Some people like to sleep until the afternoon on the weekends, while others wake up before dawn to do power yoga. I split the difference and say that there's nothing sweeter than a Saturday morning spent sprawled on the sofa, sipping coffee and soaking in the sounds of National Public Radio. Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, Car Talk with Tom and Ray Magliozzi, and - best of all - Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, the weekly comedy news quiz show. Seems I'm not alone, as an adoring audience of listeners (largely those who donated during 90.7 WMFE's latest beg-a-thon) turned out last Wednesday night to welcome WWDTM host Peter Sagal to Orlando's Plaza Theatre.
Sagal strode onstage and began by reciting the alphabet, thoughtfully giving the audience a moment to "get used to what I look like." With a casual open collar, khakis and black Converse he didn't quite fit the mental portrait his snappy sardonic voice had painted. Or, as Sagal says he often overhears, "He doesn't sound bald!"
The weekend prior to this WMFE Speaker Series event, Sagal had been in Miami (a "vastly dysfunctional" city, he quipped) to record an episode of WWDTM guest-starring Florida author Carl Hiaasen. He called this trip to Florida his "gratitude tour," since "no single state has done more for the stupid news industry," providing rich material for his show to mine. Sagal also had pointed words on our selection of millionaire fraudster Rick Scott as governor, calling him a "supervillain" who "looks like Lex Luthor." (OW beat him to that punchline in the Jan. 6 Happytown).
While in Orlando, Sagal stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay hotel (a co-sponsor of the evening), and he raved about taking his kids to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. He was mystified, however, by the "grownups walking around like maybe it's not too lake to get picked for Hogwarts," observing that "[adults] don't need magic, we have alcohol." The Forbidden Journey and Spiderman attractions inspired Sagal to imagine what an NPR theme park ride would be like: Instead of Back to the Future's Delorean, you'd ride in a Volvo with a car seat in the back and sit in a driveway while Fresh Air's Terry Gross told you how much she admires your work. Of course, the ride would be free to get on, but the attraction wouldn't let you off until you made a donation.
It was good to hear that Sagal was enjoying his latest trip to our town, because he called his visit here in January 2010 the "worst experience of my professional life." A speaker's bureau had booked him to talk at a convention for estate and tax attorneys at Tiger Woods' golf club, and he was asked not to "be political." So instead, Sagal did material from his book about adultery and public figures. Afterward, he said, "no one would look [him] in the eye."
For the bulk of the hour he spent onstage at the Plaza, Sagal used his iPod to play memorable moments from his radio show, beginning with its very first episode in January 1998. WWDTM was created to retain the weekday news-centric audience that was tuning out on weekends after Car Talk. Back then, Sagal was a New York-based scriptwriter who inadvertently penned Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights (it's really not his fault), and he wasn't the show's host but a contestant. The early episodes, with original host Dan Coffey, were so poorly received that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting voted against funding it. Out of desperation, producer Doug Berman bumped Sagal up to host, and together they decided to abandon efforts at a "serious, substantive" show and instead "have fun until they stop us"; the result has become one of public radio's most popular programs.
The evening concluded with half a dozen queries from the audience, many of which were fanboy fawning. Sagal handled the gushing graciously, saying "I'd take [compliments] over a Pulitzer Prize any day . but I'll still take a Pulitzer." Some of the questions did turn up some insightful information, though. For instance, the audience learned that Sagal pre-scripts the show with the help of four writers, but the best material is always ad-libbed; the worst guests to ever appear on the show were Gene Simmons from KISS and Def Jam's Russell Simmons. But the best moment of the evening came when a woman began a rambling rant against Republicans. Sagal defused her by observing that "it's profitable on both [political] sides to make 50 percent of the country think the other half is crazy or malicious," insisting that his show is intended as "a respite from the ongoing wars."
Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, calls NPR executives "Nazis" ("I thought we were dirty hippies," retorts Sagal) and GOP congressmen are pushing to defund the network over its alleged liberal leanings. Maybe if they spent some time with Peter Sagal - or at least got Carl Kassel's voice on their home answering machines - they might change their minds.