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My Decade in Radioland

Tales from America’s favorite NPR quiz show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

By the time you read this, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! will have been on the air for 10 years. My tenth anniversary with the show will come shortly after that. It really has been an incredible decade, for lots of reasons. For one, I’ve traveled to all sorts of exotic locations, like Honolulu and Akron. But most of all, the hosts, staff, and panelists on the show have become more than friends. No, not in that way, and shame on you for thinking it. I mean we’ve become a strange sort of family—a family where you have to be dependably funny just to stay in the clan, but a family nonetheless. Hell, Carl Kasell married me.

More on that in a minute.

If you’ve never heard of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! you deserve a quick explanation. Wait Wait is a weekly news-oriented quiz show that airs on National Public Radio on weekends. It’s hosted by Peter Sagal, and the venerable anchor Carl Kasell, the voice of NPR’s top-of-the-hour morning newscasts, is our official judge, scorekeeper, and resident impressionist. Each show features three panelists (from our group of about 10) and several callers. Nominally, we panelists are competing with each other as we answer various questions about the news. But really, our job is to be insightful and entertaining to the best of our ability, and to be convivial with the fans who call up to play our games.

The panelists are an eclectic bunch of characters, from noted journalists (like sportswriter Charlie Pierce, Washington Post style section writer Roxanne Roberts, Kyrie O’Connor of the Houston Chronicle, and “Ask Amy” advice columnist Amy Dickenson), to literary lions (like Atlantic Monthly correspondent P.J. O’Rourke, humorist Roy Blount Jr., and author and radio commentator Tom Bodett), to beloved funnymen and funnywomen (like the political satirist Mo Rocca and the stand-up comic Paula Poundstone), to … um … me. Hmm. Looking at it that way, I’m not quite sure why I’m on the show in the first place. Some sort of outreach program, perhaps.

People often ask me what it’s like to be a panelist on the show. “Adam,” they say, “how do you make the magic happen, week after week after week?” My ritual for a typical appearance on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! goes something like this:

Wednesday afternoon. I begin to read for the show. My reading is done almost exclusively online, and I favor websites organized so that I can absorb the most headlines per minute. I take mental notes about the stories that seem likely to be on the show. This is in contrast to Roxanne Roberts, who takes compact and thorough physical notes, and who is always disconcerted when I make a display of leaning over and “surreptitiously” cribbing from them during the show. This is also in contrast to Paula Poundstone, who occasionally takes much less compact physical notes, resulting in a pile of papers that are useless in the “lightning-round” situation for which they are intended.

Anyway, I don’t take notes. But I try to cover things systematically: news, political news, entertainment news, and a liberal helping of odd, obscure, and/or bizarre news. At some point on Wednesday we all receive an email from the producer, Mike Danforth, detailing the subject of this week’s “Bluff the Listener,” a segment in which a caller tries to identify which of three outrageous news stories is real. The email also says who among us will be telling the real story and who will be writing fraudulent stories. I am almost never given the real story.

Thursday morning. I awake before dawn. I am unhappy, because I am awake before dawn. My wife is also unhappy for the same reason, but she takes me to the airport and then returns to bed. I grumble my way through post-9/11 security, showing inadequate gratitude to the curt heroes intent on saving me from my own exploding shoes and combustible bottled water.

Thursday afternoon. I arrive at my hotel in Chicago, usually still in a foul mood because I am incapable of sleeping on airplanes.

Thursday evening. I arrive at the theater, close to two hours before showtime. My mood suddenly lifts, the fatigue falls away, and the world is in color again. We panelists greet each other and the Wait Wait staff, and sit down to a backstage meal and a desperate scramble to write “Bluff the Listener” fake stories … because none of us ever, ever manages to have written one beforehand. Sometime during this process Peter Sagal and Carl Kasell arrive, usually accompanied by Mike Danforth, senior producer Rod Abid, assistant producer Emily Ecton, director Melody Kramer, and on occasion, all the way from Cambridge, our executive producer, Doug “The Subway Fugitive, Not a Slave to Fashion, Bongo Boy” Berman. That’s when the party truly gets started. We’re generally joking, laughing, (still) desperately writing, and warning each other to “save it for the show” right up until the moment we prance onto the stage while the crowd goes wild.

And they actually do go wild. It’s as close to being a rock star as a balding, somewhat, um, “solidly built” guy like me is ever going to get.

Around now, you are no doubt thinking “Nice work if you can get it.” Well, I’ll tell you how you can get it, or at least what worked for me. Just approximate the following rickety chain of events.

Step one: Learn improv at Tufts. As a freshman, I was a founding member of Cheap Sox, Tufts’ still-thriving improv troupe. During that year, a grad student by the name of Jason Fogelson, who had some experience with improvisation, served as a sort of consultant/godfather for the infant troupe. We became friends. In fact, Jason got me my first big job in New York. Yes, I sanded Jason’s floors. That assignment ended with me chasing a runaway industrial disc sander back and forth through a three-room apartment while frantic Dixieland music played in my head.

A couple of years later I was a professional writer—a job I was only marginally more qualified for—and Jason, who worked at the William Morris Agency, was my agent.

This is all going somewhere, I promise.

In 1997 I was writing for children’s television and multimedia games and also working as an improvisational and sketch comedian. I was with an improv company that ran all sorts of experimental shows at a small theater in New York’s West Village.

One fateful night in the winter of 1997–98, my improv company was presenting a show called Real Life, in which our host would interview notable people. Six of us would then do a 20-minute improvisation based on the guest’s life. That night, one of our two interviewees was the actress Camryn Manheim, who won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy for her work on ABC’s The Practice. The other interviewee was Jason Fogelson.

