LENNOX, Mass. – It is a Thursday night in the small town of Lennox, Massachusetts, and the outdoor theater known as Tanglewood is packed with NPR news nerds.
Some 8,115 fans have crammed into the theater seats and spilled onto the surrounding lawn for a live taping of the radio station’s comedy news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…” They are here for the atmosphere, for tonight’s celebrity guest, for the contestants competing on the show. But, more than anything, they are here for the program’s host, Peter Sagal.
The crowd erupts as he strolls across the stage. They hang on his words and explode with laughter at his jokes. It is not uncommon for humor programs to have a comedy act before the show to get the audience going, but it soon becomes clear that Sagal is his own warmup act. And no one is disappointed.
This ability to be likable, to play with the crowd, to make people laugh is a big part of why 3.3 million people tune into the radio show every week and 2.4 million people download the show’s podcasts every month. Watching him onstage, it would be easy to assume his background was in stand-up or improv. But it isn’t.
When NPR tapped him for their show back in 1998, Sagal was a dramatic playwright striving to be taken seriously.
“I once counted up the body count in my plays,” he said in an interview with the Times of Israel the week before the show. “I believe it’s six million and six. Oh wait a minute, 6,000,007.” Adding, “Suicide counts right?”
What in the world made NPR think someone so serious would be a good host for a comedy show?
‘I looked down my nose at people who just merely wanted to be amusing — at the same time, I desperately wanted to be amusing’
“Even though I really wanted to be a serious playwright,” he said, “and I say that in hushed tones, because that’s trying to give you a sense of my pretension as a young man — and I looked down my nose at people who just merely wanted to be amusing — at the same time, I desperately wanted to be amusing.
“I had always been one of those people: a classic class clown, who made up for his insecurities and his lack of athletic and/or other abilities by being funny.”
These are codes that many Times of Israel readers can easily break. If the body count is around six million, in someone’s plays, then he probably wrote about the Holocaust. And if he “made up for his insecurities and his lack of athletic and/or other abilities by being funny” then he’s probably Jewish. Even if Sagal calls himself a religious agnostic (which, as he puts it, is “what an atheist calls himself if he’s afraid God will get mad at him”), he is still someone who feels a strong connection to the culture and history of Judaism.
Sagal grew up attending Conservative Jewish services in Summit, New Jersey. His brother, Doug Sagal, ultimately became a rabbi who now works at a synagogue in Westfield, New Jersey.
But Peter Sagal found himself wandering away from the religion.
“I learned a lot about the obligation. I learned a lot about the fear. I learned a lot about the responsibility and the awe… I always think of it, ‘days of awe, days of terror.’”
‘Woody Allen is pretty goddamn funny. SJ Perelman, pretty damn funny. Can you do that?’
Looking back, he wishes he’d had a rabbi like his brother, Doug Sagal, who emphasizes creating a service that is fun, warm and inclusive.
“I think he represents the best, in my view, of American Judaism. Which is a way of taking this very ancient religion and ethics and laws and way of life and way of thinking about the world and each other and making it very relevant and very joyful. I mean, his emphasis is on the joy of it.”
But religious or not, you can see the fingerprints of Sagal’s Jewish ancestry all over his work and his personality.
“If you’re a Jewish kid, who thinks of himself as being pretty smart and pretty funny, well there is this tradition… of contributing to the culture in the way that we always have,” he said. “You feel like you both have this natural advantage because Jews are funny and Jews are smart, and hey I’m Jewish, so I should have that going for me.
“But also this obligation, like Woody Allen is pretty goddamn funny. SJ Perelman, pretty damn funny. Can you do that? Can you get up there? Can you be that good?”
Even the show he now hosts is rooted in the history of the Jewish comedian. Sagal pointed to the Groucho Marx television program “You Bet Your Life” as one of the greatest influences on “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me…” The Marx program was structured within the framework of a quiz show, but he used that framework as an opportunity to crack jokes and have fun.
As Sagal put it, “I feel like I’m from a long line of Jewish fake quiz show hosts.”
“Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me…” features Sagal asking contestants about the week in news, but like “You Bet Your Life,” it is more comedy show than quiz show. The emphasis is not learning about the week in news or seeing who will win this week’s game, rather on the jokes Sagal and the others get to make and the fun they have doing it.
Like his brother, Sagal has created a show whose foundations are joy and warmth.
That emphasis has steered it away from more serious topics in the news, including the State of Israel.
Sagal gave an example from 2002 to illustrate why the show has made this choice.
Ariel Sharon’s chair had recently collapsed during a vote at the Knesset. “We talked about this story.” He said. “We were like, oh this is funny. It’s a fat story. We do fat stories. Ha ha. This isn’t political at all.”
But when one of the show’s contestants was asked what happened when Ariel Sharon took his chair at the Knesset, his answer killed that light and happy mood. “It blew up?” The contestant guessed. Since then, while the show has occasionally touched on studies out of Israel or Israeli inventors, the more serious news from the region has rarely reached the airwaves.
Sagal explained that, on the show, “I don’t want us to be part of the broil of politics. I want us to be apart from it. I want to be up in the stands, observing it. And that’s a very Jewish position to take.”
It is ironic that someone once so determined to be serious, who claims to have scoffed at writers who merely wanted to be amusing, has now structured his entire show around finding the amusing side of the very serious topic that is the news. But clearly, that approach has struck a chord with people. Otherwise the theater wouldn’t be so full on a random Thursday night.
The sky darkens, Sagal’s warmup act ends, and soon it is time for the real show to begin. The radio program’s announcer, former Morning Edition newscaster Carl Kassell, with a cadence listeners know well, introduces the host, “Peeeeetteeerr Sagal.”
The crowd goes wild and the one-time serious playwright takes his place onstage. It’s gonna be a fun show.