NPR's 'Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me' taping last year at Tanglewood. The show returns to Lenox on Thursday.
LENOX, Mass. — Peter Sagal has made a career of speaking truth to power ... at least those who might be listening on Saturday morning when his wildly successful radio show, "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" airs on National Public Radio stations across the country.
The show is billed as "the NPR news quiz," and each week Sagal and a rotating panel of humorists break down the week's news and crack legions of fans. The topics range from front-page current events to anecdotes worthy of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."
Sagal said that while much of the show's material is gleaned from minor news stories, Sagal's fans tell him that they appreciate segments that poke fun at major newsmakers.
"Because we're not serious, we can tell the truth," Sagal said in a telephone interview from his home base in Chicago. "When somebody is behaving stupidly, the serious news people will say, 'His actions were questioned by critics.' We can say, 'He's a moron.'
"That is a privilege and a role that we serve."
On Thursday, Aug. 28, local audiences will for the second year in a row have the privilege of seeing and hearing the live recording of "Wait Wait" at the Koussevitsky Music Shed at Tanglewood. The approximately 90-minute taping is edited down on Friday to fit the hour-long broadcast on Saturday mornings.
Sagal, 49, a Harvard alumnus, has another tie to the Bay State, having four times run the Boston Marathon — twice as a guide to a blind athlete through a program called "Team with a Vision." The first time he served as a guide was 2013, and Sagal later recounted in "Runner's World" how he and his partner just came across the finish line when the bombs started going off behind them.
Sagal recently talked to iBerkshires.com about the Tanglewood experience, how "Wait, Wait" comes together each week and the marathon.
Question: This is your second straight year at Tanglewood?
Answer: Yes, our second year in a row, which is unusual for us to do that. We don't normally come back to another city outside of Chicago so soon.
Q: So I gather things went well last year?
A: Last year's show went great.
First of all, there's something really wrong with a universe that allows my stupid radio show to take the stage at Tanglewood where so many giants of art and music and entertainment have trod.
Of course, it's the same universe that allows us to do the show at Carnegie Hall, [Colorado's] Red Rocks Amphitheater and [San Francisco's] War Memorial Opera House. So the universe is clearly not rational.
Tanglewood has the finest backstage catering we have experienced. It was awesome. Frankly, we're just coming back for the food.
Q: At this point, you could probably do a perpetual roadshow. There are surely no shortage of public radio stations that would like to host you. How do you strike that balance?
A: The problem is we do one show a week — unlike a band that can pack up and go from city to city to city. If we were to go on the road, we'd have to get RVs and park them in a campground every week at a new city.
Our home theater [Chicago's Chase Auditorium] is being renovated. We decided to do three shows in San Francisco and sold them out instantly.
Presumably, we could just wander the countryside like Caine in 'Kung Fu,' and that would be awesome. But it would exhaust us. When we go on the road, everybody goes — the entire production crew goes.
Q: What kind of production is it backstage?
A: We're just going to start making some backstage 'making of' videos. And what we're finding is that to make them interesting we have to make stuff up.
Comedy is written by a bunch of guys staring at screens. We track down news stories. We talk about them. Every day, we have a meeting where we argue and make jokes and try to sell each other on what's funny.
As the week goes on, we decide what we want to talk about. The first thing is who the guest is going to be.
Q: And this week?
Peter Sagal will have Gov. Deval Patrick as guest panelist on this week's show.
A: Our guest is going to be Gov. Deval Patrick. And now we have to figure out how we're going to have some fun with him. No such thing, as you know, is too cheap for us. When we had [novelist] Amy Tan on and we asked her about tanning. [Last year at Tanglewood, pianist Emanuel Ax was quizzed about Axe Body Spray].
As you know, it's not rocket science what we do. We do cheap jokes.
Q: And I envision an army of writers and producers combing through all sorts of minor publications for news. Do you also get submissions that come in over the transom?
Sagal: Army is an exaggeration. It's more like a small platoon — myself and four other people. We do get submissions, but we are pretty good at what we do, so chances are if somebody out there among our audience found a goofy story, there's a chance we already found it.
Q: You produce the 'NPR news quiz,' but some of the stories — in the 'Stump the Listener' segment don't need to be especially timely. How far back would you use something for that?
A: People say it's a quiz about the week's news. But the news we do — with a couple of exceptions — is not really about the headlines. It's about the really goofy stuff happening way behind the headlines, in the back pages of those news sites you mentioned.
To even call it a news quiz is inaccurate. It's weird but true stuff. People stuffing marmosets down their pants and getting caught at customs — that's not news.
We do love it when we can find a major news event and find something strange about it.
Q: You do the show on Thursday nights, edit it on Friday and air it on Saturday morning. In today's 24-hour news cycle world, that sounds like an eternity between recording and airing. Are you ever worried that something you do on Thursday night won't be relevant come Saturday morning?
A: A lot of people ask me about that. ... In April 2005, we started doing the show live every week. By that I mean doing it Thursday night in front of an audience instead of Friday morning in the studio. Amazingly, in that time, we have had only — and this is just my recollection — been burned twice. Burned in that things happened that made us go in on Friday and rerecord something as opposed to just editing it out.
Those two times were: We did a story about Paris Hilton being sent to jail, and then the judge released her on Friday and changed the story.
And then a few years ago, 2009 I think, we did a story about the Nobel Prizes. The only one they were giving out was the Peace prize on Friday morning, and we assumed it would be given to some obscure peace group like it always is. We found out on Friday it was given to President Obama. So we had to go back into the studio and recreate the moment with our panel.
Why only twice? I think it's a couple of things: Breaking news tends more often than not to be tragic — a plane crash, a disaster, a flood. And we don't do that anyway.
The other reason is people who end up on our show like to be on our show, so they don't do stupid shit on Friday.
Q: You had a professional life before 'Wait, Wait,' namely as a playwright. Are you writing anything now?
A: Not really. I wish I was. I'm trying to write a book about running. I hope to write plays again. I find that my career as a radio guy has gotten in the way of that. I miss it, and I wish I was writing plays. There's just too much time I have to devote to my day job.
There are people who could hold down a full-time job and still have a rich, full creative life. And of course I hate them for that.
Q: You mention the book about running, and I saw a piece you wrote about running in the Boston Marathon and an interview you did prior to the 2014 race. I did not find anything that you wrote after the '14 race. What was that experience like, going back to Boston in April?
A: I didn't really write about it. ... I asked 'Runner's World' if they wanted a column from me about the experience, but they didn't.
It was fine. It was a beautiful day, a little hot toward the end. My runner, Eric Manser of Leominster, had a tough day.
But overall, it was a great, celebratory day, and I was glad to be there. When things go well, there's a lot less to talk about ... then when things go disastrously horrible.