The Sound of Young America: Live in Chicago with Peter Sagal, Colt Cabana, and More

Episode 26

25th April 2011

Peter Sagal of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, wrestler-comedian Colt Cabana, singer Robbie Fulks (along with Nora O’Connor) and standup comic Cameron Esposito join Jesse in this live show recorded at Chicago’s Second City.

Episode notes

Peter Sagal of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me (transcript), wrestler-comedian Colt Cabana (transcript here!), singer Robbie Fulks (along with Nora O’Connor) and standup comic Cameron Esposito join Jesse in this live show recorded at Chicago’s Second City in April.

JESSE THORN: When you’re booking a celebrity based show in Chicago and you can’t get Mr. T’s agent to return your calls, you’re trying to think of creative ideas. Oprah’s not realistic, we had Steve Albini on last time, John Landis was out of town – – wait, no, who lives in Chicago? Harold Ramis. See, the fact that you know if I say “Who lives in Chicago?” and a chorus of a single name comes forth. I got this e-mail while we were booking this show, it said, Dear Mr. Thorn, I’m a big fan of your podcast; I’m a professional wrestler and standup comedian. And I said, great, looks like we’ve got a guest. I can’t imagine something I’d like to interrogate more in the world than someone who is both a professional wrestler and a standup comedian. That boggles my mind entirely; even more than seeing the actual wrestler championship belt backstage.

Our next guest on the program has been wrestling professionally for over 13 years. He’s wrestled in the WWE, he does standup and improv comedy, he is the Nation Wrestling Alliance, that’s NWA, World Heavyweight Champion as of March of this year; he’s the host of a popular wrestling podcast called The Art of Wrestling; and, he’s the first Sound of Young America guest ever to come to the show with his own theme music. Please welcome Colt Cabana!

So, I feel like I didn’t want to talk to you backstage too much. We were backstage hanging out with Peter Sagal and he was asking you all of the dumb questions that someone would ask someone when they found out that they were a professional wrestler, and I felt like I had to escape so I could keep those dumb questions fresh.

COLT CABANA: Let’s do it.

JESSE THORN: I can imagine how someone gets interested in professional wrestling, because I think every year millions of nine through eleven year old boys get excited about professional wrestling and then they decide they want to be a professional wrestler. When I was nine through eleven I wanted to be Mark Grace, first baseman for the Chicago Cubs, and I think I realized that that was not a realistic goal around age twelve when I couldn’t crack the starting lineup of my little league team. How old were you when you decided that you were actually going to get serious about doing it?

COLT CABANA: I used to do research on the internet when I was 13, when AOL first started coming out and you had to sign on – – or, I guess you still have to sign on.

JESSE THORN: AOL keyword 13 year old professional wrestler.

COLT CABANA: And I would do research of wrestling schools in junior high school. I used to get the dirt sheets, which is like the insider information about professional wrestling; the stuff backstage that nobody’s supposed to know. I was 13 years old and I was subscribing to these things called the dirt sheets, using my Hanukkah money to subscribe to this. I started doing research and just kept on going kept on going, my parents said, “You have to go to college, and then after college you can go on to become a professional wrestler. Since I had to go to college, I figured, fine, I’ll go to college and I’ll play college football, because I kept on watching wrestling and they’d talk about how these guys were football players; I assumed that was my golden ticket into the WWE, college football.

After a year of college football I despised it so much, and I said, Mom, I’m 18 years old, I’m a grown up now, I have to go live my dream. I did, and I continued to go through college, I graduated with a business degree, but while going through college I was on the road doing anywhere from two to fifteen hour road trips just there, so that would be four to thirty hour road trips, the whole thing.

JESSE THORN: That’s a business degree at work right there.

COLT CABANA: It was a wild trip. I say I graduated from college, but my education has really come from traveling the road; not only being in the wrestling world, but seeing these carnies in the world of professional wrestling that really can teach you stuff you can’t really learn in college.

JESSE THORN: So what do you do to learn to be a wrestler? Where do you learn to do that?

COLT CABANA: They have trade schools all over the world. I was going to school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, traveling back and forth to Chicago, there was a school here in Chicago that’s no longer around called The Steel Domain. I would train three to four days a week for about four months until I had my first match, and then while I had my first match I’d continue to train, and I still continue to train to this day.

