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NPR's Peter Sagal on the obligation to be funny, Jewish identity, new book, ahead of St. Louis visit

Peter Ringenberg

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with Peter Sagal, comedian, author and host of NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Sagal is the keynote speaker at this year’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, which will be held from Nov. 4 to 16. The Chicago-based humorist boasts an illustrious career in radio, television, theater and screenwriting.

His latest book, “The Incomplete Book of Running,” explores his venture into a different world – that of long-distance running. He writes about why running is good, and why it helps with “the practice of perseverance” through life’s toughest moments.

But the recent fatal shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shifted the conversation to Sagal’s Jewish identity.

“It’s an interesting time, of course, to be a Jew in America … particularly if you’re known for trying to be funny about the news,” Sagal said.

“It’s as if God decided it wasn’t challenging enough to sell a book about running, the most boring topic in the world, to the general population. They wanted me to make sure we’d all be paranoid and terrified at the same time – so here we go.”

Solidarity in times of hate

Sagal described how his production team goes about covering tragedies on his comedic news commentary show – they don’t.

“We just don’t talk about it,” he said. “There’s nothing funny about it, and we see our job as being funny and entertaining and light and giving people a break, and you just don’t make jokes about those kinds of things.” The hate crime was the worst anti-Semitic attack on the Jewish community in the United States, questioning Sagal’s belief that “Jews have made it in America.”

“We’ve succeeded far beyond the wildest dreams of our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents … Turns out that we were maybe incorrect about [being safe] and that’s very shocking,” he added.

Sagal reiterated the need for solidarity and for people to use their freedoms and power to advocate for those who are disenfranchised, citing last week’s tragic event as an example of that.

“What [Jews] should also be doing is we should be using our power and success and influence – because we’ve achieved that in society – to look out for those people that don’t have the advantages we have. And by that I mean: immigrants, Muslims, non-gender conforming people – people who’ve been getting a lot of grief from very powerful people who should know better.”

Living up to obligation

Sagal described the wide range of guests he’s talked to on “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” from Simone Biles and Tom Hanks to Carol Burnett, one of Sagal’s inspirations. And while he’s funny on his show, Sagal said he doesn’t want to live up to the obligation to be funny all the time.

“Not everything I say is a joke,” he explained. Still, he recognizes the “emotional investment” radio listeners have, and uses his platform to also connect with his listeners off the air.

“People feel a real intimate connection to those of us who are lucky enough to do this for a living. We’ve been a part of their lives: we’ve been in their homes, in their cars, in their bathrooms. And so when people come up to me … I feel an obligation not to disappoint them.

“I try to treat the people who I meet on day-to-day basis, who think of me as their friend because of this weird relationship you have with people on the radio … as my friend, and try to make sure they don’t regret that emotional investment.”

Related Event
What: Peter Sagal at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, November 4, 2018
Where: Staenberg Family Complex, Edison Gymnasium, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146
Price: $45

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdanand Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.