The view from the top of the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, stage set for NPR news quiz, "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me".  The place is beautiful, obviously.  It's one of the weird quirks of our language that one always has to look up whether a theater has chosen for itself the old British re inversion of Theatre or not.

The view from the top of the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, stage set for NPR news quiz, “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. The place is beautiful, obviously. It’s one of the weird quirks of our language that one always has to look up whether a theater has chosen for itself the old British re inversion of Theatre or not.

Spoiler alert!

I mean that in two senses. I am going to use this post both to tell you a few things about this weekend’s upcoming episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” (sometimes hereinafter referred to as WWDTM) and to tell you about some behind-the-scenes aspects of the show that I learned by watching a taping. These latter things are not traditional spoilers, but are kinda cool things to know about from peeking behind the curtain, but they may serve to spoil your illusions about the show itself on a weekly basis. The taping was not exactly what I expected, though it was incredibly fun and I highly recommend the experience. Let’s just say that one gets a different perception of things from the airwaves than the plush theater (Theatre) seat.

I’m going back to old-school Introspection manual bullet points, identified with a trusty dash. But I’ll add paragraph spaces as well for extra clarity!

-The show was late. I remember a time when people weren’t seated at theaters if they were 2 minutes late because it would interrupt the performance. Granted that WWDTM is not exactly the opera, but I was really panicked about us getting seated at 7:28 for a 7:30 show. No one made it to the stage till 7:50. Not sure if this is a New Orleans thing or an NPR thing or just a radio-taping thing… I guess this just reflects something more like a concert schedule than a traditional theater performance. But it also could be that the era of traffic and cell phones have made theaters fashionably late everywhere and all the time.

-People in radio never look like what you expect. This is a well documented phenomenon, but it bears repeating. They are people particularly chosen for their incredible voices, and most always also chosen for looking at least somewhat strange, if not downright unattractive. The pretty people make it to TV. The less so are stuck on the radio. It makes me wonder, for my debater friends out there, if there’s some sort of radio-industry version of GDS. There kind of must be, right? I can hear Peter Sagal joking that that’s why he went into radio. Peter Sagal is older, balder, and just kind of stranger seeming than he sounds on the radio. He’s still pretty cool though.

-The Saenger Theatre is ridiculously beautiful. It’s big and I definitely felt like a fly on a very far wall (or, well, someone listening to the radio) for much of the show, but the top of the back balcony (we weren’t in the very very top – probably about 8 rows shy) really affords a spectacular view of a renovated palace to live performance. Being in better seats for Alton Brown a few months back actually limited my understanding of the detail work, not to mention the starry ceiling.

-New Orleans is just always perceived to be completely drunk. I know that Alex would argue that’s because it is (though I think it’s practically an effective rehab clinic compared to the Rutgers campus), but the number of jokes about drunkenness and drinking were overwhelming. These were often associated with the lively and boisterous nature of the crowd, which Sagal also complimented frequently. I feel like people routinely miss a spiritedness about New Orleans that is not solely derived from spirits. Or at least not the kind you imbibe. There is energy here, and joy for living, and one does not need to get that from a bottle, even if some folks do.

-I actually had fears that we were only going to get an hour of time to watch the show, or maybe an hour and five or ten minutes for some extra stuff. This is the most laughably wrong impression I had of WWDTM, but it does explain a lot. Namely, I had always wondered – naively I now realize – how they managed to time a rollicking news quiz with dynamic elements like live callers, on-the-fly jokes, questions with variably lengthened answers, and required elements, to perfectly an hour format (or an hour less news) every time. I think at least part of this perception was based on attending a taping of A Prairie Home Companion when I was 7 and that, being a live show, taking two hours and sounding exactly like it did on the radio, bit for bit, note for note. WWDTM is not a live show (I think they cleverly cloak this by having actual callers from around the country call in during the show and advertising a number to call like it’s a real live talk-show) and the differences are legion. The taping took nearly 2.5 hours and involved a round of re-takes of things at the end, including an attempt to recreate particular jokes and get the audience to laugh once more. There are audio issues (there seemed to be more than average on this particular episode, if the annoyance of the hosts and guests is an indication), talking-over problems when people try to jump in all at once, and a fair bit of riffing, especially by the guest comedians, which just doesn’t get off the ground or isn’t that funny. This was a pretty illusion-shattering event to witness, because the feeling that’s effectively created on the radio is that everyone is thinking of these jokes and timing their repartee perfectly and immediately. The reality is decidedly more pedestrian: that it takes a little more than double that time of taping to offer the kernels of joy and perfection that will then be trimmed into the immaculate hour that we all hear on the weekends.