JESSE THORN: You and your colleagues made this really interesting documentary called The Wrestling Road Diaries, that’s about what it’s like to be a small scale professional wrestler. The thing that struck me about it was that it was like watching a Buster Keaton routine. The level of jumping and flipping involved is so intense. To what extent do you have to be like a guy that looks right in a singlet.

COLT CABANA: The beautiful thing about wrestling is that it’s art, it’s subjective, there’s so many different kinds of different wrestlers.

JESSE THORN: Most of them have giant muscles though, and I don’t mean to disabuse you of – –

COLT CABANA: True, but that’s your perception of wrestling. I guess the world’s perception is that you turn on the World Wrestling Entertainment on television and you see all these giant guys and you say that’s professional wrestling; but, that’s not necessarily my view or my vision of professional wrestling. There’s so many different kinds of wrestlers.

An example is there’s a guy named Evan Borne, who is in the WWE, but he traveled the smaller circuit with me for years, and he’s five foot nine 160 pounds, and everybody told him he would never make it but now he’s on television because he does this extraordinary high flying style of wrestling. What I’ve done is a hybrid comedy wrestling. There’s all different kinds of paths, I understand that some people think you have to be huge, but again, there’s high flying, there’s comedy, there’s hardcore – – oh man, I shouldn’t even get into that. There’s all types of styles in wrestling, but yes, you do have to be athletic and you do have to have a brain of some sort.
JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. We’re live on tape this week from the Second City in Chicago. My guest is professional wrestler and professional standup comedian Colt Cabana.

It’s interesting to me in watching you wrestle, and also in watching the wrestling in the documentary that you made, the line between the athletic performance, the faux violence and actual violence, and the laughs, is completely blurred to the point of disappearing. Not even just when you’re on stage, it’s clear that everyone is getting a kick out of how ridiculous the whole thing is, whether or not they think it’s funny. Some people just think it’s cool that something is this ridiculous; some people think it’s funny; some people like to see – – how do you even know when you’re in the ring whether you’re doing a good job?

COLT CABANA: Different wrestlers have different ways that they perceive they’re doing a good job. I one hundred percent measure it by the audience. I measure my personal wrestling style by the smiles on the audiences face. How big are there smiles, do they look like they’re having a good time. That’s the beauty of wrestling, because there’s some guys that go out there, and I’ll give you an example, there’s a guy named Davey Richards, whether how fixed you think wrestling is, if you go watch Davey Richards kick somebody in the middle of the ring you’ll say, how is that guy, his opponent, walking. He gets off on the people going oh my god. When the people just can’t believe how much pain his opponent is in, that’s what he likes about wrestling.

Me on the other hand, I’m the complete opposite. I measure it when there’s a giant smile, everybody’s having fun and they’re going to go home and they’re going to know that they came and saw a fun show and Colt Cabana was the fun part of it, and maybe Davey Richards was the guy that beat the living [expletive] out of somebody.

JESSE THORN: Do you always get matched up in a match when you’re traveling with somebody else who’s going to make people think that it’s fun and funny? Or is it sometimes a guy whose deal is that he wears a hat made out of barbed wire or whatever?

COLT CABANA: I guess to peel back the curtain, in my perfect world I would love – – they call a baby face a good guy, that’s what I am, my perfect opponent would be a great heel or a bad guy, because the dichotomy is so amazing when you have such a great bad guy to play off of as a good guy. That’s the way we can tell a really fun story in the wrestling ring. Sometimes a promoter will put me against another good guy and it’s a lot harder for me to tell that story, or just a guy who maybe doens’t do a very good job at being a bad guy, so that’s when you have to work harder and make sure you can entertain the crowd by working through those hurdles that are put in your way.

JESSE THORN: This documentary, called The Wrestling Road Diaries, is about independent professional wrestling, which is something that – – what little I knew about professional wrestling came from watching Mr. T and Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan when I was seven in 1988, and this is a very different world. Tell me a little bit about – – you live here in Chicago, tell me a little bit about what you do from Thursday through Sunday in a given week.

