Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!
Thursday, May 21
Durham Performing Arts Center

I already dispensed with my complex relationship to NPR’s comedy programming last week, so let’s cut to the chase: I went into the sold-out DPAC taping of Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, the long-running news quiz from WBEZ in Chicago, with a mixture of excitement about witnessing one of my favorite radio shows in the flesh and trepidation about witnessing how the sausage is made.

Based on his voice, I always imagined charismatic host Peter Sagal, “a man who has completely squandered an expensive education,” with thick-framed glasses and salt-and-pepper hair—so basically, Ira Glass. Sagal’s glasses-free baldness startled me, but I soon got used to it. Otherwise, Wait Wait live is a lot like Wait Wait on the radio, just longer and all out of order—and you miss half the jokes because of the audience’s cheers. WUNC president Connie Walker even kicked things off with a mini-pledge drive. This was a bit rich (pun fully intended) as, rather than listening to a free show, attendees had paid as much as $128, and you can be certain this crowd was already well-stocked with tote bags, mugs and Back Porch Music CDs.

Sagal warmed us up by saying the show had started late (about 15 minutes) because Art Pope’s people wanted to check the script for good values. “You don’t own the state!” Sagal said. “Then he showed us the receipt.” There’s no better way to win over an NPR crowd in Durham than with an Art Pope slam, and our mutual moral admiration was established to satisfaction. Sagal and announcer Bill Kurtis also made a big to-do about calling Durham “Durm” (“It sounds like a mild expletive,” Sagal quipped). Discouragingly, they seemed to think it’s something people who aren’t T-shirt marketers actually say, and the thunderous applause of the audience did nothing to rebuke this notion.

By phone, Brian from Virginia Beach was quizzed about the biker riots in Waco, Texas, “lawn-shaming” in drought-ridden California and David Letterman’s last show. A local might have missed the first question, guessing “Not Just Wings” on the basis of a clue about having to get your beer and wings elsewhere. But without that home-field disadvantage, Brian from Virginia Beach got them all right. There was the Listener Limerick Challenge with a city marketer from Tucson, and Bluff the Listener, with Portland yoga instructor Carly, on the topic of hipster gentrification.

There were news quizzes for the panelists, too—Faith Salie, Adam Felber and Bobcat Goldthwait, who has given up the screechy-voiced antics of his early career to become a surprisingly funny, spontaneous comedian. One news item was about a survey showing that people named Megan and Nathan are the most likely to cheat on their partners, and the call from an engaged couple with those names, who were very cheeky and game, was a highlight.

The biggest difference between Wait Wait live and on the radio isn’t even the show. It’s being among a community that is usually spread out in far-flung kitchens and cars. You are intimately immersed in the particular phylum of Wait Wait fans and the broader kingdom of NPR listeners, which is interesting. I certainly didn’t mind ceding the armrest to the old gent next to me, but the six to eight inches beyond it were a different story. I often couldn’t tell if my ribs were being tickled by the puns on stage or the sweater-clad bone of his elbow. This experience was “in the flesh” indeed.

For the “Not My Job” segment, beloved homegrown runner-up Clay Aiken called in. I guessed they would quiz him about pottery, and I was close. The topic was Claymation: Gumby, the Noyd and the California Raisins. They joshed him about Ruben Studdard and about having spiky hair. Aiken said—breaking news!—he would probably run for something again at some point, and … well, I won’t spoil whether “America’s favorite loser” won Carl Kasell’s voice on Will Walker of Raleigh’s voicemail. Hear for yourself on WUNC 91.5 FM.

The panelists did great, but secretly, I thought I should have been on the panel. I know all about hipster gentrification, being in Durham. I have a great Clay Aiken story.* And I could have told the nation that nobody says “Durm.”

* Maybe 10 years ago, I was flying to Chicago. I got pulled out of line for a security check, which I often do when I travel in summer, because the tattoo on my forearm looks like plans for a bomb. As a security guard rifled through my personal possessions, another group of guards, several baggage scanners down, were gesturing at me and talking animatedly. I had to walk by them on my way to the gate. “That ain’t him! That ain’t him!” one of the guards was shouting. I gave him a quizzical look, and he laughed. “They thought you was Clay Aiken,” he said.

Correction: This post originally misstated the WUNC broadcast times of the episode. It aired on WUNC at 11 a.m. today and at noon yesterday. Listen to it online here.