This week’s guest is the remarkably witty, acerbic, and insightful Peter Sagal.
He is the host of one of my favorite shows, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
He is to wit what Mount Chimborazo is to mountains.
If you’ve never heard of Mount Chimborazo, it’s time for you to fire up Google to learn why it trumps Mount Everest as far as mountain metaphors go.
Appearing on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! was on my bucket list.
I reached that pinnacle of personal success in 2013 when I played “Not My Job” on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
Like many remarkable people, Peter has worn a multitude of hats: playwright, screenwriter, marathoner, Jeopardy contestant, podcaster, documentary host, foreign correspondent, and magician’s assistant.
Peter hosted CONSTITUTION USA with Peter Sagal for PBS and the National Geographic Channel. Essentially, this was about a bald Jewish guy riding around the Midwest on a Harley.
He studied English literature at Harvard and is the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things (and How to Do Them) and The Incomplete Book of Running.
In this episode, we cover what it’s like to be the target of Fox, Bill O’Reilly, and an evangelical megachurch pastor, the reason why it works to make fun of Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos but not Donald Trump’s, the flawed assumption that renders the US Constitution impotent these days, and why it’s a good thing for Peter that I didn’t die on August 17, 2022.
I know you’re going to enjoy this episode with the one and only Peter Sagal.
If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!
Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Peter Sagal:
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I'm Guy Kawasaki and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable.
Helping me in this episode is the remarkably witty, acerbic and insightful, Peter Sagal.
He is the host of one of my favorite shows, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!
He is to wit what Mount Chimborazo is to mountains.
If you've never heard of Mount Chimborazo, it's time for you to fire up Google, to learn why it trumps Mount Everest as far as mountain metaphors go.
Appearing on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! was on my bucket list.
I reached that pinnacle of personal success in 2013 when I played not my job on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!
Like many remarkable people, Peter has worn a multitude of hats; playwright, screenwriter, marathoner, Jeopardy consultant, podcaster, documentary host, foreign correspondent, and magician's assistant.
Peter hosted CONSTITUTION USA with Peter Sagal for PBS and the National Geographic Channel.
Essentially, this was about a bald Jewish guy riding around the Midwest on a Harley.
He studied English literature at Harvard and is the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things (and How to Do Them) and The Incomplete Book of Running.
In this episode, we cover what it's like to be the target of Fox Bill O'Reilly and an evangelical megachurch pastor, the reason why it works to make fun of Bill Clinton's sexual peccadillo but not Donald Trump's, the flawed assumption that renders the US constitution impotent these days, and why it's a good thing for Peter that I didn't die on August seventeenth, 2022.
I'm Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People. And now, here's the one and only Peter Sagal.
In my humble opinion, there are few honors greater than being on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!
It was clearly on my bucket list and I still haven't got on Fresh Air, but I think after I've been on Fresh Air and Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, I can die.
So, in a sense, Terry Gross's producer is keeping me alive.
I know him, Danny Meyer. I could let him know never to let you on. You'll live forever. It's a nontraditional way to immortality, but it could work.
Gee, thanks, Peter. I really appreciate that.
I want to know, if you think that Jesus' hands are full, or shall I say occupied, with pedophile priests, racism, misogyny, poverty, human suffering and stolen documents or does she still have time to deal with blasphemous jokes?
That, now this shows, I think, maybe intentionally your deep familiarity with my dumb little radio show.
Because if I'm not mistaken, Guy, you are referring to the culprit pope, the kerfuffle that got me my one and only condemnation on Fox News. Am I right?
I know sadly, I'm actually ... I know this is the sort of thing that is like the monkey paw thing, you should not wish for this, but I've always felt a little strange that Fox News doesn't hate me more or take the time to condemn me more because I'm out there trying to do what I can to destroy America just like their usual targets, and yet, they don't seem to care.
And so, the one time it happened though, I learned why one should not wish for this.
As you, I think, knowingly referenced, I made a joke, it's been so long, I don't even understand the context of the joke. I think it was about some ... Oh, I think I remember it was about some program, some Catholic church either institutionally or locally tried to make Jesus cool for the young, the Millennials.
It was a selfie.
Right. And they said, "Come in and take a selfie with Jesus because you young people like selfies or so we're told," I think that was the idea behind it.
And I made some sort of joke that coming in and getting a selfie with Christ in the cross that he can't fold the camera because his hands are occupied, which was, I will admit it, a pretty lame joke, but it was about crucifixion.
As I'm sure being a biblical fellow, Jesus was quite famously crucified and that's what the reference was in my lame joke. But for reasons that I assume have to do with just not having enough else to do, some conservative Catholic organization decided that that was the day's outrage.
And they imagined that I had been making a joke about Jesus masturbating.
Now, I hadn't been, and furthermore, it would never have occurred to me to do so.
And the fact that they immediately went there says more about them than me. Maybe that's what they think about all the time.
And then, to make it even weirder, Bill O'Reilly, who again listeners might remember as having been on Fox News at one time, decided that was worthy of his time as well.
Again I watched the whole episode and I honestly believe they had seven minutes in the C block and nothing to fill it with. Because they have the A block which is where they go on about the thing that really bothers them and then they have the final block of the show where he gets to make his big wind up, that's show business.
But they had a little intermediate step in there and they had nothing.
And so I think somebody said to Bill, "We got this Catholic guy who says that some guy in NPR made a jerking off joke about Jesus. Is that going to be okay?"
And I imagine Bill O'Reilly saying, and this is entirely based on his demeanor during they were discussing me and the segment, I imagine his demeanor when they pitched it to him at a production meeting that day going, "Is that all we got? Really?"
Because his heart wasn't in it, Guy. I've seen people go on about the threats they believe are truly going to destroy America's moral fiber and Bill just wasn't in it. He wasn't into it.
He's like, "So, what you're saying is some guy at NPR, this Sagal guy," they put up some pictures of me, made this joke, "Yes, NPR, publicly funded with your taxpayers, making obscene jokes about Jesus pleasuring himself," and he just didn't care.
And he called me a name or two and that was ended.
But then, he went on to what was really bothering with some other segment. But just because of that sort of slightly halfhearted attack from Bill O'Reilly, I got a wave of hate mail that was really vivid.
