In May 1998, when playwright Peter Sagal took over the role of host at Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, NPR’s new radio game show satirizing current events, the term “fake news” didn’t exist. Google had yet to be founded (it would come into existence later that year), and while The Onion had been around for a decade, its stories — published in print — were recognizably jokes. There was a clear line between the attention-grabbing headlines in the National Enquirer, for example, and those that emblazoned tabloids like the Philadelphia Daily News.
Two decades years later, the media landscape has a very different topography.
“It’s weird in a number of ways,” said Sagal, 52, who grew up in North Jersey and remembers regular childhood trips to Philadelphia to visit his grandmother. “Making stuff up about the news is our job” — Wait Wait’s format is a quiz show where celebrity panelists try to guess which stories are real versus fabricated — “and now everyone else is getting in on it.”
Sagal will be in Philly on Thursday, June 29, to put on a live edition of the program at the Mann Center (tickets are available here, starting at $25) as part of a nationwide tour.
The tour is something Wait Wait does every couple of years, mostly as marketing to connect with local supporters — “There’s a public radio audience everywhere.” But there’s a bonus to the repeated stops across America. They’re opportunity for the show’s host to see first-hand how cities are changing with the times. Along with many other urban centers, Philadelphia, he acknowledged, appears to be on an upward swing.
We caught up with Sagal via telephone just after he landed back in the Wait Wait’s hometown of Chicago after doing a live set in Detroit, and his satirical wit was on full display.
The reason he likes taking the show on the road
I like to be aware of stuff that’s going on. It’s easy to get stuck in the swamp, so it’s good to get out and talk to the real people. You know, the NPR audience of consultants and MBAs who really are America.
How Philly has changed
It’s a lot cooler than I remember growing up. My earliest memories are visiting my elderly relatives in these bleak, gray, old rowhouses. But, a story. Ten years ago, to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday, we’re all Red Sox fans, so we decided to pick a town to meet and go to a game. My brothers picked Philadelphia. I’ll confess, I was thinking. “Oh, Philly? Couldn’t it have been…Seattle?”
But we had the best time! We ate well, we wandered the streets, and the ballpark was nice. No one threw batteries.
His favorite Philly experience
I ran the 2011 Philadelphia marathon — I remember running below the Schuylkill, or however you pronounce it — and set my [personal record] there. I’m happy to brag about what it was: 3:09. I’ve run 13 marathons and holding. I’m hoping to do another this fall.
How Donald Trump has made his job harder
There is a real problem, because the heart of satire is exaggeration. And some of the things he does are just stuff you wouldn’t even believe. Like two years ago when he descended the escalator to cheers of people he’d paid to be there and launched his campaign by saying Mexicans are rapists. I could joke about him being so insecure that he bragged about the size of his junk on national TV — but he did! So what’s left for people like me to say?
But this presidency has also been good for the show
In a weird way, by taking his own gloves off, Trump has made it possible for us to say and do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. I find a certain freedom to what we’re doing now. It’s kind of exhilarating and scary, but it’s energizing our show. Certainly, the audience seems to like it.
Why he’s surprised to still be Wait Wait host
I thought this would just be a short turn, a quick stop, to see what it was like. Just like everything else in my life up to then. I assumed my writing career would continue the way it was going — roughly upward with some ups and downs. But no, 20 years later, this is my career. I did not expect it to become this massive thing.
Which NPR host he would swap with
Tough question. Three names come to mind. There’s Steve Inskeep [of Morning Edition], I admire the way he gets to travel. But, he has to get up too early. How about Robert Siegel [All Things Considered]? Nah, I couldn’t be him, he’s far too serious. Maybe Terry Gross [Fresh Air]? That would be cool, you get to talk to so many people. But then again, she never has time for herself, she has to read all these books and see all these movies.
If you were to pick a job for me — a smart-ass with a short attention span — it would have to be the one I have now.
On what he’ll be doing in 10 years
One of the nice things about public radio is you don’t really age out of it — you die out of it. It’s like being the pope: A very hard job to get, and a very hard job to lose. Of course now that I say that, I’m sure NPR will call me on Monday and tell me I’m fired.