COLT CABANA: First of all with the movie, and again I talk about comedy a lot and how much I’m a fan of The Sound of Young America and Jordan, Jesse, GO, and my podcast is basically this comedy world that I’ve found to be amazing, especially this comedy podcast world, and I thought I should start to jump into it in the wrestling world. I take a lot of my stuff from the comedy world. When I saw The Comedians of Comedy, the documentary with Patton Oswalt and everything he was saying was saying, this is you Colt, this is you. That’s where the movie comes from.

The movie documents us getting in our cars – – when you see the WWE and Chris Jericho is on Dancing with the Stars now, and you see this life that these guys live and they make millions and millions of dollars, I make hundreds and hundreds of dollars, if that. This really documents it. We’re cramming ourselves on the road, sometimes I’m lucky enough to fly, early in my career no. I was doing fifteen hour road trips, we’re all in a car, four, sometimes five in a little car.

JESSE THORN: Are you a package deal? In this documentary it’s the three of you traveling together. Is it like the three of you present yourselves to possible promoters as like, hey, the three of us got a car together, we’ll come out to do your show?

COLT CABANA: One hundred percent. The parallels of comedians also, especially from the comics I’ve talked to, it’s unbelievable. I know that’s how it would work in the standup comedy world, hey, let’s all get in a car and go to Madison, Wisconsin to do a show to make ten bucks. That’s how it works in the world of professional wrestling. Some promoter wants me, I call the promoter and say, hey, I got Sal, and Sal goes hey, can you get Brian on the show? And you see what you can do to get on the show, that’s kind of how it works. I guess that is the world, packaging ourselves. In order to do that you have to be of the level to perform.

JESSE THORN: So you were signed to the WWE, which was once called the WWF before they were sued by the World Wildlife Federation, which must have just been an awesome courtroom scene. But you were signed to the WWE, and you were in the WWE for a matter of months. First of all, describe to me what it means to be in the WWE if you’re not Hulk Hogan or The Rock. What do you do when you’re the lowest on the totem pole of the big time professional wrestlers.

COLT CABANA: And I was, oh man. Scotty Goldman was low. I worked basically eight years of doing this life on the independent wrestling scene, I made a name for myself and I traveled overseas, and I was lucky enough to grab the attention of the WWE and they signed me and sent me to what’s their farm system, at the time in Louisville, Kentucky, and then that closed down and they shipped me down to Tampa, Florida. I was making the league minimum, as you would call it. It was nerve wracking, very nerve wracking, because I had spent so much time dedicating myself to this craft, my time came and went, and yeah.

JESSE THORN: How does it end? Sorry for asking you such a downbeat question, but how do you get fired from the professional wrestling league?

COLT CABANA: The world of wrestling is so politically crazy. I was told, “Creative has nothing for you.” They have a creative team that write the professional wrestling, and they told me creative has nothing for you. I don’t know the official answer, usually what happens is these guys will get fired from the WWE and they’ll just be gone. Their careers are done or they just don’t want to do it anymore. I had just been fired from my dream job, it was the only thing I ever wanted to do was be a WWE superstar, I got fired on a Friday, I made a phone call, I was in Tampa, I was in Los Angeles, California the next night wrestling on a pro-wrestling guerrilla show in California.

JESSE THORN: This is where professional wrestlers wrestle gorillas?

COLT CABANA: That was my remedy. I could sit and be depressed and eat a large pizza, which I did, or I could go out and I could wrestle and continue, and since the WWE I’ve continued to wrestle, and at this moment in time I haven’t been more busy; I’m wrestling anywhere from four times a week, which is more than a lot of the WWE guys are doing, I’m traveling all over the world. In the past two months I’ve been to Australia, Canada, Germany, Mexico, and Schaumberg, Illinois, and my life’s fantastic. I’m not scaling it on whether I’m a WWE superstar or not, I’m successful if I’m wrestling and having fun.

JESSE THORN: Colt Cabana, thank you so much for taking the time and being on The Sound of Young America, Colt Cabana ladies and gentlemen!

Colt Cabana is a professional wrestler and standup comic. He stars in the two hour and forty minute long documentary, The Wrestling Road Diaries.