And it made me think that there are people in this world who, when they get up in the morning, say to themselves, "I'm not sure what I'll do during the course of my day, but certainly, in the evening, when Bill O'Reilly tells me the name of today's enemy, I will send that person some vicious and violent hate mail."
And I don't judge those people. We all get through life however we can, and if that gives them purpose, that's great. It was a little distressing.
I vaguely remember somebody writing in and saying, "I am a $10,000-annual donor to NPR and I will be withdrawing my donations now that you have made this terrible joke about Jesus pleasuring himself."
And there were some people who were worried like, "Oh, my god, we're going to lose this guy money." And I'm like, "Yeah, no. Nobody's donating $10,000 a year to NPR if they're watching Bill O'Reilly getting upset about a segment in block C. Yeah, that's not happening."
And that was the end of it. I got a little taste. It was like the movie Being John Malkovich and people get to be John Malkovich for four minutes before they're spit out in highway of New Jersey. I got to be an enemy of Fox News just to see what it was like for four minutes.
And it's not fun, but at the same time, I can't admit that I actually had the experience.
I have people and friends who have FBI agents on their speed dial in case somebody shows up kill them, so I can't complain.
I would say that you were Liz Cheney before Liz Cheney was Liz Cheney.
I would not say that in any way. I've never been with Liz Cheney. I don't know what it's like to be Liz Cheney, but sure. You're the host, man. Your podcast, go for it.
And then fast forward and Bill O'Reilly got fired because of sexual harassment allegations-
That's what happens to everybody who attacks me on their cable show, just so you know. It's only happened once, but it's 100 percent time. So I'm just saying.
Let me go on the record by saying that I have nothing to attack you, so don't get me fired.
You're fine. You're going to live forever and you'll have your job forever. You've got this planned out well.
If we could stick on this broad topic of what I thought were good jokes, but maybe some people thought were tasteless-
How much time do you have, Guy? Is this a podcast? Is this like a Robert Wilson play, it's twelve hours long?
Because that's basically my entire career, but go on.
Okay, okay. Only one more. Okay. Are you thinking of running for president because like Zelenskyy, you're used to bombing?
Oh, that's great. I think, first of all, I made that joke. I think some version thereof, I made a joke about bombing and nobody liked it.
And actually, I was literally booed. Parenthetically, one of the very nice things about having a live audience again, which we blocked for two years like everybody else, is that one of the nice things that a live audience does for us is that we make incredibly tasteless jokes like that, they boo and we are pre-punished.
Therefore, we can broadcast it with a clear conscience because people like, "Yes, it was tasteless. It was tasteless, but they got booed, so they know. We get to broadcast the joke anyway."
I have no interest in being president of this or any other country. I am not qualified.
I think if there's one thing we've learned about our nation is that the presidents at this point should have some vague expertise in the actual doing of their job. The results when they don't, I figure, plain to see.
The only reason that I would want to be president, and nobody's noticed this other than me is Zelenskyy who is like me, short and stocky, has lost a lot of weight. He's looking good.
So I think that when he hopefully succeeds of his defense of his homeland and is victorious over the invaders and drives them out, he should publish a book like The Besieged Diet, because it turns out that being the beleaguered president, living in the capital of the country under vicious attack is a good look.
He's lost, I think, twenty pounds. He's looking good. You can tell.
He's wearing those t-shirts, those army gray t-shirt and he is looking good.
So maybe I would do it for that reason. I don't know if the nation would want to go along with it.
Maybe he's taking up running.
Possible, although where would he ... I don't think so. He refuses to run.
How good could the food be in the-
That's also true. At a certain point, you're like, "Oh, K-rations again, whatever, MRIs again." Yeah, or it might be stressed, I don't know.
Okay. So if we could go back in time a little, I want to know how the job interview for Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! went.
So my fantasy, Peter, is they had three questions, "Are you a vegan? How many pairs of Birkenstocks do you own? Do you drive a Prius?"
And depending on those answers, you got hired. So how did it go?
No, that I think is the sort of thing you'd be asked if you were asking to be a listener to public radio.
But if you were asking to be a host on a public radio, the test is much more severe. You have to pair various cheeses with the appropriate ones. And it's tricky, Guy, because it's not just reds or whites.
Obviously, that goes without saying, but there are sweet ones. There are various kinds of cheeses. What if the cheese is French and then pasteurized? That was more difficult.
The serious answer is I was never interviewed for this job. I am unqualified for it in every way. And if they had done an interview like an actual search, I never would have got in.
So it's all dumb luck. I'm basically the guy who showed up, looking around and said, "Oh, can I do this?" And everybody was like, "Yeah." That was it, but that was how I was headhunted. That's not exactly true, but it is remarkably closer to true.
Oh, I'm disappointed.
I know. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Although oddly enough, not only do I own a Prius, that's my second car. My primary car is an EV, electric vehicle. So I'm living the dream.
You are Greta Thunberg's hero. Okay. So-
I really am. Frankly, Greta, if you're listening, stop writing me. No, I do live the lifestyle. It's like a pure club for men, not just a host of NPR, also a stereotypical listener.
Why did you go down the route of comedy instead of screenwriting?
I was and that is in fact something that I occasionally lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and think about.
My whole career was supposed to be as a writer, primarily as a playwright. I actually was a serious playwright. I wanted to be a playwright. Writing screenplay was nice. I was perfectly ... Well, I was excited to do that.
And instead I ended up doing this. How I ended up doing this is not a long story, but not particularly interesting one.
And many a time, I have looked at the ceiling and wondered about the life I didn't lead that I supposed to lead, although the funny thing, of course, is I imagine fame, fortune, Oscars, Emmys, depending on where I ended up.
And what really would've happened is probably it would've ended up writing jokes or rather writing questions for Ken Jennings on Jeopardy if I was lucky.
That's a terrible business. So I feel pretty fortunate that instead I got to be a very minor cultural figure in my own right.
If I may, I would like to go on the record and say that I am so glad you pick this route instead of screenwriting because I never go to plays.
And if you never go to plays, you certainly wouldn't consume screenplays, movies, but no, that's true.
One of the things that occurs to me when I think about my various working paths, sliding doors, whatever the current phrase is, that I was a successful playwright defined by my plays were produced by people who paid me money to produce them and charge people tickets to come see them.
And more people listen to one episode of Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! than had seen all of the performances of all of my plays combined.
