As long as I can remember, one of my favorite shows on public radio has been “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” (the NPR News Quiz). I recently attended one of their live shows at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle and had a lovely time. But I also learned many things about what goes into making this wildly popular radio show. Some recollections from the evening:
– Our guests were Luke Burbank, Paula Poundstone, and Maz Jobrani. Each of them had some great moments throughout the evening.
– The regular show is edited into a tightly paced, 51-minute program, but the live show goes on for over 2 hours. That’s because Peter often riffs with the panelists for a long time on a single question, then take the best sections and edit the result down to what you hear in the final show. In fact, their riff off the very first question, “fill in the blank,” went on for about 10 minutes, when its final form will probably end up being about 1-2 minutes at most. The same goes for the “Not my job” interview, which is way longer in person than it is on the final show.
As a result, the show is much slower paced than I was used to. At times, it was actually kind of a slog. But what felt really amazing was at the end when we finally finished the last segment, it really felt like we’d all accomplished something together. We’d collectively made an episode of a program that would be listened to be millions of people (or at least, we’d made the raw materials for said program). That felt pretty awesome, and unlike most of the other live shows that I go to.
– The most fascinating part of the show for me was when they recorded a segment about Scottish Independence, and then went back and RE-recorded the same segment but with a different outcome. See, the show was recorded during the Scottish vote, and while all signs pointed to a “No to Independence” vote, they wanted to cover their bases, so they recorded a slightly modified segment in which Scotland actually voted “Yes.” Different news outcome, somewhat similar riffs. I suppose the NPR audience is unforgiving when it comes to uncertainty about something like this, especially since “Wait Wait” takes a few days to be released after it is recorded.
– In addition to the hosts and panelists, there was a team of producers(?) behind them, sitting in relative darkness. At the end of the show, Peter had to go back and re-record a bunch of different intros and outros that he had flubbed the first time. From my perspective, it looked like the producers were taking copious notes throughout the show and then beaming him text to his iPad that they wanted him to repeat. The whole process took only 3-4 minutes and as Peter explained, they have it pretty much down to a science at this point. It struck me as ruthlessly, and impressively, efficient.
– After the show, they brought up the house lights and did a Q&A. Super fun and very nice of them, although a lot of the questions asked by my audience were pretty silly, unfortunately.
Is this an experience I’d recommend? I’d say only if you’re a die-hard fan of the show, as I am. Plus, I’m a public radio junkie, so I love seeing the “behind-the-scenes” stuff like this. But it is a pricey ticket for someone who isn’t a huge fan to see how the show is made, and what you see is not at all like the snappy program that we hear each week on the radio. As long as your expectations are set correctly, you’ll enjoy it greatly.