Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal

On this date in 1965, Peter Daniel Sagal — humorist, writer and radio host — was born to Jewish parents and was raised in Berkeley Heights, N.J. His mother Reeva was a teacher with a master’s degree and later a stay-at-home mom. His father Matthew was a telecommunications executive.

Sagal says his family was “fairly observant” of Judaism and he started attending Hebrew school at about age 7. “But it didn’t take, to put it mildly. What’s interesting is I had exactly the same Jewish education with the same people in the same institution as my older brother who is now and has been professionally a rabbi. … But I think after my bar mitzvah, I remember just asking questions about like, why do we have to do this? And if that’s true, what about this?” (“Preach” podcast, Nov. 27, 2019)

He told the Times of Israel in 2013 that “I had always been one of those people: a classic class clown, who made up for his insecurities and his lack of athletic and/or other abilities by being funny.” After high school, he attended Harvard University and earned a degree in English literature. He co-wrote the script for a Hasty Pudding production titled “Between the Sheiks” featuring a genie whose signature song was “You Rub Me the Right Way.”

He honed his theatrical, comedic and overall writing chops — screenplays, scripts, plays and columns about marathon running — while living in several cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis and Chicago. His odd jobs included working as an extra in a Michael Jackson video. He married actress Beth Albrecht in 1994. They had three daughters — Rose, Grace and Willa — before divorcing in 2013. He married Mary Filler, a stage manager, in 2018. Their son Elliott was born in 2020 when Sagal was 55.

He got a phone call in 1997 asking him to be a panelist on a new National Public Radio game show called “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me.” The next year he replaced the host and as of this writing in 2023 still hosts the show. Well-known or celebrity contestants answer questions about recent news. The show won a 2008 Peabody Award.

Sagal says the Groucho Marx program “You Bet Your Life” (1947-60) was a big influence: “I feel like I’m from a long line of Jewish fake quiz show hosts.” A 2014 episode raised religious hackles when Sagal joked about a Catholic Christmas ad depicting a young woman taking a selfie with an image of Jesus behind her. He asked why Jesus didn’t just take the photo for her, and answered “His hands were occupied.” Sexual or crucifixion reference, Catholics wondered? NPR issued regrets that an attempt to poke fun at the news “didn’t succeed in this case.”

Sagal in 2007 published “The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them),” described by Publishers Weekly as a “hilarious, harmlessly prurient look at the banality of regular people’s strange and wicked pleasures.” The title of Sagal’s “The Incomplete Book of Running” (2018) riffed on the 1977 James Fixx classic “The Complete Book of Running.”

He calls himself a cultural Jew who identifies “with our traditions and our food and our attitude. I just don’t go to synagogue. And the Jewish tradition is one of inquiry and scholarship and study. So it’s as if Judaism has given us Jews the tools with which we then use to exit Judaism. … I’m an agnostic, which is what an atheist says if you’re afraid God will be mad.” (Ibid., “Preach” podcast)

Freedom From Religion Foundation