I traded obscurity for slightly less obscurity and serious, shall we say art for people actually listening to what I do. So it's a good trade. I'm happy with that.
I'm happy about it too. I have to know, geeking out a little bit, when you do your recording for NPR, do you use a Neumann mic?
Well, I don't have one here. This is a less expensive mic. I'm showing it to you, your listeners, of course, can imagine me showing it to you on the screen, but we do use a Neumann mic because we're NPR, we care.
And is it really worth three grand?
I am told that it is. I am told that ... And for listeners who don't know, this is like this, I don't know, what's the appropriate metaphor?
The Ferrari of Microphones, they're the high-end German-made microphones that are apparently the best of the business. And that's what we use while we're in the studio.
When I am performing our show though on stage, as we do now, we're back on the stage, yay, yeah, I'm using, actually I'm not quite sure what brand it is, it's one of those microphones that because I am in my age I associate with Britney Spears, one of those headset mics that comes around your face, much like this one does, but not as obtrusive.
And so just a little wire in front of my face which allows me to, as Britney does, have the snake around my neck without interfering with any cable. That's the most important thing.
I hope you don't have any wardrobe malfunctions, but okay-
No, wrong cultural figure and that would be ... But anyway, go on.
Do you think that intelligence is correlated and maybe even causal with a sense of humor?
Is intelligence correlated with a sense of humor? Absolutely not.
I know lots of smart people who are not very funny nor do they think anything is very funny. And I know lots of funny people who would not pin themselves smart.
I think what a sense of humor requires is more than anything, a sense of humility, because to find something funny, you have to recognize in whatever's being told, a description of a human weakness that you have some sympathy for, right?
The reason a guy sliding on a banana pee, there's a joke, on a banana peel is funny is because you on some level can imagine yourself doing it. And if you're not capable of seeing yourself as a limited frail human being with foibles, then it's very hard to laugh at other people's descriptions thereof.
So that's why, for example, former president Donald Trump has no sense of human because he cannot allow himself to imagine himself as a flawed being and thus appreciate that other people doing that are funny.
See what I mean? I'm sorry. That was a lot of philosophy to lay on you for a pretty simple question, but there you go.
You stole the thunder from my next question.
My next question was going to be, who's the funniest Republican or is that an oxymoron?
It's not an oxy ... At least, it used to be.
Sadly, the funniest Republican probably whoever lived was my friend, PJ O'Rourke who we lost early this year.
By the end of his life, it was hard for him to recognize himself and anybody who's out there predominantly as a Republican.
He used to say that his friend Newt Gingrich was funny, which I ... And as much as I love and admired PJ, I find hard to believe, I've never seen him being funny, but maybe he's funny in private when he goes home.
The reason that there's nothing inherent to conservative politics that's not compatible with humor.
Haley Barbour, for example, is a very funny guy. I met him. I've laughed at things he has said. He, of course, as you may or may not know, is the Republican kingmaker from Louisiana if I'm not mistaken.
But the problem with the current iteration of the Republican party is they're really into punching down. And making fun of somebody who's very powerful can be refreshing and revolutionary and anarchic and funny.
Making fun of someone who is not powerful at all, for example, trans-youth, is just cruel, and cruelty, as I have discovered in my own life, is kryptonite to comedy.
Nothing that's cruel can be very funny or to the extent that it's cruel, it becomes less funny.
That's why all the various attempts that right wing humor shows have failed. That's one of the reasons.
Another reason is, as soon as you have an agenda that is, "We're going to be funny, but funny about X," or, "funny in this direction," you are already crippling yourself of your attempt to be funny because the only thing that should matter when you're trying to be funny is being funny, not trying to make a point.
But when Trump did that thing about the New York Times reporter who had that issue with his-
His name is Serge Kovaleski and I'm afraid he has a disability. I don't remember if it's-
But his crowd found his impersonation funny. What does that say?
Well, I don't know if they found it funny. Let me put it this way. I don't know if anybody went cruel from that particular rally, if he did that.
And what we're talking about for those who don't follow this up obsessively is, if I remember correctly, this was about so many of them and this was so many of them would go that Donald Trump had told a lie about watching a bunch of Muslims celebrate 9/11 on TV.
They'd never done it and that he's lying and the New York Times reporter named Serge Kovaleski and I can't remember the ins and outs of this, but he was trying to make fun of Serge Kovaleski who again has a physical disability.
So he was like mocking the stability by imitating it. I don't think anybody went home from that rally where he did that, "Oh, man. Oh Mabel, you're not going to believe this. Trump was so funny. Let me tell you what he did. So there's this reporter who's got like a physical condition that makes his arms move funny and Trump went out there” …No.
They didn't think it was funny. They thought it was mean and they responded to the cruelty as Adam Serwer says quite famously, "The cruelty is the point. It's not supposed to be funny, it's supposed to be cruel."
And they were responding not to be humor, but to the performative cruelty of it, which is ... One of the things I try to do, believe it or not, is I try to put myself in the heads or the minds of people who I disagree with because I've got this theory, a theory that is mine, that we're all far more alike than we certainly appear to be in the service.
And one way to understand somebody else is to put yourself in their shoes and say, okay, so are there situations where I enjoy a prominent person attacking other people?
Yes, there are. I make fun of other people. I sometimes do it quite savagely and my audience really enjoys it. So they're doing the same thing.
Like my audience, to take an obvious example, loves it when I make fun of Donald Trump.
They want me to be cruel to Donald Trump in a way as long as I'm doing it in a really fun way. So is that different than Donald Trump's audience, really getting excited when he is being cruel to a reporter with a disability on some level? No, it's the same.
The significant difference is who is being made fun of and for what? He's making fun of a reporter that no one had heard of because of a physical disability, that is not that person's fault.
I'm trying to make fun of an extremely powerful man who is trying to do terrible things to lots of people at the same time. I think that matters. It's all about punching up, punching down, punching sideways, and that's when I think you start feeling the differences between people and groups of people.
I want to ask you, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! is based so much on current news, but seriously, how hard is it to be funny these days when politicians are doing what they're doing. For example, secret Jewish lasers starting a California wildfire to clear the way for a high-speed train.
First of all, Peter, seriously, what Jewish mother could keep it a secret if her daughter or son created such a laser?
