Q&A: Peter Sagal, Host Of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me

Peter Sagal portrait. Photo by Andrew Collings.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally ran on July 9th, 2015. On the occasion of Peter Sagal and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me returning to the Mann Center tonight, we present this encore edition. Enjoy.

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Like all good NPR nerds, I’ve passed more lazy Saturday afternoons listening to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me than I care to admit. So, when I heard that Wait Wait was coming to the Mann Center to record an episode for broadcast, I was like, ‘Holy f*cking tote bags!’ And then I did what anyone in my shoes would’ve done:  I called up host Peter Sagal for one of our patented life-changing, prayer-answering, make-you-laugh-until-the-milk-shoots-out-your-nose Q&A’s. When I got him on the horn he was in the middle of dress rehearsal for a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide mounted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for which he would serve as narrator, dressed in period costume. Which probably explains why he wore a powdered wig for the entirety of the interview. But you can never be sure with that guy. DISCUSSED: How he became the host of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me without even trying; how he wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights without even trying; how he pissed off Patrick Swayze at the premier, again without trying; how he once incurred the faux-wrath of Bill O’Reilly and the Religious Right with a Jesus selfie joke, also without trying; how he made a PBS series called Constitution USA wherein he and Dennis Hopper drove across America on Harleys emblazoned with the American flag, selling coke to Phil Spector, tripping with hookers in New Orleans cemeteries, smoking doobies with Jack Nicholson and taunting rednecks, somewhat ill-advisedly it turned out; how George Takei once made the Wait Wait censors blush; how, in all seriousness, he almost died at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Look for it Wednesday on a Phawker near you!

PHAWKER: Hey, Peter. Long time listener, first time caller. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become host of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me? Is it one of WWDTM_logo_clr_stacked_webthose deals where the judge says ‘You can either go to jail or host Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’?

PETER SAGAL: Well, I just pledged $200 during the matching gift period at my local station and that was one of the prizes. I was really lucky, although I wanted to be Collected Works of Bob and Ray, which was the other prize at that hour, but I learned to live with this.

PHAWKER: How much do you have to donate to host Fresh Air?

PETER SAGAL: Fresh Air is definitely a thousand dollars a year. The real back-story is almost as stupid in that I didn’t actually deserve it or work for it. The show was put together by NPR, working with Doug Berman, in the 1990s and they did a national search for talent. The found me but not as the host, rather as a panelist. Another gentleman by the name of Dan Coffee was the host, but that didn’t work out for a variety of reasons and they decided they need an in desperation move to give me a battle-field promotion. I mean, they had done this nation-wide search and what they found wasn’t working so they said what’re we gonna do in another nation-wide search? And they just said ‘You, you sound host-y.’ They gave me the gig in May of ’98, the show had been on the air since January of that year, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Basically, I just stumbled into it. People ask me for career advice and I say, well just sit around and wait for your phone to ring because that worked for me.

PHAWKER: You are my idea of a role model.

PETER SAGAL: Exactly, isn’t it great?

PHAWKER: You famously wrote the script for Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights

PETER SAGAL: Without meaning to.

PHAWKER: How did that happen?

PETER SAGAL: Basically, I used to be a playwright and on the basis of one of my plays I was hired by a producer by the name of Lawrence Bender, who became famous and wealthy from producing all of Quentin Tarantino’s early movies, to write a screenplay based on the life experience of a friend of his who had been a 15-year-old girl living in Havana when the Cuban revolution happened. So, my first Hollywood job I wrote this really intense, dramatic screenplay that I did a lot of research on actual incidents from the Cuban Revolution, which is a GREAT story that has not been told. It’s not at all what you think it was, it’s amazing. That screenplay, after I had been paid off and sent away, was re-written without my participation or knowledge, of course, in Hollywood they don’t need my participation or knowledge, and became Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. Because of the weird way that Hollywood works and writers credits works I got second story credit. What that means in practice is that I got invited to the premier, which was fun, it was. I met and insulted Patrick Swayze by accident.

