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Peter Sagal, Exploring 'Vice' So We Don't Have To

As host of the NPR news quiz Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, Peter Sagal spends a lot of time reading the newspaper.

Lately, though, he's also spent many an hour going to strip joints, a swingers club, a porn-movie set and casinos — among other dens of what some call iniquity.

All research, of course, for his new project, The Book of Vice. He wanted to get a perspective on the indulgences of others, and report back to the rest of us.

42:37

Other segments from the episode on October 16, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 16, 2007: Interview with Peter Sagal; Review of the films "The Pirate," "Words and Music," "Royal Wedding," and "The Gang's All Here."

Transcript

DATE October 16, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Peter Sagal, host of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," a
radio news quiz show, on "Wait, Wait" and his new book, "The Book
of Vice" and researching at a swingers' club
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Peter Sagal, hosts NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." But
when not reading the newspaper, he's been watching some pretty naughty things
at a fetish ball, a swinger's club, a porn set and strip clubs. That doesn't
make him a voyeur--I don't think--because it's research for his new book, "The
Book of Vice." The book isn't just about sex. No, it's also about such vices
as lying, gambling and gluttony. Although Sagal remained an observer during
his research, he did briefly become an active participant in the gluttony.
The subject matter of Sagal's book may surprise "Wait, Wait" listeners. So
might the fact that he ghost wrote the memoir of a porn director. What isn't
surprising is that, like "Wait, Wait," the book is smart and funny.

Let's start with a reading from "The Book of Vice."

Mr. PETER SAGAL: This is actually from the first chapter of the book, and my
wife, Beth, and myself are visiting--as observers only, I should say, that was
the terms of the visit--a swinger's club, which I identify in the book with
the bad "pseudonomyous" name "The Swingers' Shack," because I'm--the people
there did not know that I was going to be writing about it, and therefore I
want to maintain everybody's secret identity.

(Reading) "Before coming here, I had sworn to Beth absolutely truthfully that
I didn't have any interest in participating in the evening's activities. She
had said the same thing, of course, but she wondered if I was telling the
truth, or, even if I was speaking honestly in the moment, how I would react
once we were there. I wondered the same thing myself. Would the presence of
so much flesh and opportunity overwhelm my ironic distance? Would I look
around at the mattresses and the floor and the sponge-stippled walls and the
rationed condoms in plastic bowls and say to myself, `Finally, I am home!'"

"And what about Beth? A swinger of my acquaintance told me a well-worn tale
in the scene: A husband drags the wife to a club, but once within the
sanctum, the reluctant debutante becomes the belle of the ball, leaving the
husband to dine on his own kishkas for the remainder of the evening."

"If there had in fact been some weird harmonic resonance between our hidden
sexual selves and this banal bacchanal, by this point it would've been hard to
hide it. The air was damp with newly-emitted sweat, we had not witnessed any
of the transactions leading to play because we weren't participating in them,
but it seemed easy enough. We could approach any of the other couples in the
room, cock an eyebrow, crook a finger. I looked at Beth, she at me, and we
realized, as we gazed into each other's familiar faces in this very unfamiliar
place with its exotic promises of sexual excess being fulfilled in thin-walled
rooms all around us, not only that we were the most boring people in the club,
but that we were the most bored."

GROSS: Thanks for reading that, Peter. And why were you and your wife bored
in the middle of this swingers' club?

Mr. SAGAL: Well, I think that the best explanation for that and for a number
of another phenomena that happened in the book came from Nina Hartley, who is
of course perhaps one of the world's most well-known porn stars, who I
interview in the book and got to be friends with. And it is her view, her, I
think, extremely well-informed opinion, that the idea of sexual orientation
goes far beyond the mere sort of straight/gay paradigm that most people have.
That, in fact, there's a lot of things to your sexual nature that are fixed,
that you can't change, no matter how much you might want to. And even without
getting into how much we might have wanted to, I think that, for a lot of
people, these fantasies, if you will, these dreams of what these sort of
pansexual scenes might be like actually come crashing down when they realize
they're just not wired that way.

GROSS: Tell me more about why you wanted to explore vice and write "The Book
of Vice."

Mr. SAGAL: Well, to a certain extent, it's kind of just plain curiosity, a
curiosity that I think a lot of people have but maybe don't admit to because
of the things they're curious about. It's certainly something I've noticed in
the kind of adventures that I've had in my life leading up to writing the
book.

Years ago, when I was a starving writer, a playwright, I got a job ghost
writing the memoirs of a woman who purported to be the leading female
pornographic film impresario auteur director of the late 1970s. And I got
this job, and various things ensued, none of which I expected. But one of the
things I noted was that as I was telling people that I was working on this
project, you know, all my cool artist friends living in garrets and so on and
so forth, they were all really interested. They thought it was like the
coolest day job they had ever heard. And it was my experience then, and it's
been to a certain extent validated by the reaction to this book, most people
are generally very curious about these sorts of things. And I think that a
lot of people are/were in the position that I was in prior to writing the
book, which is that they were wondering what the heck was going on in there.
They hear about this stuff. They read various things in the news where this
behavior sort of breaks out in the public domain.

