NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” officially celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, a milestone that was marked with an intellectual, refined evening befitting public radio … oh, who’s kidding whom?
It was a raucous, irreverent night, with host Peter Sagal, judge and scorekeeper Bill Kurtis and 15 panelists, which is to say it was like the proverbial herding of cats. Thank God for the editors, who wrangled the marathon taping into an hour of the week’s news.
As one of the show’s original panelists, I am allowed to share 20 things you need to know for your next “WWDTM” trivia party. You’re welcome.
1. “Wait Wait” owes its existence to “Car Talk,” the surprise NPR hit starring Tom and Ray Magliozzi, two Boston brothers and mechanics with an infectious sense of humor and the occasional useful car advice. Executive producer Doug Berman was approached to create another show to air on the weekend, and he came up with a news-quiz format to reward faithful NPR listeners with a light take on serious news. “It was designed to be not a complete waste of time,” Berman says. “You listen for the laughs but then realize that you accidentally learned something.” His genius move: persuading NPR’s veteran morning newscaster Carl Kasell to serve as judge and scorekeeper. Carl gave the show instant respectability and saved us from the chopping block during those bumpy early years.
2. The first show aired Jan. 3, 1998, with host Dan Coffey, Carl as scorekeeper and panelists Roy Blount Jr., Peter Sagal and yours truly. We survived our first year on the air, thanks to Bill Clinton’s impeachment and Viagra – a little blue dress and a little blue pill.
3. Wait, Peter was a panelist? Indeed. He took over hosting duties in spring 1998 for Coffey, who was funny but not a news junkie. Peter, on the other hand, was a Harvard-educated playwright, deeply steeped in current events and literate ad-libs. “I have two traits that are good for this job,” he says. “I’m very eager to please. I want the people listening to be happy. And I happen to have a very quick mind.” Peter’s other claims to fame: host of the acclaimed PBS “Constitution USA” series, author of “The Book of Vice” (which includes a pre-Trump scandal interview with Stormy Daniels) and his new “The Incomplete Book of Running.”
4. “Wait Wait” wasn’t an overnight hit. In fact, plenty of people thought it was beneath the standards of NPR, and of course they were correct. (One of our early slogans: “NPR Without the Dignity.”) Fortunately, another NPR weekend show that had launched at the same time was in even more trouble, so “Wait Wait” had a little time to work out the kinks.
5. The show was originally taped in NPR studios: Carl and I in Washington, D.C., Peter in Chicago and the other panelists wherever they lived. In 2005, we switched to a live audience at Chicago’s Chase Bank Auditorium (the panelists fly in for each show) or theaters across the country. We tape Thursday nights, which means the show is edited, the calls are not live during the weekend broadcast, and we pray nothing newsworthy happens Friday.
6. So how do the calls work, anyway? Would-be contestants leave a message on the “Wait Wait” batphone, and those selected sit by their phones on Thursday night, waiting for producers to call and then their five minutes of glory. Winners receive the only prize “WWDTM” has ever awarded: Carl’s voice (now any member of the cast) on their home answering machine.
7. After a Hall of Fame radio career, Carl retired in 2014 and died earlier this year. Who could fill those enormous shoes? The show asked award-winning broadcaster Bill Kurtis, who amazed everyone by agreeing to join the team. “They’re actually very similar,” Peter says. “Both were very serious news people. Both came to us later in life, after they had established careers. And both of them had these wonderful aspects to their personalities and their performance: gratitude and relief they could finally be funny. They were huge hams and never really had a chance to express it.”
8. “Wait Wait” has been a question on “Jeopardy!,” an insult on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a crossword clue and more, including the time Peter and Carl were immortalized on “The Simpsons.”
9. If only one of those were true, it could be a “Bluff the Listener” segment, where listeners guess which one of three crazy stories is real. Producers find a real but insane news story, and then ask one of the three panelists to present it. The other two must write an equally crazy bluff using the same general theme. (Fake news!) The bluff and final predictions are the only part of the show we know about in advance of the taping – producers have never allowed panelists to know what topics or questions Peter will ask because they want all our reactions to be spontaneous.
