public radio nerds in Portland. But there are also public radio nerds in Oklahoma City and Kansas City, and in conservative places like Houston and Dallas, where we’re going in February. They’re a little more haunted and scared in those places, but they’re really grateful to see us.

Time Out Los Angeles: What will fans experience as part of a live audience that they don’t normally get from the radio program?
Peter Sagal:
Really funny faces that just underline the hilarity. Seriously, our show is not a visual spectacular. We don’t have fireworks and at no point does anyone fly over the stage. We have no special effects. We don’t even have a set. But what we have is this live theatrical experience that people really seem to appreciate. People see what we do and how it’s a little bit like improv. You know how everybody in LA is writing a screenplay? Here, everybody in Chicago is doing improv. To see it made in the moment with just the right comment or take on a scene? It can be brilliant. We also tell a lot of dirty jokes that don’t make the air. So, people like that.

Time Out Los Angeles: Who’s been the most surprisingly fun celebrity guest?
Peter Sagal:
We always have a lot of fun with people who are funnier and/or looser than you might expect them to be. Martha Stewart was in that category. She was really fun. When Paula Deen came on, somebody made a joke about, ‘How do you deep fry an ottoman?’ And she was like, ‘You just need enough breading, sweetheart.’ Occasionally, you have someone who you don’t think of as being funny and they’re hilarious. We had Madeleine Albright many years ago, and she was bragging about her ability to press a lot of weight in the gym with her legs. We were like, ‘Oh. That’s a useful skill in diplomatic circles.’ And she was like, ‘Yep, it’s good for kickin' ass.’

Time Out Los Angeles: Are you, like, the most obnoxious know-it-all at cocktail parties?
Peter Sagal:
I try not to be that guy. The one thing I gave up more than a decade ago, is I do not play Trivial Pursuit or any game like it with anyone because I am absolutely humorless and cutthroat about it. It’s really unpleasant. For me, it’s like drinking is for other people: I have to stop this if I want to have a life. What I have been punished with—or rewarded, depending on how you look at it—is I have a teenage daughter who knows more than I do. It’s really put a crimp in my Cliff Claven-ness if you follow.

Time Out Los Angeles: Do you have any favorite LA eateries or hangouts?
Peter Sagal:
I loved the roast chicken at Versailles. God, I can still taste that sometimes. I used to hang out, I know this is weird, but I used to hang out at a place called Ye Rustic Inn in Los Feliz. I bet it’s not there anymore. Let me Google it… It’s still there! I have no idea, maybe the hipsters have taken it over, but at the time it was just this neighborhood bar. I had a mad crush on this cute waitress who worked there; I couldn’t tell you her name. I was in my mid-20s, she was maybe the same age. What happened was, I went in the first time and there was some confusion and she brought me a draft lite beer, and I hated lite beer—why even bother? But for her that became my drink. So from then on, I’d come in, and she’d look at me and she’d go, 'The usual? and I’d go, 'Yeah!' Because I was so entranced by the idea that this cute waitress knew my usual drink, so I’d sit there and drink my terrible lite beer because that’s what she thought I liked. I should go there and see if she’s still there. Although, it’d probably be bad for both of us.

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