Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me

by Amy Kingsley

The host of “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” the weekly NPR news quiz, measures his political candidates against a very different yardstick than the one used by most radio commentators.

“Whatever you want to say about a Gore administration,” said Peter Sagal, “it probably would have been less funny than the Bush presidency.”

Sagal has hosted “Wait, Wait” since May 1998, four months after then-President Bill Clinton declared he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinski. In the last 10 years, the comedy/quiz show has lampooned everything from the ensuing impeachment to the recent trial of disgraced White House staffer I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

I spoke to Sagal on the afternoon following Alberto Gonzales’ announcement that he would resign from his post as US attorney general. The occasion for the interview was the impending appearance of Sagal and the rest of the “Wait, Wait” cast in Winston-Salem for a live taping of the show this Thursday.

“Gonzales was good for a few laughs,” Sagal said. “We’re hoping Bush appoints someone really outrageous to replace him. He wasn’t as fabulous and amazing as Mike Brown. We like someone who really puts himself out there.”

The “we” in Sagal’s statement includes the likes of native Tar Heel Carl Kasell, a newscaster on “Morning Edition” since 1979, comedian Mo Rocca, Houston Chronicle deputy managing editor Kyrie O’Connor and author Roy Blount, Jr. All will be appearing with Sagal at Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus. The show, presented by local NPR affiliate WFDD, is sold out.

Sagal, who is also a playwright and screenwriter, could not confirm any special guests for the Winston-Salem appearance. But the show has attracted plenty of high-profile figures, including Tom Hanks, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. When Fitzgerald appeared, Sagal’s first question was “What are you doing here?”

“I think well enough of our show to think people would want to be on it,” he said. “Besides, Patrick Fitzgerald told me, “If I did a regular news show, I wouldn’t be able to answer any of the questions. But your questions I can answer.'”

As it turns out, many celebrity guests are also fans of the show, Sagal said. Producers are working on booking all the presidential candidates. So far Republican Ron Paul, Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Elizabeth Edwards have all appeared on the show.

“We would love it if we could be the place politicians go to just to talk,” Sagal said, “like the “Larry King Live’ of public radio news.”

On an average week, the producers tape about 90 minutes of material that is edited down to a 50-minute program. Usually it’s the dirty bits that end up on the cutting room floor, Sagal said. During one taping in Berkeley, Cal., a question came up about Ronald Reagan, who is reported to have said he “felt like [he] just crapped a pineapple,” after the passage of a particularly controversial bill.

“We had two sign language interpreters and we thought it was so funny watching them sign “crapped a pineapple’ that we just kept saying it over and over again,” Sagal said. “Then we started changing it to things like “crapped a wriggling ferret.’ That’s the sort of thing that can happen.”

Fans who are unable to score tickets to the live taping may miss out on such nuggets, but will still be able to listen to the show when it is broadcast on WFDD (88.5 FM) at 11 a.m. on Saturday. In between tapings, Sagal has also been hard at work on The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to do Them), which will be available in bookstores in October.

As far as “Wait, Wait” goes, Sagal and his producers still have a couple of pie-in-the-sky guests they are working on booking.

“We would obviously love to have George Bush on the show,” Sagal said. “I mean we’ve been making fun of this man for years. We would love to have him on to get his own jabs in.”

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