When, in 1987, Peter D. Sagal ’87 began recording trivia questions about current events on the answering machine for his Quincy dorm room phone, he could never have known that 25 years later, he would be making a living doing something very similar for National Public Radio.
Sagal, now the host of NPR’s popular news game show, “Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me,” never intended to be a radio host. But, after spending a decade writing plays, scripts, and screenplays, and taking odd jobs, Sagal landed at the helm of the show, where he has stayed for the last fourteen years.
BATMAN AND ROBIN
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Sagal said that his mother, who obtained a master’s degree from Harvard, encouraged him to go to Harvard from an early age.
“She concocted this notion, really early, that I would go to Harvard,” Sagal said.
The first conversation he remembered having with his mother about Harvard was at the ripe age of five.
Sagal indeed earned a spot in the Class of 1987, and in the fall of 1983, he moved into Pennypacker Hall, where he first met his roommate Jess M. Bravin ’87, now the Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.
Bravin and Sagal became friends, and later that year, began one of their first projects—the Pennypacker Visiting Speakers Committee. Both were disappointed to be placed in Pennypacker, which at the time was in such disrepair that, according to Bravin, “the place looked like a decrepit slum,” with peeling plaster and doorknobs that fell off when turned.
In response to this affront, the two hatched a scheme to get back at the University—convince the administration to pay for a speakers series that attracted washed-up movie stars and treated them as academics.
The pair chose, as the first Pennypacker Visiting Speaker, Burt Ward, the actor who played Robin the Boy Wonder on the 1960’s Batman television series.
Ward’s speech began without a hitch, but was suddenly interrupted by members of the Harvard Lampoon, the semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, led by then president Conan C. O’Brien ’85.
O’Brien ran off with Ward’s costume, which was on display on stage, and Bravin remembered watching Sagal attempt to run down and tackle O’Brien in the basement halls of the Science Center, but O’Brien and his cronies escaped. Hostage negotiations followed, with O’Brien tormenting Ward over the phone.
Bravin and Sagal moved to Quincy in their sophomore year, at a time when Houses still had abiding reputations. According to Sagal, “Quincy was the drug house—if you were seriously into dope, you’d go to Qunicy,” but that by the time he left, it was more of “the dorky Jewish house.”
FUNNY PLAYS, SERIOUS TOPICS
Because Harvard had no formalized drama program, Sagal spent much of his time at Harvard immersed in extracurricular pursuits. He directed three plays in his undergraduate career, and after entering the annual competition to write the Hasty Pudding production, he and Bravin were chosen to develop their script, titled “Between the Sheiks.”