For a guy named Kawasaki, you're doing a pretty good job of the Jewish mother joke. I truly applaud that.
I would say, here's the thing, and you're referring, of course, to the wonderful representative from Texas, Marjorie Taylor Greene, I had made fun of her for the space lasers.
I basically said that as the person who speaks for all Jews, I do. I don't know if you do that and we're not going to let her use it. It's ours. I'm sorry.
She sacrificed your chance to use the space laser because she talked about it. First rule of Jewish space laser, don't talk about the Jewish space laser.
But actually, it's a good segue to my favorite joke about this entire phenomenon which is, soon after Trump was elected, Samantha Bee on her show made the following joke.
She said, "It must be so easy for you, the jokes just write themselves." And her response was, "No, the jokes aren't supposed to write themselves. The Jews are supposed to be writing the jokes and the Jews are scared."
And that, let me put it this way, part of humor, to be serious again for a second, is to reveal through a joke something that the audience didn't know or didn't know they knew. I read just the other day that a comedian's job, a classic stand-up comedienne, is to look around a world and see something, notice something that the audience didn't know, pointing it out to them, "I've never noticed. Isn't it crazy? Have you ever tried this airline food? The funny thing about airline food is ..."
And people go, "Oh, yeah, that's true. Oh, well, I guess you're right about that. That's very funny. I hadn't noticed that before."
And the key phrase is, "I hadn't noticed that before." So if you say to an audience, "Marjorie Taylor Greene is a lunatic, ignorant, racist, anti-Semi, protofascist who spends her days being performatively cruel to get attention and vacuum up money from the rooms," it's true, but you're not being particularly perceptive in saying that.
You're just looking at her. It's a little bit like saying, "Did you hear about the priest and the rabbi who walked into a bar? They had a drink." It's like, "Yeah, that's what they did. I don't see why you had to bring that up."
So there are two problems.
First of all, there's nothing I can say to make fun of Marjorie Taylor Greene, that she doesn't do herself quite well. And there's nothing I can add to an audience's understanding of her or the world by pointing it out. They know. Our audience looks at her and says, "Oh, yeah, she's the crazy fascist lady. Sure. Okay."
And I think it makes the job harder. And there's also something ... How best to put this? Making fun of people is more effective when, as I think I mentioned a little while ago, when they themselves are somehow aware of how foolish ... They don't have to be there, but you can make fun of somebody, and take Bill Clinton.
One of the reasons that it was fun ... Maybe here's one of many differences between Bill Clinton and Donald, you could make fun of Bill Clinton for his sexual peccadillos, because you knew on some level that he was ashamed of them, that you can make fun of him and he was embarrassed.
You imagined that he would be because he's a relatively normal human being. You can't make fun of Donald Trump's sexual peccadillos because he's not ashamed about them.
You make fun of Donald Trump, like I take one of lighter things is he's wandering into dressing rooms of beauty pageants, so he could gawp at the half-naked woman.
And if you made fun of him for that and he heard you making fun of him, he'd be like, "Yeah, isn't it great? I get to do that." So the attempts to make fun of him for that just fall flat. It's making fun of animal for behaving in the way that animals do, "Oh, look at that vulture, it's eating rotten meat." "Yeah, that's what it does."
That's a good metaphor.
I just made it up. You like it? I might go with that.
I expect to hear that on Sunday. You've been circling this issue and I want to ask it just directly which is, how do you make a joke? What's it take to be funny? What's the art of humor?
As anyone who has tried, it's harder than it looks. I can tell you how I do it in practice or how I think it works in theory. The way it works in practice is we work very hard as a group and we try to make each other laugh. And by we, myself and my producers and my writers and we have all this stuff.
And a lot of times and this is certainly the way that my brain works, there are people who are very good at sitting down in front of a blank screen or a notebook and just writing jokes and writing jokes and polish, reiterating, coming up with a great joke.
I'm better at reacting, which is why I think I'm suited for my job, which is that I'm very good at what somebody says something, I can leap ahead and draw out, "You mean this?" And that's what I'm good. In certain situations, my brain works quickly and I can do that.
But really the only thing that works, the only thing that works is figuring out what you find funny. And that's harder than it seems because you're so immersed in what everybody else finds funny.
Especially if you're in social media, it was a great way of testing that theory because if you're in Twitter all day, like I am, you see everybody making jokes all the time.
So when you come to make a joke, you're like, "Oh, I'll make a joke that has the same format as all these other jokes that I've seen because people like these.
So if I make this joke, people will like this, right?" Maybe they will, but it won't be a particularly original joke.
So the only trick and this is true of making podcasts or photographs or movies or plays or music or operas or anything else in the entire world is you make what you think is good.
We go through the process, sometimes a difficult one, of finding out what it is that you like and then you put it out in the world and hopefully other people will agree with you, that what you just did is good and they like it too.
And if not, you end up being one of those very obscure people who hopefully be discovered after your death, which you, of course, will never die because you'll never be in Fresh Air.
Thanks to the intervention. But if you're lucky and I have been very lucky enough, people think what I and my colleagues find funny to be funny, so it all works.
I don't think luck has anything to do with how great your jokes are.
I really think it does. You've been around. You're old enough to go deaf. I'm old enough to go deaf.
You and I have both met lots and lots of people who were extraordinarily talented, who never got recognition because it just didn't find a large enough audience at the moment. One of my very favorite playwrights to take an example was Neal Bell.
You've never heard of Neal Bell sadly because Neal Bell never got the recognition that I thought he deserved, but he's great. I thought his plays were extraordinarily powerful and meaningful.
What resonated for him and me did not resonate for enough people. And there are thousands of stories like that. And I think we all have to be a little humble about the fact that for whatever reason, some of us manage to come up with an aesthetic, a sound that everybody loved.
In a sense, my bubble is a little burst because you ...
That's what I'm here to help you, here to help you burst your bubble.
You've described a real gritty, hard work, also factor and luck for your jokes, but when I listened, when I wasn't a deaf, when I listened to Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, it seems so spontaneous and so just you're just hitting it and I just thought, "Oh, that is just Peter Sagal's natural genius."
Well, I am a natural genius. To be honest with you, thank you.
