NPR comedy show is coming to Bass Concert Hall

Logan Herrington

Comic relief is not often found in most news outlets, but for Peter Sagal and company, there is always something to laugh at in the media. Finding humor in everyday news has been his job since he began working for the NPR comedy show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” 

The program, which is usually taped in front of a live audience every week in Chicago’s Chase Auditorium, is coming to Bass Concert Hall on Thursday.

According to Sagal, the host of the show, NPR conceived “Wait Wait” in the late ’90s as a way to appeal to people who liked to be informed on current events but did not want to hear another news show. The format of the program is a quiz show with three panelists, a scorekeeper and Sagal as the host. 

Contestants compete over the phone and go through a series of questions that cover topics that made the news that week. Anyone can call in at 888-WAIT-WAIT, but with an average audience of 3.8 million listeners, it can be difficult to be selected.

“Wait Wait” also includes a new celebrity contestant each week, who Sagal interviews before they play the game “Not My Job,” where contestants are asked to answer questions far outside their area of expertise. This week’s show will feature Austin singer-songwriter Dale Watson.

Until spring 2005, the show was recorded in the studio, but after performing a few live shows around the country as special events, it was decided that the show would work better if it were always recorded live. Though it was more convenient from a production standpoint to record in the studio, Sagal said that recording live is a much better idea for several reasons.

“If there is someone in front of you that might laugh, you simply are funnier. It’s a plain incentive system,” Sagal said. “If we work this joke a little harder, we might get a big laugh. Also, if we’re doing a show in front of a live audience and they’re enjoying themselves, it sounds like a fun time because it genuinely is.”

Sagal said that “Wait Wait” is different from most news shows on NPR in that their job is to call out “stupidity” and “irrationality” in the news in the way that other journalists cannot. 

“I came up with a line that I used for a promo some years ago: We say the things on the radio that most people just shout at the radio,” Sagal said. 

For Sagal, comedy is sometimes the best response to some of the things that are being discussed and debated on the news. For example, when Sarah Palin made the statement about having foreign policy credentials because she could see Russia from Alaska, Sagal quipped that he could see Lake Michigan from his office, so that makes him a fish.

“I honestly believe that that is the sanest response to a ridiculous statement like that,“ Sagal said. “The rest of radio can’t do that, but we can.”

“Wait Wait” relies heavily on its host’s and panelists’ ability to improvise. The writers compose their material with the hope that they will not have to use it. 

“There have been a lot of times where we have written what we thought was really smart material, like five or six jokes on a topic, and we go in and Paula Poundstone will go on a tangent about something that was so much funnier than what we did, and we will happily broadcast that,” said Sagal. 

Sagal said that the show has not played at many of universities, but he hopes to see a younger crowd at this week’s program. 

“We always get the nerdy crowd, which is great because I was a nerdy kid myself,” Sagal said.