With NPR's 'Wait Wait,' eggheads at the multiplex

NEW YORK -- At about 8 p.m. Thursday night, as moviegoers around the country were lining up to see “Iron Man 3,”an assuredly smaller group was gathering at 600 North American theaters for the live-cinema simulcast of the popular NPR game show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”

For its first broadcast to the multiplex in its 15 years of existence, the show gathered comedic personalities Steve Martin, Mo Rocca, Tom Bodett and Paula Poundstone. Audiences spent upward of $20 to watch them participate as contestants in the not entirely serious quiz program. At NYU’s Skirball Center, where the show was being staged, host Peter Sagal didn’t pretend to ignore his better-capitalized competition. “If this goes really bad,” Sagal said as he encouraged viewers to tweet, make it “Hashtag ‘I could have gotten in line to see Iron Man like the rest of my friends.’”

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For “Wait Wait,” which normally tapes in Chicago in front of a live audience with only audio, it was a bit of a switch. Fans know the show as a place to hear the droll musings of comedians riffing on news of the day (and the weird), as well as the exuberant, if-it-doesn’t-land-I-have-another comedy of Sagal. Now it was attempting a rare video experiment (it had previously tried a BBC America broadcast in 2011) in front of a kind of exaggerated ‘70s-game show set, with Rocca and Poundstone dressed in all manner of stripes and plaid.

If it was odd for audiences to settle into stadium seating with popcorn and watch Rocca dryly deliver his lines, it was just as strange live, a kind of radio made visible.

It’s the same show, Sagal noted, except this week, "in honor of everyone who's here we are wearing pants.”

The event was staged by NCM Fathom, a company that organizes live events at the multiplex for everything from boxing matches to opera performances. And if Thursday’s “Wait Wait” simulcast didn’t quite engender the mainstream devotion of, say, the Mayweather-Guerrero bout, the cheering fans offered a sign that multiplex screens can be as much about niche programming as Hollywood tentpoles. (A spokesman for NCM Fathom said he did not have attendance numbers at the time.)

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Throughout the two hours, Sagal bantered with call-in contestants and the in-house celebrities, their comedy going from the conceptual (Poundstone on civilian space travel, “They’ll have little televisions so that when you get bored looking at the galaxy you can watch ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’”), the broad (Sagal on Jason Collins: “He’s the first gay man to wear shorts that long”) and somewhere in-between (Rocca on Academy Awards dentistry: “These celebrities all have the same teeth. I don't know how they're going to be identified later.”)

Martin made a deadpan appearance as a guest panelist during one segment. When told he wasn’t playing for cash, he said, "I assumed. It’s NPR.” He also couldn’t resist a shot at those who didn’t like his previous Oscar hosting gigs. “Critics will just remember [from the previous year] what they need for that year's commentary, and it doesn't really have anything to do with how it went.” He waited a beat. “ I'm not bitter.”

The hope, for both NPR and others behind events of this kind, is that movie theaters can offer a  new if not entirely inexpensive outlet to supplement Web streaming (cinecasts, in the parlance). And if the roughness of a live show might seem a little jarring to a multiplex audience accustomed to the polish of a finished film, Fathom and theater owners hope the spontaneity will make up for it.

Indeed, when a bit flopped, the panelists were quick to point out what was on the line. “Thank God we're not live,” Rocca deadpanned. Added Poundstone. “At least no one’s watching in movie theaters.”


Peter Sagal discusses 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me'

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