‘Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!’ cel­e­brates 20 years

To mark the oc­ca­sion, 20 fun facts about the show

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ROX­ANNE ROBERTS

NPR’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” of­fi­cially cel­e­brated its 20th an­niver­sary last month, a mile­stone that was marked with an in­tel­lec­tual, re­fined evening be­fit­ting pub­lic ra­dio . . . oh, who’s kid­ding whom? It was a rau­cous, ir­rev­er­ent night, with host Peter Sa­gal, judge and score­keeper Bill Kur­tis and 15 pan­elists, which is to say it was like the prover­bial herd­ing of cats. Thank God for the edi­tors, who wran­gled the marathon tap­ing into an hour of the week’s news.

As one of the show’s orig­i­nal pan­elists, and be­cause my over­lords have tem­po­rar­ily lifted the omerta, I am al­lowed to share 20 things you need to know for your next “WWDTM” trivia party. You’re wel­come.

1. “Wait Wait” owes its ex­is­tence to “Car Talk,” the sur­prise NPR hit star­ring Tom and Ray Magliozzi, two Bos­ton broth­ers and me­chan­ics with an in­fec­tious sense of hu­mor and the oc­ca­sional use­ful car ad­vice. Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Doug Ber­man was ap­proached to cre­ate an­other show to air on the week­end, and he came up with a news-quiz for­mat to re­ward faith­ful NPR lis­ten­ers with a light take on se­ri­ous news.

“It was de­signed to be not a com­plete waste of time,” Ber­man says. “You lis­ten for the laughs but then re­al­ize that you ac­ci­den­tally learned some­thing.” His genius move: per­suad­ing NPR’s leg­endary morn­ing news­caster Carl Kasell to serve as judge and score­keeper. Carl gave the show in­stant re­spectabil­ity and saved us from the chop­ping block dur­ing those bumpy early years.

2. The first show aired Jan. 3, 1998, with host Dan Cof­fey, Carl as score­keeper and pan­elists Roy Blount Jr., Peter Sa­gal and yours truly. We sur­vived our first year on the air, thanks to Bill Clin­ton’s im­peach­ment and Vi­a­gra — a lit­tle blue dress and a lit­tle blue pill.

3. Wait, Peter was a pan­elist? In­deed. He took over host­ing du­ties in spring 1998 for Cof­fey, who was funny but not a news junkie. Peter, on the other hand, was a Har­vard-ed­u­cated play­wright, deeply steeped in cur­rent events and lit­er­ate ad-libs. “I have two traits that are good for this job,” he says. “I’m very ea­ger to please. I want the peo­ple lis­ten­ing to be happy. And I hap­pen to have a very quick mind.” Peter’s other claims to fame: host of the ac­claimed PBS “Con­sti­tu­tion USA” se­ries, author of “The Book of Vice” (which in­cludes a preTrump scan­dal in­ter­view with Stormy Daniels) and his new “The In­com­plete Book of Run­ning.”

4. “Wait Wait” wasn’t an overnight hit. In fact, plenty of peo­ple thought it was be­neath the stan­dards of NPR, and of course they were cor­rect. (One of our early slo­gans: “NPR With­out the Dig­nity.”) For­tu­nately, an­other NPR week­end show that had launched at the same time was in even more trou­ble, so “Wait Wait” had a lit­tle time to work out the kinks. Af­ter care­ful de­lib­er­a­tion, the de­ci­sion was to keep mak­ing goofy jokes un­til they can­celed the show.

5. The show was orig­i­nally taped in NPR stu­dios: Carl and I in Wash­ing­ton, Peter in Chicago and the other pan­elists wher­ever they lived. In 2005, we switched to a live au­di­ence at Chicago’s Chase Bank Au­di­to­rium (the pan­elists fly in for each show) or the­aters across the coun­try. We tape Thursday nights, which means the show is edited, the calls are not live dur­ing the week­end broad­cast, and we pray noth­ing news­wor­thy hap­pens Fri­day.

