What’s up with Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me?

I drive about two hours a day, and I feel like the people on the NPR podcasts are a kind of parallel family. My wise uncle, Warren Olney, who is interested in everything, and is always calm and never lets anyone argue. My super-smart cousins on Planet Money, who talk to me about the economy several times a week; they may be a little Pollyanna-ish in their stubborn political centrism, but I learn a lot from them. Then, of course, Ira Glass and the crew of This American Life – the cool kids at whose table I long to eat.

And the hilarious Algonquin Round Table that is Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me. I have a routine – every Monday morning, I listen to a Planet Money, and then to WWDTM. Starts my week off on a light, smart note, and makes Mondays so much easier. But things at Wait, Wait are starting to get a little tiny bit strange.

It started with Carl Kassel’s retirement, and replacement with Bill Kurtis. The balance was thrown off… Nothing against Bill Kurtis, who has the most amazing vocal apparatus: he can go from velvet to stentorian, and he’s preternaturally expressive. But the balance between Karl and Peter had been set for years – Peter was the show, and Carl was the counterpoint, rarely talking on his own volition, participating in a ritualistic fashion. You were never surprised by Carl, and that was part of the charm of the show.

Bill is a bigger personality than Carl, and he seems to want to make his mark on the show. He ad-libs more than Carl did when announcing scores, and it’s not… quite right. Of course, I don’t know any of the people involved, but I can’t help, as I listen while I’m on the 10 (then the 110, then the 5, then the 2, then the 210…). I can’t help but make up a story of what’s going on with them.

I have a recurring fantasy where I phone in and participate, and I’m so funny, and such a hit that they ask me to be a panelist. I hobnob with Roy Blount Jr, and Paula Poundstone (in my fantasy, she and I become good friends). But the core of the fantasy is that I’m incredibly witty and funny, like they are (for the record, that <em>is</em> a fantasy; I can be pretty funny, but, unlike professionals, it depends on circumstances). Let’s just say that Bill Kurtis is as funnier than many people, but not as funny as the panelists. I mean, Faith Salie is a bonafide genius. Bill Kurtis is a great guy and a great voice, but I suspect he’s at his best when he’s reading what his producers have put in front of him.

Anyway, a few weeks ago Bill had a joke, clearly scripted by Peter, which was not brilliant, but ok-funny: something about how he might look like he’s wearing a chalk-pinstripe bespoke suit, but it’s really his skin. And Peter’s response, also scripted, was something like, “that’s just gross.” Not funny at all, kind of hostile and on the nose. A better line would have been something like, “that’s disquieting…” Understating the response would have let the absurd setup stand on its own.

I started to fantasize that Peter was mad at Bill, and I felt like shouting, “Mommy and Daddy! Don’t fight!” I may actually have shouted that, in the privacy of my Prius.

A week after that, they started doing replays. and then, two weeks ago, my podcast queue filled up with four or five replays, all on the same Sunday. The break in the routine worried me! Was the show being revamped? Was Peter sick? Was Bill being fired? Had they come to blows?

As if to confirm my fears, last week’s show featured a chastened, quieter Bill, more like Karl. His voice was toned down from its usual World-Wide Wrestling pitch of hilarity, to a subdued NPR seriousness. He almost sounded sad, and I wanted to take him aside and ask what had happened. Did mean Uncle Peter yell at him?

On top of this, Peter Sagal was featured on The Moth, and the setup of his story is how his marriage broke up. Now I felt bad for him! Perhaps if I had them both over for cocktails… I make a very nice White Manhattan…