Radio host Peter Sagal listens to the news the way wild mushroom hunters search for their quarry.
"They train themselves to walk through the woods with this single-minded vision of looking for these mushrooms, which you have to be able to see, you have to train yourself to look for them or you'll walk right by them," Sagal says from his Chicago office. "So I'm like that — I'm missing the trees, I'm missing the forest, I'm missing verdant woodland, I'm just looking for the mushrooms."
The mushrooms would be news items ripe for mocking on the show he hosts, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, the popular NPR news quiz show that is heard weekends on nearly 600 radio stations across the country by more than 3 million listeners.
Usually the show emanates from the Chase Auditorium in Chicago, but this week it is coming to Kentucky for a taping Thursday night at the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond that will be aired around the world next weekend.
"What we do is we do our radio show for people," Sagal says. "If they like our radio show, they will love this. They get to see what we look like. We don't have a lot of bells and whistles. We have, like, one bell and half a whistle.
"We do more material than we put on the air — we tape about twice as much material as we need sometimes, and we tend to get a little bluer, funnier and stranger than we can be on the air. We have a lot of fun with the audience, we tend to have a lot of fun with each other — I really don't know what it's like because I've never seen it. I'm told it's a lot of fun."
The live version of Wait Wait still remains a bit of a mystery because unlike many other programs, it has resisted the urge to overshare.
"People tell me all the time, 'Oh, you know what you guys should do? You should put up an unedited show as a podcast because it's so much fun,'" Sagal says. "We say, 'Well, if we do that, then nobody would come to see us.'"
NPR fans in Central Kentucky, where Wait Wait is heard on both WEKU-88.9 FM and WUKY-91.3 FM, definitely seem to want to see the show: The 2,100-seat EKU Center is nearly sold out for Thursday's performance. The crew will be coming in after a big week, having taped an end-of-the-year TV special for BBC America that will air on the network Dec. 23 and be on NPR stations Dec. 24 and 25.
Wait Wait is ostensibly a news quiz show with three panelists, listeners and a celebrity guest answering questions drawn from recent headlines. The panelists get points for answering questions correctly and other achievements like tripping up listeners on the "Bluff the Listener" game. In that contest, a listener calls in and each panelist reads him or her a story purportedly from the news, but only one is true. If a panelist leads the listener to pick their false story, he or she scores points. If the listener gets it right, they win Wait Wait's longstanding prize: emcee and scorekeeper Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail.
Part of the fun of the prize is the listener gets to write the script for Kasell, who has done a wide variety of things on the messages, from singing the K.C. and the Sunshine Band classic I'm Your Boogie Man to telling callers that he and the voicemail owner have eloped. The only things Kasell won't do are profanity and blatant advertising pitches, Sagal says.
If Sagal is the host and chief mischief maker, Kasell is Wait Wait's not-so-secret weapon, the 77-year-old former news anchor for NPR's Morning Edition who openly delights in absurd bits for the show.
"That is his brand, and that I think has been the most successful thing about our show is Carl and how incredibly game he is," Sagal says. "As it turns out, I think all those years that Carl was getting up early in the morning to come in and do the newscast, he really wanted to be a showman, an entertainer. He had this in him the whole time, and one of the great pleasures of my life has been giving him a chance to express it."
Of course, the whole show pivots on the news, and Sagal says when he began hosting Wait Wait in 1998, it changed the way he consumed news.
"I read the news like everyone else," Sagal recalls. "I wanted to be well-informed, I wanted to be sophisticated, I wanted to, if it ever came up at a cocktail party, be able to say useful things about the Trilateral Commission. I wanted to be a sophisticated, urban guy.
"Now, of course, my entire life is about making fun of the news. So now, among other things, if there is a news story that is either really happy or really tragic, I just ignore it."
He's looking for things to make fun of, so odd stories and politics, particularly squabbling and sex scandals, are prime targets. Like fellow news satirist Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, Sagal expressed sadness last week at the prospect of gaffe- and sex scandal-prone Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain dropping out of the race.
"Though we'll still have Rick Perry, won't we?" Sagal said, referring to the Texas governor who has had his own bumpy ride through the primary season.
Therein lies the beauty of news satire for Sagal and Wait Wait: the headlines are a constantly renewing source of material.
"Politics does draw people who are convinced that only they can save the world," Sagal says. "Anybody who says to themselves, 'I should be president' is by definition almost disqualified to be president because they think they should be president. And those people tend to take themselves more seriously than they should.
"People's comic value tends to exist between their view of themselves and the reality of themselves. That's where the comedy happens."
And that's where Sagal and his fellow Wait Wait writers find their mushrooms.
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.