Ahead of news quiz show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'s sold-out show at Jones Hall this Thursday night, announcer and scorekeeper Bill Kurtis graciously took the time to chat with us about his career in broadcast journalism, his ties to the Johnson Space Center and more.
Houstonia: The first time I saw WWDTM live, I couldn't help being a little starstruck, sitting there watching you all during the recording.
Bill Kurtis: I'll tell you, it's so much fun. It's just a different experience, of course, than television, but I am absolutely thrilled with it. We all take up our cues and keep the pace up.
You first filled in for Carl Kasell back in 2009. What was it like when you first came on to work for a radio show after mostly working in television?
They work on a script the whole week. Then they work off that script and bounce into an improv situation when they get on the air. Peter Sagal has a wonderful talent for integrating largely what he has written with the other writers, so that they can weave it together—it's quite a skill. You know, when they have contests with the panelists and things like that. I'm quite in awe of that. But he always comes back to the script. That gives it a structure.
I was pretty script-bound there at the beginning. It's hard, and I think the other panelists will agree, to get a word in edge-wise. It moves so fast, and you have these professionals who are doing their thing, thinking of lines and doing their bits. Very often you think of something, and by the time you're ready to inject it, the opportunity is gone. So you have to be fast, quick and listen very closely.
You've been going strong for over a year now. Have you been able to get those words in, or play around a little more?
Yes, especially in the pre-broadcast. I think that my value is before the live audience, to supplement Peter. I'll walk away, if I've gotten one or two good lines in there with a sizable laugh, feeling really good.
The live show is a lot of fun, especially because of the onstage dynamic between Peter and the panelists, and you.
It's true! Peter Grosz was on a couple of weeks ago, and I said something simple like, "All right, let's get to it." He said he felt like he'd been rapped on the knuckles by a sister in school. "Oh my God, I've been chastised by Bill Kurtis!"
Have you come to Houston before with the show?
No, not with the show. I've been down there to do a space program, a PBS series back in the '90s called The New Explorers. Jim Lovell is a good friend of mine, so we've been down there to visit him and see the Johnson Space Center many times. We love going down there.
Well you picked a perfect time to come to town, now that the Houston summer is heating up.
Hopefully you have air conditioning.
You're very well known for your work in broadcast television, news and otherwise. Cold Case Files' popularity even earned you a skit on Saturday Night Live. Do you ever find yourself recognized in public on your voice alone?
Absolutely! There are two places that it happens all the time. The first is when I call information. After the operator and I chat for a bit, she'll eventually ask, "Are you that guy on Cold Case Files?" The other is at airport terminals. Whenever I approach the desk to ask a question, I'll see heads turn towards me from all sides, and then they'll recognize me.
It used to be that they recognized me from television or documentaries, but now, I swear to God, the Wait Wait reach is unbelievable! I went down to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for a fundraiser. Every summer, they invite members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to come down and play at the OK Mozart International Music Festival. So I was there before the crowd, and after my introduction, I said I was also the official scorekeeper on Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! The Oklahoma crowd had no reaction, not a ripple. But the New York Philharmonic behind me went crazy. They all know! So suddenly I was somebody.
I mentioned to a younger friend that I would be talking with you today and they didn't budge. However, when I mentioned that you were the narrator of the Anchorman movies, they perked up.
Oh, that expanded my demographic, and some people have watched it 13 times! So they know all the words.
Although the live show at Jones Hall is already sold out, you can follow along on Twitter at @HoustonPubMedia with the hashtag #WaitWaitHou.
The broadcast of the Houston live show for Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! will air on News 88.7 at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 27 and Sunday, June 28.