If you’re like the vast majority of Americans, you listened to a radio show last week. If you’re like me, you listened to “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” last Saturday. I don’t know when I became a faithful listener of this weekly comedic news quiz show produced by Chicago Public Radio, which reaches more than three million people through dozens of National Public Radio stations around the country. But I do know why: I’m a news junkie who’s almost always putzing around the house Saturdays mornings with WBEZ blasting. Also, perhaps I crave the petty satisfaction of beating one of the show’s panelists to an answer so that my ceaseless news consumption during the last seven days amounts to something more than information overload.
But the main reason I love “Wait Wait” is obvious. Equal parts satire and absurdity, it offers a hilarious dissection of the week’s news. Although the show’s format never changes, its panel of writer/comedian panelists always does, ensuring that the witty repartee about everything from the misdeeds of American politicians to scientific studies doesn’t get stale. Uber-articulate host Peter Sagal makes sure the traveling circus, which is recorded in theaters around the country, never goes off the rails.
Or does he? Radio is an unusually intimate medium—there’s something about spending time alone with someone’s voice that makes me think I know him or her. Sagal, and the panelists, always have a snappy retort ready to fly. Because “Wait Wait” is taped in front of live audiences, their wit sounds all the more spontaneous and authentic. They’re not just cracking jokes for radio listeners to hear a few days later, they’re performing for people sitting a few feet away.
But just like television shows and films, radio shows are heavily edited. In fact, each week’s 50-minute “Wait Wait” broadcast is whittled down from a two-hour live recording. The obvious question is: how many mistakes, unfunny remarks and vulgar jokes have to be cut?
In search of an unfettered “Wait Wait” experience, in early May I attended a Thursday night taping of the show at its home theater in downtown Chicago, the Chase Auditorium. Do yourself a favor and make the trip—the live show is even funnier than its sanitized and shortened broadcast version. Just be sure to buy tickets well in advance; they always sell out.
It turns out that Sagal and the panelists—who that night were “Wait Wait” regulars Charlie Pierce and Roxanne Roberts (both journalists) and comedian Brian Bablyon—are indeed human and therefore capable of cracking mediocre jokes. It also turns out that Emmy-award-winning TV broadcaster Bill Kurtis does an excellent Barry White impression. Kurtis, a fixture on CBS Chicago’s evening news for decades, stood in for official judge and scorekeeper Carl Kasell, who was out sick.
Sorry Kasell, but Kurtis should step in more often. After Babylon compared disgraced former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and newly minted U.S. congressman to Barry White, Kurtis stole the show with three words slowly and deeply intoned that would make the soul singer proud: “We make love.”
I’ll never look at Kurtis the same way, and I’ll never listen to “Wait Wait” the same way. The show is both more scripted and more spontaneous than I realized. The few boring moments watching Sagal reciting NPR sponsors and re-recording misspoken lines were easily outweighed by hilarious riffing from Pierce and Babylon that was apparently too vulgar to survive the editing room. A question noting new legislation approving an Internet sales tax led Babylon to consider the finer points of how taxing Internet pornography could solve America’s budget problems. (For a full dose of Babylon, attend the excellent Moth Story Slam in Chicago, which he hosts.)
I was disappointed some of the biggest laughs of the night weren’t broadcast, but happy that much of what was cut were awkward moments. Those included some with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who called in to play a quiz segment called “Try Googling That, Big Shot.” He did, and the audience was slightly embarrassed for him as he stumbled his way toward a right answer. In the broadcast, however, the segment moves swiftly along and one of the world’s most wealthy people seems more entertaining than he really was. Millions of listeners had no idea what they were missing; such is the power of a talented audio editor.
The best reason to see “Wait Wait” live is, of course, to laugh very hard for two hours. The second best reason is that, after getting an up-close look at the show’s raw materials, you’ll appreciate the finished product more than ever. And if you’ve never heard it, you need to change your Saturday morning routine.
“Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” is broadcast each Saturday on WBEZ 91.5 FM at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. You can also stream the show at npr.org/programs/wait-wait-dont-tell-me.