And, you know, the paradigmatic example that I use in the book is something
happened here in Illinois. Jack Ryan, a guy who was running for Senate in
2004, and his campaign kind of cratered when his divorce papers became public,
and it turned out that his ex-wife, the actress Jeri Ryan, said that he had
taken her to these sex clubs and demanded that she do various obscene things
and she had refused and this led to their eventual parting. And the
revelation of this ended his campaign, and his putative Democratic opponent
Barack Obama ended up doing rather well. And this raised, at least in my
mind, a lot of questions, like, what are these clubs? What do you do? How do
you get in? I mean, is it a cash bar or is it like Disneyland with an
all-inclusive ticket? I mean, how do these things work?

GROSS: Let's see if you can answer some of those questions for us. And why
don't we start with the swingers' club that you went to.

Mr. SAGAL: Sure.

GROSS: And I found it interesting that swinging, for people who are swingers,
it's called "the lifestyle."

Mr. SAGAL: Yes. I can tell you that the people I met incorporate this
activity into their lives and do, in fact, think of it as separating
themselves from what they see as the kind of staid, socially-imposed morality
of monogamous marriage. They think that's an artifice. They think that's
repressing the rest of us, and they have figured out how to live in a way
that's more true to true human nature. I mean, I had a, I would say, a
pleasant but definitely heated debate with one of these guys--the guy who ran
this club, and who truly, as I say, devoted his life and sacred honor to this
pursuit--about why I felt what I felt about marital monogamy and why you
shouldn't cheat on your spouse. He thought this was entirely, you know, a
function of, you know, social pressures and it's just what I've been taught,
and if only I realized the truth of human sexuality, then I would understand
that everything they're doing was A-OK.

Yeah, and these people do, in fact, pursue this, I think, somewhere beyond the
avidity of a mere hobby. I will say that. I mean, stamp collecting is a
hobby, so I think lifestyle is perhaps a more accurate term.

GROSS: So how do people choose like who they're going to swing with?

Mr. SAGAL: I think they do it, I mean, in our view, they did it in the same
way that you and I might, if we were at a party, might ask somebody to dance
with. I mean...

GROSS: So they have a choice? It's not like pre-arranged? There isn't
like...

Mr. SAGAL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...a seating plan, so to speak, and you come in.

Mr. SAGAL: No, no. That would be funny. Actually, that would be hilarious
if you came in and there were little nameplates.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SAGAL: You know, little folded pieces of card on all the beds. `Oh,
look, we're sitting next to the Bernsteins tonight. How lovely.' Yeah, that
would be funny. But no, it's all very simple and it's all very complex. You
know, just, I think, people--what we saw, I mean, we didn't go to the point of
actually participating, but what we saw, you know, you'd see two couples
talking, and they're chatting and they're laughing and they're looking at each
other, and then you look away and you look back, and they're gone. And
they're went off to one of the many rooms reserved for that purpose.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Sagal. He's the host of the NPR news quiz, "Wait,
Wait, Don't Tell Me." And now he's the author of the new book "The Book of
Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to Do Them)."

As you've said earlier, before you wrote this book, years ago you were asked
to ghost write the memoir of a woman who had directed many, or at least
several, porn films, several that were supposed to be kind of classics in the
field, and you consented to do this. What was supposed to be so special about
this director?

Mr. SAGAL: Well, she had been--her name was Gail Palmer, and she was
presented to me by her publishing house, who reached out to me to do the ghost
writing, as the pre-eminent female director of porn films back in the '70s and
'80s, the era that the movie "Boogie Nights" so incredibly well documented.
And what I expected, what everybody presented her to me as is she would be
this amazing sexual, social rebel, this young woman who, in an age of excess,
made it her lifestyle to do it. And I expected sort of this cool, gorgeous
pansexual woman who'd have leather clothes on and dyed hair and be surrounded
by this sort of entourage of lovers of various sexes, and she'd be cool and
we'd talk about Simone de Beauvoir and various other kinds of sexual
rebellion. Because, you know, she was out there, she was a rebel, she was
living it and doing it and making her money from doing it and blah blah blah.

And I think that the reason that people, both me at that time in the mid-'90s
and people in her career in the late '70s and everybody who encountered her,
imagined that is they so much wanted it to be true. Because what they're
afraid of is that the porn industry is actually controlled by diamond pinkie
ring, mob-connected pornographers who wear open, you know, shirts down open to
their pupik, as my grandmother would say, with lots of gold chains. And
that's kind of gross. And we don't want to think that's what's lying behind
all this exotic thrilling stuff, and so therefore we'd like to imagine that it
was this really cool, empowered woman who was doing it. Yeah, that kind of
gives us a license.

And what I found out, of course, is that she wasn't a diamond-pinkie-ringed,
hairy-chested, mob-connected pornographer. She was that guy's girlfriend, and
she had essentially been, during her entire career, just that guy's front.
Because he knew exactly what we wanted and he got his girlfriend to provide it
by pretending to be the person making the movie.

GROSS: At what point in the progress of ghost writing her memoir did you
realize that the whole story wasn't true?

Mr. SAGAL: Well, it was a long and slow process. I was maybe naive, but as
the more I talked to her, the more I listened to her story and the way she
would both justify her actions and yet deny ever having taking those actions,
because she was trying to sell her story as both the story of a sinner and the
story of a victim, I realized that there were all these discontinuities and
problems with her story. Both things that she was telling me at this moment
couldn't be true. And finally it actually came, after much suspicion on my
part, it came, in of all things, a trial transcript. She had ended up being
the witness against her boyfriend, paramour, in a tax evasion trial. And in
the course of this trial, the attorneys, the prosecutors, asked her what her
relationship to this man was, and she was asked about her role as the director
of these films--you can't see me, I'm making air quotes when I say director.
And she was asked. It was like, `Well, did you actually direct these movies?'
And she said, `Well, no.' So it was kind of, shall we say, a letdown.

