'Wait, wait ... Don't tell me': Popular NPR show to tape at Tanglewood
LENOX, MASS. — No theatrical bells and whistles.
Two podiums, a table for three panelists, microphones. That's all.
"No special stage effects," says an old theater guy, Peter Sagal, host of National Public Radio's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," which is coming to Tanglewood on Thursday evening, at 8 for a live taping that can be heard Saturday, at 11 a.m. on WAMC-FM and noon on New England Public Radio — WFCR-FM.
Joining Sagal and judge/scorekeeper Bill Curtis will be panelists Paula Poundstone, Tom Bodett and Roy Blount, Jr. The special guest will be former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee.
Typically, "Wait Wait ," which is co-produced by Chicago Public Radio and National Public Radio, is taped live for weekend broadcasts in the just-under-500 seat Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago. But once a month, on average — the show takes to the road.
This is the third time in four years it has come to Tanglewood.
"Who wouldn't want to play Tanglewood?" Sagal asked rhetorically by telephone from the third floor of Chicago Public Radio's WBEZ-FM.
To begin with, Sagal says, an opportunity to appear before an audience of 7,000 listeners who are hanging out, drinking fine wine on the lawn, having a good time is not to be taken lightly.
Sagal, 51, also has personal connections to Tanglewood. Although he was born in New Jersey, he spent a lot of his youth and early adulthood in Massachusetts. He is a Harvard grad. Tanglewood loomed large in his cultural circuit. "It was a big deal," he said.
And then, he said, there's the food.
"The truth is," Sagal said without missing a beat, "we come back because the backstage catering is the best we've had anywhere. I'm not going to eat for two days before we get there."
"A lot of people out there think I started the show," Sagal said. Not true.
In the mid-'90s, Sagal said, executives at National Public Radio decided they wanted an entertainment show for people who listen to the news. They collaborated with Doug Berman, who also produced "Car Talk." Sagal, an actor and playwright, was "plucked from Brooklyn." The show premiered in January 1998 but it struggled. Member stations weren't buying NPR's pitch.
Berman gave the show what Sagal characterized as a "Hail Mary pass." In May 1998, Sagal was moved from panelist to host. He was joined by Carl Kassell, who had been with NPR since 1975, as judge and scorekeeper. He stayed with the show until 2014, when he retired. He was succeeded by Curtis.
Berman's gamble paid off. The Peabody Award-winning show is now in its 18th season and is heard weekly by three million people on 520 NPR stations.
Sagal, five editors and a small group of additional researchers spend their time scrolling the internet not only to keep up with the latest news but also in search of what Sagal calls "weird" items.
The show's script is shaped by discussions among the team. "You usually write 10 bad jokes for every one good joke," Sagal said.
And then, it all gets thrown out the window at the taping.
"The panelists have no idea what we've created," Sagal said. "We get on stage, turn the show over to them and they take it wherever they want to take it."
Sagal says they tape 90 minutes to get the 54 minutes they actually need for the hourlong show; more, he said, if Poundstone is a panelist. "The taping can run two hours when she's on," Sagal said lightly, "and she doesn't mind my saying that."
Some of the jokes are cut because, Sagal says, "they're pretty dirty. Some are just plain bad."
Sagal says that, over the years, he's been surprised by guests who were funny that he didn't expect to be funny; guests like, for example, "[singer-songwriter] Neko Case, who is known for these powerful torch songs. She turned out to be one of our funniest guests."
The key, Sagal says, is to present guests in a way that humanizes them. He cites Arizona's junior Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake as a prime example.
"We did what we do," Sagal said. "We asked him about his love of spending vacations on desert islands.
"In answering, he was funny and he was human. No matter what they may have thought about his politics, our audience saw him in a different way.
"I think if [our show] serve[s] any purpose in the world, it is to humanize people in a way that benefits everyone, and that's a good thing."
IF YOU GO ...
What: "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!"
Who: Peter Sagal, host; Bill Curtis, judge and scorekeeper; panelists — Paula Poundstone, Tom Bodett, Roy Blount, Jr.; special guest — Bill "Spaceman" Lee
Where: Tanglewood, The Shed, West Street (Route 183), Lenox, Mass.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday,
Tickets: $120-$24 (lawn)
How: 888-266-1700; tanglewood.org; in person at Tanglewood Main Gate box office — West Street (Route 183)