-Along the same lines, Peter Sagal is almost entirely scripted throughout the show. I think I kind of intuitively knew this on some level, but it’s still a little disappointing to watch him read off a cheat-sheet rather than come up with such effervescent wit off-the-cuff. I think a lot of this was surprisingly to me, deep down, because I’ve done so many Mep Reports and that is something we actually record on-the-fly, with almost no editing, and I guess we try to recreate that same humor in banter and turn-of-phrase reaction. Not that I had any illusions we were a serious competitor to WWDTM in this skill, but it’s a little saddening to realize that the hour you’re aspiring to create isn’t an hour that anyone is actually really creating in the traditional sense. Or at least not these people.

-I feel like these have mostly been negative and I really don’t want to convey that message – the energy of being in the room with these humorists was incredible and the real joy of being able to see them come up with these jokes or even deliver the scripted ones was awesome. I laughed heartily and much and the experience was really fantastic overall. I felt like this note was necessary because most of the post is about what was different than my expectations, and my expectations were very very high.

-There was a joke, possibly the funniest of the night, that might get cut out, made by a guest who called in. The guests really are scattered around the country, by the way, and played as very loud voice-overs in the theater, unless there are hidden actors pretending to be guests somewhere off stage (I don’t think this is the case). But the guests are clearly able to listen to the show as it’s being taped, because this guy made a joke about the Philippines that made everyone lose their mind. You’ll know what I’m talking about when we get there. But it got re-recorded at the end and it is a tragic loss to the show’s humor if it’s missing. Tune in and find out.

-I feel like it’s becoming a little unsustainable for me to live in and love New Orleans as much as I do and continue to feel totally meh about jazz. Even admitting that in print, in public, feels like it’s going to trigger some alarm like Harry Potter’s arrival in Hogsmeade at the end of the series. I just don’t particularly care for instrumental music of any sort, being a words person, and while I can appreciate the virtuosity and skill of jazz musicians and their creativity, it’s a world largely foreign and uninteresting to me. The guest this week is Trombone Shorty, who was an incredible guest and one of the most directly revered people I’ve ever seen live. The interviews for the guests go on for much longer than the segment they play on the radio. He was an awesome guest and his story is incredible, but I still had no real interest in going to see jazz played live afterwards. It’s still not going to have words.

-Paula Poundstone is really funny. And she talks endlessly. Peter was openly annoyed with her for how long she was going on about things and how much she was dominating the panel. She did work herself into some incredible moments at times, but I was left wondering how they were possibly going to edit enough to make it seem like she wasn’t just totally dominating the show.

-There’s a short Q&A session after the re-recordings of things they missed or want to change, but asking an audience of attendees at a snarky irreverent show to ask questions is pretty self-defeating. They mostly tried to be as clever and sarcastic as the show itself, which led to very little dissemination of actual information. Peter shut it down early when it became clear that the NOLA audience was doubly irreverent.

-For people who are constantly trying to get funding (they actually distributed pledge envelopes at the entrance instead of programs), there was no merchandise table or booth anywhere in the theater. I had no doubt that many people would have dropped $40 for a WWDTM T-shirt on their way out of the venue, myself almost certainly included, and that the margin on this and other paraphernalia would have been comparable to a donation. My only thought is that they fear this would have detracted from people donating to local station WWNO, now immersed in a pre-pledge-drive campaign, but it seems they could still split the profits with the local station to allay these concerns.

-I actually can’t wait to hear the show on the radio, which I never would have guessed. Just seeing what made it and what got cut will probably make it more fun than the usual episode, which I already like a lot.