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Peter Sagal talks about fleeting radio fame, Elvis Costello and John Tesh

Peter Sagal talks about fleeting radio fame, Elvis Costello and John Tesh
Andrew Collings/NPR

When National Public Radio's weekly news quiz, "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!," began, way back in 1998, host Peter Sagal and his sidekick, radio veteran Carl Kassell, weren't even in the same room, let alone in front of a studio audience. The call-in show was recorded remotely from different studios.

Now the pop-culture-laced, headline-driven exam is a live, interactive experience that brings hosts, panelists and players together on stage -- and tonight, for the first time, that stage will be at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

See also: Shotgun Willie's strip joint gets shout out on NPR's Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!

Peter Sagal talks about fleeting radio fame, Elvis Costello and John Tesh
Ryan Muir for NPR

For the uninitiated, Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! is a weekly radio program on NPR that invites game players of the famous and everyday-Joe variety to ring up Sagal and company for a chance to play rounds of "Not My Job" and "Lightening Fill in the Blank," as well as partaking in the "Listener Limerick Challenge" -- all based on contemporary news stories.

In advance of Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!'s live show tomorrow night, Sagal spoke with Westword about how the show comes together and who, if anyone, makes him nervous to interview.

Westword: I know it isn't all you up to you, but how do you along with the producers pick the guests for Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me?

Peter Sagal: No, it is entirely me. I owe my success only to myself; everybody else has tried to hold me back. I do everything -- I cater the meal. It's hard -- you know, when I am coming up with all of the jokes, booking all of the guests, arranging all the travel it is hard to take a few minutes and prepare a gourmet meal for everyone. But I feel that that is the kind of obligation that we host really have.

That sure seems like a lot to ask from a radio host.

I just want to say, I am tired of sharing the credit. I have been doing this for a long time and I have been letting other people take credit for it. Today is the day, with Westword; I am coming out as the person who is entirely responsible for everything good that happens. Let the world know, please.

I am so glad this gets to be my first big break story!

I know. This will be huge.

Okay, I will drop the silly joke here and tell you the truth at this point. We have a fairly eclectic group of interest amongst the people who book our guests -- the booking right now is done by Eva Wolchover, one of our longtime producers. It is a lot of different things; sometimes it is the preeminent politicians, people who are in the news and are the sort of people we might talk about anyway, which is always fun. Especially if they already fit into what we do, like when we get a President Clinton or a (then) Senator Obama on like we once did.

Because we are big fans of "cult-cha" as they say, we like getting people who do things that we like -- musicians, actors, writers and so on and so forth. Sometimes we go for the fairly obscure and indulge ourselves in things that maybe the world at large might not be quite as excited as we are. But sometimes it is just something that interests one of us; Eva, our producer, is a huge fan of the 7 Up series of documentary films -- the ones when they follow a group of seven people from age seven to 14 to 21, and I think they are up to 56. One of those people is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, so he will be our guest. It really is just based on the fact that one of our producers thinks that is cool. There's certain sameness sometimes to the kind of guests that do the rounds, like when we have someone like Scarlett Johansson, and we get back on the standard talk show circuit. To a certain extent it's like, tune into Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me this week because a very famous person you've heard of is going to be on the show. But sometimes it is fun to do something a little different or odd and hopefully have some fun with them in the way that we can, because as we like to explain to people, we are on NPR but we're not really NPR-ish.

 

Have you ever been nervous to talk to anyone in particular? I used to be nervous all the time because I couldn't quite believe it -- what the hell, who am I to be talking to these people? I've kind of gotten over it because if I was nervous every day I wouldn't have anything left to throw up. So I stopped. But the last time I was really nervous was when we had Elvis Costello on some years ago. He's like my personal idol and musical hero -- what if he doesn't like me?

I've gone through that before with interviews myself, worrying that someone won't like me -- but then I think, who am I? My subjects don't really care. I'm just a person asking questions.

They don't really care. The sad truth is -- and this goes for you and me both -- they probably don't even remember it. That happened to me once; I interviewed somebody and a while later, probably like a year later, I saw them and said, hi! You were on my show. And they were like, I was? So the fact of the matter is, they don't really care enough to like you or dislike you.

Although when Elvis Costello was on the show and I remember this with some pride -- he was out promoting his new record, so he did a whole bunch of things. His publicist said, oh, you were his favorite interview all week. He had just happened to be on Stephen Colbert the night before he did our show. So, nobody said the words, 'he had more fun with you than with Stephen Colbert.' But I decided to take it as that. In my view, Elvis Costello had more fun talking to me than he did talking to Stephen Colbert and I'm going to remember that until the day I die.

I like to think that Elvis is out there thinking, you know, I go through my day making my music and doing media and raising my kids, but you know what was a bright spot on my otherwise bleak existence? That interview with that radio show.

What is different about these traveling live shows than being in your home venue in Chicago?

The fact of the matter is they are not as different as they used to be; what I mean by that is, way back when the show began, we were in a studio every week. We only started doing these live shows as special events and only on the road. In those days, the live shows were a big deal. That's when we were playing halls of maybe 700 to a thousand people and we got really excited and it was fun.

In 2005, we started doing the show every week in front of a live audience in Chicago. It became obvious almost the second we started doing the live shows that we should be doing it this way -- I mean, it is a comedy show, right? Comedy shows tend to be better if there are people who might laugh if you are funny. That's why Stephen Colbert and John Stewart and now John Oliver and all of those guys have a live studio audience. They are telling jokes and nothing sounds weirder than a person looking at the camera and telling jokes into silence.

Since we have been doing our live show every week, these shows aren't that different. However, things get a little crazy these days because we are playing very big halls. Red Rocks will be the second big outdoor festival-type hall we've played; we played Tanglewood last summer to I think 8,000 paying customers. I think we are up to 5,000 at Red Rocks and we are hoping for more. But that is just crazy, you know?

The very fact that I, this bald, stocky Jewish guy who cannot sing a note -- I just stand there. I'm not a stand-up and I'm not Steve Martin -- I'm just this guy who does this news quiz on public radio. The fact that me and my friends can fill Tanglewood or Red Rocks, the hallowed ground where John Tesh himself played while somebody did gymnastics next to him -- is just crazy. Every time I walk out on stage at one of these places -- Carnegie Hall and War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco -- it just seems nuts. But nonetheless, I guess I'll pay for it in my next life or I suffered for it in the last one, I have no idea.

See Sagal and his cohorts live tomorrow night, Thursday, July 10 as Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! comes to Red Rocks. Show begins at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $40 to $70. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the ticketing website

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Red Rocks Amphitheatre

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