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"Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" host Peter Sagal on Kurt Vonnegut, ethics and memory

The host of NPR's comedy news quiz game Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! is being honored by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library


  • Andrew Collings, NPR
  • Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal, host of NPR's famous show Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!, will be receiving the Vonnegut Humor award during Vonnegut week in Indianapolis. Sagal has been a longtime fan of Vonnegut's. So we chatted with the famous host of the two-decade-long and 5 million listener show, before he accepts the award from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

Peter Sagal: I was just sitting here working on my remarks for the award ceremony in a few weeks.

NUVO: Can you give me any previews?

Sagal: I rarely do things in advance but I was thinking about stuff this morning and was like, "yeah, I'm going to write some of this stuff down."

NUVO: What were you thinking about?

Sagal: I was thinking about, oh gosh, I am trying to remember. I was starting to think this morning. Have you ever heard of a writer named Nicholson Baker?

NUVO: No. I haven't.

Sagal: I am a big fan of his. He is a contemporary author. He has been writing fun books, novels and nonfiction for about 20 years. And early on in his career, he wrote this book called You and I, which he tried to write all of the things he could remember about his favorite author, which is John Updike ... And I just started thinking about what it was that I remembered about [Vonnegut's] books. What sort of stuck with me and how Vonnegut affected me and what drew me to him based on what I remembered.

I also thought about, I don't know if you have ever seen it — Kurt Vonnegut, right before he died — he did an interview with Jon Stewart. He was pretty old. It was about a year before he died at the age of 87. And he didn't have a lot to say, but Jon Stewart took this opportunity to thank Vonnegut. And he said something like ... "Thank you for letting me know when I was a young kid that I wasn't alone. That I wasn't the only person who felt like this." And I know what Stewart means or meant. I started thinking about the comfort I got from Vonnegut, because he was always writing about people who didn't quite fit in, in a world that didn't quite make sense, in a world that didn't understand, yet managed to get by. Anyway that was — shall we say — a big theme for me when I was in adolescence.

NUVO: What book of his do you remember most vividly?

Sagal: Umm, I remember the — and I am going to talk about this — I was a big fan of science fiction when I was a teenager. And I would always go to the local bookstore, and go right to the science fiction section and look for a paperback with a wonderful worded cover. And I remember — very vividly, and I would almost bet that this was the first Vonnegut book I read — seeing the cover of The Sirens of Titan. If you have seen it, at least the paperback version I bought back then — it's probably still somewhere in my library, I kept all my Vonnegut books — it's a drawing and sort of color illustration of these three absolutely gorgeous women, hardly wearing any bits of fabric and Sirens of Titan as the title. "Well that sounds like a good book," I said. So I bought it and discovered, like a lot of people who bought Vonnegut science fiction, that it was that and a lot more. That book really stuck with me. In fact, in the book, you find out that those women are in fact fake. They are to lure a character to go on a journey. In a weird way it was pretty chilling how I came to buy the book. And because of that I read a lot of his other books. (Editor's Note: Sagal noted that before he was 18 he is pretty sure that he read all of them up to Breakfast of Champions.)

NUVO: You are getting the Vonnegut humor award. Tell me about how Vonnegut influenced you as a writer, humorist and even as a playwright?

Sagal: ... I never sat down to consciously write like Vonnegut, but certainly, there is the simplicity of his prose, which is quite famous, that had a lot of effect on me. The episodic nature of his writing — no scenes went on too long. His, I don't know how to put this, maybe his informality. Of all the great modern American authors, he is by far the most accessible. Maybe that hurt his reputation. Maybe there is that.


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