Jason had brought a friend—a playwright client of his named Peter Sagal … And thus began a journey that would change the face of radio as we knew it.

Allow me to share with you a few highlights from that journey, a kind of retrospective of little-known defining moments:

Early spring 1998, New York City. I’d done either my third audition or my first actual show, and Peter and I left the NPR bureau together and headed to the subway. I remember clearly that we were talking about how entertained we’d been by a shaky but lovably game impression Carl had done of some public figure. We said how much fun it would be if that were a regular segment, one in which callers tried to identify who Carl was impersonating, and—though we’ve never spoken of it since—I’m fairly sure, dear reader, that it was actually my idea to call it “Who’s Carl This Time?”

As I said, none of us has ever discussed it, memory is an uncertain thing, and I’d wager there are at least three other people who’d claim that they, in fact, invented the segment. Those people, however, are not writing this article.

1999, Washington, D.C. I meet many of my Wait Wait colleagues for the first time. Veteran listeners may remember that until fairly recently, the show was recorded without a live audience, and at multifarious locations. Peter was in Chicago, Carl in Washington, and we panelists were Everywhere Else. So it wasn’t until our first public event, at an NPR gathering in Washington, that I met several of my new friends face-to-face.

It was both extremely disorienting and eerily familiar. I mean, of course Roxanne was the elegant brunette in the little black dress, and Charlie Pierce was the bearded, gloriously rumpled guy, and Carl was the elder statesman in the suit. Of course. But seeing the faces that went with the voices was a little odd. I guess it’s similar to that moment when you finally see your longtime pen pal stepping off the plane. Or when your mail-order spouse walks out of that shipping container for the first time.

But what I remember most clearly about the event are the introductions. After Carl and Peter came out, Charlie and Roxanne were introduced, to tumultuous applause. Then came, “Ladies and gentlemen, author and national treasure Roy Blount Jr.!” Pandemonium.

And then, only then, we heard, “and … Adam Felber.”

At rare moments in human history you can actually see a cartoon thought bubble appear over the heads of a crowd. It is said that a giant “Oh no, not again!” was visible over the entire Boston area when Bill Buckner missed that ball in the ’86 World Series. According to legend, a rueful “Merde!” could be seen rising above the French army when Napoleon announced his bright idea of invading Russia.

The moment after my introduction was another such occasion. I saw it clearly, hanging there over the crowd, written in a big, friendly font: “Who?”

April 24, 2003, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The good people of Tuscaloosa welcome Wait Wait to the Bama Theater. Like a lot of our “red state” listeners, the fans are particularly excited and welcoming, as they see their public radio station and its guests as an island of intelligence and sophistication in a sea of drunken mooks sitting in sports bars, wolfing down buffalo wings, and screaming at athletes on big-screen televisions.

The show goes smoothly and entertainingly.

By 11 p.m., at the after-party at a local bar, the friends of Alabama Public Radio watch in horror as Peter Sagal, Mike Danforth, and I scream drunkenly and incoherently at a large television screen, nearly choking on our buffalo wings as we cheer the Minnesota Timberwolves on to an improbable playoff victory over both the Los Angeles Lakers and the obviously bought-off referees.

We all have perfectly good excuses. Mike’s from Minnesota. And Peter and I … we’re friends with Mike. If memory serves, and it probably doesn’t for that particular night, I think that our beloved engineer, Lorna White, conveyed us back to the hotel, and that there was no small amount of singing and yelling in the van, and for that, Lorna—again—I’m so, so sorry.

Then there was the joint Wait Wait / Car Talk Pool Party in Orlando, at which we had a Public Radio cannonball dive contest. NPR news correspondent Margot Adler won the day with a truly impressive display of water displacement.

And yes, Carl Kasell married me. To be more accurate, he officiated at the ceremony that joined my wife and me in New York City almost five years ago. Most of the Wait Wait gang were there. Peter Sagal’s two daughters were our flower girls, and the only thing holding back his youngest, Willa, from joining them was that she was in utero at the time.

I wrote the ceremony, which culminated with Carl’s sober pronouncement, “And now, by the power vested in me by my extremely recognizable and trustworthy voice, I pronounce you husband and wife.” Along the way I’d included a magic trick for Carl.

Many people don’t know that Carl is an amateur magician. In fact, should you meet him, you might want to request a trick—he frequently has the necessary materials on hand.

This one was flawlessly executed. When it came time to exchange rings, my best man (and longtime sketch partner), Michael Bernard, couldn’t find them! He patted his jacket hopelessly, but they weren’t there. The wedding was ruined … until Carl, with a flourish, produced the rings, wrapped in a red handkerchief, out of thin air!

After all the drama and thrills, we exited to the recessional music I had wanted to hear at a wedding for most of my adult life: “Yakety Sax,” by Boots Randolph, perhaps better known as that music you used to hear at the end of The Benny Hill Show. Yes, the chase music. It always seemed to me that the line of a wedding recessional was the perfect place for it. And it says a lot about my wife, Jeanne, that she agreed to it.

Ten years! Do I see myself doing Wait Wait in 2018?

A job whose only responsibilities are to get to the airport on time, be relatively informed, and joke around with friends for a couple of hours in a room that just happens to have microphones in it … and then get applause for it? And money?

Yeah, I can see myself doing that a while longer. After all, if we hang on until 2020, we’ll be there for the first term of the Jenna Bush presidency. That stuff will write itself.

ADAM FELBER, A89, is a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and a writer for HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. His first novel is Schrödinger’s Ball (Random House).

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155