BWW Reviews: 'Wait, Wait' Marathon Leaves San Diego Howling

The masterful comics of NPR's Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! delivered a panoply of laughs, hoots, howls and giggles to a sold-out audience at the San Diego Civic Theatre on Thursday. The two-plus-hour May Day marathon, hosted by Peter Sagal and led by a consummate panel of comedians that included Alonzo Bodden, Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber, brought the house down - to their knees - in uncontrollable laughter. With the behind-the-scenes panel of producers hovering in the background, the spectators were left begging for mercy and panting for more.

Described as "The oddly informative news quiz from NPR" on Twitter, where Sagal is depicted as a sanguine-looking Samurai, the show's sweeping popularity belies the unpretentious attitudes of the participants. Their deadpan delivery of even the most passionate declarations, with humor and without putting on airs, endears them to their countless salivating fans.

What made this segment extra special was the fact that it was one of the show's final appearances for fifty-year broadcasting veteran and Wait, Wait... judge and scorekeeper Carl Kasell. He and Sagal have become "walking on water" cult figures to their followers: not just Public Radio geeks, but an almost unlimited variety of kids, senior citizens, "trivia nerds," and listeners hungry for generous doses of witty jocularity to spice up their weekly news reports. It's been said, only partly humorously, that Kasell "sprinkles magical humor dust on the script." No doubt everyone in the audience felt privileged to have witnessed one of the last stanzas of his swan song.

As a long-time Wait, Wait... addict, I was eager to discover how a live taping of the show differed from a weekly broadcast, and to see what really makes the show tick. Apart from the obvious dissimilarity in overall length, I was fascinated to learn that the comic riffs extend much beyond the scope of the usual short bytes heard on the radio, and that the almost flawless host, alternatively a writer, actor and director, does make very occasional biffs that need correcting. But I was not at all surprised at the panelists' priceless facial gestures and brazen bons mots, that the narrative was sprinkled with "in" jokes to please San Diegans, or at the fact that Sagal and the show's producers rehearse meticulously to create the effortless spontaneity that leaves fans breathless with delight.

This week's panel had extraordinary chemistry and played off each other perfectly. Not unexpectedly, the recent imbroglio involving the NBA and L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was the topic of a lengthy discussion. Stand-up comic and TV comedy actor Bodden played up the racial underpinnings of the subject with relentless determination and sanguine wit, skillfully weaving the issue into the evening's discussion. Reacting to Felber's supreme geekdom and seemingly limitless wealth of trivia loading his brain (undoubtedly a result of Felber's writing for Real Time with Bill Maher and the geeky Marvel Comics Skrull Kill Krew miniseries), Bodden created another running gag on the order of, "Adam, how much free time do you have?" Both Sagal and award winning humorist Poundstone endlessly exploited the riotous possibilities related to the name of George Clooney's newly minted fiancée Amal Alamuddin, tripping over vowels and consonants beyond anyone's wildest imagination, and eliciting enough laughter to sustain an audience three times the size of the one in attendance.

The choice of guest Rick Schwartz, Zookeeper at the perennially iconic San Diego attraction, was a brilliant one, providing endless guffaws over his "co-workers" for the show: a seven-foot boa constrictor that he insisted (over Sagal's skeptical protests) was not hungry; and a yellow-headed parrot with a three-word nut-induced vocabulary that included "Hello" and a cell phone ring.

But Schwartz did not need to rely on his animal kingdom companions for witty material; he was thoroughly engaging, and replete with a limitless supply of entertaining anecdotes about his zoo-related experiences.

I was also thrilled to discover that Sagal allowed for a few minutes of questions from audience members, and felt comfortable enough to respond with engaging frankness. A memorable moment came when someone asked Kasell, "Carl, you must be able to do this show with your eyes closed. What are you looking at?" He replied, utterly pokerfaced, "My eyes are closed." The audience laughed uproariously, but also with genuine fondness and appreciation.

Toward the end, Sagal told Poundstone, who had become red-faced from hopeless paroxysms of laughter, "Paula, I don't think I've ever made you laugh so much." That's probably true of everyone else at the Civic Theatre, myself included. I cannot Wait to hear this weekend's broadcast.

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From This Author Erica Miner

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