JESSE THORN: Our next guest was kind enough to wait literally two and a half years to appear on this program. I asked him to appear on the show years ago, and he graciously said, I’m a listener, I’d be happy to, I would love you, but then I said, I want to be clear, I’m asking you to appear on my next Chicago show, because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get a hold of Mr. T. He has, out of the kindness of his heart, held an indeterminate date open in his calendar for two years out of pure raw consideration for me and my show booking needs.

You, of course, know him as the brilliant host of one of the most popular radio shows in America, “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” on which he offers cut ups and laugh-em-ups about the current political scene to the delight of a crowd of hundreds in a theater and millions around the world. Please welcome someone who is so much more successful at this than I am, Peter Sagal.

PETER SAGAL: Hello. I’ve come to enjoy your youthful demographic.

JESSE THORN: I want to ask you about how you ended up in this career because most people who get to the host position in public radio come to it through having been a reporter.

PETER SAGAL: Right. Or even before that, the classic story is that of Ira Glass, your friend and mine, who started – –

JESSE THORN: Yeah, we’re friends with Ira Glass. We are.

PETER SAGAL: I slid that in.

JESSE THORN: I call him Ira. I have his e-mail.

PETER SAGAL: We hang sometimes.

JESSE THORN: Yeah. I have hanged with him a time.

PETER SAGAL: This is a true story, when I first got a chance to try hosting Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, I’d never had a job in radio before, and they said we want you to come in and practice hosting this show. I didn’t know how to do it, I’d never hosted a radio show, or anything for that matter.

JESSE THORN: How did you even get brought in? They audition people for this, which in public radio is, public radio, for those of you who don’t get a chance to peek behind the curtain, is not an institution that has much interest in what is, in the rest of the broadcasting entertainment industry known as talent.

PETER SAGAL: Yes. There’s no budget item for that.

JESSE THORN: It’s more like competency and reliability and thoughtfulness. They triangulate from that and hope that they get talent.

PETER SAGAL: This is what happened, I can tell you the origin tale, for this special origin issue of Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, is that in the mid-90s, NPR in it’s slow moving corporate wisdom decided that they needed something to broadcast on the weekends that would appeal to people that listen to the news, because people like that are the most valuable listeners to public radio, they’re the most loyal and donate the most, but was not itself news because there was already enough news and people weren’t particularly interested in listening to that.

Somebody had the bright idea of a news quiz, and so they hired Doug Berman, he of Car Talk, and they created various iterations over the years. They finally did, as you say, national auditions for talent. I was swept up in this net, I was at that time a playwright and screenwriter in Brooklyn, New York.

JESSE THORN: Did you just respond to a classifieds ad that said, playwrights wanted to host nationally syndicated news quiz radio program?
PETER SAGAL: It was like the ad for Shackleton’s expedition to the Arctic. Wanted: Tough men for dangerous assignments, survival not guaranteed.

JESSE THORN: Must be appealing to the elderly and impervious to jives regarding grammar.

PETER SAGAL: Can reference Proust quickly. What happened was they put out the word and somebody who knew me thought that I would be good. The way they put it to me, the friend that connected, was they’re looking for funny people who read a lot of newspapers, I thought of you.

So I did all these auditions on the phone, and you have to understand, at this time I was a playwright living in Brooklyn, and like all normally constituted writers I spent most of my time not writing. What I would do instead of writing was listen to public radio. I would listen to public radio so loyally I would listen to the second broadcast of All Things Considered the whole way through, waiting to see if they updated it because they do that sometimes. Did you know that? They’ll update a story for the second broadcast, they’ll correct an error. I was that kind of obsessive listener. I really wanted to be in public radio.

They hired me, I was part of the panel, and through this national talent search they came up with all these people, some of whom’s names you know. The original host was a gentleman named Dan Coffey, who was most famous for being a part of Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre and he did a thing called Dr. Science on public radio. He had a tremendous resume, he was a comedy guy, public radio guy, he was perfect for it but it didn’t work very well.

JESSE THORN: He was perfect for it in the sense that they found a guy who was both a comedy guy and a public radio guy.

PETER SAGAL: That’s a very narrow venn diagram intersection. Comedy, public radio. Not a lot of them.

