Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- It wasn't so long ago -- the mid-'90s, to be precise -- that NPR was not a place to be making jokes about the news.
"They had been known for many years as being humor impaired," said producer Doug Berman. "They were a very, very serious network, that when it was not discussing Tibetan pygmy flute-makers was playing Dvorak."
Now, however, the network routinely mocks everything from political foibles to offbeat human interest stories on its popular weekly quiz show, the Peabody Award-winning "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!", which Berman helped create.
"Wait Wait," which is now concluding its 12th year, has gained a sizable following by channeling the news through its thoughtful comedic sensibilities.
In front of a live audience, host Peter Sagal quizzes phone contestants on newsmakers and news topics, presented in often offbeat ways. Winners get the priceless honor of NPR newsman Carl Kasell's voice on their home answering machines. Three panelists, from a revolving list of about a dozen, also try to answer news questions, and each week the show welcomes a celebrity to play on a phone contestant's behalf.
On a recent trip to Atlanta -- the show travels from its Chicago home base about a dozen times a year -- all the principals were in place. Sagal, Kasell and the show's staff lingered on stage at the city's Cobb Energy Centre on a Thursday afternoon and ran through the script for the week's program, which would start at 7:30 p.m. In a small dining room nearby, "Wait Wait" panelists Amy Dickinson, Roy Blount Jr. and Charles P. Pierce prepared their stories for the episode's "Bluff the Listener" game.
Sagal and Kasell stood at lecterns; the panelists would take seats at a table when the show began. At center stage was a comfy chair next to a side table adorned with a multicolored ball the staffers called the "UDO," or "unidentified disco object." The celebrity guest, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, would get the seat of honor.
"Wait Wait," which follows the popular auto call-in show "Car Talk" on many NPR stations, reaches 2.85 million listeners a week, according to the network, and its podcasts receive 1 million downloads a month -- making it one of NPR's most listened-to shows. It's heard on about 520 stations nationwide.
The concoction goes back to Berman, producer of "Car Talk," who was asked by the network to create a follow-up when the Magliozzi brothers' automotive advice program reached new heights of popularity in the '90s.
"They were all kind of excited about 'Car Talk' -- this was the opportunity to make the weekend something different," he says. "And that's what I do anyway -- my genre is sort of entertainment that's not a complete waste of time."
'Blind and dumb luck'
Berman was largely inspired by Groucho Marx's old quiz show, "You Bet Your Life," which was less about questions and prizes than giving the Marx brother a comedic platform. (Another inspiration: "My Word!", an old BBC vocabulary show that kept rerunning on public radio stations long after many of the panelists had died.)
But "Wait Wait" wasn't an overnight success, Berman says, as the show struggled to find a balance between humor and information.
The first pilot, with NPR reporter Ray Suarez in the host chair, leaned too heavily on news; the second had too much comedy. Early episodes featured Dan "Ask Dr. Science" Coffey as host, but it wasn't until Sagal, an early "Wait Wait" panelist, took over hosting that the show started to find its voice.
Sagal, a playwright and screenwriter -- he wrote what became "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," though his draft lacked dancing, he laughs -- characterizes getting his job as "blind and dumb luck."
"My background was entirely in the theater, but not as a performer for years," he says just before the show's live Thursday taping. "I'm now a performer -- and I'm a comedian. I never expected to be any of those things. ... I never thought I'd be [the guy] in the front of the room people would be looking at and laughing."
The fame is nice, he says, but narrow -- which suits him just fine.
"TV and movies are omnipresent. ... Public radio, you either listen to it and love it, or have no idea what it is," he says. "So in many ways it's the total best kind of fame. I'm going to go out there tonight and 3,000 people [who know the show] are going to be really glad to see me. And conversely, I walked into the mall today and none of the thousands of people there knew who I was."
Kasell, the playful, gentlemanly announcer, caught Berman's attention after cracking a joke about his early-rising sleep habits at a network meeting. The longtime "Morning Edition" newsman told an audience he gets up at 1:05 a.m. for his job. Why the extra five minutes?, he was asked. "I like to sleep in," he replied.
Though he's retiring from his longtime "Morning Edition" duties at the end of the year, Kasell will be a "roving ambassador" (one who will now get up at 6 a.m., he says). He's also staying with "Wait Wait," where he'll continue providing his valuable voice for listeners' answering machines, a prize that originated because the show had a tight budget.
Funny and true
The Atlanta broadcast followed the schedule the show maintains in Chicago. The show's staff, led by producer Mike Danforth, begins to put together a script on Monday. On Thursday afternoon, Berman -- usually on the phone from Boston -- oversees a run-through with the staff, Sagal and Kasell, while the panelists arrive and work on their own material.
The script is pruned and tweaked, dinner is served, theater doors are opened and at 7:30 p.m. the show gets under way. It will air less than 48 hours later on public radio stations nationwide -- a much faster turnaround than "Car Talk," which airs about 10 days after taping.
The show has a solid but flexible format, maintaining the game's structure but allowing plenty of room for wisecracks and ad libs. (Sagal and Kasell have scripts; except for "Bluff the Listener" and their post-show predictions, the panelists wing it.)
Not every news item makes it. "We try to find things to be funny about," says associate producer Emily Ecton, a seven-year vet, adding that several big stories don't lend themselves to the show. "Afghanistan -- not a funny topic," she says.
The key, says Sagal, is making sure the stories are funny and ring true. In Atlanta, "Escalade" was the punch line to a story about the week's environmental talks in Copenhagen. It rang true, but didn't seem funny -- particularly to a group growing weary of Tiger Woods references. It was changed to "Hummer."
And Amy Dickinson had to remove some Yiddish words from a story based on a New York Times report about an Israeli dog brought to Montana. The expressive language may have been funny, but it wasn't true; Israelis speak Hebrew, Sagal pointed out.
The show has evolved over the years. Originally, it was conducted from the station and the panelists called in from remote studios, or even their homes. Once, recalled Kasell, that meant the panelists were scattered from London to Los Angeles. Another week, said Pierce, you could hear a lawnmower rumbling behind Blount.
"[The mower operator] got his own show later," Blount said.
Few have what it takes to be panelists, added Berman.
"They have to have an unusual set of characteristics: They have to be funny, they have to be smart, they have to be in tune with what's going on in the world, they have to be improvisational and they have to be able to play well with other kids," he said. "We've tried out a ton of people ... and only found a handful can do the show well."
Other regulars include humorist Tom Bodett, comedian Paula Poundstone, essayist P.J. O'Rourke, comedy writer Adam Felber and Washington Post writer Roxanne Roberts.
Dickinson, the "Ask Amy" advice columnist, relishes the give and take.
"I always dreamed of being on 'The Dick Van Dyke Show,' " she said, referring to the quick-witted 1960s sitcom about comedy writers. "This is the closest I'll get."
Which is not to say that making comedy isn't serious business. At one point during the runthrough, producer Ian Chillag listened to Sagal rephrase a line. "That's funny," he said, matter-of-factly, typing the changes into his script.
Nobody laughed. But, that night and that weekend, they would.