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'Wait Wait' Turns 20


Twenty years is not a lot of time if you're, say, Betty White. You know what the gift for 20th anniversaries is? Dryer lint. And we have a whole load of it on our way to Peter Sagal and his crew because the show that follows us in many markets - and I don't mean Kroger or Safeway - Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a special episode that will even include a few laughs. Peter Sagal joins us now from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. Peter, thanks very much for 20 years of sober thoughtful news coverage...

PETER SAGAL, BYLINE: Exactly. We knew that people just didn't take NPR seriously enough with all your frivolity and high jinks. So we decided that we needed to finally try to acquire a reputation for sober consideration at this network. And I'm glad to have done it.

SIMON: Thanks so much. Serious question.


SIMON: There are serious chilling events - school shootings, church bombings and, this week - although, thankfully, no one's harmed - bomb threats. Some weeks harder than others to have fun with the news?

SAGAL: Oh, yes. But we know that we have a particular role. Handling all that stuff - that's your job (laughter), and we know that what our audience wants is for us to make them feel a little better. And if that takes ignoring the bad stuff and focusing on the goofy, then we'll do that. If there is something goofy about the bad stuff, we'll highlight that. All I can say is the worse the news - and, sometimes, it's been very bad - the more we feel an obligation to step up to the plate and really bring the silly.

SIMON: You've had so many famous guests, including, of course, a president of the United States...


SIMON: Two presidents of the United States...

SAGAL: Yeah. We had Barack Obama before he became president, but I'm taking credit for it because he hasn't spoken to me since.

SIMON: (Laughter) And the second president?

SAGAL: The second president was Bill Clinton, who appeared post-presidency.

SIMON: That's right.

SAGAL: And one of the things I have loved to be able to do - obviously, again to compare and contrast your job and the rest of NPR News - is to find out what these people think about serious issues of the day, their positions, their insight. My job is, if there is one, to make them appear to be human beings, and I take some pride in that. If we can get somebody like, more recently, John Kasich, for example, and we can show the audience that he's actually a very funny guy who can tell a story, then sure. People will go on, and they'll think what they think about John Kasich. But they might also have those opinions. But, now, they apply them to a human being.

SIMON: I love Bill Kurtis...

SAGAL: Yes. How could you not?

SIMON: And I miss Carl Kasell.

SAGAL: We all do...

SIMON: You've had some great partners.

SAGAL: I have, and I've been blessed. And I have stood on the shoulders or next to the shoulders of giants. As everyone knows, not only was Carl Kasell our original judge and scorekeeper, he was our presiding spirit. And he still is, even though he's no longer with us.

SIMON: And Bill Kurtis has a voice that's on loan from the heavens.

SAGAL: He also, much like Carl, has a really interesting sense of humor...

SIMON: Oh, gosh, yes.

SAGAL: And he runs a little, shall we say - salacious I believe is the public radio word we'll use. And every now and then, our audience gets a glimpse of that. But my favorite thing is when - off-air, he'll let loose with a profanity. And it is stunning...

SIMON: (Laughter).

SAGAL: ...To hear that voice use that language. Oh, my gosh. It can boil the hair right off you. It's quite fun.

SIMON: Before we go, who writes your theme music?

SAGAL: Our theme music, of course, was written by B. J. Leiderman...

SIMON: What a coincidence.

SAGAL: What a coincidence.

SIMON: Ours, too.

SAGAL: Could you ask him what the heck that noise is at the beginning of our theme? It's almost as if he's starting the theme music by pushing a whole bunch of empty glasses off his piano. We have no idea. So if you see him, ask him. I've never known.

SIMON: The 20th anniversary of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! Spectacular airs this weekend. And the equally spectacular Peter Sagal, thanks so much for joining us.

SAGAL: Thank you, Scott. And thanks for that warm-up.

SIMON: (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.