The Peter Sagal Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Today's interviewee is best known as the host of NPR's "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!", the news quiz typically taped here in Chicago. He's got a fun new book out called The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them) , a series of essay about bad behavior from the point of view of a not-bad guy. He's also worn many other hats in his career: playwright, New York Times magazine essayist, part-time film critic, screenwriter--and more!

What inspired The Book of Vice, and who would you say it speaks to?
Curiosity tinged with free-floating envy. As I admit straight up, I have lived a pretty vanilla life, and given my predilections, will probably continue to do so. But I've always been curious about the other flavors in the ice cream display case (if I say "Baskin Robbins' other 30 flavors," will that date me?). The envy part comes not so much from what these people were doing - as I explain, hanging out in a swinger's club (for example) does not make me want to swing - but the fact they're balls-out doing it. I have spent far too much time in my life coloring between the lines, and am fascinated with those who say to hell with it and scribble.

Was there any vice that you were considering exploring in the book that you didn't get to?
A whole bunch. There are a lot of sexual sub-cultures and enthusiasms that I could have gotten into... I'm fascinated, for example, with the sex bloggers, people who write online, in extraordinarily frank detail, about their sex lives. However, I didn't want the book to be all sex. And I would have loved to be able to try out other forms of excess.... Obsessive collecting, yachts, private submarines. There's a whole world out there, I only scrape it.

What does a swingers' club smell like?
Good question. I don't remember a particular smell. Better than a gym, certainly. Better than you might think.

I'm glad to see that you've already written your The Aggrieved Author Letter to the New York Times. What have been some of your favorite Aggrieved Author Letters that have inspired you?
There was a great one in the NYTBR in which the author was so offended by the poor review of her novel, that she actually had the protagonist of the novel write the letter, as if she, the fictional character, had been personally insulted, and had to defend herself. This was, to my mind, a really bad idea, although it also settled the question of the validity of the review.

On "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!", have there been any guests who you were starstruck to have on the show?
I have been fortunate in that the few people we've had on the show who I really, really admired and liked, and who might have intimidated the hell out of me, were themselves so kind and complimentary to me and the show that they disarmed any anxiety, nervousness, star-struckedness, etc I might have had. Tom Hanks comes to mind, as does, more recently, Stephen Colbert. Barack Obama, somebody I've followed since he was a state senator here in Chicago, was perhaps the most charming human being I've ever met, meaning - and others mentioned here have this quality too - that he manages to reflect whatever admiration you have for him back onto you, so you feel better about yourself by virtue of your engagement with him. A neat trick.

Is it me or do I never hear you doing the pledge drive for Chicago Public Radio? If I'm correct, how did you get out of that one? (And if I"m not, what's the key to raising lots and lots of money?)
No, I do volunteer for the pledge drives, although I've missed a few in the last year or so because of my travel schedule. I happily participated in the most recent one, though, in October '07. I actually enjoy it, for a number of reasons: a) I rarely get to be on the radio, live, talking directly and extemporaneously to the audience, b) I get to work with my friends at Chicago Public Radio, who normally I just see around the office, and c) I actually believe in public radio, and think that people should support it with donations.

As to the key to raising money: I'm engaged in a sort of good-natured argument with the pledge professionals at CPB. They believe in what you might call the standard model of fundraising; lots of excitement, hourly goals, upbeat and constantly repeated calls to PLEDGE NOW!, lots of premiums, etc. As a listener, I have never responded well to this, so I try to make a rational case for donating, which goes something like this:

1) You listen to public radio, so

2) You get something of value out of it, and

3) Public radio is supported by its listeners, thus

4) You should contribute some portion of the value you get out of it, back to it.

I also point out that unlike every other exchange of goods in the capitalistic world (though this is less true with the rise of open licenses and shareware on the internet) public radio allows you to sample and use our product as much as you like, as long as you like, and then, only after you've made a decision about what it's worth to you, asks you to make a voluntary donation to support it. Wouldn't it be great if everything was like that?

Which model, the Upbeat Salesmen, or the Rational Argument, works better? My guess is, that they each work, for different people. I try to speak to the people, like me, who don't go for the standard sales pitch, and want to hear something different.

Are you ever surprised by the makeup of the audience for "Wait Wait"? I went to a taping one time and saw a twelve year old who looked like he was about to wet his pants to meet Carl Kassel. Then again, my brother used to like Rush Limbaugh when he was 12.
I used to be, but I've met a lot of young kids who like the show, so I'm not surprised anymore. I'm not sure what it is... it may be that we're clearly having such a fun time with each other, laughing and making jokes and doing funny voices, that it's just an attractive environment for kids, even if they sometimes don't know exactly what we're talking about. Or maybe it's that a lot of our humor - dumb criminals, toilet jokes - is actually right down their alley. Or maybe we just attract the real dorky kids. (And I should say that as a kid who memorized entire Tom Lehrer records by the time I was 11, I consider myself one of them.) Interesting about your brother... what's he doing now? Stockpiling weapons?

Close: he just got out of the Army. But now he's involved in something much more insidious: law school.