Secondly, like I said, if I do have a talent, it's being able to think in certain situations quickly on my feet. In other situations, I'm a complete idiot and can tell you the stories, but on this particular skill, if I'm standing on a stage and somebody's talking, I often come up with a good thing to say.
Basically, this is my talent if I have a talent that I will often, when I'm performing, start a sentence and know by the time I get to the end of the sentence, I have to come up with a particular name, joke or reference to make it work.
And more often than not, I come up with it before I get to the end of the sentence. That's my talent. I have that ability.
So a lot of times, what you hear on our show is, in fact, me doing that and my colleagues doing that as well. I don't know if you've seen our show that people have, what they'll see is I have a script that I've worked on with my very talented collaborators and it's got a lot of jokes that we've written and polished and rewritten and repolished, but a lot of what we do is spontaneous.
And I think that actually, to be serious for a second, is the appeal of the show. Because like to take an example, John Oliver, who I think was great, has an amazing writing staff and they come up with this an amazing lengthy first-person monologue that he does every week in which he's able to take extremely serious topics and make them funny and interesting and vital and that's really hard to do, but it's a very written and produced.
We write jokes and we try to do the same thing sometimes with serious topics. Most of the time, we're a trivial topic, but we also are very spontaneous.
I have no idea what my panelists are going to say. We don't prep them very much. They, most of the time, don't know what we're going to ask them.
So it's all very spontaneous. And there's something about spontaneity that can be really appealing. Everybody makes fun of improv, right? "Oh, god, it's an improv show. Oh, god." Because most of the time, 95 percent of the time, improv is terrible.
We all know that. We've all been to improv shows. We've all sat there with this grin on our face, praying it for it to be over or for death.
But 5 percent of the time, when improv works, when you're with incredibly gifted performers and they're on it and they're coming up with stuff in the moment that's brilliant, funny and resonant, there's nothing better in the world because there's something about the fact that we're watching an active creation.
Well, it's like watching an amazing musician or amazing musician's riff on each other's stuff or watching an athlete right in the moment, coming up with an amazing play, that is a moment of inspiration.
And those moments, as we all know, they seem to be happening in the moment, but they come from a lot of preparation and a lot of talent.
That's if it works on our show, it hopefully works enough of the time, it's great and it makes people feel like they were there for something. I think what it does for our show is it gives our show some of the appeal of going to a live concert rather than listening to the recording. Music is great. We all love music.
We'll listen to recordings over and over, but then we want to go see the person live because we want to be there when it happens. And our show is a little bit, a lot, maybe this is the reason we've been around for a while is we invite the audience in the theater, in front of us or the radio audience to be there as it's happening.
Love it. So going back a little bit, if you were doing the CONSTITUTION series today, would you be driving a Tesla or a Harley?
First of all, the Harley was necessary because this is a reference CONSTITUTION USA, a ten-year-old documentary which I wrote around on a Harley Road King.
Here's the thing, first of all, it'd be a motorcycle, but if it had my druthers, it wouldn't be a Harley because I don't like Harley-Davidson's. They're not great motorcycles. They're beautiful.
I will rant Harley all day, every day that they make gorgeous motorcycles, the works of art.
In fact, if you go to the Harley Museum, which I recommend, in Milwaukee, you can see the history of their design, which is really why they're still around, but they're terrible. They're just not good motorcycles. They're not reliable. They're not nimble.
What I'd probably ride is I'd probably ride an Indian Motorcycle, not a native American.
This is an old American brand that was recently in the last decade purchased by the same company of the makes Polaris or the company's called Polaris, they made snowmobiles and such and relaunched the brand.
So it's an American motorcycle, beautiful, what I find a preferable motorcycle. No, I would not be riding a Tesla. I don't drive a Tesla. I have an EV. It's not a Tesla because I don't want to have to care what Elon Musk did yesterday. Not problem.
It's the problem of whoever is the mother of his child and whatever glomeration of punctuation marks his child on. They're not my problem.
How many does he have? I have lost count.
And also how many children does his father have, but I digress.
Okay, is the miracle that the constitution is doing so badly or that it lasted this long?
Wow, that is a good question and I don't know how much time you have left because this is something ... There's one flaw, I have many flaws, but one of them is that I really would much prefer to be serious and I love to be serious in the topic of civics.
In fact, I have a ninety-minute lecture in which I talk about this very topic. Just to cut it down to very, very small size for you and your audience, I did this documentary they called CONSTITUTION and the idea was, "Why has the constitution lasted?" We wanted to take constitution out of its historical civics class, "Here's a painting of some founding fathers. Here's some boxes with arrows pointing to them representing the separation of powers. We're going to make it real. The constitution exists. The constitution has a power. The constitution is like a force. The constitution surrounds us all and binds us together and it does so today."
And I came away from that project being very cognizant of the flaws in the American constitution or a lot of them, but coming to believe that it was successful and it has been for a reason, that there's genius in it.
And that genius of the constitutional design was working and it would continue to work into the foreseeable future. And then Donald Trump was elected.
And it's really changed my view, both of the constitution and of American history, not just Donald Trump being elected, but everything that happened around him and through him and his whole life is genius, Jesus.
All good things come through Donald Trump.
And again, to really boil it down to the nitty gritty, the constitution has a flaw that was built into it. And I don't mean the electoral college and I don't mean the disproportionate representation of the Senate.
Those are all flaws. Those aren't lethal. The lethal flaw for your nerdy fans, the exhaust port on the death star that can blow up the whole thing, is that it was designed for honorable men which had meaning in the 1780s.
Men, of course, because there were all people who had political power at that time, that the founding fathers for all their genius probably could not imagine women ever holding public office, anymore they could imagine either their animals or the people they enslaved holding public office, but put that aside for the moment. They believed in ideas of honor.
They believed that statesmen, again to be sexist as they were, were people who, as a starting point, put the nation's fortunes ahead of their own.
Now they weren't fools about it. They understood that humans are humans and they're flawed.
In fact, well, as was often pointed out during the first impeachment, Hamilton wrote a Federalist paper in which he talked about one of the ways they designed the constitution was to make sure that the Congress, for example, would always preserve and protect its own privileges against the executive because people were essentially, for lack of a better work, selfish, they wanted their own power to be preserved.
So nobody in Congress would give up the power of Congress as written in the constitution because it's theirs. I believe the phrase was the competition of ambition, right?
