'Wait, Wait' Host Talks of Bombs and Laughter

Apr 30, 2013
Originally published on May 1, 2013 6:44 pm

As the host of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, Peter Sagal, makes jokes about the news every week.

Game show hosts are typically not supposed to be part of the news.

But Peter Sagal ran the Boston Marathon as a guide for a blind runner, and a strange thing happened on the way past the finish line...

SAGAL: We crossed the line on 4:04 on the clock, and the bombs went off at 4:09 on the clock.

And I actually, despite the fact that I heard and saw the first bomb go off -- I saw its mushroom cloud full of smoke -- and then I heard and saw the second one, even though that was true I knew less about what had just happened than most everybody else in America who could look at a TV, because I was being moved away from it in the normal chute that the runners walk down after they finish a marathon. They weren’t telling us what happened, they said, "Just please keep coming this way everybody. Everybody keep moving this way. Don't go back. Just keep coming." But we had no way of knowing that there were dead and wounded people not a hundred, two hundred yards away.

All we knew is that something had happened. And my responsibility was to get my companion -- this blind runner named William Greer -- safely out of the chute and back to his wife; he’s blind, he needed my help.

And then when we started seeing ambulances pouring into the area, and then when we started seeing cops running and yelling for people to get out of the way, and then when NPR called me and said, "we need you go on the air and tell us what you can see," I finally began to realize that something really serious had happened.

But it was only that evening, long after I had left the race course and was at the airport, that I actually saw the online videos that the rest of you had been watching all day.

And then I started to shake a little bit.

JEFFRIES: At what point then did you realize, oh, geez, now that you’ve told this as a reporter, you’re going to have to tell this as a comedian somehow?

SAGAL: We were very lucky, which was that we had a scheduled week off -- it’s one of the reasons I was able to run the marathon and be in Boston, so we didn’t have to do anything that week. And I’m glad we didn’t have to deal with that problem, because I didn’t know if I could be funny about it -- maybe I could, I don’t know. But my role is an observer, so I tried to keep that role, to clamor back up into the stands with the rest of you, as it were.

JEFFRIES: Among other observations you’ve been doing lately, you took a road trip for a four-hour public television documentary about the constitution as it’s being lived today. And you did your tour for the documentary on a motorcycle, which you’ve said was a real conversation starter.

SAGAL: It is and it was.

If you want to catch people at their best, don’t show up in a van and climb out like an FBI agent wearing a suit and tie and glasses, drive up in a motorcycle that’s been painted with the colors of the American flag with “We the People” on the gas tank. So it was great -- that motorcycle became the centerpiece of this documentary called, "Constitution USA", that will be premiering on PBS on May 7, which is an examination of the constitution not as a historical document, but as it’s being lived and thought about in contemporary America.

JEFFRIES: Do you find that comedy is a conversation starter also? Do you see yourself as using comedy on Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me every week to provoke public debate?

SAGAL: The only thing I want to provoke it laughter.

I used to be a playwright and had pretensions of making a difference, of teaching people things they didn’t know, you know, showing them how wrong they were in their assumptions.

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet and everything else, things that happen a world away can make you depressed and anxious. So, I see the role of making jokes, and giving them something to laugh about, and telling them amusing stories about guys that get caught smuggling animals through airports in their pants, as a noble calling.

JEFFRIES: So is that why you make your interns eat gross food every Monday?

SAGAL: That was not my idea!

I want to credit our senior producer, Ian Chillag, with Sandwich Monday.

What happened with that was, some years ago now, we got a call from KFC. They were introducing their new “Double Down”, which is like a sandwich with chicken instead of bread. They said, “Do you want one?” And we said, “Yeah. Bring some over!” So they brought a bunch over, and it was a Monday, and Ian said, “Ok. It’s Sandwich Monday. We’ll do this for the blog.”

And that has become a tradition at Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me, which for some people is more beloved than the radio show itself.

JEFFRIES: On April 22, you had the interns and the rest of the crew try Popeye’s “Rip ‘n Chickin”.

SAGAL: Which is the grossest thing you’ve ever seen, though very tasty.

JEFFRIES: Yeah. It’s a hand-shaped serving of fried chicken that’s, by the way, created a fast food chain that was born in Louisiana.

SAGAL: I think -- and I’m not trying to suck up to Louisiana here -- but it is pretty good fast food fried chicken.

You take a chicken breast and you cut slices in it so there are individual sort of, what look like fingers coming off a hand of chicken, and you have more breading. That’s why it’s so tasty -- there’s more surface for the breading to be on and fry in.

But it looks like this monstrous hand with too many fingers. It’s both gross and delicious, which is really -- that’s our sweet spot for Sandwich Monday.

JEFFRIES: So Thursday, Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me is being simulcast live at theaters across the country.

SAGAL: Yes it is.

JEFFRIES: And you’ve speculated in some of the promos for this event that if we lean in during cinecast, you might actually get to see the audience for once.

SAGAL: I’m going to peer at the camera so hard.

When I was a kid I used to watch a show called, Romper Room, -- this is probably something that will be lost on any but your older listeners. At one point in the show, the host of the show, who was like the platonic idea of a kindergarten teacher -- a very prim but nice lady -- would pick up a magic mirror, look through it, and the mirror would disappear and you could see her face. And she would say, “I can see Caitlin, and I can see Bobby, and I can see Jennifer, and I can see Scott.” And I sat there every day, waiting for her to say, “Peter,” and she never did.

So I’m just going to spend two or three hours looking into the camera, saying as many proper names as I can.

The “Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me” cinecast screens at Cinemark Perkins Rowe at 7 p.m. Thursday, May.

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