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'Wait Wait' Host Peter Sagal Talks Comedy, News And What It's Like To Run In Seattle

Alain McLaughlin for NPR
"Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" host Peter Sagal

The popular NPR news quiz "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" is coming to Seattle's Paramount Theatre on Thursday. On the weekly game show, a panel of comedians and writers crack wise about the news. The show also features celebrity guests taking the  quiz — everyone from actors and comedians to Supreme Court justices. (This week, it's travel expert Rick Steves.) KPLU spoke with "Wait Wait..." host Peter Sagal about the news, comedy and even a famous incident involving that animated paperclip from Microsoft.

Interview highlights:

On Preparing For The Show

Credit Alain McLaughlin for NPR
Host Peter Sagal, on stage during a taping of "Wait Wait..." in San Francisco.

“Our job is what most people do to procrastinate from their jobs, which is to look around the Internet for amusing tidbits. So, to procrastinate, we do things like spreadsheets and quarterly reports.”  

On Going Off-Script 

“A lot of people think we prep the panelists. Our show does not do that. It gives us a certain appeal because when you listen to the show, you hear people reacting in the moment quite honestly. We were in Seattle some years ago, and we did a bit aboutClippy. [“Clippit,” often called "Clippy," is the name of Microsoft’s massively unpopular animated paperclip who would try to help you write letters and use spreadsheets.] That reference toward Clippy set us off. I couldn’t keep it together, it was so funny.” (You can listen to the bit and Peter's explanation of what happened when they taped it in the audio at the top of the page.)

On Picking Celebrity Guests

“We want people to be funny and charming. But at the same time, one of my particular pleasures is bringing the fun and the charm out of somebody who you don’t normally see it from. Dave [Barry] is hilarious. He’s going to be really funny, he’s going to have these amazing anecdotes, he’s going to be quick, he’s going to be great.

“But there’s much more pride for me if we have somebody like, say, Al Gore on the show. Al Gore, who famously is not funny in his professional persona, is hilarious and goofy, and giggled like a school girl. I love that.”

On Being Funny Amid Grim News

“The reaction we got when we did a show soon after 9/11 was so gratifying. People were like, ‘We just needed that. Thank you. The news has been so grim.’ That’s what we try to remember.

“That’s sort of a noble calling, particularly in public radio. Because public radio — let’s face it — is pretty serious. To be the guy who gets up and gives everybody an hour-long break every week … I’m not saying I’m as important to the national discourse as Robert Siegel is, or Steve Inskeep, but I have my role.”

On Causing Offense

“It’s a cliché to say that if you’re not offending somebody every now and then you’re not doing it right. But I think there’s some truth in that. The whole point of comedy is to break rules of politesse, and to ignore the rules of conversation. Comedians get to say things that no one else can say. Sometimes that’s really useful.”

On Running In Seattle Vs. Chicago

(We should probably just let you hear it.)


"Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" tapes this week's episode on Sept. 18 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. The scheduled panelists are Luke Burbank, Maz Jobrani, and Paula Poundstone. Travel expert Rick Steves is scheduled to appear as the special guest. The show airs Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 10 a.m. on KPLU.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.