It’s fast, funny, topical and timely.
It’s written in advance yet utterly spontaneous.
It proudly propagates fake news. Real fake news.
“Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” NPR’s hugely popular news-comedy-quiz show is usually housed in a Chicago auditorium. But on July 18, Peter Sagal and the gang are bringing the show on the road to the serene surroundings of Blossom Music Center.
Sagal, who has hosted the weekly jokefest for 21 years, will be in Cuyahoga Falls along with announcer-judge-scorekeeper Bill Kurtis and three panelists: Mo Rocca, Maeve Higgins and Alonzo Bodden. The night's special celebrity guest has yet to be announced.
The rollicking format allows for news roundups, a celebrity interview, limericks, fill-in-the-blanks, predictions, and “Bluff the Listener,” in which the panelists present three outrageous stories (one is real, two are fake). Plus loads of banter and snarky asides.
The evening is presented by the Cleveland Orchestra in conjunction with NPR affiliates WCPN (90.3-FM) and WKSU (89.7-FM). The Thursday night show will be taped and edited and then run on Saturday, July 20, in its regular time slots: at 10 a.m. on WKSU, and at 11 a.m. on WCPN. (WKSU will also rebroadcast the show at 1 p.m. July 21.)
When “Wait Wait” began in 1998, it was carried on nine stations and had about 50,000 listeners. Now, according to NPR, the show is heard on more than 700 stations and has more than 5 million listeners, making it “the most-listened-to hour in public radio."
Sagal, an author, humorist, screenwriter, playwright, actor and marathon enthusiast, started as a panelist in 1998, then segued into the hosting role five months later. His non-radio pop-culture credentials are solid: He has been a “Jeopardy!” contestant (finishing second), played himself on “The Simpsons,” and was a voice in a Pixar movie (“Inside Out”).
“When I took this job 21 years ago, I thought it would be a brief stop on my way to Hollywood fame and fortune. It turned out to be my career,” he said recently on the phone from his Chicago office, where the show is produced by WBEZ.
The rocket fuel that launched “Wait Wait” into the popularity stratosphere was when it moved permanently from the studio to audience shows in 2005.
“It was so obvious that our show was better in front of a live audience,” Sagal said. “When you have thousands of people in front of you who might laugh at your joke, you work a lot harder on that joke. We’re all incentivised. We’re all porpoises leaping for herring.”
Because the show spins off current events, there is a constant need to scan hundreds of stories.
“There are five or six of us who do that all week,” Sagal said. “We look for news stories and send them around to each other. You know, ‘Oh, here’s this amazing story about this supposedly meth-addicted squirrel.’ ”
The staff meets, swaps stories and starts writing jokes.
“On a typical Wednesday, we look around at stories again; then mid-morning, we select the stories we are going to write up for the first draft,” Sagal said. “On Wednesday afternoon, we’ll read out what we’ve written and we’ll react. Sometimes people will laugh. A lot of times they won’t. One of my rules in life is, to get a good joke, you have to write five or six bad ones first.”
“Then we talk some more. We’ll decide what our ‘Bluff Story’ is. We’ll send it to the panelists. ‘Panelist A, you write up the real one. Panelists B and C, you write up one that sounds like it, but is fake.’ On Thursday, we repeat the whole process. We write again. We rewrite. Then we rehearse the show with Bill Kurtis.”
After one more rewrite, they head to the theater and meet up with the panelists.
“What’s kind of crazy, and what the audience at Blossom will see, is that we do all of that preparation, but in the end, we just throw it all against the wall and see what sticks. Our panelists react and improvise. They decide what’s funny. In a weird way, all of our preparation is preparation to be spontaneous.”
The live evenings run anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, then are edited down to an hour for Saturday airings nationwide.
The show has ventured to Northeast Ohio previously, coming to the Akron Civic Theatre in 2003 (with panelists Mo Rocca, Adam Felber and Roxanne Roberts), and Cleveland's Playhouse Square in 2012 (with Rocca, Kyrie O’Connor and Alonzo Bodden) and 2016 (with Paula Poundstone, Peter Grosz and Faith Salie).
The Blossom three:
• Rocca, who is a correspondent and fill-in host for “CBS Sunday Morning” and a former contributor to “The Daily Show," also tours with live versions of his podcast, "Mobituaries."
• Bodden won Season 3 of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing," and is also a regular on “Comedy Congress.” Bodden's podcast is "Who's Paying Attention?"
• Higgins is a contributing writer to the New York Times and the host of the podcast “Maeve in America,” which is also the title of her collection of essays.
One ongoing challenge for the panelists and Sagal is Donald Trump Overload. Although the current president provides comedy fodder, dwelling on it can become tiresome.
“It is something we wrestle with a lot,” Sagal said.
“We know that one of the things our audience turns to us for, is to say the things about the news on the radio that they are usually reduced to shouting at the radio. They want to hear us say, ‘This is stupid! This is crazy!’ We know our audience wants us to do that. But we also know they want us to give them a break.”
“The question is, how do you say something different about Trump from last week? We know we could get a rise out of our audience simply by insulting Trump. We call that phenomenon, ‘claughter.’ They’re not really thinking we’re funny, they’re just clapping for something they agree with. If we fall to that, we’re a failure.”
The show has traveled to similar venues such as Tanglewood in Massachusetts and Wolf Trap in Virginia, but larger, outdoor settings still present challenges.
“It can be a little disorienting. But it’s actually a weird kind of blessing to play a place like Blossom,” Sagal said.
“The audience right in front of us are in seats. But then there will be, hopefully, thousands of others out on the lawn. But we can’t really see them. That’s kind of a blessing. I think if I could look out at a crowd that size, I would lose my mind with terror.”
Sagal is exceedingly quick with quips and comebacks. I asked him if he drank four cups of coffee before each show, or just three? (I was kidding.)
“I am a coffee addict,” he said. “I sometimes think I drink too much coffee, four or five cups a morning.” (He wasn't kidding.)
“There was a story that came out that said global warming is going to eliminate coffee beans and then wine grapes. And I’m like, ‘Well that’s fine, because I won’t survive long enough to miss wine.’ ”
Clint O’Connor can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.