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Wait, Wait...It's Houston

Wait, Wait...It's Houston

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Courtesy of National Public Radio/Chicago Public Radio

"And they thought it would never happen: All the liberals in Southeast Texas in one room," Peter Sagal joked to the capacity crowd at the Wortham Center Thursday night, to lively applause.

For the first time ever, NPR's popular quiz show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me made its way to Houston for a sold-out two-night event. It was equal parts entertainment and fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of a modern radio show. 

Introduced one by one, host Peter Sagal and official judge and scorekeeper Carl Kasell stood at podiums on the left with panelists Paula Poundstone, Tom Bodett and Houston editor Kyrie O'Connor sitting at a table on the right, with an upholstered salmon-pink easy chair between them that Mayor Annise Parker occupied later in the show. Behind the panel, the seven-person crew worked in view of the audience.

Sagal warmed up the audience and apologized for any tardiness in the start of the production, mentioning that Kasell arrived in Houston from Washington, D.C. only 30 minutes before the beginning of the show, delayed almost a day from his original arrival time by the winter weather on the East coast. Sagal encouraged the audience to laugh and audibly have a good time, even if they had to "overcome their natural Texas quiet and reserve."

The show went, for the most part, exactly as heard on air, starting with a game of "Who's Carl," where a caller had to ID the source of three quotations (if "energy tax cuts lift American spirits" being written on Sarah Palin's left hand constitutes a quote), followed by Bluff the Listener and a Listener Limerick Challenge.

Paula Poundstone, still sporting her signature triangular bob and menswear attire, was by far the most talkative and funniest panelist, whether explaining her PopTart eating regimen, launching into an examination on the historical accuracy of F Troop or explaining her ambivalence on 3-D movies ("I see in three dimensions all the time. It's not that big of a deal to me").

Bodett was witty, if not loquacious, while O'Connor salvaged a mediocre night with her final assertion that under the Washington snow we'll find "Judge Cramer, Sasquatch, Jimmy Hoffa and the Republican Health Care Plan." When in doubt, know your audience. 

In the middle of all this, Parker took to the stage and gamely tried to extoll the merits of Houston, though her defending it as an arts town somehow turned into trying to explain the Art Car Parade (and the possibility of pulling up next to a giant chicken car year-round), topped in ridiculousness only by Parker's mention that Houston strippers are required to wear official identification at all times. 

(The show featuring Parker will be broadcast on KUHF-FM (88.7) Saturday at 10 a.m. Another show to be taped Friday night featuring ZZ Top will be broadcast later in the year.)

What was surprising was the length—the production ran just under two hours. Also funny was how at times the cast onstage would respond to each other without eye contact or recognition, a quirk of hearing everyone's voices through your headsets, I presume.  After the show, Sagal and company ran through a three-minute set of corrections of flubs and then took questions from the audience, including one that I was thinking.

When Carl Kasell leaves the outgoing message on your voicemail (the standard listener prize), what does he say? Turns out, he says whatever you want. They played one example, and having now found more hilarious gems on the NPR Web site, I now covet my own Kasell message. 

Hearing yourself on the radio? Meh. Hearing Carl Kasell sing "What's New, Pussycat?" on your machine? Priceless.