JESSE THORN: It’s like when you’re looking for a pastry chef that does fencing for a small part in a movie.


JESSE THORN: You call the casting director and you say – –

PETER SAGAL: I’ve got him! So that didn’t work, and they were very desperate. It was kind of sad, they had done this enormous talent search the first time and they had got this guy that didn’t work, so for the second talent search they basically looked around the room and said, you, give it a try. That brought us to the moment I was describing where I’m sitting there in front of a microphone and I’m now practicing hosting a show on radio which I’d never done before, so I naturally emulated my favorite public radio host, Ira Glass. So I was like, hello. I’m Peter Sagal, this is Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me. Today on the show, questions on this week’s news, and that’s as far as I got before the producer was in the talk back going, no, stop, don’t. Pretty much that’s it, those were my dues. That was my moment of paying my dues, basically.

JESSE THORN: When you got offered that job, it meant – – this is, I imagine, a really intensive job, because you have a really small staff for a weekly comedy program, so you have to be actively involved in the creation of the show on a week to week basis. What was it like for you to take that big left turn in your career and say, oh, gosh, I guess maybe I’m not a theater person anymore who writes plays in Brooklyn, I’m a public radio host out of Chicago.

PETER SAGAL: It was weird in a whole bunch of ways, some of which were great and some of which were distressing. One of the hardest things for me was to understand, and this is one of the things that Doug Berman was very good about teaching me, is that in the theater you want to be different every time. The worst thing you can say about somebody, particularly a playwright, is that he or she is just repeating themselves, oh, it’s the same old play. Peter Shaffer’s writing another play about a cynical old man and a beautiful young man who he has this intense emotional relationship with, great, what’s he going to do this time, blind a horse, write a symphony, who cares.

You don’t want to be that guy, I did that once, can’t do it again. Radio you want to actually be the same every week in a significant way. The example I use is Rush Limbaugh, who is probably the most successful radio person of our time. The reason he is so successful, like him or not – –

JESSE THORN: It’s okay if he says his name, he won’t suddenly appear. He’s not Beetlejuice. People in the audience gasping.

PETER SAGAL: I love it. If I say it three times though, be careful. The reason Rush Limbaugh is so successful is because people who turn on Rush Limbaugh get Rush Limbaugh, every week. It’s the same thing. And that’s his genius.

JESSE THORN: They tune in for excellence in broadcasting.

PETER SAGAL: Exactly, a talent alone forgot, and that’s what they get. They want him to repeat himself. One of the things I had to learn about the radio show is that people tune in to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me for a particular kind of experience, and they don’t want to hear us say the same words every week and they don’t want to hear the same jokes every week, lord knows we get away with that sometimes, but they want to hear the same people doing the same sort of thing. I had to learn how to do that. In the course of every week it wasn’t about making it new, but it was about making the same thing good. That was a difficult transition for me.

JESSE THORN: It’s little bit like a sitcom in that sense. The thing that people love about a sitcom – –

PETER SAGAL: Is that nothing changes.

JESSE THORN: Exactly. They’re visiting this group of people that they know, and because of the intimacy of radio, which is probably it’s best positive attribute, people feel a really close attachment to things, and when they’re different it upsets them.

PETER SAGAL: Tremendously so. It’s like Spinal Tap deciding to play a different kind of music. People are like, why? It’s not what we want, we want what we’re expecting from you. One of the things I had to learn was to do that and provide that while at the same time making it interesting and for ourselves.

JESSE THORN: Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me is today one of the most successful shows on public radio, and I don’t say that as mere puffery, it’s a literal fact. It’s one of the relatively few, relatively new super successful public radio programs.

PETER SAGAL: Yes, and it’s 13 years old, so there you go.

JESSE THORN: There are newer semi-failed public radio programs.

PETER SAGAL: I think of you as semi-successful.

JESSE THORN: Thank you. Thank you, Peter.

PETER SAGAL: You’re very welcome.

JESSE THORN: This was not, I think, either creatively or audience-wise, perfect from the jump.

PETER SAGAL: Oh, God no.

JESSE THORN: Tell me a little bit about what was – – I think maybe memories of recent Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me’s have supplanted the beginning in your mind, but from your perspective, what was going on at the beginning and how was it different from what’s happening now?