The president would want to do what the president wanted to do. The Congress would fight him because the Congress wanted their own privileges and authority, and thus, we have a balance of power and nobody would be become too powerful.
Great. What they never imagined is that somebody would be elected to Congress and happily throw away their own authority as the Republicans did in, for example, the first impeachment, in order to please some tin-pot would-be dictator because they wanted what?
To keep their jobs, to not be tweeted about. I think that the constitution was designed again for an honorable and honest people. It's self-policing, right? The idea is people behave onward.
For example, the idea of judicial review, the idea of the Supreme Court ... Hold on, let me back up even further.
There was no bill of rights in the constitution because the people who wrote and voted on the constitution didn't think they need one, because of course, none of the people who would be governing under their new scheme of government would use that power to impose in people's rights. They fought a whole war for this.
They're not going to go and fool people in jail for no reason like the king did. Of course not, that's not who we are.
Obviously, the people were like, "Yeah, we don't trust you," and insisted on a bill of rights, but that was their attitude.
Their attitude was, "Well, we wrote this document for a self-governing people, people who are capable and honorable enough to govern themselves with wisdom and restraint."
And if somebody comes along, and again the founding father wrote about this as a potential danger, who didn't care about any of those things, who didn't care about the welfare of the country or the welfare of the constitution or the welfare of his or her fellow countrymen and just wanted power and privilege and wealth, there's not a lot you can do to stop them if there are enough people like that.
And we found that there are a lot of people like that, that there are a lot of people who are willing to throw the constitution and the government and democracy overboard for their own benefit, for their own privilege, for their own comfort. So yeah, robbed with the constitution, I warned you I'd go on.
The other problem is that we've been lying to ourselves for a long time about the nature of our country. And those lies, as all lies often are obtained necessary to move on with life. Sometimes you just have to pretend something terrible didn't happen, so you can get up the next morning and do what you need to do.
And to a certain extent, we have done that in this country. We have lied to ourselves about how incredibly racist this country has pretty much always been, so that we could say, when we get up in the morning, "We're not a racist country. So today we are not going to be a racist country, right? Because that's not who we are and we try to make things better and we have. We made them a little better."
But because we decided to ignore our actual history of extraordinary racism or to be more accurate, we are a cast society that uses physical characteristics that we call race as a marker of cast, we were unprepared for the extraordinary backlash that would come when a member of the lower cast, a black male, was elected in the presidency.
And then when all these people came out of the woodwork, that we didn't expect them to support this guy who was the parody of the white ruling class down to his gold toilet, we were all shocked by that.
And we shouldn't have been shocked if we had been actually paying attention to this country and who it is, who we are and what we've done and how recently we were pretty terrible.
Told you, warned you, I warned you it would be serious. I'm sorry.
Okay, but injecting a little bit of pessimism and realism, so what's your prediction? Where do we go from here?
I don't have one, believe me. Anybody who was in the prediction business quit on election day 2016 including myself.
Although I have an email I wrote to a friend of mine who asked me what was going to happen with the election that year and I said, "Well, it's going to be fine. Hillary's going to win, except if these things happen, they're all very unlikely."
And all the things I predicted happened and that's we got Donald Trump. I don't know where we're going to go from here and I agree with everybody ... Let me go to this route.
Back when I was very much more optimistic about the constitution, I used to go around and talk about it. I would talk about this idea of a civic religion. I came up with it on my own, but it's not the original idea in the sense that other people have also talked about it.
And the idea is that the thing that makes America is not a mutual ethnic background, said the guy named Sagal for a guy named Kawasaki.
We've come from different places. We have different cuisines. We have different cultures. We have different religions obviously. The thing that binds Americans together, again like the force, if you will, is this civic religion.
It's what brought people here, my ancestors, your ancestors, everybody's ancestors here to this country, is this idea of democracy, this idea that we will settle things, the elections and not violence, the idea, for example, and I'm talk about this, that if you lose an election, you can fight the election.
You can say the worst things in the world about the person who don't want to be elected, but when they get elected, everybody agrees, "Okay, they're elected. They get to be president, governor, mayor, dogcatcher, whatever, and I'll get you next time."
We all believe that and I would say that as long as enough people believe that, we're all going to be fine.
Because there've always been people who don't believe it, who believe that they should have office, even if they lose the election or to attack their neighbors with guns if they don't like their neighbors or whatever, but those have always been a minority and we're all going to be fine as long as they're a minority.
And what Donald Trump both revealed and I think understood in a way, I think Donald Trump, if we want to give him credit, he had a clear idea of what America really was and what a large segment of America really thought than other people were willing to admit.
It turns out that the people who believe that ...
Let me put it this way. A lot of times people judge America and they judge our constitution by what it has given us, right?
They say, "We are the greatest nation in the world because we are the wealthiest nation that's ever lived because we have the most powerful military, because we're the greatest country in the world, because we've invented all these things.
Look at all the stuff we got from having our constitution," and those are all great things. The real measure, however, probably should be, what are we willing to give up for it, for constitutional limits on power, for the idea of democracy.
And it turns out, when we put it that way, it's not nearly as flattering, because basically, and there are a lot of examples, but the most vivid force, of course, the 2020 election, a lot of people were given a choice, "You can have the constitution, the constitutional government in American democracy, but order to have that right now, you have to give up the idea of Donald Trump being president and everything that means to you."
And what I think it means to most of his followers is that white Christian men would name the dominant cast in our society. You have to give that up for the moment will nor have constitutional democracy.
And they would rather have the cast order in place than democracy, given the choice. And that's really scary.
And you ask me where we go from here, to think that there are a lot of those people and those people are very, shall we say, vivid in their beliefs and willing to act on them as we had seen many times, but I think that there are more of us than there are of them.
And by us, I don't liberals and I don't Democrats, people who believe in constitutional democracy, people who believe that the loser of election says, "I lost. Good luck to you. You won. I hope you do a good job, even though I hate you and I will try to defeat you next time," people who believe in that. I think there are more of us than there are of them.
And as long as, and I will use this expression, I think advisedly and accurately, as long as the good guys stay involved and active and not give up and seed it to the bad guys, I think we'll be fine. But the problem is that it will be a fight.
