“I have been following North Carolina politics with real interest, with the rise of Art Pope and his wise and economical purchase of the state,” says “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me” host Peter Sagal over the phone, a few days after running in the Boston Marathon. “I think he got it at a good price and I think it will increase in value and I think he’ll sell it off at a profit someday.”
The host of the popular NPR quiz show goes on to wonder if the state government wants to turn UNC into a welding and 8-track-repair school.
Sagal is simultaneously cheerful and wry, telling his jokes conversationally as if repeating actual events. His wisecracks lean left – granted, so does the typical public radio listener – yet his aim isn’t to push a political agenda, but to heckle from the sidelines, having a good laugh at how ridiculous the news can be. He’s fast-thinking and confident, and if he’s occasionally a conversational steamroller, at least he’s funny and good-natured about it.
“I think one of the new industries in North Carolina is going to be building vast underground cities for the upcoming apocalypse,” Sagal says, continuing his UNC riff. “So that’ll be useful, to have welders and 8-track repairmen.”
To be clear, Sagal knows the news. As a comedian, he has fun with it. On Thursday he’ll record “Wait Wait” live at DPAC in Durham for a show airing the following Saturday, with Clay Aiken, “American Idol” winner turned defeated congressional hopeful, as his special guest.
Yet for all the tongue-in-cheek fun Sagal has with it, he knows news literacy is serious business. “Our republic is in trouble because we can’t agree on reality anymore,” he says.
It’s natural, Sagal admits, that everyone has their own worldview; this is nothing new. What is new, he feels, is how profitable it has become to simply argue against facts. “There are people who make a really nice living telling people exactly what they want to hear, whether it’s true or not,” Sagal says.
He picks an obvious example: climate change. The sensible debate on this topic, he says, would be on what is causing it or on how best to interpret climate data. Instead, Sagal says, the national conversation goes more like this:
“Climate change is happening, look at all this data.”
“No, it’s not. You’re lying.”
Truth in comedy
One way Sagal combats this is by volunteering for the News Literacy Project, an organization that sends reporters into school and helps youth understand the sometimes tricky line between fact and opinion. And, obviously, he has “Wait Wait” as a platform.
“I think it is a natural human thing to seek out people who agree with you and to try to get your own preconceived beliefs reinforced. It’s much more comfortable; I like it too,” Sagal says. “I have no idea what to do about it except make fart jokes, so that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Yet comedy has its strengths. Comedians like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, Sagal says, are able to say things journalists can’t. Sagal’s colleagues at NPR news, for instance, have to follow rules of objectivity – they can’t say that someone is in the wrong or is acting stupid, even if it seems obvious. But Sagal can.
“Sometimes we are able to say the unsayable and get away with it,” he says. One example is Stewart’s monologues: When he calls B.S. on public figures, Sagal says, using the unprintable variant of that abbreviation, he backs up his case with well-researched quotes and facts. Which is to say Stewart uses the same tools journalists do – objective facts – yet has the freedom as a comedian to draw conclusions from them. In other words, to call B.S.
“We don’t have the same amount of time to devote to a single issue, but I think at our best we are able to do that,” Sagal says. Then again, he doesn’t especially want “Wait Wait” to play that kind of role. Sagal would rather be in the stands with the audience, as he puts it, laughing along with them. The show isn’t about picking a political side, but about having a good laugh at the world.
“Most of our show is about guys who smuggle ferrets in their pants and hamburgers that are eight patties tall,” Sagal says. “Frankly, the news is hard enough. To provide people with goofy joy is an honor and a privilege and I’m happy to do it.”
What: “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 21)
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St.
Cost: Sold out