PHAWKER: How so?

PETER SAGAL: Well, I was making a joke and he didn’t think it was a joke. I met him, I was introduced to him. It was fun to meet him, a movie star, and I told himWWDTM_logo_clr_stacked_web the story, a very abbreviated version of the story I’m telling you. I said ‘Oh you know, this movie was based on a very original screenplay I wrote and it went and got produced as Dirty Dancing, isn’t that funny?’ and he said ‘Yeah, well I hope it really helps your career.’ And I said ‘I hope it helps yours,’ cause he had a cameo in it. He looked at me with an absolute look of rage, just totally deadpan, and said ‘You’re joking, right?’ I said ‘Yes, yes, I am of course joking Mr. Swayze.’ That was basically the moment.

PHAWKER: You should’ve called him ‘Point Break’ — it really made Thor mad when Robert Downey called him ‘Point Break’ in The Avengers. I haven’t seen Havana Nights so I have to ask, is there a line in there that goes ‘No one puts Fidel in the corner’?

PETER SAGAL: No, I wish. It’s not a very good movie.

PHAWKER: [sarcastically] Really?

PETER SAGAL: No, I have to break it to you. If you do see it, though, there is one funny thing in it that nobody knows about but me or anybody I tell the story to. Like I said, they totally rewrote it, but it has some vague outlines of the original plot. There is a scene towards the beginning in which the heroine is at high school and she is attending a class and there is a teacher in the class who has like four lines. That guy exists in the screenplay, and I don’t know how that seemed to survive after all the rewrites, but the reason the part exists is because I wrote it for myself. I thought that was going to be my cameo. I didn’t do this with their permission or encouragement, I just wrote it in there and assumed someday that, since I’d be on the set anyway, I would like to play this part. But that guy, whoever that is, I think it was a local Puerto Rican actor since the filmed it in Puerto Rico.

PHAWKER: Do they keep you in the loop as they developed the script or were you in the dark when they were doing all this?

PETER SAGAL: When you’re a writer in Hollywood you’re basically a contractor. If you had someone come in and do your kitchen you wouldn’t call him up and tell him about the dinner parties you’re having in there, would you? That was the attitude; however, I had a friend who worked for the producer, who I got along well with, and was so delighted to tell me the news. I remember getting a phone call one night at an El stop in Chicago and just laughing my head off when I found out it was going to be made into Dirty Dancing.

PHAWKER: The one thing that blows my mind, and it didn’t occur to me until I watched [Stephen] Soderbergh’s Che Guevara movies, is that back in late 1950s you could take over a whole country with just a small boatload of insurgents.

PETER SAGAL: There are so many things about the Cuban Revolution that nobody knows, that nobody understands. That’s one of them, that it was this insane miracle with this army, he started with 30 guys on the Granma, that he managed to bring down this military regime that just collapsed when poked. The other thing that people don’t know about it is that — although the American government was, as it turns out, rightfully suspicious of his motives — the general population of America thought he was a hero, that he was this small-d democrat guerilla fighter in the hills. He was the contrast of the Communist partisans of WWII. He was the guy out there fighting for democracy against this terrible, stupid hypocrisy of the Batista regime. But if there’s one thing that I learned that I did not know was that the exile population, primarily at that time in Miami, the Los Gusanos’ is what Castro called them, I always assumed that those were allies and/or part of the Batista regime who had been thrown out by Castro and were in Miami plotting their vengeance. Now, that wasn’t true at all, everybody hated Batista. He had no allies, he was a Kleptocrat and an idiot. What those people were, for the most part, were actual allies of Castro: middle class, even wealthy people who had supplied Castro, who had supported him, who had, in some cases, fought for him – some of the members in the exile community were soldiers in the army — who had left, not during the time of the revolution but a year or two years later once Castro revealed himself as this Communist in the Stalinist mold, he started appropriating and nationalizing industries and executing people on live T.V. I thought that was amazing that the reason they hated Castro was not so much that he has beaten them but that he had betrayed them. That, to me, is an amazing story that I did not know and hoped this movie would tell but it didn’t.

