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NPR's beloved quiz show "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" comes to Pittsburgh

Score keeper Bill Kurtis and host Peter Sagal stand behind lecterns reading "Bill" and Peter."
Rob Grabowski
Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! score keeper Bill Kurtis and host Peter Sagal.

"Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!", the informative and fun news quiz from NPR, is coming to Pittsburgh Thursday night, April 11, to tape an episode at the Benedum Center.

The show's host, Peter Sagal, is a graduate of Harvard with a degree in English literature. He's an author, playwright, screenwriter, and has also worked as a stage director. He's an actor (and almost made it as an extra in a Michael Jackson music video) and loves riding motorcycles. WESA Morning Edition host Priyanka Tewari sat down with Sagal for an interview on his life and career.

Priyanka Tewari: So how does a Harvard graduate end up hosting a quiz show for NPR?

Peter Sagal: Well, I don't know if you were aware of this, but when NPR was first founded, back in the early 70s, they had a rule that any game show host that might appear on the network would have to be an Ivy League graduate. It happened pretty much by dumb chance. I was working as a playwright and screenwriter. I was living in New York when I got a phone call asking me if I'd be interested in being a part of this new quiz show that NPR was developing, because somebody had told them that I was both funny and read a lot of newspapers.

"Wait, Wait..." ranks as one of public radio's foremost hits. What do you think makes the show so special, and why has the show endured for so long?

Other than my absolutely magnetic charm? Let me put it this way. We are very well aware that most people listen to our show, with their families. Sometimes with their young children. And people tend to listen to us because we tend to be on in the mornings in most markets, around the breakfast table. So we have something around our office we call the breakfast table rule. Is this something people want to hear when they're having breakfast? The news coming from all corners of the world and domestically can be very distressing, and we want to get everybody a break from that. And apparently, people like that.

I remember once looking for jobs in public radio and I actually saw an opening for a comedy writer for "Wait, Wait..." I didn't know that you had comedy writers. I thought that everything was spontaneous, and like you've said, you're just trying to amuse yourselves and have a good time with friends.

Well, sometimes we amuse ourselves by writing jokes. Now, that has actually developed over the years. When the show began, I did a lot of the writing. But these days, I'm very happy to say, we have a much more professional operation with really talented people. When I get up on stage with my colleagues and my friends, the cast of characters, I've got that script in front of me, but they don't. And in fact, we want it to immediately detour into spontaneity, ad-libbing, improvisation. Where we end up, nobody knows.

Stage shows in local markets have been a staple of Wait, Wait. How do you decide which city to visit next?

We go around the country, to the cities where people want to hear us, which thankfully and amazingly is most of them. We haven't been to Pittsburgh in too many years, and I apologize. Sticking French fries and coleslaw on my own sandwiches here in Chicago just isn't the same. Our special guest, of course, is former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. I'll be excited about that, just because I love this book. One of my very favorite books ever written happens to be written by Roy Blount Jr., a friend and colleague, called "Three Bricks Shy of a Load." It's about the mid-seventies Pittsburgh Steelers team, right before they won that Super Bowl. And I highly recommend it to everyone who's listening, who loves football and the Steelers. It is an unappreciated classic of sports journalism. Go get it.

WESA is a media partner for this event.

The audio was edited and produced by WESA's Doug Shugarts.

Priyanka Tewari is a native of New Delhi, India. She moved to the United States with her family in the late 1990s, after living in Russia and the United Kingdom. She is a graduate of Cornell University with a master’s from Hunter College, CUNY.