If they’d been handing out chits for Carl Kasell’s voice on your home answering machine, they couldn’t have crammed more people into the Wang Theatre entry a week ago Thursday evening. An “intimate” evening with U2? Miss Saigon with the real helicopter once again? No, for the first time in some eight years, National Public Radio’s weekly news quiz game, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me, was taping in Boston. Forget the Rockettes.
Inside, the crowd cheered host Peter Sagal, official judge and scorekeeper Carl Kasell, and the evening’s three panelists — Boston Globe writer (and former Phoenix staffer) Charlie Pierce, Amy Dickinson of the syndicated column Ask Amy, and “TV personality” Mo Rocca — as if they were rock stars. Saying that this was “the largest paid audience we’ve ever had,” Peter allowed as how Boston was sort of his childhood home and added that, coming back, “It’s different. I got a scent of it in the air. Your sports teams are all winning. Your presidential candidate did pretty well. [Huge applause.] What’s not to like?” That was too much for Charlie: “Have you tried the subway, my son?”
Just two days after the presidential election, everybody was in a celebratory mood. Peter made Hahvahd jokes and used the word “approbation” in homage to Doris Kearns Goodwin. The folks in the balcony shouted down that they couldn’t hear, so the Wang sound system was ratcheted up, which left those of us sitting close hard-pressed to get all the jokes. Soon we were off with Marci from Montana, who made her political allegiance clear with a light-hearted answer identifying Governor Palin as “our Caribou Barbie.” After Peter related a story — perhaps apocryphal — about the governor’s opening her hotel door to McCain aides dressed in nothing but a towel, Mo came up with the movie title: “A Bridge to No Underwear.”
You probably have your own questions about the show. Where does everybody sit? In this case, Peter and Carl stood, next to each other stage right, and the panelists were seated at the traditional table, stage left, with the production team shrouded in darkness behind them. What does everybody wear? Peter and Carl sported coats and ties (for radio!); Mo and Charlie went respectable-casual; Amy wore a bright red party dress. Did the taping sound like what would air on WBUR that weekend? Mostly, yes. It’s as rapid-fire as what you hear; there’s not a lot of hemming and hawing while trying to think up one-liners. (Mo’s going into a prolonged huddle was surely deliberate; Peter had to snap him out with a “Lightning, Mo! This is the Lightning Round.”) Most of what’s different is that some material gets cut and rearranged to fit the show’s 50-or-so-minute time frame. We lost a lot about Big Bird, and a question about political parties in Malaysia, and one about unruly children in Lambeth. A caller mentioned that it was dark outside; you knew that wouldn’t make it on a show that airs Saturday at noon in Boston.
One mystery was left unsolved: the intricacies of the scoring system. When they reached the Lightning Round, Carl announced that “Amy has four points, followed by Charlie with two and Mo with one.” Everyone affected great surprise that Amy was leading, but the reason seemed pretty obvious: she’d gotten more questions to answer. (She’d also received a point for being picked by Heather in Long Beach, the successful “Bluff the Listener” caller.) On the show as it aired, she answered two questions (both correctly), Charlie answered one (also correctly), and Mo didn’t answer any, since he wasn’t asked any. It still didn’t compute — unless everyone gets a point just for showing up. But how, at the taping, does Carl know which questions are going to be cut? And why, after Charlie had answered five Lightning Round questions to take the lead with 12 points, did Carl tell us that Amy, already with her four points, needed to answer “five questions to tie, and six to win”? I figured they’d correct that later, but no. What am I missing?
The hugely popular “Not My Job” guest was House Representative Barney Frank, who sat in the big leather armchair center stage and, asked by Peter what industry the Democrats would nationalize first, shot right back, “The Alaskan Tourist Board.” His category was Bill O’Reilly (Peter: “You looked at him as if he were crazy.” Representative Frank: “What do you mean, ‘As if’?”), and he got two out of three right, good enough to win you-know-what for the lucky listener he was playing for. It didn’t hurt that he’d read the answer to the third question in the New York TimesSunday Magazine. His remark that his boyfriend had accompanied him to the show drew loud applause; I could see them whispering affectionately in front of me after he’d left the stage.