PHAWKER: I think that’s essentially America’s relationship with Fidel, as well. I mean, we embraced him initially and then we were like ‘Oh my god, he’s a Commie!WWDTM_logo_clr_stacked_web

PETER SAGAL: It’s more complex. Like I said, he had immense popularity in America that Life magazine put him on the cover, in fact I talked to the guy who photographed him. So, he was a very popular figure among the American citizens. The CIA didn’t trust him at all. I don’t know if they knew he was a Communist but they certainly didn’t see him as a liable allie. They didn’t like Batista either, they wanted a nice stable dictator and Batista wasn’t that. They were desperate in the ‘50s, during the time of the Revolution, looking for what they called “the third option” — somebody who could take over the country who would be tractable, professional and pro-American. But, there’s a very big question as to whether or not Castro was really a Communist. He said he was and scholars and historian have combed his records and his writing prior to him becoming a guerilla, prior to him going to jail, prior to him landing in Cuba with the Granma to see if there’s any evidence of that and it’s very thin. There are a lot of people who believe Castro decided to be a Communist because it maximized power in his hands.

PHAWKER: And this is after he had overthrown Batista?

PETER SAGAL: Certainly, with the exception of Che Guevara and other people in his inner-circle, his own brother, most of the people who fought with him were rather shocked to discover that they had just participated in the installation of a Communist regime. That leads us to who the exiles are; those people did not think they were supporting, funding, sometimes fighting for a Communist dictatorship and that’s why they’re so angry.

PHAWKER: Quick aside here on Che Guevara: who in your estimation is the real Che? Is it the Che Guevera of The Motorcycle Diaries or Che Guevera of executing people left and right live on Cuban television?

PETER SAGAL: I think that they are absolutely inseparable. I’m not an expert of Che Guevara, I haven’t seen Soderbergh’s movie. I have seen The Motorcycle Diaries. It was written by a friend of mine, Jose Rivera.

PHAWKER: Great movie.

PETER SAGAL: Yeah, it’s a great movie. I think if you’re going to walk around with Guevara on your t-shirt you have to understand both sides: the genuine socialist, in the small-s sense, in the kind of sense he was very concerned about the common people and their exploitation by the powerful and the wealthy. I think those impulses were sincere. It was also sincere that he believed the best solution to that was to line people against a wall and shoot them. You can’t separate his motives from his methods or his methods from his motives. So, he was a guy who believed violence was the correct solution to solve what he saw as a real moral problem. I think whatever you can say about him, he paid the price for that belief. He couldn’t have been more than 40 years old when he died so, like I said, whether you like him or not you can’t argue that his ending was not just. He lived and died by that sword, let’s say.

PHAWKER: You have the following cryptic passage on your Twitter profile: “Insufferable – Vanity Fair 1/18/12.” Are we to infer that Vanity Fair called you insufferable back in 2012?

PETER SAGAL: They actually called the show insufferable. They did an article about NPR that generally praised the content produced by NPR except for the insufferable quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. I took that as a badge of honor. Although, I recently changed it because Wired magazine did a long feature on a WWDTM_logo_clr_stacked_webcruise I went on and it referred to me as someone who was built like a quad ATV and I have no idea what that means, but I liked it.

PHAWKER: I don’t know, I think you’re a lot more svelte and cheetah-like than that.

PETER SAGAL: Thank you, much appreciated.

PHAWKER: You told a not especially funny but totally harmless joke about Jesus and selfies that invited the ire of Bill O’Reilly and the not very Jesus-like people who play outraged Christians on television — the people who get angry so Jesus doesn’t have to — but it came at a time when the right-wingers were trying to take down NPR and they almost succeeded. I’m wondering what, if anything, you learned from the great Jesus Selfie Fiasco and your dust-up with religious right?