10. The list of celebrities on the show’s “Not My Job” segment is a Who’s Who of American politicians, authors, actors, musicians, sports heroes and interesting people willing to be silly to promote something serious. Peter is often asked who was the worst and doesn’t hesitate for a second. “The worst guest in the world is Gene Simmons,” he says. The KISS singer was “viciously obnoxious, rude, sexist, racist and just mean.” The best? “Leonard Nimoy, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Carrie Fisher – people I admired growing up and found out, yes, they were worth it the whole time.” The show also has hosted two presidents: Bill Clinton (by phone), after he left office; and Barack Obama (in person), when he was still a senator. “Obama was better by a mile,” Peter says. “He was so effortlessly charming. As soon as he walked offstage, I turned to the audience and said, ‘That guy is going to be president.’ ”
11. Best guest host: actor Tom Hanks, who appeared on the show as a “Not My Job” guest and was so funny that he filled in for Peter in January 2017. Peter has not been asked to replace Hanks in a big Hollywood movie, despite the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay for “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” the sequel no one saw.
12. The writers and staff do all the heavy lifting, and the panelists get a lot of the credit. There are a few who have been on the show for all two decades, as well as an ever-growing team of journalists, authors and comedians (about 20 regulars) who rotate every week. The only common denominator: smart takes on stupid news, especially the scientific studies that Paula Poundstone hates so much. (Don’t get her started. Seriously, you will never get back that hour of your life.) For the 20th anniversary, panelist and CBS contributor Faith Salie hosts bonus podcasts called “Wait Wait Naked and Ashamed” with panelists who were neither naked nor ashamed. Or were they? It’s radio, so no one knows if you’re not wearing pants.
13. Speaking of podcasts: “Wait Wait” is one of the top 10 podcasts in the country – about 5 million people listen to the broadcast show every week, with an additional million via podcast.
14. Best ad-lib that aired: If I had to pick a favorite, “Clippy Must Die” would be high on the list. Clippy refers to the infamous animated Microsoft mascot hated by everyone, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Somehow, Adam Felber improvised an imitation of Clippy with the cannoli scene in “The Godfather”: “It looks like you’re digging a grave. Is this a business grave or a personal grave?”
15. Best ad-lib that didn’t air: During a show in Berkeley, California, a sign-language interpreter was faced with Ronald Reagan’s reaction after he had pushed through a vote to sell military planes to Saudi Arabia: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.” The interpreter faithfully tried to translate the quote – to hilarious effect. The panel was so amused by this superhuman effort that they repeated the phrase, and variations thereof, for the rest of the show.
16. The hardest show? The broadcast a week after Sept. 11, 2001, when we attempted to bring a little relief to a shattered nation: A couple of Rudy Giuliani jokes, a shout-out to the civic patriotism of Mafia garbage collectors. “We got this tremendous influx of mail from people saying things like ‘Thank you. It’s the first time I laughed in 10 days,’ ” Berman says. “We didn’t know if we could do that, but we had to try.”
17. Every panelist checks out headlines, but two of us study for the show. Faith (Harvard, Oxford, Rhodes scholar) and me (none of those things) cram for “Fill in the Blank,” the game where we’re individually quizzed on the week’s news. We usually know big news stories, but there are always one or two questions about drunks, robbers, idiots or a combination thereof tossed in for comic relief. Faith and I scour the news and make lists to find these very stories. After 17 years on the air, the show had its first all-female panel in 2015: Paula, Faith and me – a cage match of estrogen and Diet Coke.
18. Adam has racked up the most wins (128), Faith has the highest percentage of wins (51 percent) and I have the highest recorded score (21 points) Just in case you’re working on your 2019 “WWDTM” fantasy team picks.
19. How do we know all this? Thanks to our No. 1 fan, Linh Pham, who started listening in 2005 and maintains an exhaustive website with data on every show and panelist. His favorite panelist? Mo Rocca. “I love how he spends as much time as he wants trying to find an answer.”
20. People ask whether we’re really having that much fun. For 20 years, the answer has been a resounding yes. So thanks, y’all.
“Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” is broadcast at 11 a.m. Saturday on KSFC, 91.9 FM, and 2 p.m. Saturday on KPBX, 91.1 FM
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