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Sagal Explains How to be Naughty in 'Vice'

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Peter Sagal, host of Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me, talks about his new book, The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them).


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up: Bill Medley still being musically righteous.

We're in the studio now with Peter Sagal. Peter, of course, is familiar to many listeners as the witty and informed host of WAIT, WAIT…DON'T TELL ME, but that's mostly the result of good editing.

Peter Sagal's own genuine gifts as a wise observer and compassionate critic are on display in his new book, "The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them)." In which he gambles, gorges, goes to strip bars, swingers clubs and porn movie sets, and manages to deduct them on his taxes as a business expense.

Peter, nice to have you in the studio.

PETER SAGAL: That as you have figured it out was the whole point, Scott. It's great to be here.

SIMON: I feel like we should have your accountant on the air…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: …to you but do you (unintelligible)?

SAGAL: My accountant is a very nice man in rural Minnesota who - suburban Minneapolis, I should say, who I think was shocked by some of the line items on my taxes for the last year.

SIMON: You go to a swingers club.

SAGAL: I do.

SIMON: With your wife.

SAGAL: I should say we do.

SIMON: I want to get you to explain what a swingers club is. I do this because you make the point in the book that you actually took no pains to conceal your identity because if anybody recognizes you're Peter Sagal of WAIT, WAIT…DON'T TELL ME, you wouldn't oh, my gosh, you'd be delighted.

SAGAL: I say, yeah, take that, click and clack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: A swingers club is in this particular case - and this, I think, is typical of a certain segment of what is called the lifestyle - is a private home that is opened up to carefully vetted couples - couples only - that's capital C, capital O - for people to come.

This particular place, again, typical, is set up as a kind of private social club. There's drinks, there's dancing, there's conversation. There's gaming. You want to play poker, a strip poker, anything else. There was a backgammon set. You can hang out. You can be socially. You can be convivial(ph). You can drink your own liquor, of course, because there's no liquor license. It's a private accommodation. And…

SIMON: And you bring your own bottle…

SAGAL: You bring your own bottle.

SIMON: Like it's a paint party or something.

SAGAL: Exactly, which you mark with a (unintelligible). And then, if everybody is off a mind, you and anybody who can sense can go off into rooms reserved for the purpose and pursue what everything, anything you want to pursue. It is always understood that this happens with the consent and often participation or at least witnessing of your partner. It is very straightforward.

SIMON: They seem to make a point of separating sex and love.

SAGAL: That is…

SIMON: At least the kind of sex…

SAGAL: …an explicit point. I mean…

SIMON: Yeah.

SAGAL: …this has nothing to do with intimacy. You're confusing sex with intimacy, said the owner of the club to me, and I - to which my response should have been, well, doesn't everybody? I mean, isn't sex intimacy? I mean, isn't it in fact almost a synonym? And to them it is not.

In a weird way, emotional attachment must be the kind of social disease that can ruin all the good times going on. That would be my supposition. Nina Hartley, the world's most articulate porn star, who I also talked about in the book…

SIMON: Yeah.

SAGAL: She maintains that the idea of sexual orientation is far, far more complicated than the way we usually mean it - straight or gay. She thinks that it applies to all kinds of different interests, abilities, lack of abilities, enthusiasms, immunities, and I certainly think that this is true of this particular scene, that you have to be of a particular mind. You have to be the kind of person who not only thinks of sex in a particular way but feels it in a particular way, or rather maybe more to the point it doesn't feel in a particular way to enjoy the scene.

SIMON: But let's have everybody listening, sit back, take a deep breath and maybe pour a second cup of coffee.

SAGAL: Exactly. Good morning, America.

SIMON: You go to several strip clubs in the course of the book. Of course, you dragged a bunch of academics along with you.

SAGAL: Well, I mean, I've already said, if you want to have a good time, bring a bunch of female professors of sociology. I mean, really, the frat boys envied me. I had a puffy like that.

They sort of explained to me the economics of the strip club, where the strip clubs fit in that kind of whole underground sex trade economy that ranges from one end, you know. Basically that was pretty much the most-mild end of it all the way up to the legal brothels of other counties in Nevada.

SIMON: I mean, they've been studying this the way a sociologist in Chicago might study the steel industry…

SAGAL: Exactly.

SIMON: …or the car industry.

SAGAL: This is their area of expertise. They've interviewed thousands of women, they've written papers on it, I mean, they're interested in particular about how the women move to the economy, how they are exploited or not.

For example, they didn't think that these women were being degraded by performing there, as one of them says to me and I quote here in the book, "you want to talk about a degrading job, try McDonalds." They're actually admiring these women who were getting a tremendous economic return on their talents and attributes without giving up as much as men and the other women involved in the sex trade did.

SIMON: Has the nature of your - I don't want to call them vices - the nature of what you enjoy in life changed after writing this book in being exposed the way you were?