PETER SAGAL: Well, it’s kind of funny because one of the strange things about that whole bizarre episode is that you could tell, if you watched O’Reilly that night when he went on about it, that he wasn’t that into it, you know? I’m sure his bookers have to fill his hour every night with a certain amount of outrage, they had a five minute gap between topic A that they really wanted to do and topic B that they really wanted to do. They had to fill five minutes so some guy in his staff was, I’m sure, scrolling through the Drudge Report and found William Donohue, the guy who represents all outraged Catholics, writing about it so they stuck it in there. Bill O’Reilly didn’t seem to be into it, his guest didn’t seem to be into it. It was sort of pointless. We got a smattering of hate-mail because there are people who pretty much hate on whoever Bill O’Reilly tells them to. It’s almost as if they’re running on autopilot.

People were so worried, my father was like ‘Peter, is this going to affect your job security?’ I mean, you’ve got to be kidding! If NPR fired everybody who Fox News criticized there would be nobody left at NPR. All I could think of was that amazing classic Chuck Jones cartoon about the coyote and the sheep dog. You know that one? Where they beat each other up all day. There’s a great moment where the bull dog’s about to sock the coyote and the lunch bell rings and then he finishes punching him. That’s what it feels like. You know, we do what we do, Fox News gets outraged and everybody’s happy. We try to entertain and amuse our audience and Fox News has to get their audience riled up and angry but everybody goes home at the end of the day to their wives and families. The question of whether those people actually believe what they’re saying is a really interesting one and one I can’t figure out. Was Bill O’Reilly really offended by that joke?

PHAWKER: No. I think Bill O’Reilly is one of the most cynical people on the face of this Earth. As you’ve noticed, he’s sort of switched from being their rabid Pitbull in the early part of the last decade and now he seems to be positioning himself as the reasonable alternative to people like [Sean] Hannity and whatever. The Fox and Friends morons are far more frothing at the mouth than he is.

PETER SAGAL: Jon Stewart made that remark, you know, the world has changed so much that O’Reilly almost seems reasonable now. You know, the old phrase ‘They’re chasing the dragon,’ they’re trying to keep the high going. That’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to generate the same amount of outrage and anger with less material to work with so they get crazier and crazier on silly people like me.

PHAWKER: I must say, though that they’ve done a very good job at getting old bitter white people angry and off their rockers.

PETER SAGAL: It is funny to think that in the end times it will be NPR and Fox News fighting over the old white demographic.

PHAWKER: In 2013 you premiered a PBS series called Constitution USA where you and Dennis Hopper drove across America on Harleys emblazoned with the American flag, WWDTM_logo_clr_stacked_webselling coke to Phil Spector, tripping with hookers in New Orleans cemeteries, smoking doobies with Jack Nicholson and taunting rednecks, somewhat ill-advisedly it turned out.

PETER SAGAL: We blew it, man!

PHAWKER: I’m just kidding, of course, everybody knows that’s the plot to Back To The Future. So tell us what the actual premise of the series.

