When NPR's news quiz show Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! hits the stage at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts tonight, it will be hosted by the quick-witted Peter Sagal.
Sagal, who's also an author and playwright, has been the show's host throughout its 18-year run. It is, he says, the most popular show on NPR — a status attested to by the fact that tickets for its Tampa tour stop sold out in less than three hours.
He'll appear with judge and scorekeeper Bill Kurtis and this week's panelists: Alonzo Bodden, Tom Bodett and Faith Salie. Sagal talked by phone about the presidential election, Florida author Randy Wayne White (who will be part of this week's Wait Wait) and Cuban sandwiches.
The stock in trade of Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! is politics. Has this presidential election been a blessing or a curse?
That's a complicated question. I've been thinking about it a lot. Generally speaking, for us, presidential elections are awesome. Presidential elections aren't about politics, and by that I mean policy. We don't make fun of politics; we're not out there making fun of the marginal tax rate.
We make fun of people. Every four years, those people, some of whom may be very good at the marginal tax rate, have to come out in public. And every politician, especially those running for president, has given us many things to make fun of: Al Gore sighing, John Kerry dropping his "g's" off the ends of words — the list goes on.
We make fun of human foibles. We bring those people down to our level. But what do you do with somebody — I won't say who — who so exceeds anything you can make up about him?
Generally speaking, humor is exaggeration. But what do you do when someone does stuff crazier than you could possibly make up? "Hey, next he's going to brag about the size of his genitals on national TV!" And then he does it!
How are your audiences reacting?
Some people say, hey, it must be great, the jokes write themselves. But we don't want jokes to write themselves. Give me Romney — he was stiff, and funny. Kerry, ditto. Even the cool Mr. Spock of Obama we can work with. But this whole thing is scary.
People say to us all the time, "We love the show, and we're very grateful for what you do." The news is so depressing, so stressful, and we provide comfort. You can say to the audience, in the end, it's all going to be all right.
With Trump, though, with everything he's brought out of the closet, or out of the cellar, I should say, we can't say that this time. Not just because of who he is, but because of what he's brought out. The white supremacist fringe is very, very happy. We can make jokes about them wearing their best white hoods to the inauguration, but it's not so funny.
Will you be glad when this election is over?
Oh, yeah. It will be such a pleasure to go back to making fun of relatively normal people doing relatively normal things.
While you're in Tampa, Florida author Randy Wayne White will be appearing on the show's "Not My Job" segment. What will you be talking about with him?
One of the things we love to do when we go someplace (on tour) is we like to get local people, not just to talk about their work but to talk about the region. Of course, Randy is well known nationally, a bestselling author, but he's such a Florida icon.
We make fun of Florida all the time. I think we're going to have Randy stand up for Florida. We'll ask him why we shouldn't just dig a canal across the state and let you guys float out to sea.
Anything else you're especially looking forward to in Tampa?
Look, I have to say this. The best Cuban sandwich I ever had was in Orlando. I know, I know. I'm hoping to let Tampa show me what it's got.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.