Peter Sagal: The Oddly Informative Quiz Show Host

Sep 4, 2013
Originally published on May 1, 2014 9:33 am

When NPR listeners want to test their knowledge of current events — and laugh in the process — they tune in to Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!, NPR's news quiz. In every episode, host Peter Sagal quizzes panelists and contestants on a smattering some of the week's most oddball events, from the eccentricities of world leaders to failed robberies.

Sagal took a break from his own hosting duties and sat down with host Ophira Eisenberg to chat about working in his family's grocery store as a kid in Cambridge, Mass. While placing stickers on items with a pricing gun can be quite tedious, Sagal turned the task into a quick-draw game of sorts. "Because I'm me, I'd have a little bit of dialogue with the yogurt: 'So, I told you never to come back to this dairy section again.' "

In a regular Wait, Wait segment called "Not My Job," Sagal asks special guests three questions about a topic far outside his or her own area of expertise. For instance, he's challenged Tom Hanks on his knowledge about Hollywood's bad boys, and Martha Stewart on DIY projects gone wrong. So for his Ask Me Another Challenge, we found it fitting to quiz Sagal on the unusual and interesting jobs once held by some of his distinguished panelists.

In the video below, watch the Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! crew rehearse for a road show at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas:

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Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WYNC's hour of trivia, word games, and puzzles. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and joining me is author, playwright, and host of WAIT, WAIT, DON'T TELL ME...Peter Sagal.


PETER SAGAL: Hello, everybody. Hiya.


SAGAL: Hello.

EISENBERG: Hi. You know, in addition to us both having something in common which is as a host...


EISENBERG: ...we have something else in common.

SAGAL: What?

EISENBERG: We both grew up in a grocery store business.

SAGAL: Did we do that?


SAGAL: I did not - I didn't notice you there.


EISENBERG: Did your family own a grocery?

SAGAL: My family owned - and I'm very proud of this - my family owned the Ever Good market in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1949 to 1999. I am a grocer's grandson and I am proud of it. And that means that to this day I go into grocery stores of all sizes and judge them.


SAGAL: Do you do that?

EISENBERG: Peter, my store was called Triglen Food Market.

SAGAL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: My first job was dusting off cans.

SAGAL: Important job.

EISENBERG: Then I moved on to pricing cans with the pricer.

SAGAL: Oh, there's nothing like the gun.

EISENBERG: It was very fun.

SAGAL: Is this a boy thing or did you do the quick draw?

EISENBERG: I love the quick draw.

SAGAL: You stand there, you put the pricing gun in, like, your pocket of your apron. You stand in front of the yogurts. You shake your hand like the gun fighter. And because I'm me, I'd have a little bit of dialogue.


EISENBERG: With the yogurt?

SAGAL: With the yogurt. So I told you never to come back to this dairy section again.


SAGAL: And you know, I was a young kid at the time and so people - I feel they enjoyed it, but a crowd would gather.

EISENBERG: To see what's going on.

SAGAL: There was a 16-year-old in an apron muttering in a hostile way to the yogurts. I think it brought in business.

EISENBERG: I like the Sagal kid.

SAGAL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: He's going to be Ok.

SAGAL: Yeah. He's going to be fine.

EISENBERG: He's going to be OK.

SAGAL: He'll be - that kid is going to go into public radio.


EISENBERG: Did you think you were going to be as a child - what were your aspirations? What did you want to be?

SAGAL: Well, my - actually, my aspirations were to be very serious. I wanted to be a playwright. And I was for a long time. And I wrote very serous plays because I felt that I knew what was wrong with the world. And it was my obligation to let the rest of you know. And I always felt that if I was in front of a crowd like this - not quite so dorky, but otherwise...


SAGAL: ...that you would either, at the end of my presentation, whatever it may be, you would either thank me with tears in your eyes or you would hang me. And either would've been adequate. I would've been pleased with the response.

EISENBERG: So you were looking to make a statement.

SAGAL: I was looking to make a statement. Now I make fart jokes. It's destiny.

EISENBERG: Well, it's a different kind of statement.

SAGAL: And yet people like it.

EISENBERG: Yeah, people like it.

SAGAL: People actually prefer the fart jokes than being told that they'd been living their lives in a completely horrific failed way.

EISENBERG: Their lives are a lie.

SAGAL: Exactly. So I don't know why people didn't like that message. They like fart jokes instead. It's strange.

EISENBERG: They do love fart - it's universal.

SAGAL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So you get to talk to all kinds of people, obviously, on your show...

SAGAL: I do.

EISENBERG: WAIT, WAIT, DON'T TELL ME...and I'm sure everyone has asked you what is your favorite guests? What is one of your favorite moments? Which I love those conversations too.

SAGAL: But...

EISENBERG: But I am much more interested in finding out what moment keeps you up at night? Haunts you. Something that didn't go as planned. Something - some hilarious fail.

SAGAL: Oh, gosh. We have been - we have been relatively free of really horrific disasters. And even the ones we've had were at least interesting. So, for example, we had this guy on the show named Simon Amstell. And Simon Amstell is a British comedian and I don't know if you know this, but the sort of thing that we do, this quiz show thing...


