LENOX -- Peter Sagal, the irreverent host of NPR's witty, rapid-fire news quiz, "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me!" is eager to rhapsodize over the program's road-show taping tonight at Tanglewood.
"This is a big deal!" he said enthusiastically. "I was brought there as a kid and I remember approaching the place as if it were a temple, a sylvan grove like a cathedral. I'm very excited and amazed they would host us."
The Boston Symphony's booking came about at the behest of Amherst-based WFCR (New England Public Radio), said Sagal during a phone conversation from the studios of Chicago Public Radio, co-producer with NPR of the weekly series.
The one-hour show, taped before a live audience in Chicago or on tour Thursday nights and then edited for broadcast Saturday mornings on 645 stations (including WAMC Northeast Public Radio), reaches about 3.3 million listeners each week. That makes it the third most-popular NPR offering, behind "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." In 2008, it won a Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.
The Shed is sold out but lawn tickets remain for tonight's 8 o'clock show. The special guest will be famed pianist Emanuel Ax, a part-time West Stockbridge resident.
Panelists, drawn from "Wait, Wait's" stable of rotating regulars are sportswriter, author and political blogger Charlie Pierce, syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson ("Ask Amy") and Tom Bodett, the radio voiceover actor, host and author. As usual, former "Morning Edition" newscaster Carl Kasell will serve as judge and scorekeeper.
Sagal was asked whether taping at a large outdoor venue changes the nature of the broadcast.
"I am gifted with a natural contempt for my audience," he joked, "so it gives me more people to resent.
"It's a little intimidating," he confessed, "though we've played to 10,000 people in Chicago's Millennium Park."
Sagal, 48, who attended Camp Becket for four summers in the mid-1970s, commented that "one of the weird things about my life is that I'm able to perform where I have no business being like three shows at Carnegie Hall and now Tanglewood. Do I have some kind of discernible talent?"
Approaching his 16th anniversary hosting "Wait, Wait," he noted that most of his touring broadcasts are not custom-tailored to their locale. "The Ax booking is the exception," he pointed out. "I've spoken to him, he's very game and he can talk to us about the history. He's a charming, funny guy."
"I'm very excited," said Ax. "We're fans and when I found out from my daughter that the show was coming here, I asked to appear. I had someone call and they very kindly said, ‘that's fine.' "
In the spirit of the show, he added, "I don't mind looking silly, and it's not a matter of life or death if I win. I don't need to be nervous, since Peter was very comforting and helpful. I can just relax."
Sagal, who prepares the script and the lightning-round news quiz with four producers, said he burrows into the online sites of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
His colleagues scope out the more offbeat queries. "It's kind of competitive here," Sagal acknowledged. "We don't reveal to each other how we find them."
Sagal, a former playwright who still dabbles in theater, is a devoted marathon runner. As a participant in last April's Boston Marathon, the memory of the bombings still looms large.
"It's been very hard, and I've tried to manage it," he said. "I was guiding a blind runner, we finished at 4:04 into the run and the bomb went off five minutes later. We were standing 100 yards from the finish line."
A native of Berkeley Heights, N.J., Sagal graduated from Harvard University and then "squandered that education by working as a literary manager for a regional theater, a movie publicist, a stage director, an actor, an extra in a Michael Jackson video, a travel writer, a ghost writer for a former adult-film impresario and a paid intern for Cycle, the magazine for motorcyclists."
A suburban Chicago resident, Sagal and his wife Beth have three daughters. Since 1998, the radio show has been the love of his professional life.
"I'm lucky," he said. "I'm a theater guy, enough of a ham and insecure enough so that every week, the last thing I want to do is to disappoint the audience."
Sagal summed up his ongoing enthusiasm: "We're all like dolphins jumping up for herring. Just laugh at us, and we'll give you more."
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