PETER SAGAL: Sure. The series — and I tend to be very self-deprecating as you’ve noticed, not so much about this because I was very proud of it and happy with how we did it — the series was supposed to talk about the Constitution in a revolutionary way i.e. not incredibly boring. If you talk to kids, especially in junior high school and high school, what civics class is like — there is nothing more dull. It’s terrible. We wanted to make a documentary about the Constitution that would be accessible. Obviously we wanted it to be something to be used in schools and I’m please to say it has been on all levels. But we also wanted to address the topic to the audience in a new way: instead of this dead thing that is either ignored or worshiped, it is this living thing that, I won’t say controls, but actually influences our daily interactions almost everyday and we wanted to do that in kind of non-PBS-like ways. By PBS-like ways I mean lots of talking heads looking past the camera, lots of panning across antique rooms and battlefields with narration. We wanted to make it accessible, lively, funny. We wanted to have a live person, myself, who wasn’t an expert but interested in talking to people who have been affected. So we got to travel around the country, I got to ride that fun motorcycle, and talk to people who then and now are in the news. For example, probably most prominently as we speak in June, we talked to [Kris Perry and Sandy Stier] a female and male couple who were at the center of the federal challenge to Prop 8 in California. Their case, Perry, went to the Supreme Court which declined to overturn the judgement that struck down Proposition 8, the constitutional ban of gay marriage in California. Although the Supreme Court’s ruling in that was very limited to simply overturn that particular ruling, the logic of that case as laid out in the encyclopedia a historical ruling, Judge Vaughn Walker of California had become sort of the underlying legal basis for why I think the court will soon declare constitutional rights for same-sex marriage under equal protection of the law, the 14th Amendment.

PHAWKER: We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal — even men who love men. Of course, that was written by guys who kept slaves, but that’s a whole other conversation. On Reddit somebody asked you if there’s anything a guest has said that couldn’t be aired that bugged you, not by what they said but the fact that it couldn’t be aired. You mentioned the story about how George Takei and his husband got engaged and said that you’d tell that story someday. I think that now seems as good of a time as any.

PETER SAGAL: Oh, it’s a charming story and George has told it before. Basically, they got married during a brief interregnum in California.

PHAWKER: Bonus points for properly using interregnum.

PETER SAGAL: Yeah. In early 2008 the California State Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples had the right to get married under the California Constitution and the Proposition 8 was discussed in the Fall to ban same-sex marriage.The story that George said is that he and his now-husband Brad were sitting in a restaurant eating lunch with CNN on the TV screen and…’This just in: the Supreme Court has ruled that under the state Constitution that same-sex couples can get married.’ George looked to his left and Brad was on his knee and said ‘Will you marry me?’ George said “I would’ve beaten you to it but my mouth was full.”

PHAWKER: And the censors decided that was just too raunchy for NPR?

PETER SAGAL: I don’t know, I loved the story. I thought it was charming and incredibly sweet but my editors disagreed. I don’t know why. Maybe my reaction was too over the top and they didn’t like it. I don’t know. But I thought it was a wonderful story.

PHAWKER: You didn’t you make that oral sex gesture with the fist moving in time with your tongue poking your cheek, did you?

PETER SAGAL: I might’ve gone something like ‘Aww, that’s so sweet.’ Which might’ve killed the chances of broadcasting it.

PHAWKER: Last question, a little more on the serious side. You’re a marathon runner and you ran in the Boston Marathon in 2013 and were near the finish line when WWDTM_logo_clr_stacked_webthe bombs went off. What can you tell me about what you remember the moment prior-to and in the moment of those explosions?

PETER SAGAL: Well, prior-to was easy because we had just finished a marathon and I had been guiding that day a wonderful guy named William Greer from Austin, Texas, with critical blindness. He had a very difficult day. He was really brave at the end, he really dialed it up and found some courage and stamina when he didn’t think he had any. He ran the last mile when he was in a lot of discomfort. It was a hard day, just miserable for him, and I was just overjoyed because I was so proud of him because he had just finished the race in such a good style. At the same time, I was concerned for him because he was doubled over in pain with medical people running up to him. I was just like ‘Oh my God! My guy just did this race and I’m so proud of him but he’s in trouble. I need to make sure he recovers and comfortably gets out of the chute to meet his wife.’ So that’s what i was thinking and of course this enormous explosion happened about a hundred yards away, I believe, and I’ve actually gone back and tried to find the place I was standing to figure out how far. I actually talked to somebody who was right there at the moment and said ‘What was that?’ She found me later and we talked about that moment and she thinks we were about a hundred yards away. We couldn’t figure out what had happened. What was weird and, I guess, ironic, was that out of all the people there we were probably the least informed about what was happening so close to us. The reason was because we couldn’t see it because of the superstructure between us and the bomb site. So, we couldn’t see the people on the ground screaming for help, the blood, the misery. We were blocked from that. The crew of the marathon, knowing something had gone wrong, were ushering us as urgently as they could away from the site. They didn’t tell us why they just said ‘Keep moving, keep moving, everybody move this way.’