SAGAL: I did and it didn't. There were certain things that - I mean, there are certain things that I loved. For example, there's performance at a club called Forty Deuce in Las Vegas neo-burlesque, which I thought was astoundingly great. And I got a chance to meet some people who were fascinating and interesting, people like Nina Hartley, people like Shane(ph), people like Stormy Daniels, all porn performers who are just amazing and interesting and articulate people.

But to a certain extent, I think the general rule is, in terms of access to these places, be careful what you wish for. I think a lot of these things look a lot better from the outside than they do from the inside.

But I always come back to the same lesson, which is, I think a lot of people think of these things as ways to escape themselves, to escape their lives. And then you go to the swingers club or to the casino or to the restaurant or wherever you go, and it might work for a moment, but wherever you go, you bring yourself with you.

SIMON: Peter Sagal. His new book is "The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them)."

Peter, thank you very much.

SAGAL: My pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

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Excerpt: 'The Book of Vice'

The Book of Vice Cover

The Book of Vice

by Peter Sagal

Hardcover, 272 pages

List Price: $24.95

Chapter One

Swinging or Dinner Parties Gone Horribly Wrong

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a couple at a swingers club announce that they are there merely to observe, and not actually to swing, everybody loses interest in that couple pretty quickly.

"Research?" said one young woman, her enthusiasm for further conversation with Beth and me shrinking and disappearing like that little point of light on old vacuum-tube TVs. "Research?"

Well, uh, yeah. Beth and I had been assured by Ross and Rachel, owners of the Swingers' Shack, a private, invitation-only club for participants in what is called the Lifestyle, that it would be just fine if we wanted only to observe, to talk to people. "No pressure," we were told. "It's actually much better than a bar," said Ross, because at a bar, you know, there was anxiety, there were expectations you didn't necessarily want to meet. Here, everything was cool, laid-back ... we, the merely curious, could happily interface with the avidly active. Except the real difference between the Swingers' Shack and a bar is that at a bar somebody you meet might have come just for a drink or to watch a game on TV. Here, you had to bring your own liquor, on which you wrote your name with a Sharpie, and the only TV in the place was showing hard-core porn, adding a sometimes discomfiting bass note of grunts and moans to the peas-and-carrots babble going on around us. No: with apologies to Ross's nice spread of Hershey kisses and a $29.95 chocolate fountain, the only reason people came to the Swingers' Shack was to get it on.

Except for us, which we made clear as soon as we had to, which was pretty early in any conversation. And then our interlocutor's eyes would go vacant, and soon he or she would wander off to talk to somebody else. Or, once, a man indicated his boredom with us by idly reaching out and palpating his wife's breast.

I don't blame them: this April night was the last party at the Swingers' Shack, maybe for the summer, maybe for the year, maybe forever. There was no time to waste with people like me. But still: in a lifetime in which I've been to all kinds of sexual marketplaces-bars, parties-this was the first time that I was going to get ignored because I wouldn't put out.

I had contacted Ross through his website, asking for permission to come interview him, his friends, and his "guests" because of all the varieties of deviant behavior, the Lifestyle seemed the most wholesome. In it, we are told, consenting adult couples ... well, consent. The events at the Shack, like at almost every other club within the swinging community, are for the most part couples only, for various obvious and subtle reasons. And these couples have agreed that each partner can have sex with other people, within whatever confines they've set for themselves, and in each other's presence. It offers all the pleasure, security, safety, trust, and stability of monogamy, without the monogamy.

In fact, it sounded perfect, a model of what most men, and many women, would want from their sex lives-not for nothing was Plato's Retreat, the swingers club of the seventies, named after the inventor of the Eternal Ideal. And of course, to my mind, it was utterly impossible. How could stable, happy marriages survive adultery as a hobby?

We are told, via their occasional interviews in the press, that swingers or Lifestylers or whatever are no different from you and me ... they meet up to socialize, talk, drink, and dance with their good friends, old and new. And then they have sex with them. Which makes me stop, and consider the various good friends my wife and I have, and then consider how it would be if one of our suburban dinner parties ended with us removing our clothes and performing sexual acts, and I have to put my head between my knees and take deep breaths.

Ross told me straight up that he had been the recipient of some bad press, and was a little nervous about opening his club to a writer. We agreed, eventually, that I would first come and interview him and Rachel at the club, which was also their home, and then, if everyone felt good about it, my wife and I (Couples Only!) would attend one of their parties.

I asked him via e-mail: "And it's all right if we're there merely to observe, and not to participate?"

"Absolutely," he replied. "We encourage that. Nobody has to do anything they don't want to. No pressure at all. Although I looked up your picture online. I don't think you've got anything to worry about."

Excerpted from The Book of Vice by Peter Sagal. Copyright (c) 2007 by Peter Sagal. Reprinted with permission by HarperEntertainment, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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