For more than 17 years, Peter Sagal has hosted NPR's hilarious weekly news panel game show, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, one of the most popular shows on public radio, heard by nearly three million listeners nationwide and by one million people every month via podcast.
Now, Sagal and three panelists — Maz Jobrani, Alonzo Bodden and Paula Poundstone — are coming to Houston for a live taping of the show in front of a sold-out crowd at Jones Hall Thursday night. It will be broadcast this weekend on Houston Public Media’s News 88.7 — Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. — and on 520 stations around the nation.
In advance of his Houston visit, Sagal spoke with CultureMap about taking the show on the road, local eats and the backlash from Kim Kardashian's recent appearance.
CultureMap: First off, how different is the experience when taking the show on the road?
Peter Sagal: Well, it isn't as much as it used to be, and what I mean by that is that more than 10 years ago — seems like prehistory to me — we used to spend most weeks in the studio and then we would take it on the road to special events in front of live audiences. In fact, in those days, it was hugely different because we were just doing the show for ourselves in the studio, which in retrospect was a terrible idea in comparison to doing it in front of large, enthusiastic audiences.
It became so obvious that it was better that we switched to doing it in front of a live audience every week.
It became so obvious that it was better that we switched to doing it in front of a live audience every week. That said, there is a tremendous thrill going to someplace we are not normally and playing to usually much larger, very enthusiastic crowds, which is why we still do it 10 times a year.
It's really fun to travel across the country and find 2,000 people who are very excited to see us.
CM: Do you have a favorite segment?
PS: I love our interviews because most of the time it's people who I admire and would love to talk to and get to do it in front of thousands of people and for the benefit of five million people on the radio. I've been able to talk to everyone from two U.S. presidents — (President Barack) Obama and (former President Bill) Clinton — to some of my childhood heroes — Dick Van Dyke, Leonard Nimoy — to writers, thinkers.
Maybe the greatest thrill I had, believe it or not, was talking to Norton Juster, who wrote the children's book, The Phantom Tollbooth, which was my favorite book when I was a kid. He sent me a signed copy of the book. It's just really great stuff.
That said, the whole show is a joy because I'm on stage with three very, very funny people — that's especially true this week in Houston with Maz, Alonzo and Paula, who are three of the funniest people alive — and I just get to work with them. Being on stage with those guys and being able to screw around with them is pretty fun.
CM: Is there any regular panelist who seems to be a crowd favorite?
PS: Oh, that's easy — and I apologize to all my other panelists — but without question, it's Paula Poundstone. People love Paula Poundstone and they always have. The amazing thing about Paula is that she's amazingly distinctive and has a distinctive personality. You can see a lot of really, really great comedians, but you may walk away without a sense of who they really are.
People love Paula Poundstone and they always have.
Paula is always so profoundly herself. Her comic routines — she's very, very good and she's been doing it for 30 to 40 years — are similar. Paula comes out on stage and shes starts talking about her life and then 20 minutes later you realize you're in the middle of her comedy act and didn't really know it. She says, "Oh yeah, I got up to catch a plane this morning and my kid was like this," and you think she's just telling you a story about her life, but that's her comedy.
So, people feel — more so than with other comedians — that they really know Paula and like her because she's adorable. Everybody loves Paula, sometimes to the dismay of other panelists. Sometimes when we take questions at the end of the show people will say, "Where's Paula?" I'm just there to feed her straight lines.
CM: Kim Kardashian's recent appearance on the show caused quite a stir among NPR's fans. How do you feel about the backlash?
PS: I think it's hilarious.
First of all, I just want to clarify something. I wasn't on the show that week and some people think that I was somehow boycotting my own show because of Kim Kardashian. Not only is that not true — I had a prearranged thing to do elsewhere — but I wanted Kim Kardashian on the show and felt really bad that I couldn't be there to interview her. We tried to change the date so I could, but she's a busy woman, so I had to miss it. My only regret about the whole episode was that I wasn't there to interview her, but that's selfish because I think (guest host) Mike (Pesca) did a fine job.
&Somebody wrote in and said, "Oh, the whole deal with Kim Kardashian was so awful, I couldn't believe it," and I said, "What did Kim Kardashian actually do that bothers you so much?"
Somebody wrote in and said, "Oh, the whole deal with Kim Kardashian was so awful, I couldn't believe it," and I said, "What did Kim Kardashian actually do that bothers you so much?" Is it that she did a sex tape? Rob Lowe did a sex tape and went on our show and nobody protested. Is it because she's in the gossip columns for her romantic life? Well, so is Scarlett Johansson, and she also poses in negligees, but that doesn't seem to be a problem for people. Was it that she does reality TV? Well, we had on Andy Cohen from Bravo and he invented the modern soap opera reality TV show, the Real Housewives thing. He made it all possible, you know. So what exactly is the objection to Kim Kardashian? Nobody can tell me.
People imagine that she represents something that they oppose. I think our listeners think that there's our world, which is literate and charming and intellectual, and then there's Kim Kardashian's world, which they don't know but they assume is dumb and superficial and is somehow destroying this country. My attitude is — let's assume there are two worlds, let's assume they're right, that Kim Kardashian lives in and represents a completely different world than the one in which we and our listeners live in — why wouldn't you want to talk to her?
For me, that's exactly the reason you would want to talk to her. Oh my gosh, there's this whole other world out there that's interested in things that we don't know anything about. "What is it like to be in your world? Tell me about your day, tell me about your life, let's get to know you." If an alien came to earth, you wouldn't say, "Oh, you're from another planet." You'd say, "Tell us about your planet, what's it like there? What makes you happy? What's a day like on Planet Kardashian?"
My attitude — and this is very much why I wanted to have her on the show — is that she is perhaps one of the most unique people in the entire world. Who else lives like her? Who else has had her success? Who else has had her exposure? Who else has had her life? I can't think of anybody.
Kim Kardashian comes on our show and says she won't name her son "South" — everybody reported on it. It was in Vanity Fair, it was in People, in international news columns. You see that and think, "Wow, that's really interesting, what's it like to live like that?" So I really think the whole thing is silly.
CM: Is there anything you look forward to doing while you're in Houston?
PS: Eating. I can't decide whether to take my meal budget — by that I mean the three or four meals I get to have while in Houston — and spend them all on barbecue, Vietnamese food or some bizarre combination of the above. I'll probably try to get in all of it before I leave.