So, you know, once William could move we started walking quickly away from the site. And because we didn’t have our phones on us, because we just ran a marathon, we couldn’t see on Twitter or any of the other sites what had just happened. So I spent the first 10 to 15 minutes after the bombing — when people were running and tying tourniquets made out of their shirts around people’s leg stumps not 200 or 300 yards away — in blissful ignorance of what had just happened. At the same time, the atmosphere was one of, dread is not the right word, alarm. It was clear something was wrong. And there had also been this enormous noise which was not like anything I had ever heard before, especially at a marathon, so people were saying ‘What was it? Do you think it was a car backfiring?’ ‘No it was way too loud, maybe a transformer blew up.’ There were people saying it was maybe a terrorist bomb but come on, what are the chances? Really? A terrorist bomb? Please. And I remember being completely in denial until it had just become undeniable that something terrible had happened. Ambulances were flying into the area, big cops who looked like they didn’t run a lot were sprinting toward the site shouting into radios. People just had looks on their faces. I think I said that the officials who had radio connections were obviously alarmed and trying to act on it. When I worked my way back to the site it had been totally cleared away and, keep in mind, if you have ever seen a marathon you know there is a logistical setup. There’s tables, there’s railings, there’s hundreds of people working the finish chute handing out medals, handing out blankets, food. They were all gone, they had been cleared away. It was obvious that something really serious had happened, although I wasn’t able to find out exactly how bad it was until later that evening when I was sitting at the airport waiting to fly out of town looking at footage that has become really familiar of the bomb site on my computer.

PHAWKER: How close were you to the finish line when the bombs went off?

PETER SAGAL: William, my guided runner that day, was having a terrible day and really did not want to run, he wanted to slow down and walk, for which I can’t blame him. But at my urging and mainly because he wanted to do it, he ran the last mile. The last mile of the Boston Marathon is really exciting: you turn down the famous right turn and all of the sudden there’s people everywhere. It’s really exciting so I said to him, you know you don’t want to walk. He ran it at a great personal cost because he was in a lot of pain and then what I just said to you happened. So, I often wondered what if he decided to walk if he really wanted to? Well, I don’t know. Where would we have been? Across the finish line anyway? Would we have been so sufficiently behind the line that we would’ve been cut off like so many other people were. Or would have we been right there? I don’t know. We had finished the race exactly five minutes before. We crossed the line at 2:04 and the bomb went off at 2:09 PM.

PHAWKER: So in a very real sense you have a personal stake in all this, what did you make of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev getting the death penalty?WWDTM_logo_clr_stacked_web

PETER SAGAL: I try to stay out of political debate because it’s not my job but, I think he should just rot in jail. So many people died, I don’t know why adding one more body to the pile makes it any better. Further, the guy is 20-years-old or around there so the only other option was life in prison and I have no problem with that at all and either one of few things would happen. Either he would spend the rest of his life regretting his actions, which I guess for those who hate the man would be a bad punishment because he had a long life ahead of him. Or maybe he will, to whatever extent he could in prison, rethink his actions and make something of his life somehow. That wouldn’t be so bad either. So, you know, I thought either of those options would be more just and human than, like I said, adding one more body to the pile. I agree with the parents of the youngest victim, Martin I think his name is, Martin Richard, who made a compelling argument that they have no love for this guy, you know, he killed one of their children and blew the leg off another. But they said if you sentence him to death then the news about this bombing would be about him and we would much rather forget about him and concentrate on the victims.