By Lauren Zumbach Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — The executive producer of “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” knows the Chicago-based radio show’s irreverent humor sometimes offends — and he has the letters from listeners to prove it.
But when a joke from last week’s broadcast prompted a letter from the Polish consul general in Chicago accusing the show of xenophobia and prejudice, Mike Danforth felt the need to apologize.
The joke in question came from the Bluff the Listener segment of the show Saturday, in which an audience member was asked to identify which of three stories about an old joke coming true had been taken from that week’s headlines.
Peter Grosz, an actor and TV writer who has appeared as a panelist and guest host on “Wait Wait,” offered a supposed news item referencing a joke asking how many Poles it takes to screw in a light bulb.
Host Peter Sagal revealed the light bulb tale wasn’t true, but instead another item about road-crossing chickens was the real news. Listeners later called “Wait Wait” and the Polish Consulate to complain that the joke was in poor taste.
Grosz’s segment was meant to poke fun at the well-worn light bulb joke, not Polish people, Danforth said. “If anything, it was a little hack,” he said. “But some people didn’t enjoy that, and we’re not trying to upset people, so we wanted to apologize for that.”
In a letter to Danforth, Paulina Kapuscinska, consul general of the Republic of Poland in Chicago, said the joke played up false stereotypes of Poles and Poland. It presented National Public Radio, which distributes the show, as “promoters of prejudice,” and such jokes “are some of the most unsophisticated of jokes, which offend the intellect of NPR listeners,” Kapuscinska wrote.
Danforth replied with an apology, which the Polish Consulate posted on its website Thursday.
“I can’t disagree with your judgment that the content of our October 26th show was unsophisticated and insulting to the intellect of NPR listeners. I’m afraid just about everything we do on ‘Wait Wait’ offends the intellect of the NPR audience,” Danforth wrote.
Though the line was tongue in cheek, Danforth later said that didn’t mean it wasn’t also sincere. The letter apologized for a joke listeners found “hurtful.”
“Finding that right mix of irreverence and comedy is a risky business, and we sometimes step over the line. Never is it our intention to offend,” he wrote.
Kapuscinska said she was happy Danforth apologized.
“I think the time of Polish jokes has passed away long ago,” Kapuscinska said. “There are many other things you can make people laugh at.”