SAGAL:'s a niche market here but in England it's like...

EISENBERG: It is huge.

SAGAL: ...60 percent of everything broadcast...

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

SAGAL: ...on the radio and television is panel quiz shows in England. It's what they do.

EISENBERG: If you don't have one...

SAGAL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah, it's weird.

SAGAL: If you've never been on one it's like, you know, it's like, you know, here you say oh, what do you do for a living? In England you say what panel quiz show have you appeared on?

EISENBERG: That's right.

SAGAL: Because everybody's been on one. And this guy, we were told, had hosted one. He was like a pro. And we felt like we were a baseball team in Japan getting a player from America. You know?

EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah. Exciting.

SAGAL: So he comes on and this guy is a lunatic. And he's a very funny lunatic. It's his shtick. But he also has never heard our show before. It seems.

EISENBERG: So it's completely...

SAGAL: They don't do preparation, apparently. So, like, we did our Listener Limerick challenge and he's like (with British accent) what? You're reading limericks?


SAGAL: Actual limericks? No, actually, what I remember what happened is like he says now we're going to read you this limerick. And he goes ha. And then Carl Castle starts reading the limericks and he says (with British acccent) you actually did it! I thought it was some sort of joke.


EISENBERG: Right. That is questioning the premise of the show, the entire show.

SAGAL: Yeah. I know. And people were like what? This is rude. But I actually loved it. Because I've been doing this show for a long time and to have somebody show up and going (using British accent) what the hell are you people doing (speaking normally) made me go yeah. Actually, we're doing limericks? What's up with that?


SAGAL: So I had an existential crisis for a week but then it is still fun.

EISENBERG: Right. No, that's a good - right.

SAGAL: Yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: Take it off the rails. Do you have a preshow ritual that you do every time you do the show?

SAGAL: We don't have time. Do you? Do you have a preshow ritual?

EISENBERG: Oh, I basically question everything and say I'm not going to go on.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: I don't know about you...


SAGAL: Ophira and I are going to have a little moment. Do you ever worry that there's no way that it's going to work? This happens to me every week. Like, we work on the script and we work on this material every week and then it's like Thursday. We tape Thursday evenings at 7:30. Thursday at 5:00 I'm like this is a disaster.


SAGAL: This is not going to - every week.

EISENBERG: Peter, you have no idea how...

SAGAL: This isn't going to work. This sucks.

EISENBERG: ...comforting this is to hear.

SAGAL: This is terrible.


SAGAL: It's just - this is the lamest stuff. I mean, Letterman did it better the other night. I can't - what am I going to do? And then we go on and it seems to work. I don't really understand it.

EISENBERG: And then you leave and you're like fools! Ha ha!

SAGAL: Fools!

EISENBERG: Well, that is the constant push and pull, right?

SAGAL: Right.

EISENBERG: That sort of keeps you going, is that every day it might end.



SAGAL: One day they might all turn into Simon Amstell.

EISENBERG: That's right.

SAGAL: And go what are you doing?

EISENBERG: What are you doing?

SAGAL: (using British accent) You're reading limericks?


EISENBERG: This is the point where we turn the quiz tables around.

SAGAL: All right. I'm bracing myself.

EISENBERG: And I usually ask people if they are up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge but in this case I think you would be OK with me telling you that Peter Sagal, you are going to be up right now...

SAGAL: I am.

EISENBERG: ...for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge.

SAGAL: It's only fair.

EISENBERG: Fantastic. Peter Sagal, everybody.


SAGAL: Do I get to use the buzzer?

EISENBERG: You may if you'd like to.

SAGAL: I was on "Jeopardy!" in 1988. On "Jeopardy!" you have a buzzer much like this but they can only buzz in after the host, Alex Trebek, reads the question.


SAGAL: You know, you ask me what keeps me up at night? The fact that I couldn't master the timing. I'm going to get it right this time. Go.


SAGAL: All right.


EISENBERG: Arm those buzzers. One of our favorite segments on WAIT, WAIT is the celebrity segment called Not My Job.


EISENBERG: So we thought we'd flip it around. And this game is called That Was My Job.

SAGAL: All right.

EISENBERG: This quiz is about the unusual and interesting jobs once held by some of your distinguished WAIT, WAIT panelists.

SAGAL: Oh, my goodness. OK.

EISENBERG: And as a hint, all the panelists we'll be talking about have appeared on your show at least 10 times.


EISENBERG: So hopefully you remember their names.


SAGAL: No Simon Amstell.

EISENBERG: No. Simon Amstell.

SAGAL: All right.

EISENBERG: And if you get enough right, Alyson Johnson of Clermont, Florida will win a special ASK ME ANOTHER prize.

SAGAL: Oh, my gosh.

EISENBERG: Yes. You're playing for someone.

SAGAL: This is a very high pressure situation. You know, one of the things we do on our show which is different from your show is we ask very easy questions.



