Q&A with Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal—or, at least, his voice—is most recognizable as the host of the NPR news quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, which airs weekly to an audience of nearly 3 million listeners. But this Harvard University graduate is also a playwright, Game of Thrones podcaster, and accidental contributor to the screenplay of Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. From November 30 to December 17, Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton will stage the premiere of Most Wanted, a comedy Sagal wrote more than 20 years ago. It follows Frank and Doris, a retired couple who kidnap their granddaughter and go on the lam in Florida. Sagal recently spoke with PBI about his play, quiz show, and legacy.

Photo by Andrew Collings/NPR

Credit: Andrew Collings/NPR

PBI: How did you come to work with Lou Tyrrell and Theatre Lab?

Sagal: This goes back more than 20 years. Lou Tyrrell, who’s a dear friend, wanted to produce my play Denial, which premiered up in Long Wharf [in New Haven, Connecticut] in 1995. At the time, he was running a theater in Manalapan that probably was doing more new plays than certainly any other theater in Florida. … Then he did another play of mine that no one else had the guts to produce, a play called What to Say, so he won my loyalty forever.

What was the inspiration for Most Wanted?

The play began because my brother and his wife had just had their first child (who is now 25 years old and living in the Bay Area) and my parents really were interested in seeing that child all the time, and it was causing some tension. Like a lot of creative works, it just started with a what if? What if they just grabbed the kid and ran? I think I set it in Florida because I had been there for that production of my earlier play, so I was thinking about Florida. And for Jewish families, Florida’s always been the place you go to at the end.

Why did Florida feel like such an apropos setting for this play?

It’s not fair but Florida is very much like Southern California, where if you run into somebody who actually grew up there it’s amazing. Florida is and certainly has been for my lifetime a place that people go to for a variety of reasons. One of them is the weather. One of them is to get away. One of them is to start again. The original title of this play was On the Lam, i.e. they’re running for it, they’re trying to make an escape. It made perfect sense to me that this couple—who are from the great American northeast—would run to someplace like Florida. As their journey develops, they make their way down the west coast of Florida all the way to the Keys. It’s literally, as they say in the play, the end of the road.

Have you done any major updates, given that you wrote Most Wanted 20 years ago?

I haven’t. I saw it in May at Theatre Lab as part of a play reading festival, and I hadn’t seen it or even read it for many, many years, so it was very interesting. Obviously, it is my work but it was work from a long time ago. Many years have passed and in those years, I’ve become a parent myself. I was watching this and I thinking, “Wow, when I was 30 there were some things I got right and there were some things I got very wrong.” It’s my intent to take a little time to look at the play, but I don’t want to change it because the play is the play. In a weird way, I have to honor my 30-year-old self—what I wanted to write about and how I wanted to write it. But at the same time, like everybody else, I know a lot more now. I think some of the things in the play, especially about parenthood and children, don’t ring true to me, and I don’t want that to happen to an audience. My hope is that before they go into rehearsal, I will provide them with not a rewritten but an updated script.

What will Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me listeners find most surprising about Most Wanted?  

Considering what Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me is, they’re going to find a distinct lack of interest in current events. It’s obviously funny. But I think what’s most surprising is that it’s not entirely funny; it’s [also] serious. If there’s one thing the play is probably about is really, to quote Cher, turning back time. There are a lot of people in the play who, in a variety of ways, are stuck in the past, either through stubbornness or desperation or illness. In a weird way, when they run away they’re trying to turn back time and deny the consequences of what’s happened in their lives.

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me has been on air for almost 20 years. How has the show evolved during that time?

In terms of its format, the show has been very much the same over the years—and I’m still standing. The thing that has changed is, of course, the news. From Clinton to Bush to Obama to now, there have been significant changes and there’s always something interesting to talk about. And we’ve all seen a change in our cast. Especially over the last few years, we’ve been doing our best to revitalize the show by bringing in younger, more diverse voices. … What’s really become interesting is this relationship we have with our listeners. People rely on us. We’re in constant dialogue with [them]. We know what they’re listening to, because we listen to public radio, too. We’re making jokes for them and with them come the weekend.