We had this idea, prior to Donald Trump, that all of our institutions, ranging from democracy to the Department of Justice on down were somehow self-sustaining that there was this notion that, "Well, democracy, American democracy has always existed. It will always exist and there's nothing we need. We don't need to worry about."
The best example of this fallacy that I can come up with is you heard this phrase a lot in 2016, "Donald Trump should be disqualified for becoming president. He has disqualified himself for becoming the president."
Really? Who disqualified him? Who made that judgment? Is there a board of referees? Is it like for the major league baseball where they have umpires in a room in New York who are looking at the tape and they say, 'Yeah, we're going to overturn that call. He doesn't get to be president anymore'?"
No, it turns out there's nobody who qualifies or disqualifies anybody then being president.
There's nobody enforcing these rules from above. It's all people, the people who could have decided that Donald Trump had disqualified himself from being president ...
And by the way, just to loop it back to something we were talking about earlier, a lot of people thought that the day he made fun of that disabled reporter was the day he proved he was disqualified from being president.
The people whose disqualifying anybody from being president, people vote for president and enough people voted for president, not just in 2016 but in 2020, who didn't think at all he was disqualified, and thus, he is not. Lost, but second time, well, first time too if we want to be technical about it, but he wasn't disqualified because there ain't nobody here but us. There's nobody who's going to step in.
There's no deus ex machina. This isn't a Greek play where Apollo descends in a chariot and said and sets things, there's no, "You don't get to be president anymore. You get to be president. You have to go away," and it's all us. And so we all have to remember we are us and nobody is going to save us, but us, that was ...
I'm sorry. That was a long monologue. I apologize. I did warn you before I started, okay?
Where is a good deus ex machina when you need it?
When you need one. Where's Apollo and a chariot? And in a weird way, the fact that everybody ... Barack Obama used to say, "We are the change that we're looking for."
And the problem was everybody looking at Barack Obama on that side of the aisle, Democrats, "Oh, you're so great. Be our savior. We love how you tell us that we're the ones who are going to take care of everything now. Mr. Obama, could we please take care of everything for us?"
And it didn't work any either.
So we got to do it. If anybody's listening to this, if you are really concerned about where this country is and what might happen to it, you need to get the hell off Twitter, where I spend all my days, stop listening to podcasts and get to work because ain't nobody else going to do it for you.
Did you cry a tear when the great Iceland experiment to redo their constitution failed?
A little bit. One of the fun things we got to do was we got to go over to Iceland and talk to people who were, at that time, trying to rewrite their constitution.
What had happened was Iceland, the economy had collapsed as part of the 2007 global financial collapse because various government officials had invested a lot of the nation's wealth in what turned out to be very poor investments.
And then collapse was pretty total. That's a small country and small countries are more, shall we say, fragile when things go wrong and not a lot to protect them from the consequences of their mistakes. So it was a tremendous crisis in a small country. They said, "We can't let this happen again.
We need to start again. We need to rewrite our constitution."
And these people came up and they wrote the constitution and they wrote all these things into it that really, if enacted, on paper would have made it a much better country, controls over government authority and guarantees for the people's rights and the people's welfare, including among many other things, guarantees of animal welfare.
People in Iceland are very attached to their animals. They have their sheep and their horses and they really wanted to write it in the constitution that you had to take good care of the animals.
It was all good. There's nothing in it that a nice person would object to in terms of these ideas. It would have created unlimited government with important powers to good and it failed. It was voted down.
And I came to understand the problem, which is all of those things that I describe, let's assume you're in favor of all, that you want people to be good to animals, want you people to secure retirement and you want provide housing for the poor, whatever they might be.
Don't write them into the constitution. Your constitution isn't there to make laws or policy. The constitution is there to create a government by which you can make laws and a policy in a manner that is both democratic, i.e. reflects the will of the people, nimble and that it can respond to problems, but solid enough that it can't be changed and done.
When you think about it, the one time in American history where we tried to make policy via the constitution, when we tried to ban out alcohol via constitutional amendment, it was a disaster. It was like the great American failure because you shouldn't do that.
That's not what the constitutions are for. One of the things I say about the constitution is that the constitution is not there to tell us how to live, what our policy should be, what our government should do. It gave us a way to decide those things without killing each other.
And that's what it's supposed to do until, as we sometimes see, people decide they'd rather kill each other.
So in the end, I think that the people who wrote that constitution that got voted down in Iceland, they lost sight of what they were doing. They were trying to paint the society that they wanted and they wanted everybody to vote just once on this society that they want, but that's never going to work.
You can't get everybody to agree with you on everything you want all at once. It's impractical and it's unfair. Why should a generation now unborn be bound by what the people 2012 Iceland wanted in terms of animal welfare or housing for the poor or whatever else it should be?
That's one of the things that I've become even greater admirer of American constitution is the preamble for ourselves and our posterity. They were looking into the future and they, our founders, had the wisdom to know that what they thought was right wouldn't always be right, probably wouldn't be right for their descendants.
And that was the hubris of Icelandic constitution. And it's the hubris of everybody today keeps saying that we want our country to be just this forever because we shouldn't have anything.
It's also, now again on another topic, the ridiculous hubris and stupidity of what this goes called originalism in constitutional jurisprudence, but let's not get into that. Otherwise, we'll never be done on this podcast.
In that sense, the Second Amendment is ridiculous.
In that sense, the Second Amendment is irrelevant, meaning that they wrote a Second Amendment that was supposed to mean something when it was written.
And what we decide to do with it is up to us. I point this out a lot.
This is less true with every time the Supreme Court takes up a case. They've now done three times. There was a DCB folder with a companion case and then we just had this recent case about the New York law.
Every time there's modern conservative Supreme court rules on the Second Amendment, we're about to say it becomes less true, but it's still true to a great extent. The fact that we live in a society flooded with firearms is not the fault of the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment didn't do that. Our founders didn't do that. We did that.
We, as a nation, have decided democratic means to pass laws or prevent laws in such a way so that everybody can have a weapon whenever they want.
That's democracy. You may not like it, but it's not the Second Amendment's fault. It's our fault.
The Second Amendment did not require, for example, Ohio or Georgia to pass what they like to call constitutional carry, meaning anybody could have the weapons for any reason without having to ask anybody's permission or a permit.
And that's why we had a shooting in Georgia just randomly which somebody wasn't happy with how hot their fast food sandwich was. He pulled out a gun and shot two people.
