- Courtesy Of Todd Rosenberg
- Alonzo Bodden
"I had no idea what it even was, never listened to it," Bodden said. "It took months for me to figure out it was this big thing that people loved so much. So I was lucky in that respect — I wasn't smart enough to be nervous."
It turned out to be a career-altering opportunity. After winning the third season of the NBC reality show "Last Comic Standing" in 2004, Bodden joined "Wait, Wait..." in 2010. He soon became a fixture on the game show, which averages around 6 million weekly listeners. Hosted by humorist Peter Sagal, it features a panel of comedians, along with ever-changing listener-contestants, being quizzed about current headlines.
Now Bodden is hosting a group of comedians who have appeared on the show for the Wait, Wait Stand-Up Tour. He and fellow comics Emmy Blotnick, Hari Kondabolu and Faith Salie each perform a set, free from the constraints of the audio program.
"This is not like the radio show," Bodden clarified. "This is live and uncensored, no FCC in sight and no quizzing."
The tour swings by the Flynn in Burlington on Friday, December 1. Ahead of that show, Bodden hopped on the phone with Seven Days to talk "Wait, Wait...," the quirks of telling topical jokes and why jazz musicians have it easier than comedians. (He was mostly kidding about that last one.)
You first started doing comedy after training airplane mechanics for Lockheed Martin. Did a gig like that prepare you for being on a show like "Wait, Wait..."?
No, not really — there's no preparing for "Wait, Wait..." [Panelists] Roxanne [Roberts] and Faith have notes when they show up for a taping, which is just crazy to me. The only thing I know ahead of a show is that there will absolutely be at least one thing that I have no idea what they're talking about, which is where all the fun happens. Peter will ask me about some naked guy in a German supermarket, and I'm just like, "You know, Peter, believe it or not, I actually missed that story."
What the teaching job did do was show me I could do comedy. It felt so natural to get everyone laughing that I realized, Hey, I can do this.
You don't shy away from politics in your standup routine. Does that give you an edge on the show, or is it something you have to keep in check?
Well, the show tries to be a break from the normal news that NPR is doing all day. So we tend to look for lighter stories. We actually instituted a "one Trump joke" rule on "Wait, Wait..." because it just would have been so easy to make the whole show about him. Which would have been awful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is he would have loved that — he wants everything to be all about him.
After I did "Last Comic Standing," I switched it up from telling more personal stories and jokes to be much more of a topical comedian — I started finding the world more funny than me. But the frustrating thing about being a topical comic is, you really, really wish the topics would change.
I can imagine that mining jokes from headlines might be a drag sometimes.
I wish I didn't have to do another bit on racism or mass shootings or crazy politicians. And I'd be fine with us going the other way and for our government to behave like grown-ups, but if they don't? Look, I have tattoos of the jester, because the jester was the only one who could speak truth to power and the only one allowed to make fun of the king.
You've been at the comedy game for a while. Does being a topical comedian help keep things fresh? Was it a natural evolution?
Evolving as a comedian is all about developing your voice. There are definitely some people who come out as fully formed characters and are ready to hit the stage, but most of us need time to hone the craft. For sure, it helps to be a topical comedian because there's always something fresh happening, but you can never rest on your laurels in comedy.
I work with and love so many jazz musicians. I think they're some of the most creative people in the world. But I do joke with a lot of my musician friends, and I'll say, "Hey, you can play something Miles Davis wrote in 1958 and be considered a genius." But that doesn't work in comedy. I can't just give you a little Eddie Murphy from 1987 or Steven Wright from '91.
That's certainly true. But it does feel like comedians are getting bigger and bigger billings, playing arenas and stadiums these days.
One hundred percent, yes. What's different now than when I was starting out is that the stars of comedy have essentially become rock stars. Which is great, but my timing was awful. Too young for Johnny Carson, too old for YouTube. [Laughing.] To be honest, social media plays a big part. These days, if you have a big social media following, you can bring those people to the club and provide your own audience. In that sense, yeah, comedy has become much bigger.
But the stadium thing is a little weird. Don't get me wrong — if you know anybody booking, hey, I'm ready! But I talked to Bill Burr about it after he played one of those huge shows. He said the power and spectacle was amazing, but it's not something most comedians would want to do every Friday night. The greatest comedy room is 175 people in a 125-seater. That's when the energy is unreal.
Touring behind an institution like "Wait, Wait..." must be a little different than your usual comedy tours. Do you get a lot of fans who are just NPR nerds more than comedy fans?
Absolutely. NPR nerds are great. I love them. It takes a while to get them on board, but once they decide they like you, they're with you for life. Which works out really well because, look, people tend to think of NPR as this inherently liberal thing, but in reality, NPR is a very conservative entity. If they have something that works, they don't touch it, man. That's why "Car Talk" lasted until they retired.
Does the same logic apply to "Wait, Wait..."?
That show will never end! "Wait, Wait..." will just keep going on and on, because I'm pretty sure that Peter will never retire.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.