GROSS: So what did you do? I mean, you kept--you say in the book you kept
writing. Since she couldn't really provide the story because her story wasn't
true, you wrote your own version of the story.

Mr. SAGAL: Yes. Well, you know...

GROSS: The person you wanted her to be. But were you writing that as fiction
or nonfiction?

Mr. SAGAL: Well, I was kind of--it was both an act of desperation, because I
desperately needed the money. As I said, I was a starving artist. I was
responding to the pressure from everybody around her. Her agent wanted the
book to succeed, the publishers wanted the book to succeed, I wanted the book
to succeed--I had put so much time into it--and she wanted the book to
succeed. So what I did was, I took the events of her life, which were sort of
the filmed records, the articles about her, and I kind of invented a new
version of her that was the person that we all wanted her to be, that we had
all imagined her to be.

I invented a Gail Palmer who was aware, and ironic and rebellious and tough
and cynical. That she, you know, that this character I'd invented didn't go
so far as to believe all her own press, but she knew what she was doing and
she did it willingly and knowingly and with kind of a smirk and a smile and
sometimes a, `What the heck, let's just see what happens.' And it sort of a
funny--I mean, I hate to say this, but, you know, I guess what I ended up
writing was if I had done what she had done, which was, shall we say,
unlikely. You know, this sort of self-aware, ironic person who was always
vaguely aware of how silly they were being.

GROSS: But were you passing this off as memoir or fiction?

Mr. SAGAL: I was passing it off as a memoir, which was perhaps morally,
morally shall we say, suspect. I mean, like I said, the differences became
not what she did--I never said that she did anything she didn't do, the
movies--I mean, she was on the set, so on and so forth. Let me put it this
way. I admitted--or rather, in my writing, she admitted--having done and
having not done the things that she did and did not do, but she was, in my
version, I think, more of a knowing participant in a kind of scam than she was
in real life or wanted to present herself in real life.

And she approved of this until the very last minute. I had finished the
entire manuscript. She liked it. But in the end, she decided no, that my
version of her life story made her too complicit in her own life events. That
the version of the story she wanted to tell was that she had been a victim,
she had been fooled, she had been tricked, she had been forced, she had been
afraid. And that's the version she wanted to stick to. So we came to a
parting of the ways, and the manuscript was never published. It resides in my
closet.

GROSS: Did you get paid?

Mr. SAGAL: I got paid about half of what I was supposed to get paid, and it
was kind of a problem.

GROSS: So you were expecting Gail Palmer, the, you know, porn director who
you were ghost writing the memoir for, you expected her to look a certain kind
of sexy transgressive way. So what did she look like?

Mr. SAGAL: She looked like, I guess, what she was at that time, which was a
Michigan housewife who wintered in Florida. She was wearing, if I remember
her correctly, a kind of a velour-ish jumpsuit when I met her at the airport.
She had a lot of makeup on and somewhat large hair. But she looked like, you
know, somebody who spent their winters, you know, down in Boca going and
getting the early bird special at the various restaurants. I went and spent
some time with her there, and that's exactly what she did.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait,
Don't Tell Me," and the author of the new book, "The Book of Vice." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait,
Don't Tell Me," and the author of the new book, "The Book of Vice." It's based
on observations during his excursions to strip clubs, casinos, a porn set and
a swingers' club.

Something I found really interesting and quite paradoxical. The owner of this
swingers' club wanted the swingers in the club to be heterosexual couples in
long-term, stable, honest relationships. And then they're going to have sex
with other people?

Mr. SAGAL: Exactly. And that's what I couldn't quite figure out, because
one of these things that these people will tell you is, this is not just about
sex. `We're not just here to get it on. We're here to get to know each
other, we're here to get to know each other as people. It's wonderful. It's
and open.' That's why my wife and I were welcome, even though we made it clear
that we weren't going to be participating, per se, because it's all about
getting to know people. But, of course, it's not about getting to know
people. If you want to get to know people, you go to your office Christmas
party, you go to a bar. I mean, this was, you know, the reason people were
coming to this location by invitation only and paying $60 as a fee for
expenses, I mean, we know why they were there.

And it seems to me, or it seemed to me, that the primary thing that they're
trying to do is they're trying to arrange the maximum amount of sexual
opportunities for themselves with the minimum amount of emotional involvement.
But my feeling about it is that can't be true, that they are aware of all the
emotional complications of physical intimacy, otherwise they wouldn't go to
such great extent to make sure that those emotional complications don't come
up. And that's why I wanted to go, to see if that was at all possible. They
say it is.

GROSS: Yes, and now I get to ask a question I don't usually get to ask on
FRESH AIR, which is...

Mr. SAGAL: Go ahead.

GROSS: Describe the orgy room.

Mr. SAGAL: Oh, the orgy room! This is very exciting.

GROSS: And by "exciting," in which way did you mean that?

