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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.”
Their show garnered a rave review in the Crimson and featured a Sultan and his Harem, a countess, and, among others, a genie whose signature song was “You Rub Me the Right Way.”
After graduating from Harvard, Sagal moved to Los Angeles. Between odd jobs—like performing as an extra on a Michael Jackson music video and writing a screenplay on commission which would eventually become Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights—Sagal also spent time pursuing his passion for playwriting.
Much in contrast to his Hasty Pudding roots, Sagal said he enjoys writing “funny plays about serious topics.”
As Bravin put it, Sagal is interested in very serious theater. “Theater that puts you to sleep serious,” Bravin said.
Sagal moved to Minnesota in the early 1990’s after winning a playwriting fellowship. While in Minnesota, Sagal wrote his most successful and well-known play, “Denial,” which focuses on the issue of Holocaust denial. According to Sagal, the play is meant to explore the reasons why Holocaust denial is so bothersome.
“If you really want to piss off a Jewish person,” Sagal said, “try saying the Holocaust didn’t happen.”
ROAD TO RADIO
Two years later, in 1997, after moving to Brooklyn, Sagal got a phone call asking him to be a panelist on a new NPR show called “Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me.” Sagal soon replaced Dan Coffey, the original host, in 1998 and has been at the helm of the program for the last fourteen years.
“Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me” is a weekly game show, featuring a three-person rotating panel, in which contestants are asked to answer questions about the past week’s news. It features guests like actors, political figures, and journalists.
Since premiering in January 1998, the show has gained a weekly audience of 2.6 million and took home a Peabody Award in 2008.
Although Sagal never anticipated a career on radio, he said he is quite pleased with his job. “I get to write jokes about stuff going on in the news, which is what I would do anyway,” he said.
Panelists pointed to Sagal’s ability to foster chemistry between panelists and guide the show effectively as reasons for its success.
According to them, the rapport between Sagal and the panelists is the lifeblood of the show.
“One of the great joys of my life is throwing Peter off his game—I like the look on his face,” said Paula Poundstone, frequent panelist and professional comedian.
—Staff writer Benjamin M. Scuderi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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