Interview with NPR's Peter Sagal

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Like many fellow flossers, I am addicted to public radio. The soft buzz of NPR is truly cathartic on Saturday mornings when Wait Wait"¦Don't Tell Me! airs in Chicago. If your weekend routine does not include this show, you are missing out on an informative and hilarious hour of current events commentary. And on occasion, the hosts even break out a copy of mental_floss magazine.

One of the personalities behind this weekly news quiz is Peter Sagal. Self-described as "vanilla," Peter also authored a book titled The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How To Do Them). Peter was nice enough to meet me for breakfast and talk about Wait Wait"¦Don't Tell Me!, his book, his rivalry with Conan O'Brien and his involvement in the Dirty Dancing sequel. And if you come back tomorrow, you'll have a chance to win a free copy of The Book of Vice.

mental_floss: I read on of your bios that you wrote a screenplay that was the basis for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.

Peter Sagal: I did!

MF: That is one of my favorite movies. It's so bad it's good.

PS: It's pretty awful. It's in the top 25 worst sequels ever made. Right after it came out, I went to my niece's bat mitzvah full of fifteen-year-old girls. A lot of people there wanted to meet me because I was a public radio host, but the fifteen-year-old girls were really excited to meet me because I had written Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Sort of.

MF: It's terrible! But when it's over, you say, "Man, I loved that movie." Have you seen it?

PS: I went to the Hollywood premiere! I met Patrick Swayze! When it premiered here I had a party and we looked for my name in the credits.

MF: How did your screenplay become the film?

peter-sagal.jpgPS: A Hollywood producer called me and asked me to write a screenplay based on the life of a teenage American girl named JoAnn Jansen. Her father was transferred to Havana in 1958—they moved just in time for the Cuban revolution. I started with that idea. I interviewed a guy who photographed [Fidel] Castro for Life magazine; I talked to the people who were there and I read a lot of books. I thought it was really interesting; I learned a lot about the Cuban revolution I didn't know.

[The producers] wanted a love story, so in my screenplay I made the boyfriend a revolutionary. But [the producers] told me, "We're looking for something more like Dirty Dancing." Dirty Dancing is really good, but it wasn't the kind of movie I thought I could write. The more I tried to make it a love story for teenage girls, the worse it got.

They cleaned it up and it sat on the shelf. About four years later, I got a phone call from the company saying, "You're never going to believe this, but they're making the movie." Turns out that ever since Dirty Dancing came out [in 1987], they've been trying, unsuccessfully, to make a sequel. But no one had figured out how to do it.

Around 2002, Harvey Weinstein calls up the guy I worked with and eventually they say, "Hey, what about this screenplay about Cuba? Put in some dancing, take out the politics and: Dirty Dancing Two! The movie was completely rewritten, there's not a line of dialog that I wrote. But they used my basic story and there are certain things in the movie, mainly the beginning and end, that I came up with. The Writer's Guild decided that I would get half the story credit. I have no complaints about what they did. It's the business and I'm delighted to have been a part of it.

MF: Okay, time to get serious. How long have you been at NPR/Chicago Public Radio and how did you get there?

npr_wwdtm_image_3001.jpgPS: Ten years. The short version of the story is that in the summer of 1997, I got a phone call from a friend who said public radio was looking for funny people who read a lot of newspapers. And all I did was listen to public radio all day and I wanted to be on it. I auditioned to be one of the panelists for a new quiz show being produced out of Chicago called Wait Wait"¦Don't Tell Me!

It premiered in January of '98 and it wasn't very good or successful. It was only on a few stations and the producers thought it had a lot of problems. One of the problems they could fix was the host. Someone said, "Hey what about this guy Sagal? He seems host-y." So, I got a phone call asking if I wanted to be a host, and I have to tell you, all I ever really wanted to do was host my own radio show. So, I decided to give it a try.

MF: How do you get the celebrity guests for the "Not My Job" segments?

PS: We have a wonderful producer by the name of Mike Danforth and he works with another producer named Melody Kramer. They are really aggressive about going out and getting these people. They're really good at it.

The second factor is that the more [celebrities] you get, the more their publicists are happy to book you. A publicist's nightmare is to set up their client and their client pulls out saying, "What did you book me on that stupid show for?" And when you have people like people that we've had, Tom Hanks and Patrick Fitzgerald, publicists are more comfortable that [pulling out] is not going to happen. Success breeds success.

And the third reason is that they really like it! I was talking to Drew Carey a few weeks ago, and he said, "I'll do it if I can get Carl Kasell's voice on my home answering machine." They really like the show, they're really happy to do it.

MF: How did "Carl Kasell's voice on your home answering machine" become the most coveted prize in all of radio?

PS:Well, we started the show and didn't have a prize [for the contestants]. And then someone suggested Carl Kasell's voice on your home answering machine. It was supposed to be a joke until we thought of something real, but people loved it! People thought it was the perfect prize: it's priceless and it's worthless. You can't buy it or sell it; it's the kind of thing public radio fans love. And what's great about it is that if we gave away money or something valuable, people would take it seriously. And the last thing in the world we want to do is be taken seriously.

MF: Of all the fascinating "Not My Job" guests, has anybody surprised you with his or her wit? I'm often surprised by their senses of humor.

PS: The best example I can give you is Madeleine Albright. She was one of our first "big time" guests. We were asking her about being a weight lifter. We said, "We understand that you can press 300 pounds with your feet." She said, "Yes." I said, "That must be a useful diplomatic skill." She said, "Yeah, it's good for kicking ass."