Mr. SAGAL: No, I mean, I actually--here's the funny thing, I don't mean it.
I don't mean that it was exciting. Again, and I think this has to go to my
own sort of particular, whatever, neuroses or hang-ups. They have a number of
rooms at this place, many of them have doors. You go in the room, you close
the door, and the rule was, `Don't knock on the door. Whoever's inside has
whatever and whomever they need.' One room, though, was the exception.
Nothing but a curtain that was open the whole time. And the rule was,
anything that goes on in that room, anybody can come in and watch and, if
they're invited, participate. The people in there want at least other people
seeing. And that was a really popular room. It turns out that one of the
things that these people are into is not just, shall we say, a plethora of
partners but also--what's the word?--performance.

We met one couple, and the reason they came there was simply to--and they were
a committed couple, lived together. They were monogamous with each other, but
they liked to come there and be intimate with each other--if I can keep it in
the public radio vein--be intimate with each other in full view. This is what
made them happy. And other people, presumably, were happy to accommodate them
in this. That was sort of part of the scene, and again we get back to, you
know, a kind of sense of, `Well, these people are wired in a particular way.'

For my part, you know, I poked my head in, because we were looking around,
just my head, and was kind of vaguely embarrassed. You know, I was like,
`Ooh, I'm sorry. Did I open the wrong door? I'm sorry, I, you know,' backing
up. `I'll just go over here and have another Fig Newton back on the
refreshment table. Sorry.'

GROSS: So what surprised you most about your reaction at the swingers' club?

Mr. SAGAL: I think it was this, that I was as uninterested in participating
as I ended up being. Because I think that, again, this book began out of a
sense of curiosity and, `What would it be like to travel in these realms of
gold and to,' you know, to hear about Plato's Retreat back in this '70s, you
know, this fantastic era of sexual excess and hedonism and, I mean, as I say
in the book, not for nothing was it named after the inventor of the eternal
ideal.

And I think you imagined--I imagined--that if only we could have access to
these places, if only we could go to these places where the rules are finally
released, we would finally be able to experience our hedonistic selves and,
you know, reveal ourselves to be the fabulous, you know, Roman-level
connoisseurs of pleasure that we are just dying to be. If only we could be
allowed to be. And the answer is, no. In my case, no. I'm not really like
that. I live a vanilla life because I'm a vanilla guy, which is, you know,
kind of comforting.

GROSS: Do you, you know, after seeing people who were otherwise kind of
ordinary people with regular jobs and stuff, after seeing them in a swingers'
club, do you walk around on the streets now thinking like, `You never know who
the swinger is. You never know who the exhibitionist is. You never know
what's going on underneath the surface.'

Mr. SAGAL: You never do. You absolutely never do, you know. And, in fact,
ironically, a couple of days after I visited the swingers' club, I was still
in the same city where it was, and I saw one of the people walking down the
street, you know, in his tie and suit. And I'm like, `Ah!' And of
course--well, I'm not like, `Eh!' I'm like, `Oh, it's that guy. He was a nice
guy when I talked to him.' And then, of course, he took all his clothes off
and that was awkward. I mean, yeah, one of the things you find out when you
go to these places, as I say in the book, the cliche is true: These are all
doctors and lawyers, accountants, teachers. And that's who--I mean, if you're
a rock star, you know, then you don't need to go to these clubs to indulge
your hedonistic self, if you have one. That's why these are the people who
show up. They're your neighbors. And matter of fact, most of these places,
these private swingers' clubs--this one happened to be in the city--most of
them are in the suburbs, because that's where doctors, lawyers, married
accountants live.

GROSS: Peter Sagal is the host of NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and
author of the new book, "The Book of Vice." He'll be back in the second half
of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Peter Sagal, the host of
NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." In the first part of our
interview, we talked about his new book, "The Book of Vice: Very Naughty
Things (And How to Do Them)," which is based on his excursions to a swingers'
club, a porn set, casinos, an eatery he describes as Sodom's restaurant. You
get the picture. He was just an observer while researching the book, but on
"Wait, Wait" he's the center of attention, the man with the questions and the
jokes, ably assisted by his panel of humorists and news addicts.

Peter, before you started hosting "Wait, Wait," could you have answered any of
the news questions? Did you follow the news closely enough to have answered
them?

Mr. SAGAL: That's the terrifying fact. The answer is yes. My only
qualification to be on the show, to host on the show--I had no experience in
public radio--was that I was a news junkie. I was a writer, so of course I
looked for something to procrastinate, some way to procrastinate, and my
chosen method was to obsessively read newspapers. `I can't get to work on my
play; I've got to read the bowling scores in the agate type,' I'd say, and
work my way through the paper. And so, yeah. And then, of course, the curse
is, you know, it became my job. It became my job to be obsessive about news
trivia. Be careful what you wish for, America. Because now how am I supposed
to procrastinate? I procrastinate by like, I don't know, doing my taxes.

GROSS: Do you read the newspapers obsessively with a different eye now than
you used to, because now you're looking with an eye for what could be a funny
question?

Mr. SAGAL: Yeah. And that's actually kind of sad, and it's kind of warped
me. Because, you know, like the significant news of the day--the disasters,
the political movements, the things that actually affect the world and its
course--I have to ignore. Turn to page, you know, A8 to the Oddly Enough
column and see what dumb thing the latest bank robber left behind at the bank.
Was it his resume this time, was it his head shot, if was an actor? I mean,
to a certain extent, my view of the news has been skewed by my job, which is
the goofy, the dumb, the silly. Of course, I can't look at the news without
thinking about what goofy, dumb, silly thing I'm going to have to say about it
come the end of the week.