That's not the Second Amendment's fault. That's our fault. And if we want to, we can change it. And if people don't like it, I refer to my prior comments, get off Twitter and go change it.
Can I ask you about depression?
Many people do. So why not? Go ahead, please.
That's the most humorous introduction.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm sorry. It's the most depressing topic.
Basically, you discussed in your book particularly running and depression.
So from the outside looking in, you got it made, you have this great sense of humor, etcetera, etcetera, so can you just talk about depression and how you've come to deal with it?
The reason that I end up talking about depression was entirely due to my friend, John Moe, who had his own show in my public radio and has gone on to become a very effective and well-known podcaster on mental health.
So John's telling, he was doing this show, this live show out of St. Paul and he was working with a lot of comedians. And as he talked to them, he got to know a lot of comedians. Some are very well known, very successful. He discovered that the common thread was that a lot of them dealt with depression. And so he decided to come up, when that show ended, a podcast that he called The Hilarious World of Depression, where he would talk to comedians about depression. And I heard about this show and I literally walked up to him and said, "I want to be your first guest."
And the reason I did that was really simple, because I had heard an interview with Rachel Maddow when she talked about her own struggles with depression.
And I was really amazed because I would've said the same thing about Rachel Maddow that you just said about me, "But what are you talking about? You got it made. You're incredibly smart. You got this wonderful marriage that we hear about. You're like this preeminent person. You're incredibly talented. Everybody admires you. How can you possibly be depressed?"
And yet, of course you can possibly be depressed because the first thing that people need to understand about depression is that it has nothing to do with reason. You're not depressed because of X, Y, and Z, although that's often the case.
Chronic depression, clinical depression is a kind of mental disease that more people will not struggle with that has nothing to do with your circumstances in the same way that schizophrenia has nothing to do with your circumstances.
Schizophrenia isn't caused by anything. It's just a problem people deal with. So I went in that show and I talked about own struggles with depression and I've had this experience ever since.
This was coming up on eight or nine years ago, people come up to me when we used to do this before the pandemic and they would come up after the show and say hello and get autograph if they wanted.
And they'd say, "Oh, Peter, I love your show. It's really wonderful."
And then every fourth or fifth person would lean in literally. They'd lean in. They'd get a little closer and their voice would get a little quieter after they told me how much they enjoyed my radio show, they would tell me, they would then tell me that they were grateful for this podcast episode I did, which I talked completely about my own struggles with depression. And I'm very glad.
The downside is people have been asking me about it. I didn't realize I'd have to talk about depression forever, but it's okay.
By the way, John has a podcast as well. I highly recommend it.
So you won't ask about depression. Yeah.
A couple things, first of all, don't judge anybody's experience or anybody's nature by their external circumstances.
And second, believe that if you are struggling with something, if you're struggling with depression, if you're struggling with despair, with hopelessness, whatever it is, don't believe that you are unique.
And I'm not saying that, "Well, don't think you're special. You're not. Oh, everybody's got problem." No, man, you're all right. Everybody has problems. You're not a freak. You're not weird. There's nothing wrong with you.
You're dealing with shit that a lot of other people deal with. And if you open yourself up to that, you can both take some comfort. Because one of the things that depression, chronic depression does, clinical depression is it's very isolating or makes you feel that you are uniquely screwed up.
You're not. And it also allows you to get help because other people have struggled with it and other people have gotten help.
There are medications that can help you. There are exercises that can help you. Exercise helps. It's not a cure all, but physical exercise helps you with depression. That's one of the things we can do, one of the ways I help to deal with it.
There are people who have dealt with this before and can help you. And I think that's an important message. And I'd also say one more thing about this, which is that particularly with social media, everybody has had this experience.
Everybody has gone on to Facebook and everybody has started thumbing through their Facebook feed and seeing, "Oh, my god. Oh, this person took this wonderful vacation. I've never had a place and vacationed like that," or, "Oh, here's this person celebrating their 20th anniversary with their spouse and there's so much love. I haven't been able to find somebody I could be with. They're so lucky and wonderful. My marriage broke up and I'm so freakishly awful. They're so lucky."
Let me tell you something. If you knew the truth, that fabulous vacation or a person you're so jealous of they fought half the time, but they're not going to put a picture. That amazing marriage that you're so envious of, they probably almost split up twenty times.
There probably was affair and it was awful and there were terrible fights, but they got through it somehow and now they're at their twentieth anniversary and they're putting that nice picture.
And so everybody, trust me on this, everybody's walking around with something. And if you are walking around with something and you understand that the burden is a little less, if you know that you're not a freak because your marriage didn't work out or because you got fired or you're committed and didn't go the way you wanted, trust me, you ain't alone.
Yeah, I warned you. I just wanted out for everybody's listening and saying, "Oh, my god, he's so serious and he hasn't made a joke in twenty minutes," I warned you all.
Arguably, ending a podcast talking about depression with Peter Sagal is maybe the most powerful way to end it.
I hope so. I hope you're right. I don't know anything about podcasting, but I hope you're right.
I have had more than my share of your time. I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed interacting with you. I don't even have to go on Fresh Air anymore. I can die tomorrow.
Yeah, you are. No, don't. No. Now that you've said that, you're going to die, man. That's how it works in the short stories. Don't do it.
I tell you what, if I die tomorrow, I want you to do me this favor and you deliver my eulogy, okay?
I will, absolutely. If you that's the condition, you have to die tomorrow which for people who are listening this later is August seventeenth, 2022.
If you die tomorrow, August seventeenth, 2022, I will deliver your eulogy.
If you make it to the eighteenth, I'm off the hook, okay?
Lo and behold, August seventeenth, 2022, has come and gone and I'm still alive.
So Peter Sagal did not have to give a eulogy at my funeral.
I hope you enjoyed listening to this episode as much as I enjoyed recording this episode.
Peter Sagal is truly a remarkably funny and insightful guy.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.
My thanks to the one and only Remarkable People team, Jeff Sieh, Peg Fitzpatrick, Shannon Hernandez, Luis Magana, Alexis Nishimura, and the drop-in queen of Santa Cruz, Madisun Nuismer.
Sorry Madisun that I dropped in on you and caused you to ding your board. Karma always catches up
Until next time, Mahalo and Aloha.
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