Peter Sagal mines politics for laughs, runs away from depression

Peter Sagal, author of “The Incomplete Book of Running,” will be the keynote speaker at the 2018 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. 

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

In early 2013, National Public Radio host Peter Sagal was going through a difficult divorce and heard from his ex-wife that she and their two children would be going out of town for a weekend. He was not invited.

He decided that he didn’t want to sit at home and drown in a Netflix binge. (I guess his show, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” was off that week.) So the Chicago resident decided to join friends in St. Louis for the annual Cupid Undie Run.

To raise money for the Children’s Tumor Foundation, which received proceeds from the event, Sagal announced that anyone who donated $500 could choose the outfit Sagal would wear for the race.

The lucky selected donor decided that Sagal should wear angel wings, a pair of red boxer briefs with the words “knickers of glory” written on the back, carve a heart into his chest hair, and hold a bow and arrow. 

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You can find a photo in a Riverfront Times photo gallery. 

“It’s a terrifying thing,” Sagal warned of the photo. “I don’t recommend searching for it unless you’re ready for it.” 

You might be traumatized. Or you might just laugh, which is Sagal’s primary goal as host of the weekly NPR current-events quiz show.

If you accept the cliché that given the current occupant of the White House, the jokes write themselves, you would think that the past few years have been easy for Sagal. And given the upbeat tone of his voice during the show, you might think that he is always that way off the air. 

But Sagal said that making people laugh is not as simple as just mining President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. He also has struggled with depression. 

For Sagal, 53, running has provided relief. He recently wrote “The Incomplete Book of Running.” about his experiences running, including in St. Louis and in the 2013 Boston Marathon, when three people were killed by two bombs detonated near the finish line. He shares what he has learned from the sport and offers advice to other runners. 

The book will be released Oct. 30, just a few days before Sagal is slated to be the keynote speaker Nov. 4 for the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

“One of the things you learn as a long-distance runner is that even if it’s terrible, it will end,” he said. “Nothing lasts forever. And that kind of ability to do something and see it through ended up helping me.” 

Since his divorce, he has spent more time with Jews, or more precisely, with a Jew. His first wife was not Jewish; his second wife is. He describes himself as “very happily remarried.” 

“One of the things I found is that I am just happier around Jewish people,” Sagal said. “That’s who I was raised with. That’s who I know how to talk to. We’re obstreperous. We’re crazy in our own way.

“Much in the same way as I am much more at ease with my current in-laws than my last set, I’m much more at ease with Jewish audiences.”

Still, in the first episode of a podcast titled “The Hilarious World of Depression,” which aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, Sagal said: “I can honestly say, without medication, I would be dead.”

Sagal had heard MSNBC host Rachel Maddow discuss her struggle with depression. 

“My reaction was like … if Rachel Maddow, who to me is this absolutely brilliant, successful — my ideal of what a public intellectual might be — sits around and says, ‘I’m a failure, I’m miserable, nothing I do matters,’ then it’s kind of OK that I do it. I found it very comforting,” Sagal said. “It occurred to me that if I were to (share my story), it might provide the same benefit for those who look up to me.”

People have since told him at events and in letters how much the podcast helped them. 

Another way Sagal provides comfort is, of course, through his own show. Since the 2016 election, comedy shows on radio and television have increasingly focused on Trump and, in doing so, taken a more prominent role in political discourse.

Sagal and his staff recently had to decide whether to discuss Trump calling the porn star Stormy Daniels “horseface.”

“Any other president who would do such thing, you would start the show with that and that would be all anyone could talk about,” Sagal said. “But with President Trump, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s what he does. He insults women.’ The news is so outrageous but it’s so consistent that it’s very hard for people who have my job to say anything original about it.”

He and the staff have taken a deliberate approach. They established a rule for the segment “Bluff the Listener” in which callers guess which of three stories is true. None of the tales can be about Trump. (There was no such rule for previous presidents.)

“It’s very hard to come up with a story about Trump that is too crazy to be believable,” he said. 

Sagal said he also has found that “if it makes me very, very angry, I probably shouldn’t talk about it. There are people like Samantha Bee (the comedian and TV host who received backlash for calling Ivanka Trump a ‘feckless’ expletive) who are propelled by anger, but I can’t be funny about stuff I’m angry about.”

Some late-night comedians, he said, often make jokes that deliver the message that what’s happening to the country is terrible, even though they are funny in talking about it. But Sagal said he doesn’t do that on his show. 

“Our emphasis is more, ‘Isn’t this crazy? Isn’t this hilarious?’ I can’t argue with Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers,” he said. “They’re right, but it comes back to, what are we here for? We’re here to entertain our audience and give them an hour of pleasure and amusement in what are sometimes very difficult weeks.”