GROSS: Peter, how much of what you say on the show is scripted and how much
of it is improvised?

Mr. SAGAL: A lot of it is scripted. Well, this is what happens. We go
through the week's news. We work very hard to find the stories we're going to
talk about, to decide what we're going to say about those stories. At the end
of the week, as we get ready for our taping, we sit down, I write a lot of the
material, my colleagues write a lot of the material. I go over it on the
theory that I'm going to have to say it. We change it, we read it out loud,
we change it, we improve it, we change our attack, we pick new jokes.

And then we get up in front of an audience of about 500 people, usually, at
our home theater in Chicago with our three panelists, and we kind of throw
that thing against the wall and see what sticks. And a lot of times, the
stuff that I wrote, the stuff that my colleagues wrote, that ends up being
great. But more to the point, it's usually the spontaneous interaction
between myself, the callers, the panelists. We've done good material, and I'm
proud of having written it. The best material I think we've done on the show
is the stuff that just arose spontaneously in that room.

And I think that, to a great extent, is the appeal of the show, that, you
know, to a certain extent I like to think of our show as a sort of a peer of
"The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show" and Jay Leno's monologue and
Letterman's monologues. Well, those are brilliant and those are amazingly
well written, and I don't know if I could ever be that smart or clever. But
what I can do is I can get these people in a room with me and, like, let
things happen. And sometimes the spontaneity of it, I think, makes up for,
shall we say, my lack of wit.

GROSS: I think it's fair to say the biggest, or one of the biggest guests
you've ever had on your show, is Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor who was
investigating the Valerie Plame leak and won a conviction against Scooter
Libby. Everybody wanted to talk to him. He wasn't talking to the media. But
he was a contestant on a regular segment of your show, which is called "Not My
Job," in which...

Mr. SAGAL: Yes.

GROSS: ...the contestant has to answer questions that have nothing to do with
what they do professionally. And I want to play an excerpt of that segment
that you did with him.

(Soundbite of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me")

Mr. SAGAL: So it's great to have you here.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD: Thanks.

Mr. SAGAL: So who leaked Valerie Plame's name? Come on. No, no, I know.
You're not going to--you're not going to...

My first question...

Unidentified Man: Did you think you were going to catch him off balance on
that one?

Mr. SAGAL: No.

Man: `I wasn't expecting that! D'oh!'

Mr. SAGAL: No, no. We know, we know that you can't and would even prefer
not to speak about your work, but I have to ask you one question. What in the
world are you doing here? Because you don't actually do a lot of press. But
you're here. We're delighted. But what made you decide to join us?

Mr. FITZGERALD: Literally, I was trying to get tickets to the show. I got
them.

Mr. SAGAL: You get them.

Mr. FITZGERALD: Yeah.

Mr. SAGAL: So...

Mr. FITZGERALD: But I've been asking myself that question recently.

Mr. SAGAL: I imagine. All of a sudden...

Man: Very reserved.

Mr. SAGAL: ..what are you doing here, and you're rethinking. So you live in
the city here in Chicago?

Mr. FITZGERALD: Yes.

Mr. SAGAL: You moved here from New York?

Mr. FITZGERALD: Yes.

Mr. SAGAL: And you like it here.

Mr. FITZGERALD: A lot.

Mr. SAGAL: You live in the north side, I'm told.

Mr. FITZGERALD: Right there in...(unintelligible).

Mr. SAGAL: One of our neighborhoods. One of our neighborhoods. And you
work downtown.

Mr. FITZGERALD: Yes.

Mr. SAGAL: Right. So let me ask you, how do you feel about commuting?

Mr. FITZGERALD: I don't mind driving.

Mr. SAGAL: No, no. There we go.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Patrick Fitzgerald with Peter Sagal on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell
Me." Peter, it took me a second to get the commuting joke. Did he have any
regrets about coming on? I mean, he really was not doing media.

Mr. SAGAL: No, he wasn't. And in fact, you know, you heard me ask him in
front of--and we were in front of 10,000 people at a park in downtown Chicago
for a special summer event, so I think he--I was just as nervous as he was
that day. He doesn't do a lot of media, and I asked him the same question
that I asked him in front of those people--i.e., `why are you doing
this?'--prior to going onstage, and he gave me a slightly more serious answer.
And he said because he can't answer the media's questions, because they want
to ask him about the important things that he did that he can't talk
about--the prosecution of Scooter Libby and other such things--but he could
answer our questions, because our questions were going to be silly. And I
kind of appreciate that. I think that one of the things that we are able to
do in our little tiny place of the media universe is give serious people a
break and ask them questions that they don't usually get. He seemed to enjoy
it, at least before he came onstage.

