'Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!' Finally Comes to TV


There is good news to report about the appearance Friday, after a long and careful journey to get there, of "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" on national TV.

First, the participants do all wear pants -- a joke perhaps as predictable as new British panelist Nick Hancock referencing, almost immediately in the show, his countrymen's alleged bad teeth.

Second, this is not a situation like the smoldering star of silent film turning out to have a squeaky voice. The Chicago-based National Public Radio comedy news quiz makes the transition to a new medium with both its dignity and its intimate charm intact, although the telecast, on BBC America, will surely not be the tipping point in your decision to upgrade to HDTV.

"Wait Wait," at its core, is a show about topical banter, dinner conversation buffed to a high sparkle, and the TV version doesn't pretend otherwise. A few visuals are added with varying degrees of success, but mostly the cameras sit back and shoot host Peter Sagal, announcer Carl Kasell and the three comic panelists as they riff on recent events.

This visual record of a radio show is a far cry from the CBS prime-time pilot version of "Wait Wait" that was shot three years ago in Los Angeles, which "Wait Wait" executive producer Doug Berman recalls as "a big, flashy, game-show version of the show. It was too big."

It also did poorly with test audiences at a network facility in Las Vegas. If you know "Wait Wait's" blend of erudition and snob appeal, laced with moments of junior-high-locker-room goofiness, that will strike you as one of the least surprising sentences you have ever read.

The new TV effort, a special year-in-review program subtitled "A Royal Pain in the News," is getting almost the opposite of a Vegas audience. It will be on BBC America Friday (7 p.m.), the result of a trial marriage between the massive radio hit and the Anglophile cable channel.

Or it may be a one-night stand. Everybody involved is saying they'll see how this one does with an audience and how well it pleases the participants before they decide if the cameras might return to "Wait Wait's" home theater, the Chase Auditorium in a Loop skyscraper's basement.

"It's all uncertain," says Sagal. "They've committed to nothing. NPR has committed to nothing. But certainly it's no secret that NPR has been looking for a way to get 'Wait Wait' on TV that wouldn't screw up the radio show. And having somebody like BBC America come and tape it every week would be a possible solution to that."

"Where it goes from here is it airs Friday night and we see what kind of response we get, and we kind of take it from there," says Perry Simon, a BBC America programming executive and the man -- after doggedly pursuing the show through multiple TV production jobs -- finally got it on the air.

"He has been talking to me for I don't know how many years," says Berman, also the executive producer of "Car Talk." "Every time he lands in a new position, he calls and wants to talk about 'Wait Wait.'"

The show has been, in effect, out on the veranda for many years, entertaining gentleman callers from the television world, but it has also been in no particular hurry to stroll the lane with them.

What finally convinced Berman and Sagal to go with BBC America was Simon's sincerity and understanding of the show, plus a feeling that the respective audiences might line up nicely. Simon, meanwhile, liked that it was an established, American version of "an iconic format in the U.K.," he says, the panel-based, current-events comedy show.

"I think we're well paired in snootiness," says Berman. "An equal number of people would claim to watch BBC America, even if they don't, as claim to listen to NPR, even if they don't."

"Wait Wait," these days, does not particularly need TV. From shaky beginnings in 1998 -- it almost died in its first year before Sagal took over as host and, later, it began taping before a live audience -- it's now on 595 stations. It draws an audience of 3.2 million listeners weekly, NPR says.

Plus, in times of rapidly expanding media choice, "Wait Wait" listenership is up 10 percent in the last two years, 58 percent in the last five, NPR says.

Based at Chicago's public radio station, WBEZ-FM 91.5, and produced by Chicago Public Radio and National Public Radio, it has become a "Prairie Home Companion"-level superstar in the NPR firmament, and a pretty big deal in the overall culture, too.

Nonetheless, TV, however diminished and fragmented, is still TV, a validator of one's existence and a proof, to many, of genuine playa status.

What viewers will see Friday is a set dressed up, a little, for television, with some new signage in the theater and with Sagal occasionally joining his panelists, for the first time, at a new, L-shaped desk, the better to get them into the same shot.

The high-energy taping Dec. 2 produced some 80 minutes of material, almost twice what is needed for an hourlong TV show. BBC America got down to length mostly by cutting a couple of segments in which Sagal was out in the audience, ones that the host described a few days after the taping as "not comfortable for anybody."

"Wait Wait" geeks will want to compare BBC America's television edit with the one that the show has done, turning the same material into a radio episode that airs this weekend in its usual NPR timeslots, including 10 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ.

The guest is British writer Neil Gaiman ("Coraline"), who, for reasons Sagal struggles to understand, lives in Wisconsin. Usually the celebrity guest is on the phone, but for TV, Gaiman is in-theater, installed in a kind of straight-backed throne.

Audience segments notwithstanding, Sagal comes across as very comfortable in the new medium, building on and directing panelists' remarks and delivering some sharp ad-libs atop the show's reliably strong scripted jokes.

Panelists include two of "Wait Wait's" best regulars, Paula Poundstone and Alonzo Bodden, both spot-on, plus the newbie Hancock. ("He did an amazing job," Sagal says. "He was present and funny and personable.")

Hancock is a regular on British panel shows, brought in because BBC America wanted its viewers to find a comforting level of Britishness. For the same reason, the 2011 news that is reviewed leans toward the mother country.

So we get lots of American politics plus the royal wedding -- and no small amount of our nation's sense of cultural inferiority on display. Our politicians aspire to dim-bulb status; even our crash-test dummies need to be made fatter.

But on the evidence presented here, we are doing just fine in the realm of comedy news-panel programs.

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