Peter Sagal: Some Political Freedoms Just For Laughs

The ancient Greeks did it. Shakespeare mastered it. Will Rogers mass marketed it. Even educated fleas did it. And now, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert may be taking political satire and humor to a new level. Host Scott Simon talks to Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me, about the influence of comedy on politics, and vice versa.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Crowds have gathered on the National Mall for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, called by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, carrying signs like Vote Sanity and I Thought There'd Be Cookies. Organizers insist they have no political agenda, but with upcoming midterm elections, any crowd presents political possibilities.

Political wit Peter Sagal of NPR's WAIT WAIT DON'T TELL ME joins us from Philadelphia, where they've been doing the show this week. Peter, thanks so very much for being with us.

PETER SAGAL: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: So is this something new, the Colbert/Jon Stewart rallies?

SAGAL: Well, I mean, it is and it isn't. It seems new now, but theres been -it seems at least a minor tradition of comedians ostensibly getting involved in the public sphere. Pat Paulson used to run for president every now and then. That counts, doesn't it? He was a comedian.

And Will Rodgers, I'm not quite sure about his participation, but he was engaged, and he was a pretty beloved figure. But I think that for the most part, people who have my job are expected to be standing on the sidelines - far on the sidelines - and making fun of things.

SIMON: But have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, when they start holding mass rallies, do they become, in a sense, part of the very aspect of culture that they're mocking?

SAGAL: Well, I mean, I guess the simplest answer is they're already part of the culture. I mean, one of the things that seems to have happened over the last decade or so is that Stewart and Colbert - and to some extent, our show, WAIT WAIT DON'T TELL ME - have become part of the cultural discourse. You know, people wait to hear - I do; I'm a huge fan of both of those guys - I wait to hear what they're going to say about it.

So I guess you could argue that they're saying what they're going to say about it outdoors in a rally, at a place so associated with political movements - is just really another step. All they're doing is, they're saying it into, you know, a P.A. system rather than into a TV camera.

SIMON: You saw Jon Stewart's interview with President Obama this week?

SAGAL: I did.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the smallest possible part of it. At one point, Jon Stewart hailed the president as dude. Now, when we refer to the president on second reference as Mr. Obama, we get angry email from people saying: You're not respecting the president. Does this introduce the fact that there are different contexts and different expectations?

SAGAL: Absolutely. I mean, not to get too classic a reference on you, but there's the legend of the jester and the king. You know, and they used to say that the jester is the only person who could tell the truth to the king. One thinks of King Lear and his jester, and then one thinks of what happened to both of them, and then maybe one slowly backs away from that idea. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: ...yeah, I think...

SIMON: If you're a jester, that's a hard presence to have in mind, yeah.

SAGAL: No, no. You don't want to go down that road. But at the same time, isn't it kind of great that somebody calls the president dude?

There was a great story from Chicago's history, which I bet you know, back in the pre-Civil War days, the mayor of Chicago was - they were visited by the Prince of Wales. And he brought him to a balcony, and he looked out and he said, guys, this is the Prince of Wales. Prince, these are the boys. And that's why we have America, so we can, you know, address extremely important people informally.

One of the great things about Jon Stewart is that he, by his profession, by his existence, by his talent, by his wit, exempts himself. He's not on anybody's side. That's why I love him. When he starts turning into a player on one or two sides in the political debate, I get disappointed. I want him to be able to call the president dude and know in my heart of hearts that he's not doing it because he hates the president, he's not doing it 'cause he likes the president, he's doing it 'cause that's his natural reaction.

SIMON: You know, every interview I've seen with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert suggests that they seem to have a grip on reality. They say, look, I'm just making jokes. But you do run into people who say those shows are the only news I need, or that those two are the only people in public life that I trust. What's that mean?

SAGAL: I think it means that they have a freedom to say what they mean. They have this wonderful freedom to tell the truth. They're not bound by the rules. I mean, an example I like to give - and from our own show - is Sarah Palin famously said that she was an expert on foreign policy because you can see Russia from Alaska. And the serious news organizations, you know, on television, looked into the camera and they explored this claim; you know, they actually checked if you can see Russia from Alaska. On my show, I was able to say, look, I can see Lake Michigan from my office. Does that make me a sturgeon?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: And I ask you, which is the more reasonable response to a claim like that?

SIMON: Yeah.

SAGAL: And so that's why I think people I am attracted to Colbert and Stewart, because they have a freedom that poor people like you, Scott, serious journalists, don't have. They can say exactly what they think is going on.

SIMON: Has the 24-hour news cycle made a big difference between what folks in your line of work can do, and the ancient Greek satirists?

SAGAL: Yes. Its a good thats a good question because yeah, it obviously has, and it has for us in two important ways. First of all, it's our raw material. You know, we are making sausage, and we have an endless conveyor belt of meat flowing into our factory every day, from which to choose. But it's also important because were talking to an audience that's also looking at the same conveyor belt, that they know what we're talking about, so we can make jokes about Sarah Palins comment, about Eliot Spitzer's peccadilloes, about anything we choose to make, and we can be well assured that A, the audience knows about it and B, the audience wants to hear what we have to say about it.

You know, we're all - we're in a huge stadium filled with millions of people watching the same silly game, and so everybody around us - you know how much fun it is to go to a game and to talk to the most, you know, to know that the fan next to you is as informed as you are, if not more so; that's the best conversation you can have, and that's the kind of conversation we get to have with our audience because we're all fans and we're all watching, whether we're appalled or not at what we're seeing.

SIMON: Peter Sagal, host of NPR's WAIT WAIT DON'T TELL ME, speaking from Philadelphia.

Peter, always a pleasure.

SAGAL: Scott, it's always a joy to talk to you. Thanks.

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