You might think that putting the NPR News quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” on the big screen, in movie theaters all over the country Thursday night, would just be a way of celebrating its 15 years on the air, of paying tribute almost of the very day in May 1998 that playwright-screenwriter Peter Sagal took over and made the program a hit.
And you’d be right. Almost. Sagal says it’s all about lowering the bar.
“It’s very hard to fight that image of perfection that radio creates for us,” Sagal cracks. “I was talking with Beyonce about this the other day. ‘You know,’ I said to Beyonce, ‘People get this image of you that is unrealistic, perfect and gorgeous and all that. And then some paparazzi comes along and catches you without makeup.’
“We want people to see us scratching ourselves, not having our hair combed, doing what we do out of reach of the microphone. Because perfection is a frightening thing for people to expect.”
The faux game show features current events questions, call-in contestants, political and cultural guest stars and a humorist-and-celebrity packed panel but no serious prizes. Panelists tell outrageous stories in an effort to stump listeners, and venerable NPR newsman Carl Kasell reads limericks about the news. It is famed for having once been labeled “insufferable” by Vanity Fair magazine, for the quick wit of its panelists and the gently irreverent way Sagal interviews guests, from Al Gore to Jeff Bridges, Carrie Fisher to Paula Deen.
But is it ready for the big screen? We caught up with Sagal in Chicago to find out.
Q. Are you worried about losing the radio mystique, destroying the illusion, by doing this?
A. Our panel this week – Mo Rocca, Tom Bodett and Paula Poundstone – were selected because they are, far and away, our most attractive panelists. And we’ll have Steve Martin as our special guest.
We’ve been doing this show live, in front of an audience, for over a decade. I’m an old theater guy, so I live for that. This is just a new way to reach out to an audience that we, for the most part, cannot see. Other radio shows are going with this visual element, because apparently people want to see us sit there in front of a big microphone and talk. OK, I say. Let’em.
Q. But this isn’t the first time your work has appeared on the big screen, is it?
A. Oh, you guys are McClatchy, the only ones to get the Iraq War right. I know better than to pull your leg.
Yes, “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” is my biggest big screen credit. (He got a “story” credit.) I’m actually MUCH prouder of another film I wrote. “Savage” (1996) starring Olivier Gruner, a French action star so bad he’s who you sign up when you can’t afford Jean-Claude Van Damme. Terrible movie, just terrible.
Q. It was interesting to hear you interviewed as part of NPR’s Boston Marathon bombing coverage (Sagal had just run the race). Did that give you an appreciation of your show’s role in the NPR news and information-packed lineup?
A. I was reminded of the mediocre show that we pulled together after 9/11. Not our best effort, but the best that we could come up with at the time. And people came up to me, or wrote and thanked us for giving them permission to laugh again. We’re a break from all the serious news that NPR is known for.
It was purely by chance that we had the week off when the Boston Marathon bombing happened.
I was off, running the marathon. Stations were running one of our “best of” or “fundraising” shows, instead.
But when we come back, people expect us to be funny. So thank God for Reese Witherspoon!