A Chicago Magazine article about you touches on this a bit, discussing "public radio nerds." What do you think that entails? (I ask nervously.)
I think people are attracted to media (and cars, and clothes, and everything else) that reflects the image of what they want to be, and how they want to be seen. We're much more brand conscious than we like to think. Public Radio is a brand that signifies: intelligence, worldliness, cleverness, cultural sophistication. I, a public radio nerd/dork of the first order, have found myself listening to stuff on NPR or CPB, being bored out of my mind, but thinking, "Well, I'm supposed to be interested in this, so I'll keep listening." I also think that the public radio community considers itself, like a lot of other subcultures, exclusive and elite. We wouldn't like it so much if everybody else did, too. In fact, if you ask an NPR nerd what his or her "guilty pleasure," is, it's almost guaranteed to be something that's really popular... Britney Spears music, or Adam Sandler movies. We hate to think of ourselves as being part of the herd, which is itself a loaded term.

What is the show going to do to celebrate its 10th anniversary?
Good question. We were hoping to bring the show to Kuwait, to perform for the troops via the USO, but that's in doubt. As of right now, we're just planning a big party.

What was it like doing the show from Millennium Park? And I ask more technically, like what it was like working with that particular stage, outside.
It's such a perfectly designed stage that it didn't seem that much weirder than doing the show in our home theater; I didn't feel the need to shout, for example. And: Thank God, you can't see all the ten thousand people in front of you, because of the shape of the amphitheater and the lip of the grassy area. However, you can hear them, and it's an amazing, almost overwhelming thing. The last time, this July, I came out to raucous, mass applause, and my brain just froze.

Which Michael Jackson video were you in? And what was THAT like?

I was hired as an extra for the video "Remember The Time," in which Michael was on the go in a sort of Ebony Magazine version of ancient Egypt; ie, all the main characters were played by African American celebrities of the day: Eddie Murphy was the Pharaoh, Imam was the Queen, etc. I was cast as the Snakecharmer in the Marketplace sequence, in which MJ would be dancing/singing through a crowded souk, while being chased by the Pharoah's guards. However, even though I was on the set all day, my scene was never shot - they ran out of time - so I am not actually in the video. However, I did meet Michael. I shook his hand, and he said, "Nice to meet you," and I said, "Nice to meet you."

What films did you review during your guest stint on the Ebert and Roeper show?
I reviewed: Blood Diamond (thumbs up), The Nativity Story (thumbs down), Turistas (thumbs down as far as thumbs can go) Ten Items or Less (thumbs regretfully down, but down nonetheless) and Sweet Land (thumbs way, way up, a wonderful, kind, moving film that everybody should see, because it will make you feel good.) It was really fun, and I hope they ask me back someday.

What happens when one is commissioned to write a play? Does the commissee have any say on what the topic or tone of the play is?
I was commissioned twice, and in both cases, I got to write whatever I wanted. In the one case, I tried to write something I thought the theater would like - a socially conscious play about the Plight of the Worker - and it just kind of lay there. In the other, I wanted to write something that would piss the producers off (it's a long story) so wrote something I figured they'd hate... and they loved it. In fact, I often think it's my best play (called Mall America.) Maybe there's a lesson there.

You have a brother who is an attorney and one who is a rabbi. Of the three of you, which is the most fun to sit next to at dinner?
Without question, my younger brother, the lawyer. He lives in rural Colorado, and can tell stories about fly fishing, drunks he's defended pro bono, and Ralph Lauren, who owns a massive ranch nearby. What could be better?

You're a marathoner. Do you listen to music when you run, and if so, which are some of your favorite workout songs?
I used to, but as I've gotten more serious I rarely do anymore, because in training, I'm usually with my friends, and in a race, I'm concentrating on the race. (and yes, running does take some concentration, esp. when you're pushing yourself.) But: for a while I would program my iPod with a playlist calculated to last the time I hoped to finish the race in, and it seemed to help. My playlist would always begin with Born to Run, and always end with Invincible by OKGO. To this day, I hear that song and start to accelerate.

How did the screenplay for "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" come about? It doesn't sound like you originally set out to explore unresolved issues re: Baby and a corner.

It's a long story, but here's the short version: I was commissioned by the producer Lawrence Bender to write a screenplay based on the life story of a friend of his, a woman who had moved to Havana with her family in the fall of 1958, when she was 15. I wrote a fairly elaborate, fairly serious screenplay that involved real events, real people (Castro and Batista both made cameo appearances, as did the CIA, etc.) but featured, as was asked of me, a "cross the tracks" romance at the center. It didn't go anywhere, as with most screenplays, and I went on to other things. However, Bender was asked to produce the sequel to Dirty Dancing, and didn't know how to do it... somebody suggested taking the Cuba script he already had, taking out almost all the politics, and putting in a lot of dancing. And lo, so it came to be. I didn't have anything to do with the rewrites, nor was I on the set, but I did get to go to the premiere and I met Patrick Swayze.

So, you've written plays, essays, books. How does blogging feel?
Fun, and so far relatively easy. I have a short attention span, and thoughts are always zinging around my brain. Usually they just fly away, so now all I do is just grab them, call up the site, write them down. Although already I'm feeling the insatiable hunger of the site... I haven't blogged today! I have to blog! In a weird way, it's just a new technology for disappointing people.

So are the Red Sox the new Yankees?
Depends what you mean by "Yankees." If you mean a team that simply attempts to purchase championships, and punishes anybody associated with it if championships are not instantly achieved, in which an insane owner alienates his own superstars and managers (see "The Bronx is Burning,") then, no. If you mean a well-run, well-funded team with a savvy and profoundly decent manager, composed of home grown talent, careful acquisitions, and a 25 man roster of all around decent people who seem to care about the game as much as the fans do - like the Yankee championship teams of 1996, 98, 99 and 2000 -- well, then, yes. At least, I hope so.

How does it feel to be the 193rd person interviewed for
Better than the 194th, not as good as the 192nd.