Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me: A Royal Pain In The News debuts tonight on BBC America at 8 p.m. Eastern.
In tackling BBC America’s Would You Rather? earlier this month, I was remiss (and rightly called out for being remiss) in my assessment that the United States had completely abandoned the panel show. In fact, there’s a fairly popular one emanating from Chicago’s Chase Auditorium on a weekly basis—its quaint stylings, droll humor, and manner of distribution just make it easy to overlook in the campy, glittery light of Would You Rather? host Graham Norton.
Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me offers a gently mocking corrective to the mostly sober proceedings of other current-events programming doled out to local affiliates by NPR. Hosted by author, playwright, and unwitting Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights screenwriter Peter Sagal (with score-keeping assistance from public-radio mainstay Carl Kasell), the show runs a rotating panel through news-related questions and categories of varying weight and topicality. Like Match Game and its game-show ilk, the questions and the show are constructed to allow for comedic riffs from the panelists; like Would You Rather? and other U.K. panel shows, there are no real stakes or prizes to speak of, save for listener participants whose success in a given game is rewarded with an outgoing voice-mail message featuring the imperious-yet-warm tones of “everyone’s favorite news uncle,” Kasell.
Given its similarities to televised panel shows of the past, it’s odd that Wait Wait… has gone 15 years without an attempt to bring its modest charms and retro idiosyncrasies to television. Of course, seeing as it’s something of a relic from a time where most of its potential audience was regularly engaged with current events (on a national and global scale) in some form, it would require a very particular type of partner to aid in that translation. A partner like BBC America, which presents the year-end special Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me: A Royal Pain In The News as something of a dry run for future televised installments of Sagal’s writerly, witty news quizzes. Fans of the radio show will be glad to know that translation is a relatively faithful one, with a few tweaks to accommodate graphic elements and some concessions to the special’s foreign benefactors. It’s not unlike a novel from the Untied States being altered for readers across the pond: A few extra “u”s sprinkled about (in the form a scrolling visual aid to accompany a holiday-themed version of the radio show’s “Ask Carl” segment) and the substitution of British slang terms and colloquialisms (or a “Not My Job” quiz featuring author Neil Gaiman facing a trivia gauntlet about the royal wedding).
Reinforcing the throwback atmosphere of the program, the stage of the Chase Auditorium is made up like a vintage radio studio, all “ON AIR” signs and ribbon microphones—none of the latter being necessary, as the fact that the special is being broadcast as a regular episode of Wait Wait… this weekend requires Sagal, Kassel, and their guests to don headphones attached to hands-free mics. Their headwear is distracting, but it does give the inadvertent impression that everyone on stage is competing in a five-person round of Twenty One.
Televising the proceedings makes Sagal’s dependance on his notes painfully clear; on the other hand, radio listeners have no way of knowing that regular panelist Paula Poundstone still dresses like she’s about to go up at Rooster T. Feathers in 1985. But what’s funny about Wait Wait… on the radio remains funny on the television—even when the show is forced to awkwardly shoehorn in some Anglocentric material or toss panelist Nick Hancock (himself a veteran of U.K. panel shows Room 101 and They Think It’s All Over) a softball on the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal. Thankfully, those “hands across the water” moments provide the freshest information and laughs for anyone in the audience who’s been remotely plugged-in to the major happenings of 2011. Like so many glances back at the year that was, it’s awfully hard to squeeze every notable moment from the last 365 days into an hour of television/radio, meaning punchlines about the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and Herman Cain get one final airing before they’re mothballed for the Beeb’s eventual I Love The 2010s series (and its inevitable VH1 adaptation).
But you can watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report if you want to be simultaneously amused and informed; the real fun of Wait Wait… comes when Sagal goes off book or gives his panelists enough space to throw in an off-the-cuff remark. (Turns out Alonzo Bodden and The TV Club Awards are on the same page as far as all those Republican presidential candidate debates go). Do you need to see the dais to find that kind of stuff funny? Certainly not. But it also doesn’t hurt to have video illustrations and reaction shots (Sagal delivers a particularly sharp one to the camera following a joke about Fort Wayne, Indiana’s scrapped plans for the “Harry Baals Government Center”) to accompany those laughs. You might not be able to enjoy those additions while you drive, but Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me: A Royal Pain In The News could certainly serve as a calm, cheeky pacifier for any arguments about Occupy Wall Street you find yourself in over this holiday weekend.