The one thing that he was funny about was, at the end of his
appearance--again, in front of 10,000 people--we gave him parting gift--never
done this before--we got a little kid's scooter, and in front of 10,000 people
we gave it to him. And I read out the plaque that was on the scooter, and the
plaque said, `To Patrick Fitzgerald, USA, from "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."
This one will stay where you put it.' And everybody laughed, and he laughed,
and he thanked me. And then he put the scooter down and he tried to walk
offstage. And I said, `No, no, you forgot your scooter.' And he looked at me,
mortified. And everybody laughed and cheered for him to pick up his scooter.
And he knew what would happen if he did, and sure enough, he did. He picked
up the scooter. Flash bulbs flashed all over the place. And the next day,
that was in The New York Times: Patrick Fitzgerald standing there looking
awkward holding a child's scooter.

GROSS: But he was OK with that?

Mr. SAGAL: He was a little bit embarrassed, I think. He walked offstage and
he put it down. He left without it. And the next day, his staff called and
they demanded it. They wanted it back. I think they thought it was a bit of
a trophy. He, I think, was a little embarrassed about the whole thing. But I
have a feeling he enjoyed it. I have a feeling that, after all the things
have been said about him, after his inability to respond to the various
attacks in the media made on him, I think he enjoyed getting up in front of a
lot of people there in the park and on our radio audience and just being a
decent human being, which he profoundly is.

GROSS: Is there any moment on "Wait, Wait" that you wish you could take back,
that you wish never happened, where you felt like you made a bit of a fool of
yourself? So tell it to us now.

Mr. SAGAL: Exactly.

GROSS: Do it a second time!

Mr. SAGAL: Because, you know, I have--for some reason, I've never minded
very much seeming the idiot on the radio. I don't know why. I think rather
me than them. I remember, I once called Helen Thomas a little old lady to her
face, which made her very mad. And I kind of regretted that, but her response
was so delightful and non-little old ladylike that I was happy to sacrifice
myself.

Slightly more seriously, one mistake I made was I did some jokes about the
death of Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, right after he died. Because I
thought it was kind of odd the way that he had died, and strange. And I made
comments to the effect--I'm now going to get myself in even worse
trouble--that in a weird way, he'd been asking for it. All those years he'd
been chasing after animals and grabbing them by the tails, you know. And I
made a joke about, you know, how at the memorial service for him, all the
animals were sitting around with their cocktails and looking down the floor,
and finally somebody said, `You know what? I didn't like him that much. He
grabbed my tail. I didn't like that.' We got more letters of protest about
that than for anything we've ever, ever done, ever. The vicious things we've
said about the president of the United States, of both parties, of various
treasonous imprecations of our government, people are cool. I made fun of
Steve Irwin the week after he died, and our audience was very unhappy with me.
And...

GROSS: Maybe it's because he died. I mean, maybe because, you know, not
saying bad things about the dead.

Mr. SAGAL: Yeah, it was--yeah, there's that, and what I didn't realize that
he meant a lot to a lot of people.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SAGAL: I think the things I said were kind of valid, but what I learned
is that, you know, basically, my job is not to tell people what to think. My
job is to be entertaining to people and to give them a break from the week's
news, and invoking a tragedy in that way did not make anybody feel entertained
or happy.

GROSS: You...

Mr. SAGAL: It was something I regret.

GROSS: It must be hard, though, to figure out where to draw the line. It's
your job to be funny, it's your job to be fearless.

Mr. SAGAL: Yes.

GROSS: Because if you're not fearless, you're not going to be funny when it
comes to satire. And at the same point, there is, I suppose, a line that you
can cross over where it just becomes offensive to many people.

Mr. SAGAL: Exactly right. And we cross that line every week, at least
judging from our mail. We get at least one letter a week, and the letter goes
like this: `Dear "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," I am a very funny person. I
have a wonderful sense of humor and I love your show.' In other words, the
disclaimer, `I'm not a drip.' And then they say, `But this week, you made of
fun X, of left-handed Zamboni drivers. And don't you understand that
left-handed Zamboni drivers is a very serious topic and you shouldn't make fun
of it, and I demand an on-air apology.' We get a lot of demands for on-air
apologies. And in place of X or left-handed Zamboni drivers, we've had
everything from Republicans, to Democrats, to the president, to the troops, to
the generals, to the privates, to politicians, to fat people, to skinny
people, to goths. One of my favorites was protesting our treatment of the
goth community and that I needed to make an on-air apology. Basically, if we
did all the on-air apologies that people are asking us for, we'd have to do
two hours a week: an hour to do the show, and then an hour to apologize for
it.

And as you say, it's, you know, if you're going to do this well, you're going
to do it in a way that is going to annoy somebody. And if you're not annoying
anybody, then you're probably not doing it right.

GROSS: Well, it's nice to know you have a way of filling time in case
somebody ever cancels on you.

Mr. SAGAL: Exactly. `And now, we're just going to apologize for the last
three weeks worth of shows. It'll take a while, so get a nice warm beverage
to keep you company.' Yes, believe me.

GROSS: Well, what about...

Mr. SAGAL: We have lots of...

GROSS: What about politically? Do you have any editorial people saying to
you, `You can't criticize the president like that, you can't mock the
president like that.'

Mr. SAGAL: Oh, no. I mean, our show went on the air in January of 1998, two
weeks before the name Monica Lewinsky hit the news. And so we basically spent
our first six months of the show, when we were on very few stations and didn't
know what the heck we were doing, basically living as a parasite off of making
fun of the president. That president, which is something I point out, too,
sometimes when people think that we have it in for this president. That's our
bread and butter is making fun of powerful people. And people write in and
say, `Oh, you shouldn't make fun of this person of who's in charge. You don't
like the president,' I say, `I'll be happy to make fun of somebody else.
Please elect them and we'll be happy to do it.' And then they usually go away.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait,
Don't Tell Me," and author of the new book, "The Book of Vice." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait,
Don't Tell Me," and the author of the new book, "The Book of Vice."