PETER SAGAL: This is what happened, comedy in public radio is very hard because there’s not a lot of history there, so you couldn’t, as you’ve referenced, bring in all the people who had done all the incredibly successful public radio comedy shows of the past. When The Simpsons started they had James Brooks come in to say, this is how you do TV comedy, there’s nobody like that except for Doug Berman, he’s it.

So all these producers and all these writers were doing stuff that they didn’t know how to do. This is such a vivid memory, this is the first show broadcast, January 3rd, 1998. Started with Dan Coffey, the host, introducing us all, and then he said, Peter, listen to this. When you hear screaming, like, “aaaaaaah, aaaaaaah, aaaaaaah!” “Now Peter, what was that?” And I’m like, they just played screaming, it can’t actually be people screaming in terror, it must be something funny, so I made some lame guess, and he said, no, actually, it was people screaming in terror. That was taped from, apparently there had been this plane that had gone through insane turbulence and somebody had videotaped it so it was on the news. That’s what they chose to open the first show with. People screaming in terror. That’s a comic instinct.

The reaction to the show when it came on the air here in Chicago, it was only on in a few cities, Chicago of course being one of them, was so vicious. Public radio people are, as I’m sure you all know because you are these people I’m about to discuss, vicious people. It’s like religious wars, people are so attached to what they love, and they so hate what they don’t know.

JESSE THORN: And everything must supplant something else, so when you’re a new show you have to face off against all the fans of “Dr. Zorba Paster On Your Health” that you bumped, or “Calling All Pets.”

PETER SAGAL: Or Peruvian Nose Flute hour with Lou Gormley, whatever the hell it was that got canceled so your show could go on, all those people will hate you until they die, or you, which they hope comes first. So we were dealing with a lot of hatred, and we weren’t generating a lot of goodwill. It was really tough. Doug Berman basically bought us some time with his credibility from producing Car Talk. Let everybody know that we’ve got a new host, we’re making it better, don’t you worry. I remember we had this meeting in Chicago when I arrived in May of 98, and we sat around in this room and said, well, what do you want to do with this? Do you want to make it into – – there was always an instinct to make it into a serious news quiz, because public radio listeners more than anything else want to feel smug.

JESSE THORN: That’s why they always laugh at the set ups.

PETER SAGAL: Exactly. We thought, we’ll do a quiz, and they can answer the questions and feel good about themselves. Or do you just want to use the quiz as an excuse to totally goof around. Obviously, I hope, we chose the latter. We just made it up as we went.

To give you one example of many, I was on a subway platform in New York City with Adam Felber, and we were talking about the show which at that time was in its early and struggling stages, and Titanic had come out a few months before, and one of us, I do not remember who, said wouldn’t it be funny to hear Carl say, Jack, put your hands on me. And we both thought it was really funny, and from that conversation was born Who’s Carl This Time, where we had Carl Kasell try and imitate people from the news. That was one element that we put in. Then we added other elements, and we figured out what we wanted to do with the celebrity guests. We all sort of put it together on the fly, because no one was really listening or noticing.

JESSE THORN: The thing that I remember as a really clear line of demarcation in the history of the show was that originally, and this strikes me as the public radio-iest idea of how to make comedy ever, everyone was in studios and in different places.

PETER SAGAL: Yes, when the show began – – it’s funny, we did this for seven years and I still don’t believe it because it was so dumb.

JESSE THORN: Nothing, by the way, helps comic timing more than an ISDN line.

PETER SAGAL: Exactly. Not being able to see anybody and not having an audience. They had tried doing it in front of a live audience in one of the various pilot iterations, and they decided it was unwieldy, it didn’t make good radio. Doug Berman hates live audiences, or did at the time. He felt that what happens when you put radio people in front of a live audience is I’ll start playing to you here to make you laugh and make you happy rather than the X million of people who might be listening on the radio show, and thus I am dis-serving them. It didn’t work because, who’s laughing? We were just laughing at each others jokes, it didn’t make much sense.