6. So how do the calls work, any­way? Would-be con­tes­tants leave a mes­sage on the “Wait Wait” bat­phone, and those se­lected sit by their phones on Thursday night, wait­ing for pro­duc­ers to call and then their five min­utes of glory. Win­ners re­ceive the only prize “WWDTM” has ever awarded: Carl’s voice (now any mem­ber of the cast) on their home an­swer­ing ma­chine.

7. Af­ter a Hall of Fame ra­dio ca­reer, Carl re­tired in 2014 and passed away ear­lier this year. Who could fill those enor­mous shoes? The show asked award­win­ning broad­caster Bill Kur­tis, who amazed ev­ery­one by agree­ing to join the team. “They’re ac­tu­ally very sim­i­lar,” Peter says. “Both were very se­ri­ous news peo­ple. Both came to us later in life, af­ter they had es­tab­lished ca­reers. And both of them had these won­der­ful as­pects to their per­son­al­i­ties and their per­for­mance: grat­i­tude and re­lief they could fi­nally be funny. They were huge hams and never re­ally had a chance to ex­press it.”

8. “Wait Wait” has been a ques­tion on “Jeop­ardy!,” an in­sult on “Unbreakable Kimmy Sch­midt,” a cross­word clue and more, in­clud­ing the time Peter and Carl were im­mor­tal­ized on “The Simp­sons.”

9. If only one of those were true, it could be a “Bluff the Lis­tener” seg­ment, where lis­ten­ers guess which one of three crazy sto­ries is real. Pro­duc­ers find a real but in­sane news story, and then ask one of the three pan­elists to pre­sent it. The other two must write an equally crazy bluff us­ing the same gen­eral theme. (Fake news!) The bluff and fi­nal pre­dic­tions are the only part of the show we know about in ad­vance of the tap­ing — pro­duc­ers have never al­lowed pan­elists to know what top­ics or ques­tions Peter will ask be­cause they want all our re­ac­tions to be spon­ta­neous.

10. The list of celebri­ties on the show’s “Not My Job” seg­ment is a Who’s Who of Amer­i­can politi­cians, au­thors, ac­tors, mu­si­cians, sports he­roes and in­ter­est­ing peo­ple will­ing to be silly to pro­mote some­thing se­ri­ous. Peter is of­ten asked who was the worst and doesn’t hes­i­tate for a sec­ond. “The worst guest in the world is Gene Sim­mons,” he says. The KISS singer was “vi­ciously ob­nox­ious, rude, sex­ist, racist and just mean.” The best? “Leonard Ni­moy, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Bur­nett, Car­rie Fisher — peo­ple I ad­mired grow­ing up and found out, yes, they were worth it the whole time.” The show also has hosted two pres­i­dents: Bill Clin­ton (by phone), af­ter he left of­fice; and Barack Obama (in per­son), when he was still a sen­a­tor. “Obama was bet­ter by a mile,” Peter says. “He was so ef­fort­lessly charm­ing. As soon as he walked off­stage, I turned to the au­di­ence and said, ‘That guy is go­ing to be pres­i­dent.’ ”

11. Best guest host: ac­tor Tom Hanks, who ap­peared on the show as a “Not My Job” guest and was so funny that he filled in for Peter in Jan­uary 2017. Peter has not been asked to re­place Hanks in a big Hol­ly­wood movie, de­spite the fact that he co-wrote the screen­play for “Dirty Danc­ing: Ha­vana Nights,” the se­quel no one saw. An­other thing no one saw: Peter’s role as a snake charmer in Michael Jack­son’s “Re­mem­ber the Time” mu­sic video, which didn’t make the fi­nal cut. 12. The writ­ers and staff do all the heavy lift­ing, and the pan­elists get a lot of the credit. There are a few who have been on the show for all two decades, as well as an ever-grow­ing team of jour­nal­ists, au­thors and co­me­di­ans (about 20 reg­u­lars cur­rently) who ro­tate ev­ery week. The only com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor: smart takes on stupid news, es­pe­cially the sci­en­tific stud­ies that Paula Pound­stone hates so much. (Don’t get her started. Se­ri­ously, you will never get back that hour of your life.) For the 20th an­niver­sary, pan­elist and CBS con­trib­u­tor Faith Salie hosts bonus pod­casts called “Wait Wait Naked and Ashamed” with pan­elists who were nei­ther naked nor ashamed. Or were they? It’s ra­dio, so no one knows if you’re not wear­ing pants.