SAGAL: And we do that so people can know them and feel good about themselves.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Well, like you said, they are different shows.

SAGAL: They are different shows. All right.



EISENBERG: Jonathan, Art will be helping me out with this game.

SAGAL: That's awesome.

EISENBERG: Here we go. Which panelist starred in a 1984 "Star Wars" spoof titled "Hyperspace" in which the main characters must defend Earth from a Darth Vader-like villain named Lord Buckethead?

SAGAL: I mean a 1984 spoof?

EISENBERG: A "Star Wars" spoof.


EISENBERG: Titled "Hyperspace."

SAGAL: "Hyperspace."

EISENBERG: You're right, though. This went straight to IMDB. I don't even think this made it to...

SAGAL: I don't know. This hasn't come up. So in 1984. They had to be a working professional in 1984.

EISENBERG: That's right.

SAGAL: I'm sorry. The median age of our panelist is 84 so that's not going to be a problem.


SAGAL: I'm going to guess. Was it Paula Poundstone?

EISENBERG: You guessed correct.



JONATHAN COULTON: Before the producers of the film "Groundhog Day" settled on the song "I Got You, Babe" as the music that wakes Bill Murray up every morning, they were going to use a famous ad campaign and one of your panelists would've been the voice of that campaign. Who was it and what was the ad campaign?

SAGAL: Well, obviously - well, excuse me.




SAGAL: Well, obviously we have a panelist who actually was just inducted into the Cleo Hall of Fame - I didn't know such a thing was - for this ad campaign. It was Tom Bodett from Motel 6: We'll leave a light on for you.


COULTON: Absolutely.

SAGAL: Two things about that. He wrote that line. And the second thing is, like, sometimes he'll say, oh, we're going away. I'm doing a big conference of, like, Motel 8 owners and we're all going to this place. And I'll say you're going to stay in a Motel 8 - Motel 6, I'm sorry.

COULTON: Motel 8 is too expensive.

EISENBERG: A little nicer. Yeah.

SAGAL: Yeah, I know.


SAGAL: And he says - I said, no, you're going to Motel 6? He says, no, we're going to Club Med or some fabulous resort. And I say really? You're Motel 6 executives and you're going to a Club Med or whatever it is for your convention? And he'll say we're a budget motel chain. We're not idiots.


EISENBERG: I think that should be their slogan, by the way.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: I like that. Motel 6. We're not stupid.

EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.

SAGAL: Come on. Come at me.

EISENBERG: All right. After graduating from Georgetown University, which panelist took a job as a lounge singer in a Washington D.C. bar singing jazz standards?



SAGAL: I have absolutely no clue. All right, let me think. A panelist on my show. Somebody I know.


SAGAL: Went to Georgetown. Went to Georgetown and was a lounge singer.

EISENBERG: Would you like a hint?

SAGAL: Yes, please.


ART CHUNG: As an advice columnist, her signature song might be...

SAGAL: Oh, of course.

CHUNG: ..."Someone to Watch Over Me."

SAGAL: Yes. That was very good. It comes to me. Amy Dickinson.

EISENBERG: Amy Dickinson...

SAGAL: Amy Dickinson, yes.

EISENBERG: correct. Yes.


EISENBERG: She is the advice columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

SAGAL: A little bit of trivia about Amy Dickinson. Her own life - totally messed up.


COULTON: Before launching his standup career, which panelist spent nine years as a jet mechanic for defense contractors Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas and even worked on the stealth bomber?


COULTON: Peter Sagal.

SAGAL: That would be Alonzo Bowden.

COULTON: You got it.


EISENBERG: Appropriately, which panelist has appeared on "Star Trek Deep Space Nine" as a genetically engineered human with super intelligence? And I say appropriately because she is a former Rhodes Scholar.


SAGAL: That would be my good friend Faith Salie.

EISENBERG: Peter Sagal, you are correct.


SAGAL: Faith, as you say, was on "Star Trek Deep Space Nine."


SAGAL: As a very attractive super-engineered person. Not a dork at all. It seems unfair.


EISENBERG: That a non-dork gets that job.

SAGAL: I know. The non-dork, just because she's gorgeous and talented gets to be in the show while people like myself who would care...


SAGAL: ...never get asked to play the genetically engineered super-humans. It just doesn't seem right.

EISENBERG: Well, maybe on "Deep Space 10."

SAGAL: There you are. Yes.


EISENBERG: Art, how did our VIP Peter Sagal do on our quiz?

CHUNG: I think Peter's ready for "Jeopardy!" again because he aced our quiz.


EISENBERG: Well done.


EISENBERG: Congratulations and thanks to you.

SAGAL: I feel so good.


SAGAL: Thank you. Yeah, it was that good.

EISENBERG: And Alyson Johnson gets a prize.


EISENBERG: Because of you, she gets an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

SAGAL: That's awesome. That's great.

EISENBERG: I know. It's very exciting. One more round of applause for our VIP.

SAGAL: Thank you, everybody.


EISENBERG: Peter Sagal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.