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When NPR records Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me at the Pikes Peak Center, you'll see the product of a grueling hunt for humor 

A backdrop, six chairs and maybe a potted plant.

That's all you'll see on the Pikes Peak Center stage for the upcoming live recording of National Public Radio's news quiz show Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me. Well, that and the six people filling those seats.

"We don't have a set. We don't have live music. We don't have anything," says the show's host Peter Sagal. "We fly in and sit down, and people seem to enjoy it. Sometimes I am amazed that people come and pay money and sit for up to two hours to listen to people talking."

It helps that the show's panelists include such talent as stand-up comedian Paula Poundstone, writer/satirist Mo Rocca and journalist Roxanne Roberts. (Watch for Tom Bodett, Faith Salie and Paul Provenza here in the Springs.) And guest celebrities have ranged from Tom Hanks and Michael Moore to Ted Koppel and even a president — sort of.

"We had Barack Obama on when he was a senator. And we'll take him any time, if he wants to come back. My mother is like, 'You should get Barack Obama on.' 'Yes, you're right, Mom. We should get him back on again,'" Sagal says, laughing. "He used to listen to our show, and so, who knows — maybe if we asked, he at least wouldn't turn us down flat."

Lightning fill in the blank

Though the stage may be simple, and costumes and makeup non-existent — "What you see is what you get," according to judge/scorekeeper Carl Kasell — the behind-the-scenes work is anything but effortless. Prep begins each Monday, by going over listener mail, working on logistics and confirming guests. There's talk about the previous week's show — what went right, what didn't.

Late Monday and into Tuesday, Sagal spends a chunk of time working on the "Not My Job" quiz, a popular segment that brings in celebrity guests to answer questions that have nothing to do with their professional lives.

"This week, for example, our guests were two of the Village People," Sagal says. "Well, what are you gonna ask two of the Village People? ... We came up with this idea that, you know, they're the Indian and the construction worker, so let's ask them about the jobs that aren't theirs: the cowboy and the cop and the biker."

The first editorial meeting of the week happens late on Tuesday. Topics start "going into the hopper," and on Wednesday morning, writing commences.

"And then Thursday, it's crazy," Sagal says. "We just come in, we've got the writing that we did the day before. We rewrite it. We write the stuff that needs to be written that hasn't been written yet. We finish up the script, we try to get it done by 3 o'clock. Carl Kasell arrives. We sit down, we do a read-through. We argue it all over again."

By the time Sagal stands in front of an audience, he says, he can have in his hands a third completely new set of jokes.

"We've discovered you have to go through a lot of bad stuff before you get to the good stuff. So it's amazing, really, because what we're talking about, in terms of my script, is maybe six sentences of prepared text. Maybe. But those six sentences take an awful lot of work. It's not that you're writing six sentences, you're trying to write the right six sentences. So a lot of work and thought and joking and screwing around and failure goes into those jokes."

Who's Carl this time?

When the exit music winds down, a show is basically over for those on stage. Except for Kasell.

He may be judge and scorekeeper for the game, but he also is the official prize-doler-outer. As any fan knows, the coveted award for winning one of Wait Wait's games is Kasell lending his soothing baritone for your voicemail greeting.

It's so coveted, in fact, that even though Kasell is also recognized as the longtime (now "retired") newscaster for NPR's Morning Edition, there's one thing people stop him on the street to ask him about.

"Oh yeah, people will walk up to me all the time: 'Would you do my phone message?' And my answer is, 'Of course, I'd love to do it. But if you call 1-888-Wait-Wait, they'll tell you how to do it.'"

It's a strange thing to be known for. But then, Sagal says, that's not unusual for this crew.

"What's weird about us — and we've always felt this — is that we have this weird kind of fame, in that either you love us or you have no idea who we are. ... We, for whatever reason, because we're in public radio — even though we have 3 million listeners a week — we just don't seem for some reason to have any impact on the larger world."

There have been a few exceptions, Sagal says, usually because one party acquires some ammunition from a show that is then used to attack another. Take, for example, the case of Dana Perino and her visit a few years ago. At the time, Perino was the White House press secretary for the Bush administration.

No matter what you think of her politics, says Sagal, Perino is a "lovely and charming person." The team was making a joke about how young she was, and she, "trying to be self-deprecating and charming, in my view, said something to the effect of, 'Oh you know somebody asked me about the Cuban Missile Crisis and I didn't know what that was. And I had to ask my hubby about it and he was like, "Oh, Dana."'

"So the, if I may use this expression, left-wing media went nuts! 'Dana Perino, White House press secretary, doesn't know what the Cuban Missile Crisis is! Oh my god!' Sagal says, laughing. "Of course when that happened, [the media] were saying, 'On the NPR quiz show,' like we had never existed before, you know. It's just funny.

"On the other hand," he says, "you know, it's fine. I don't get mobbed when I walk down the street. So it's totally fun."

kakens@csindy.com

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