Have you all had to reevaluate your model for the show and what you define as “weird news” in the age of Trump?

We’ve been struggling with this ever since he came down that escalator in June 2015. The basis of satire is exaggeration. You take something you notice [and then say], “Well what if they went all the way and did this?” The classic example is Jonathan Swift who, 500 years ago in A Modest Proposal, said “Wow, we’re so cruel to the Irish peasantry, why don’t we just suggest they eat their own babies?” What would you do if you’re Jonathan Swift and they’re already eating their babies? What’s left to say? My joke has been that instead of writing comedy, we should just read a transcript of what Trump said. We have found that, in a weird way, we have been freed from our previous restrictions because the president is freed from standard restrictions.

The “Bluff the Listener” portion of the show includes the panelists telling three news stories. One is true and the other two are false. I’ve always wondered, do the two panelists with the non-truths have to come up with their anecdotes? Do they make them up on the spot?

They do, but not on the spot. We write to them the night before and say, “Hey guys, here’s the real story. P.J. O’Rourke, for example, you have the real story. The other two of you, please write something along this theme that fits the real story.” They send them to us. We edit them and go over them, and then they do it. That’s the only thing they prepare.

I wanted to ask you some “Not My Job” questions but I’m just not that creative. Have you ever thought about what your “Not My Job” category would be?

That’s a good question. No one’s ever asked me that. Keep in mind that the “Not My Job” thing is more or less a joke. It’s not like, “Oh, you’re a musician, we’re going to ask you about nuclear physics.” We’re going to ask you about some dumb thing we thought of that will get a laugh and that’s the category. So, if I came on as a guest, they’d probably ask me about seagulls or bagels. It just so happens that there are famous people with names just like mine. If I were writing the quiz for Peter Sagal host of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, I’d probably ask him questions about Peter Sagan, who is the championship bike rider, or Peter Segal, who is the movie director. I still occasionally get notes for him.

It seems to me like being radio famous is the best type of famous because you still have facial anonymity. Do people often recognize you just by voice?

They sometimes do. We’ve been doing our show in front of a live audience for 12 years, so every week 500 or sometimes 3,000 more people see what I look like. I’ve also done a bunch of television appearances. I’m a face that people recognize [but] not nearly as much as someone who is actually on TV or in movies. For example, I walked through a baseball stadium once with T.J. Jagodowski, who is one of the guys on the Sonic commercials, and we couldn’t go 10 feet without somebody going, “Hey, it’s the Sonic guy!” Nobody recognized me.

The other nice thing, in addition to that general anonymity that being on the radio has, is it just so happens my fans are public radio listeners. They’re really polite. This is a typical interaction: I went to see a play the other night. I’m sitting in the lobby by myself waiting for the play to start. Somebody comes up to me and says, “Excuse me, Mr. Sagal. I don’t want to bother you but I want to say thank you for what you do. I think it’s really great. Thank you so much.” And just immediately backed away. They’re so considerate.

In addition to your NPR work, I’m also a big fan of your podcast Nerdette Recaps Game of Thrones with Peter Sagal. So, I’m really curious to know what Game of Thrones house you’d like to be in?

What’s really interesting about the world of Game of Thrones is there’s so little art in it. If you’ve read the books—which I have a couple times—you know the world is full of warriors and knights and ladies and peasants and murderers and assassins and bakers and smiths and all kinds of people, but there are very few people who actually create art. It’s not an art-heavy world. There are a few bards at one point that show up, and none comes to a good end. They’re always getting their tongues ripped out or just being executed or blamed for crimes. I imagine I would have a very short career as some sort of stand-up bard in Westeros and then be immediately killed by the first royal person I failed.

Given your diverse résumé, what achievements do you hope appear on your tombstone?  

I always thought my obituary was going to lead with, “The guy who wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights without meaning to.” That was some years ago when I was trying to accomplish some other things. Because I’m me, I hope I get a laugh. Maybe I should have the words in really tiny type so that you have to step up close to the gravestone and peer down and it would say, “Get off of me!” If anybody reads this in the future, that’s what I want on my tombstone.


*This interview has been edited and condensed.

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