MF: Do you ever get recognized by your voice?

PS: It's happening more. Four or five years ago, some people stopped me and asked me for directions. A woman in the group was looking at me and said, "Has anyone told you that you sound exactly like [public radio host] Michael Feldman?" I smiled and said, "I think you're a little confused. You think I sound like Peter Sagal." And she said, "Yes, that's it!" And I said, "Hi, I'm Peter Sagal!" And she said, "My, you do sound just like him!"

One of the good things about being me, at my level of celebrity, such as it is, is that most people have no idea who I am, but the small faction of the population who know who I am really like me.

burt-ward.jpgMF: I read on Gawker that Burt Ward is a source of rivalry between you and Conan O'Brien...

PS: What you read on Gawker is true. When we were freshman [at Harvard] my friend Jess Bravin and I, as a joke, invited Burt Ward—Robin the boy wonder—to come speak at Harvard. Harvard never had people from Hollywood come to speak, and we thought it would be hilarious to invite Burt Ward. It was totally set up to be intellectual; he thought it was serious. We thought it was great. And then the Lampoon pranked us.

Conan thought that we were being "so serious" about it, but we weren't! And what we knew that Conan didn't is that Burt Ward is a huge asshole. We thought our prank was more subtle than theirs, but then again, that's why Conan is a multimillionaire and I work for NPR.

MF: Moving on to the book, which I love, by the way. What was the reason or inspiration behind writing The Book of Vice?

PS: First of all, I was genuinely curious. You know the old adage, "Write what you know?" My thing is that I want to write what I don't know, but am curious about.

Second of all, I have a background [writing about] soft-core porn, through no fault of my own! And I had an interest in [learning more about] gambling and I wanted to know who these people were. I decided that I would pull all these things together and write a book about it. I thought it would be fun and I could be funny about it.

MF: What's the point of having a vice?

PS: Well, when people interview me about the book, they say, "Wouldn't it be better in Europe, where drug use and prostitution are legal?" The thing we have in America that [Europeans] don't have is something to rebel against. A lot of these people are rebelling. They're Marlon Brando, the wild one. They see themselves as outlaws. You can't have outlaw status unless there's a law. You can't be a nonconformist unless there's an example of conformity. And I think that's a strong thing that propels a lot of people.

The swingers I talked to saw themselves that way. They sit there and think to themselves, "Ah, you think I'm a typical, mild-mannered lawyer, but you can't see my piercings and you don't know what I do on Saturday nights." And I think that gives them a sense of self. Everyone I spoke to wants to be different. I feel that. I don't want to be typical; I don't want to be normal. My high school yearbook quote was a line from the musical The Fantasticks: "Please God, don't let me be normal." A lot of these people are like that.

MF: Were there any vices you researched or wanted to research that didn't make the book?

PS: Oh, I wanted to do a lot of things. There were a lot of things I was scared to do or couldn't figure out how to do. I could have explored consumption, as in buying really expensive yachts, private homes. There were many more sexual vices I could have researched. For example, prostitution. I had no idea how to research that. Do I hire a prostitute? I actually wrote a chapter on adultery, but I didn't go out and commit adultery, and without going out and actually doing it, it seemed pointless. I'd love to [research] adventure travel, like touring Africa in a private jet. There are ways of living and ways of indulging yourself that I would love to learn about.

MF: How did you choose which vices to highlight?

PS: Basically, it was what I was able to do. I had the background, or for example, I was really interested in casino gambling. The Swingers Shack turned out to be the most fascinating. Half of the questions I get are about that chapter. I was really interested in lying, because I'm not good at it and fascinated by people who are.

MF: In your book you never appear judgmental. But when you were there, in the moment, did you ever think, "Who are these people? What am I doing here?"

PS: The only time I ever felt really uncomfortable in the sense of "This is not my thing," was when I was at the Power Exchange. I think this was for two reasons. The first reason is that it is a farce. People came thinking it was going to be an orgy or their own personal porn film, and that's not going to happen. The other problem was that it really did serve people who have very particular sexual fetishes, mainly voyeurs and exhibitionists. I have no problem with these people, but I'm not that. I didn't want to judge, but I didn't want to look. Walking around a place like that was a little like going to a banquet with food you don't like. But I don't want to come down on those people, because the people are great! I didn't want to say that because you like this, you're bad.

The one thing that I didn't put strongly in the book [is that] the only thing I'm against is somebody saying that you're bad or wrong because you don't like this. I think people should have the freedom to do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt anybody.

MF: Was doing research and writing the book a vice itself?

PS: It was! I really derived pleasure and pain and guilt from writing the book. When it came out, I granted interviews to public and commercial radio stations. The commercial radio stations were like, "You bastard! What a great idea for a book!" The public radio stations were (lips pursed in disapproval), "Why did you write this book?" It's very not public radio. I was rebelling and rattling the cages and behaving in a way that I wasn't supposed to. And I liked it.

Sometimes I feel a little guilty about it, like, why didn't I write Peter Sagal's Guide to the Week's News. And then sometimes I'm like, "To hell with you people!" I'll do what I want to do!"

* * * * *

Although I could have talked about public radio and secretly adored movies all day, unfortunately for me, the interview ended. An unplanned capstone to the morning: as we were leaving the café, an employee stopped Peter and said, "Hey, are you Peter Sagal?" I laughed quietly as Peter graciously granted the fan an autograph. As we walked out the door, he simply said, "That happens more and more."

Come back tomorrow for a chance to win a free copy of The Book of Vice.

Sara Newton is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com.

April 3, 2008 - 9:29am
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