A Sense of Place: Almost Live! and Seattle

Next weekend John Keister, from Seattle’s legendary Almost Live! TV show, is doing a live show titled “Living and Dying in Seattle”. When I first saw the title, I was horrified – I thought it meant Keister had a terminal illness. Thankfully, that’s not the case. He’s planning to retire from live shows, but, as he explains in this interview, he sees the city of Seattle changing from the Seattle he knows, and he wanted to do the show while the city “was still partly recognizable”.

Almost Live! was a late-night comedy show that ran on KING 5 TV  from 1984 to 1999. In pre-cable days Channel 5 was one of the few American TV stations whose signal reached as far as Vancouver. So Almost Live! had a very strong following in the Vancouver area – not only because we in Vancouver actually got to see the show, but also because many people who grew up in Vancouver have visited Seattle fairly often. So we got most of the local jokes, and because Vancouver and Seattle have a lot in common, we also appreciated a lot of the targets of Almost Live!’s sarcasm, like obnoxious yuppies and clueless tourists.

Almost Live! aired every Saturday night after Saturday Night Live, and, hugely to its credit, Almost Live! largely avoided SNL’s generic sketch comedy topics like bad relationships and annoying co-workers. Instead, it celebrated its city. Almost Live! was very proudly from and about Seattle. It was lucky enough to happen when local TV stations were still locally owned and controlled, and when a bunch of comics could make fun of their city without too many viewer complaints or angry sponsors. Almost Live! also lucked into a time when Seattle had a lot of creative and artistic energy going on, as exemplified by the “grunge” music that was part of that scene.  It says something about the local love for the show and what it represented that, more than two decades after Almost Live! was cancelled, re-runs are still airing on KING at midnight on Saturdays.

Almost Live!’s relationship to Seattle was such that when the show was picked up for national syndication on the Comedy Central channel, it didn’t really catch on. People in other parts of the US might not have understood why it was fun to laugh at Kent (a Seattle suburb, allegedly full of rubes driving pickup trucks) or Bellevue (another Seattle suburb, allegedly full of rich white kids living in palatial homes while pretending to be streetwise rappers). But Almost Live! did have effects far beyond Western Washington. It won nearly 40 regional and national Emmy awards. Joel McHale, host of The Soup and star of the situation comedy Community, got his start on Almost Live!. Bill Nye was one of the first cast members, and then started blowing things up on the show in the first appearances of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Cast member/writer Ed Wyatt went on to be a sports broadcaster in Australia. And another cast member/writer, Bob Nelson, was nominated for an Oscar in 2013 for writing the screenplay for the film Nebraska.

I understand what John Keister means about what’s happening to Seattle. I see Seattle changing in the same way that Vancouver is changing – increasingly unaffordable housing; more economic inequality; deteriorating infrastructure and transit; selfishness and entitlement among those who have and those want more; and politicians focusing on bike lanes and recycling while ignoring bigger and far more immediate problems. But Almost Live! still makes me laugh my head off, and it reminds me of why Seattle was, and in some ways still is, a great city.

To mark the occasion of John Keister’s live show, here’s some of my favourite segments from Almost Live!

Billy Quan, “Yard Sale of Fury”. Bruce Lee was from Seattle, and the Billy Quan segments were tributes to the badly-dubbed kung-fu movies from Asia (on VCR tapes!) that were easy to find in Seattle.

Future Oscar nominee Bob Nelson as embittered children’s host show Uncle Fran. I literally cannot watch any Uncle Fran segment without tears of laughter running down my face.

High Fiven White Guys, pretty representative of many bros in Seattle at the time.

The Lame List, which had a rotating cast of actual Seattle musicians (yes, that is Kim Thayil from Soundgarden).

Ballard Driving Academy. The suburb of Ballard has the reputation of being the home of retirees who drive really slowly and obliviously.

Washington State Governor Gary Locke performs “Volcano” with the Presidents of the United States.

A parody of the “Cops” TV show, set at the University of Washington. Students not being able to choose a major, and badly behaving frat boys…..they’re still everywhere.

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