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When laughter is an almost-essential service

The host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” tries to preserve some normalcy with good humor. 

Peter Sagal sits at a nightstand with a microphone, an iPad and a Tom Hanks cutout on top.
Peter Sagal sits in his “home studio” — a renovated closet — at his home outside Chicago. Since America closed, he’s done all but one show here.
Courtesy of Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal stands at a lectern, center stage, wearing faded blue jeans and a gray shirt with the sleeves crumpled up to his elbows. Both look a tad baggy over his distance-runner physique. Normally he’d wear a blazer, but today isn’t normal. He stares into the ornate yet empty theater as the intro music revs up.

The pandemic is suddenly real. The NBA has shut down. The president has spoken. And NPR’s “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!,” a weekly news quiz show that for years has thrived on the energy of its live audiences and its weekly panel of news-savvy comedians or journalists, on their feedback and laughter, must find a new way — fast.

A day earlier, Sagal and the crew arrived in Atlanta to perform for a sold-out crowd of 4,500. But now, his scorekeeper’s booming baritone echoes off stained glass windows and castle-like walls. He tells a joke. Four people chuckle. “Here’s your host,” he continues, “at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, Peterrrr Sagal!”

“Thank you Bill,” the show’s intellectual-yet-irreverent host says, his nasal voice one part classic public radio, one part comedy special. “And, yeeeeah, that’s about it, because there’s nobody else here!”

The show sticks to its usual segments, from the “listener limerick challenge” to “lightning fill-in-the-blank” and Sagal’s weekly interview with a celebrity guest. Today, that’s rapper Big Boi, of hip-hop duo Outkast.

Well prepared as usual, Sagal asks Big Boi about his pet shark. His name was Billy Ocean, Big Boi explains, and he lived in a 500-gallon tank. Sagal stops him.

“Wait a minute, what did you feed him?” he asks.

“Hand-sized goldfish,” Big Boi answers.

The three panelists laugh, and while the quiet is strange, the show still feels familiar.

A week later — and every Thursday until it’s safe to host live shows again — Sagal will record the show at home, outside Chicago, in a closet outfitted as a studio. His producer will rely on sound effects to revive some levity in a show known for making serious news a little less serious — no easy feat amid a deadly pandemic. But Sagal manages. He has to. To him, imparting laughter is a responsibility. Something he owes to his listeners.

“We are providing a service to people,” he says, careful to avoid a comparison with the people on the front lines. “Almost an essential service.”

We all need to laugh, even as sickness ravages the country, especially New York. “It’s horrendous. It’s awful. It’s terrible,” Sagal says of the state’s death toll. “We’re not really gonna talk about that. But we can certainly talk about the question of whether Andrew Cuomo has nipple rings.”

But here in Atlanta, it’s still day 1 and Sagal is still figuring it out. Not that the details matter so much. He ends the show by drafting a covenant with the audience that was left out. “We promise we’ll be back as soon as possible,” he says, “and we look forward to seeing you then.” But he also makes a promise to listeners, because some things must change, but some don’t have to.

“I’m Peter Sagal,” he says. “We’ll see ya next week.”