13. Speak­ing of pod­casts: “Wait Wait” is one of the top 10 pod­casts in the coun­try — about 5 mil­lion peo­ple lis­ten to the broad­cast show ev­ery week, with an ad­di­tional mil­lion via pod­cast.

14. Best ad-lib that aired: If I had to pick a fa­vorite, “Clippy Must Die” would be high on the list. Clippy refers to the in­fa­mous an­i­mated Mi­crosoft mas­cot hated by ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft founder Bill Gates. Some­how, Adam Fel­ber im­pro­vised an im­i­ta­tion of Clippy with the can­noli scene in “The God­fa­ther”: “It looks like you’re dig­ging a grave. Is this a busi­ness grave or a per­sonal grave?”

15. Best ad-lib that didn’t air: Dur­ing a show in Berke­ley, Calif., a sign-lan­guage in­ter­preter was faced with Ron­ald Rea­gan’s re­ac­tion af­ter he had pushed through a vote to sell mil­i­tary planes to Saudi Ara­bia: “I feel like I just crapped a pineap­ple.” The in­ter­preter faith­fully tried to trans­late the quote — to hi­lar­i­ous ef­fect. The panel was so amused by this su­per­hu­man ef­fort that they re­peated the phrase, and vari­a­tions thereof, for the rest of the show.

16. The hard­est show? The broad­cast a week af­ter Sept. 11, 2001, when we at­tempted to bring a lit­tle re­lief to a shat­tered na­tion: A cou­ple of Rudy Gi­u­liani jokes, a shout-out to the civic pa­tri­o­tism of Mafia garbage col­lec­tors. “We got this tremen­dous in­flux of mail from peo­ple say­ing things like ‘Thank you. It’s the first time I laughed in 10 days,’ ” Ber­man says. “We didn’t know if we could do that, but we had to try.”

17. Ev­ery pan­elist checks out head­lines, but two of us study for the show. Faith (Har­vard, Ox­ford, Rhodes scholar) and me (none of those things) cram for “Fill in the Blank,” the game where we’re in­di­vid­u­ally quizzed on the week’s news. We usu­ally know big news sto­ries, but there are al­ways one or two ques­tions about drunks, rob­bers, id­iots or a com­bi­na­tion thereof tossed in for comic re­lief. Faith and I scour the news and make lists to find these very sto­ries. Af­ter 17 years on the air, the show had its first all-fe­male panel in 2015: Paula, Faith and me — a cage match of es­tro­gen and Diet Coke.

18. Adam has racked up the most wins (128), Faith has the high­est per­cent­age of wins (51 per­cent) and I have the high­est recorded score (21 points) Just in case you’re work­ing on your 2019 “WWDTM” fan­tasy team picks.

19. How do we know all this? Thanks to our No. 1 fan, Linh Pham, who started lis­ten­ing in 2005 and main­tains an ex­haus­tive web­site with data on ev­ery show and pan­elist. His fa­vorite pan­elist? Mo Rocca. “I love how he spends as much time as he wants try­ing to find an an­swer.”

20. Peo­ple ask whether we’re re­ally hav­ing that much fun. For 20 years, the an­swer has been a re­sound­ing yes. So thanks, y’all.


An­niver­sary show pan­elists, from left: Amy Dick­in­son, Adam Burke, Paula Pound­stone, Luke Bur­bank, Adam Fel­ber, Maz Jo­brani, Faith Salie, Roy Blount Jr., Tara Clancy, Peter Grosz, Mo Rocca, Tom Bodett, Ne­gin Farsad, Rox­anne Roberts and Brian Baby­lon.

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