The National Public Radio show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” chose Philadelphia as the place to return to live audiences after more than 16 months of recording virtually over Zoom.
About 6,000 people came to the Mann Center on Thursday evening to watch.
“I’ve been listening to ‘Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me’ every single week during the pandemic. It keeps me company,” said Carrie Kries of Media, Delaware County. “When I found out that it was going to be here in Philly for its first time back live, I asked my son to come join me.”
Her son Henry Shankweiler is not a regular listener of the show, but nevertheless traveled down from New York City to join his mother.
“I’ve listened to a couple episodes to prepare for the evening,” he said. “I’m very excited.”
The last time “Wait Wait” was at the Mann Center was in summer 2019, a performance notable for the torrential rainstorm it suffered during taping in the open-air venue.
This time around, the weather was perfect.
“The beach would have been lovely, but this is better,” said Diane Snipas, treating a friend to a birthday outing.
The performance not only got the news quiz comedy show back in front of fans, but also got fans back in front of one another. Two couples from South Jersey used the event as their first night out together in over a year and a half.
“We’ve been doing, like, video calls and hangouts and stuff, but this is the first time we’ve been out,” said Tina Barber of Collingswood. “The last time that the four of us were together was for this event two years ago. So we are like: ‘Let’s do it again!’”
The show of jokes, games, and limericks featured Mo Rocca, Alonzo Bodden, and Dulcé Sloan, comedians from “Wait Wait”’s pool of panelists, who traded quips about such topics as the Olympics, the week in politics, and marrying rich. The special guest was Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, invited on the strength of a recent eight-part PBS television documentary series, “Philly DA.”
Onstage, host Peter Sagal noted “Philly DA” has a cast of characters and the narrative strength of a fiction movie, and introduced Krasner as a longtime defense lawyer who had spent decades sparring against various prosecutors and the DA administration before becoming the district attorney himself.
“Have you had any new sympathy for your predecessors now that you’re sitting in the seat?” asked Sagal.
“No,” Krasner replied bluntly. “I don’t think you should frame innocent people.”
Sagal and the panelists made jokes at Krasner’s expense about wearing a ponytail until he was a 40-year-old father of two, then Krasner admitted that he botched his attempt to cut his own hair so badly that he had to shave his head.
“One of my theories is that very serious people in the news — politicians, et cetera — they don’t like being serious all the time,” Sagal said after the show. “They know they have to be. That’s the job, especially him. One thing I’ve learned after 23 years of doing this is everybody wants a chance to get a laugh. It’s one rule of life: Everybody wants to get a laugh.”
The show ended with a bang: Confetti cannons were fired at the closing words, “This is NPR.” It was a theatrical flair unusual for “Wait Wait,” one that will likely be lost on radio listeners. The lights and explosions were for the benefit of the audience present, marking a return to in-person performance.
Backstage, Sagal was both exhilarated and exhausted.
“I feel kind of drained. I had forgotten how much energy doing a show in front of an audience both gives you and requires of you,” he said, sipping a post-show beer. “I feel like I just want to lie down and have a cigarette and get a sandwich. It is amazing what you get from an audience. It just reminds me what we’ve lost by not having an audience.”
The recording of the performance of “Wait Wait” will be edited, then broadcast on WHYY-FM both Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m.