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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

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5 Things We Know About Stranger Things Season 2
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Stranger Things seemed to come out of nowhere to become one of television's standout new series in 2016. Netflix's sometimes scary, sometimes funny, and always exciting homage to '80s pop culture was a binge-worthy phenomenon when it debuted in July 2016. Of course, the streaming giant wasn't going to wait long to bring more Stranger Things to audiences, and a second season was announced a little over a month after its debut—and Netflix just announced that we'll be getting it a few days earlier than expected. Here are five key things we know about the show's sophomore season, which kicks off on October 27.


The first season of Stranger Things consisted of eight hour-long episodes, which proved to be a solid length for the story Matt and Ross Duffer wanted to tell. While season two won't increase in length dramatically, we will be getting at least one extra hour when the show returns in 2017 with nine episodes. Not much is known about any of these episodes, but we do know the titles:

"The Boy Who Came Back To Life"
"The Pumpkin Patch"
"The Palace"
"The Storm"
"The Pollywog"
"The Secret Cabin"
"The Brain"
"The Lost Brother"

There's a lot of speculation about what each title means and, as usual with Stranger Things, there's probably a reason for each one.


Stranger Things fans should gear up for plenty of new developments in season two, but that doesn't mean your favorite characters aren't returning. A November 4 photo sent out by the show's Twitter account revealed most of the kids from the first season will be back in 2017, including the enigmatic Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown (the #elevenisback hashtag used by series regular Finn Wolfhard should really drive the point home):


A year will have passed between the first and second seasons of the show, allowing the Duffer brothers to catch up with a familiar cast of characters that has matured since we last saw them. With the story taking place in 1984, the brothers are looking at the pop culture zeitgeist at the time for inspiration—most notably the darker tone of blockbusters like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

"I actually really love Temple of Doom, I love that it gets a little darker and weirder from Raiders, I like that it feels very different than Raiders did," Matt Duffer told IGN. "Even though it was probably slammed at the time—obviously now people look back on it fondly, but it messed up a lot of kids, and I love that about that film—that it really traumatized some children. Not saying that we want to traumatize children, just that we want to get a little darker and weirder."


When you watch something like The Americans season two, it's almost impossible to catch on unless you've seen the previous episodes. Stranger Things season two will differ from the modern TV approach by being more of a sequel than a continuation of the first year. That means a more self-contained plot that doesn't leave viewers hanging at the end of nine episodes.

"There are lingering questions, but the idea with Season 2 is there's a new tension and the goal is can the characters resolve that tension by the end," Ross Duffer told IGN. "So it's going to be its own sort of complete little movie, very much in the way that Season 1 is."

Don't worry about the two seasons of Stranger Things being too similar or too different from the original, though, because when speaking with Entertainment Weekly about the influences on the show, Matt Duffer said, "I guess a lot of this is James Cameron. But he’s brilliant. And I think one of the reasons his sequels are as successful as they are is he makes them feel very different without losing what we loved about the original. So I think we kinda looked to him and what he does and tried to capture a little bit of the magic of his work.”


Everything about the new Stranger Things episodes will be kept secret until they finally debut later this year, but we do know one thing about the premiere: It won't take place entirely in the familiar town of Hawkins, Indiana. “We will venture a little bit outside of Hawkins,” Matt Duffer told Entertainment Weekly. “I will say the opening scene [of the premiere] does not take place in Hawkins.”

So, should we take "a little bit outside" as literally as it sounds? You certainly can, but in that same interview, the brothers also said they're both eager to explore the Upside Down, the alternate dimension from the first season. Whether the season kicks off just a few miles away, or a few worlds away, you'll get your answer when Stranger Things's second season debuts next month.

The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.


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