You've been doing "Wait, Wait" from theaters, you know, in front of an
audience.

Mr. SAGAL: Yes.

GROSS: You must be very comfortable doing that because you started off in the
theater. I mean, you were writing plays.

Mr. SAGAL: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Before you were doing "Wait, Wait," so theaters are kind of like home
for you, I guess, in some ways.

Mr. SAGAL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I never--years we did the show in the
studio, talking to a microphone, I never liked it. I never felt comfortable.
I mean, Ira Glass told me, gave me some advice, you know, the classic advice,
you always think of you're talking to just one person. But I could never
imagine who that one person was, and they kept changing. And whenever I
imagined them, they were looking at me with a look of vague disapproval. It
was not a happy thing.

But you put me in front of an audience, people who I can see, people whose
reactions I can gauge, and I'm much more comfortable. I mean, it's weird. I
have a lot of anxieties. I have a lot of neuroses. But standing in front of
a large group of people? Not one of them. I can do that all day, and some
days I have. So, yeah, it's--and plus, we're doing a comedy show. And if you
say something funny in front of a large group of people, they might laugh,
which turns out to be kind of an incentive to be funnier. So it actually has
worked out fabulously well. So, yeah, one of the great things about my job is
I get to put a play every week.

GROSS: This might seem like an overly personal question, so feel free to say
you don't want to answer it. Do you remember your first pornography, like the
first time you saw a pornographic or, you know, a sexually explicit magazine
or book?

Mr. SAGAL: Well, I write about the first time I saw a pornographic film in
the book. Because, you know, I--hey, you know. And so I'm having to talk to
you about it now. It was very weird. It was exactly the wrong way. It was
my--had just arrived at college at Harvard in the early 1980s, and I was
hanging out with my roommates and I'd just met them, and we were like, `Oh,
let's be cool, let's be fun, let's do cool college things.' And one of those
things was to go down to the midnight showing at the Harvard Square theater
and see a movie called "Cafe Flesh," which is this kind of avant garde porn
movie that was made in the late '80s. I'm sorry, the late '70s. And so there
it was, you know. And so I'm sitting next to these guys who I didn't know
really well and watching this thing on this, you know, widescreen. And the
movie began, and, you know, it pretty much, after the appropriate prelude, got
down to business. And I remember feeling very uncomfortable sitting there
experiencing that in the company of my new-found friends. When you're
planning your first exposure to pornography, don't do it in public. That
would be my advice.

It was really--one of the things I remember about it was how stark it was, how
utterly biological it was. It was very surprising to me. I mean, there's
something about, you know, that kind of film that is, again, shockingly
brutal, zoologically, you know. This isn't about romance, this isn't about
decolletage, this isn't about flirting. This is about, you know, anatomical
charts come to life. And that, I think, was a bit of a shock to my young and
impressionable mind.

GROSS: Again, this might be too personal, but what...

Mr. SAGAL: Hey, you're Terry Gross! I'm ready for it.

GROSS: Yeah. So were you always like a sexually confident person?

Mr. SAGAL: Oh, jeez, have you heard nothing I've had to say? Not at all.
And in fact, I mean--haven't you been listening, Terry? I mean, and to a
certain extent, writing this whole book is, like, wanting to talk to these
sexually confident people and saying, `How do you do it? What is the nature
of sexual confidence? What does it mean? How do you carry yourself, you
know, if you're sexual? If I wanted to pretend to be sexually confident, how
should I wear my hair?' Although, in my case, it's an irrelevant question. My
goodness. No! Of course not. And I never was. And I think that most people
aren't. I really do. And I think that a lot of the things that I'm writing
about are things that the sexually unconfident, like myself, wonder about and
puzzle out because it looks so little sense to them.

For example, you know, there's a whole chapter in my book on strip clubs. And
one of the things that I couldn't figure out about strip clubs--I mean, the
few times I've been in one, like at a bachelor party--is I sat there and
always asked myself the dumbest possible question you could ask in a strip
club, which is, `What do these girls think of me?' You know, `Do they like
me?' And of course, you know, anybody who goes to strip clubs out of habit
will say, `Well, the whole reason of going to a strip club is that you don't
have to ask that question, do you?' That's the whole appeal of them, I
ultimately found out, is that it relieves us of the burden, and sometimes it
is a burden, of having to present ourselves as human beings.

GROSS: Peter Sagal, it's been great to talk with you. Thanks so much.

Mr. SAGAL: Terry Gross, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so
much for having me.

GROSS: Peter Sagal is the host of NPR's news quiz, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell
Me," and author of "The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to Do
Them)." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Lloyd Schwartz on classic Hollywood musicals available on
DVD
TERRY GROSS, host:

The DVD explosion has made lots of Hollywood musicals available on DVD. Our
critic Lloyd Schwartz surveys some of the best and some of the worst of them.

