On his retirement, a fond farewell to Carl Kasell of NPR’s ‘Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me’

President Obama pays tribute to Carl Kasell, whose last taping of a 16-year run on the Chicago-based radio show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" airs Saturday. (NPR)
May 16

We knew Carl Kasell’s last taping of “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me” was going to be a big deal, which is so not Carl. After 16 years as official judge and scorekeeper of the NPR quiz show, and 60 years in radio, he wanted his last show to be just like any other.
As if. Sprinkled throughout the hour were tributes from Stephen Colbert, Tom Hanks, Katie Couric and President Obama, which caused the 80-year-old veteran newsman and the 1,800 people packed into the Warner Theatre on Thursday to get all verklempt. (You can hear the broadcast at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on WAMU-FM; you’ll have to take my word about the tears.)

The crowd, as they say, went wild. We are talking public radio fans, so that meant standing ovations and loud applause, not underwear tossed onstage. At the end of the taping, they politely mobbed Carl like he was Springsteen or the Pope, thrusting items both cute (a Carl plush doll) and mildly creepy (a Carl face pillow) at him for autographs. I’m pretty sure I saw a guy in the second row tattoo Carl’s name across his heart.

And really, can you blame them? As one of the original panelists of “Wait Wait,” I’ve had the privilege of working with Carl for the past 16 years. If you’re looking for an objective examination of his National Radio Hall of Fame career or his impact on public broadcasting . . . well, honey, you’ve asked the wrong girl. Like everyone else who fell into Carl’s orbit, he had me at “hello.”

Carl’s love affair with radio goes back to North Carolina, where he started a radio station with Charles Kuralt, a classmate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After stints in commercial radio, he joined NPR in 1975 as a weekend news announcer, and ascended to “Morning Edition” four years later — a job he held for 30 years. Even before he turned gray, he was the éminence grise of public radio.

In 1997, NPR began casting for a new quiz show, kind of a cross between “Car Talk” and SNL’s “Weekend Update.” Executive producer Doug “The Subway Fugitive” Berman was at a public radio conference when he watched Carl take questions from the star-struck audience. One young woman asked what time he got up to do the news.

Completely serious, Carl said: “1:05 a.m.”

There was an awkward silence, and then someone finally peeped up,“Why 1:05?”

“Because 1 is too damn early.”

That’s when Berman knew he had his man. After some wrangling with NPR execs, who thought “Wait Wait” could undermine Carl’s journalistic gravitas, he happily dove in when the show launched in January 1998. (We spent that entire year talking about Viagra and Monica Lewinsky.) It took six more months for host Peter Sagal, who recorded the show in New York, to meet his new partner at a publicity photo shoot. Sagal sat down at a grand piano in the studio, and Carl stretched out on top (not unlike Michelle Pfeiffer in “The Fabulous Baker Boys”) and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to do this.”

“And that’s the thing about Carl Kasell that nobody knew during those many, many years when he was getting up in the morning to do the news,” Sagal remembered. “Deep inside that serious newscaster persona was a huge piece of cured North Carolina ham.”

Impressions? Check. Goofy voices? Check. A killer deadpan delivery? Check. Every week Carl flew to Chicago, where the show is based, amassing a gazillion frequent-flier points and a new generation of fans. (“Wait Wait” has 4.5 million listeners.) And how’s this for pop culture props? Carl and Peter appeared on “The Simpsons” last week.

But there aren’t many great Carl stories, said Sagal: “Great stories, really great stories, usually require someone to do something immoral, stupid, ungracious, or just plain dumb. Or maybe cruel or cutting. And those of you who are lucky to know him know Carl is never any of those things.”

In fact, an informal poll of “Wait Wait” staff and panelists — a motley collection of America’s finest cynics and smart alecks — failed miserably when it came to roast-worthy Carl moments. Panelist Tom Bodett offered this memory: The two were making their way through the O’Hare terminal in Chicago when they arrived at the long escalators. Tom jumped on the moving steps while Carl, 20 years his senior, bounded up the stairs. “Look at you, Carl” chimed Tom. Carl turned and said, “If you want to keep doing it, you better keep doing it.” Tom has taken the stairs ever since.

Panelist Faith Salie was reeling from a difficult divorce when she met Carl five years ago. In a private moment, he told her about his beloved late wife and meeting his second wife, Washington psychotherapist Mary Ann Foster. “He really wanted me to know that my life could change and be happier than I could imagine and that love can find you at any time,” she said. “We all call him a ‘gentleman’ and he truly embodies that word that’s so often casually applied. He is a gentle person — gentle of soul. Which makes his playfulness and deadpan delivery even more surprisingly charming.”

(Love update: Carl and Mary Ann are still adorable together; Faith is remarried and just gave birth to her second child.)

Me? I could brag about the time Carl, a gifted amateur magician, cut me in two at a “Car Talk” fundraiser, but that would be half-hearted. What I’ll really treasure are the hundreds of moments of small kindness on those pre-dawn cab rides to the airport — before I had coffee, mind you — when we talked about kids and grandkids and pets. I never heard him say a mean thing about anyone, ever, even people who totally deserved it.

In 2009, Carl officially stepped away from “Morning Edition” to devote more time to “Wait Wait” — but I think it was just an excuse to sleep in until 6 a.m. We celebrated his 80th birthday last month, and now he’s going to travel the globe for fun, spoil his grandchildren and dogs, and serve as a NPR ambassador when he feels like it.

So House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Sens. Dick Durbin, Jeff Flake and Kay Hagan all attended a tribute dinner for him Wednesday night, along with the “Wait Wait” family, former colleagues, NPR brass and even some of Carl’s pals from high school. Pelosi presented him with a flag that had been flown over the Capitol, besting (just barely) Durbin’s gift of Garrett’s famous Chicago popcorn.

The man of the hour was, characteristically modest. “Thank you so much,” he told the audience. “I’ve had so much fun. I enjoyed every moment of it.” But official retirement? Not so much. “What does it mean? Putting things aside, doing nothing? Are you kidding?” he said. “I can’t live that way. I’ve got to do something, somewhere, somehow.”

Carl is now officially “Wait Wait’s” Scorekeeper Emeritus, but will continue to record voice mail greetings for winners on the show. (He’s already done more than 2,000.) But — since we’re sharing here — you probably want to know whose voice is on Carl’s home answering machine.

His wife’s. Carl’s king of the castle, but Mary Ann is queen.

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