We did our first show in front of a live audience in January of 2000 in Salt Lake City of all places, and we didn’t know if it was going to work, but people liked it and laughed. And a funny thing happens, people in front of you might laugh if you say something funny, and you try a lot harder to say something funny. It’s like porpoises jumping for herring. Jump a little higher. It was immediately apparent in retrospect, of course we should do it in front of a live audience, but it took five years before we were able to figure out a way to do it every week, because we had to change everything. We had to fly people in instead of connecting them, we had to get a theatre, we had to change the whole way of doing it.

JESSE THORN: That was a big turning point in the difference between the show being a show that was successful enough to get along and the show being a show that was a ten pull program.

PETER SAGAL: That was a huge difference. We had about a million, maybe more, listeners and yet no one knew who we were. Then we started doing the show in front of a live audience and all of a sudden everyone knew who we were. It’s mysterious to me, because nothing else changed, but all of a sudden people were interested.

JESSE THORN: We alluded briefly to the public radio audiences, and I’m exempting both the people who are here and the people who are listening on the radio right now from this, but there enthusiasm for self back pats, let’s say.

PETER SAGAL: Yes, self back pats. I like that, I haven’t heard that phrase.

JESSE THORN: I can only imagine that it must be tough to – – just as Jon Stewart talks about how weird it is to go on in front of this crazy audience that starts laughing the minute he opens his mouth, it must be weird to get those laughs that sometimes come on a setup or something, and you’re like, no, I wrote a joke for this. The joke wasn’t just that you heard that story earlier this week.

PETER SAGAL: We have a phrase, and I don’t remember exactly what it is, but it’s like, clappause. They’re clapping just because you said something that they agree with. Which is cheap. It’s really easy – –

JESSE THORN: Especially when it’s just points of fact.


JESSE THORN: Yeah, there were budget negotiations this week!

PETER SAGAL: The worst part, it was so easy, you knew for eight years doing our show, that if things were going really badly, I could just lean into the microphone and say, George Bush, that dumb ass, and people would go YAY! It’s really tempting sometimes. You just don’t want to go there, because it’s too easy.

JESSE THORN: Do you get these really intense public radio reactions still?

PETER SAGAL: Oh god yes. We get the same letter every week. I’m not sure if this is what you mean, but this is the experience. The letter is, Dear Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, first a claiming of credentials. I have been listening for years, and I think you guys are great and I think you are so funny, i.e., I have a sense of humor, but, this week you made fun of X, whatever X is. You just have to understand that’s not funny, it’s not ever funny, how dare you.

My favorite part is, you’re NPR, you’re supposed to be above making fun of that. You need to make an on-air apology. Sincerely yours. We have gotten letters on which X has been everything from the current president, whoever it may be, to health care, to natural disasters, to things like the goth community, that was probably my favorite. Seriously, it was a three page letter, like, I’m a goth and you made these jokes. Basically I said young people who walk around and amuse themselves by pretending to be dead, I think. They were not amused.

My favorite one of all time was we had Tom Hanks on the show some years ago, and Tom was telling the story about how he and his brothers were very competitive playing games, and in his story one of his brothers called him a drooly head. Hey drooly head. I got a letter defending the drooling community. I kid you not. I’ve been listening to your show for years and I think you’re very very funny, but this year I heard one of your guests say drooly head and you have to understand there are people who have uncontrollable drooling, and it’s not funny. I never write back to these, but I wrote back and I said, you have to understand, if we draw the line at not saying drooly head, that’s the end of comedy in the western world. There’s nothing left you can say if you can’t say drooly head.

JESSE THORN: Well Peter, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.

PETER SAGAL: My pleasure, I love your show, it’s an honor to be here.

JESSE THORN: Peter Sagal everybody!
Peter Sagal is the host of NPR and Chicago Public Radio’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, which you can hear on your favorite local public radio station. Probably even this one, and probably not that far from this one on your weekend schedule. You can also get it free as a podcast in iTunes.

In this episode...

Associate Producer
Maximum Fun Production Fellow
Maximum Fun Production Fellow


  • Peter Sagal
  • Colt Cabana
  • Robbie Fulks
  • Nora O'Connor
  • Cameron Esposito

About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

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Associate Producer

Maximum Fun Production Fellow

Maximum Fun Production Fellow

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