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Though many Hollywood musicals were inspired by
successful Broadway shows, Hollywood also tended to ruin the shows that were
adapted. Some of the greatest live performances I've ever seen on stage, like
Ethel Merman as Gypsy Rose Lee's mother in "Gypsy" or Richard Burton as King
Arthur in "Camelot," were not preserved in the film versions. Memorable songs
from Cole Porter's "Du Barry Was a Lady" or Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town"
were simply eliminated. Still, even weaker movie musicals usually have
numbers worth waiting for. Cole Porter's effervescent "Can-Can" was turned
into a lumbering film that's rescued the few times Frank Sinatra or Maurice
Chevalier are allowed to sing.

Hollywood's original musicals are often more successful than the adaptations.
Cole Porter wrote a terrific new score for a film with a famously checkered
reputation. It was the first big Judy Garland musical that didn't make money,
maybe because it was just too sophisticated for 1948 audiences or censors.
It's "The Pirate," based on a play by S.N. Behrman that originally starred
theatrical giants Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Directed by Vincent Minelli,
"The Pirate" is a brilliantly colorful book musical that tells the engagingly
witty story of a young woman in the West Indies whose vivid imagination is
being suppressed by a restrictive colonial society. Gene Kelly plays a
traveling actor who literally hypnotizes Garland and pretends to be the
ruthless pirate of her fantasies.

(Soundbite of "The Pirate")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) There's a pirate known to fame
Black Macoco was the pirate's name
In his day, the tops was he
'Round the "Carib-bean,"
or "Ca-rib-be-an" Sea

Mr. GENE KELLY: (Unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of wood breaking)

Ms. GARLAND: (Singing) Mack the Black
'Round the Carib-bean
Mack the Black
Or Ca-rib-be-an Sea
Mack the Black
'Round the Carib-bean
'Round the Carib-bean
Or Ca-rib-be-an Sea

As a child his nurse foretold
Mack was sure to be a pirate bold
For when feeding time would come,
Mack would have a bottle but a bottle of rum

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yo-ho-ho-ho

Ms. GARLAND: (Singing) Mack the Black
Mack would have a bottle,
Mack the Black,
Oh, a bottle of rum

Group: (Singing) Yo-ho-ho

Ms. GARLAND: (Singing) Mack the Black,
Mack would have a bottle
Mack would have a bottle, bottle, bottle of rum

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Garland and Kelly also appear as guest stars in a mess of a
film called "Words and Music," a clumsy and wildly anachronistic bio-pic based
on the partnership of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, to my mind, along with
George and Ira Gershwin, Broadway's greatest songwriting team. You wouldn't
know it from the movie, but Hart in real life was Jewish, alcoholic and
homosexual. He's played by Mickey Rooney, with whom he had nothing in common
except his height.

But "Words and Music" has some legendary musical numbers: Judy Garland
singing "Johnny One Note," Lena Horne's exhilarating "The Lady Is a Tramp,"
Anne Sothern's touching "Where's That Rainbow?" and the late June Allyson in a
production number many film buffs regard her very best, "Thou Swell."

(Soundbite of "Words and Music")

Ms. JUNE ALLYSON: (Singing) Thou swell, thou witty
Thou sweet, thou grand
Wouldst kiss me pretty,
Wouldst hold my hand
Both thine eyes are cute, too,
What they do to me

Hear me holler,
A cuse a sweet lollerpaloozer indeed
I biff or ritz skin
A hut for two
Two rooms and kitchen
I'm sure would do
Give me just a plot of,
Not a lot of land
And thou swell, thou witty,
Thou grand

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: One of MGM's brightest musicals is one of Fred Astaire's best
films without Ginger Rogers, Stanley Donen's "Royal Wedding," about a
brother-and-sister act, suggested by Astaire and his sister Adele. Pure
fiction, it's probably closer to reality than "Words and Music." It's best
known song is "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know
I've Been a Liar All My Life?" But the film is even more famous for the
inspired dance Fred Astaire does with one of his most graceful partners, a
coat rack, and the magical number in which he dances on the walls and ceiling
of his hotel room. It's been out on DVD before, but Warner has issued it in a
sparkling new print that finally matches the movie's own sparkle.

But the DVD musical buffs have probably been most impatient for is the
sublimely silly, virtually plotless "The Gang's All Here," which includes one
of the most outrageous and visually dazzling musical numbers ever filmed:
Carmen Miranda in Busby Berkeley's kaleidoscopic hymn to the erotic tropics,
"The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," with its overripe chorus girls and
surrealistically overflowing cornucopia of Freudian strawberries and bananas.

(Soundbite of "The Gang's All Here")

Ms. CARMEN MIRANDA: (Singing) I wonder why does everybody look at me
And then begin to talk about the Christmas tree
I hope that means that everyone is glad to see
The lady in the tutti-frutti hat

The gentlemen, they want to make me say, `Si, si!'
But I don't tell them that, I tell them, `yes, siree'
And maybe that is why they come for dates to me
The lady in the tutti-frutti hat

Some people say I dress too gay,
But every day I feel so gay
And when I'm gay, I dress that way
Is something wrong with that?
No
Americanos tell me that my hat is high
Because I will not take it off to kiss a guy
But if I ever start to take it off, ay yi!
Hi-yi?
I do that once for Johnny Smith
And he is very happy with
The lady in the tutti-frutti hat

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: On at least this one occasion, the usually more formulaic 20th
Century Fox pulled out, or ignored, all the stops and allowed a director
uninhibited poetic license.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical musical editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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