By Gene Mahoney
I was scanning YouTube recently and inadvertently came across some very funny videos from a now defunct television show called Almost Live, which was the Saturday Night Live of Seattle in the Decade of Seattle – the 1990s.
I've spent my life in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (cities that often look down on Seattle as being bush league) but I've never seen a locally-produced comedy show as good as Almost Live. No wonder it won an Iris Award (presented to the best in locally-produced television).
Here are a couple of clips from it:
Politically Correct Seattle
The Worst Girlfriend in the World
Actually, there's an interesting story about the woman who portrayed the The Worst Girlfriend in the World in the clip above. Her name is Tracey Conway and minutes after appearing in an Almost Live skit she went into cardiac arrest for a while until she was revived, despite only a one-in-twenty chance of surviving. Ironically, the skit was a spoof of the medical show ER. She jokes about being a comic dying onstage at TraceyConway.com.
The ER skit
Here's Ms. Conway with fellow female cast member Nancy Guppy, who presently hosts a local art show on Seattle cable television...
Almost Live debuted in 1984 on KING-TV (an NBC affiliate) as a local Northwest version of Late Night with David Letterman, with comedian Ross Shafer as its host. Shafer left the show a few years later to replace Joan Rivers as the host of The Late Show, an unsuccessful attempt from the Fox network to compete against NBC's Tonight Show. John Keister, who was in charge of Almost Live's comedy skits, took over as host when Shafer departed, and soon found he was completely unqualified for the job. So he cut the show to 30 minutes, deleted all talk and musical segments, and turned it into a comedy skit show (unafraid to make inside jokes about the fishing community that had suddenly put itself on the map with the coffee craze, Microsoft, and the grunge movement). The show generated such a positive buzz that it was moved from Sundays at 6pm to Saturdays at 11:30pm (thus becoming the only show in the country that pushed Saturday Night Live back a half hour from its traditional time slot.) Very impressive since this was in 1989, during SNL's second golden age featuring Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller, Phil Hartman, and Mike Myers.
“We helped SNL and SNL helped us,” John Keister quipped in a phone interview.
While Ross Shafer has survived his Late Show ordeal and gone on to become a successful motivational speaker lecturing audiences about positive business solutions, John doesn't pretend “the glass is half full” now. In addition to our phone conversation where he openly admitted that the years on Almost Live were the best of his life, he conceded to the Seattle Weekly in 2010 that he never thought he'd have to hustle for stand-up comic gigs at senior centers merely ten years after the show ended.
Mr. Keister said that when the show began the cast worked as secretaries and directors at the station, but performed on the show for free. Since they were technically employed at KING the union looked the other way, and as the show became popular they quit their day jobs and became compensated cast members. The show now appears on KING in reruns after SNL, where it wins its time slot, but the cast receives no financial compensation for it.
I really like Pat Cashman, a cast member who reminds me a little of SNL's Phil Hartman...
The Rug Emporium skit
The “Downsizing Don” skit (with Bill Stainton)
80s Rock Star Temp Agency
Bill Nye, a stand-up comedian/scientist John invited to be on the show went on to a successful career on PBS as Bill Nye the Science Guy...
He was also a regular cast member of the show...
Joel McHale (Community) got his start on Almost Live...
A running gag was the reality show Cops based in the Seattle area. John Keister plays the policeman in this skit...
Like Saturday Night Live, Almost Live poked fun at commercials...
San Francisco had Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, Seattle had...
Wally Hoagland – Crappy Cult Leader
Native John still loves living in Washington state.
Comedy Central aired reruns of the show in the'90s.
John mentioned during our phone interview that SNL skits usually go on for eight minutes and just end, but Almost Live skits generally ended on a punchline. From what I've seen of Almost Live on YouTube I'd say it pretty much follows the SNL model.
Contrary to reports, he said, Almost Live always made money. It ended because KING wanted to invest the money for the show in the (supposed) blossoming TV-Internet industry. (How did that work out?)
Researching Almost Live online I came across a show on TV that you all probably know about but I didn't. It has a similar vibe to Almost Live as it's full of in-jokes about the Pacific Northwest. This one is based on Seattle's neighbor in Oregon and is called Portlandia. It's associated with Saturday Night Live as Lorne Michaels is the producer and Fred Armisen is the star.
Here are a couple of clips from it:
Is it Local?
Last edition I featured a (sort of) tribute to Miami Vice as being an interesting failure as a show. I was surprised to see that the music of Kate Bush and The Damned were played on the series. I missed the clip of Johnny Rotten (or Lydon, or whatever he was calling himself back then) and his band Public Image Limited being played on Vice. Here it is...
Here's Oingo Boingo (before they made it big) on The Gong Show...
Nice song from the Nineties Flashback:
The Innocence Mission – Bright As Yellow.
Ultravox got back together! First album in 28 years...
True story, 3/11/12: True Story About “Truth”. 3/11Truth.Org. I was walking in downtown Palo Alto when I saw, in the courtyard on University Avenue at Emerson Street, this big banner that read “911 Truth and Cookies”. There were three people at the table: A woman, probably in her 60s who looked pretty good for her age, a prehistoric hippie guy who was a dead ringer for R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” character (the long beard and all), and some late 20s looking guy in a leather jacket.
I walked by the woman, who was wearing one of those floppy hippie-type hats. She asked if I wanted a leaflet (if I took it I'd get a cookie as a reward, I suppose). In an effort to promote discourse (or maybe I just wanted to be an asshole) I asked her, “Where’s your tin-foil hat?”
I continued walking, Mr. Natural didn’t bother asking me anything. As I walked by the dude in a leather jacket, he asked me (seriously): “Can I interest you in some head-wear?”
As I proudly state ad nauseam, I don't own a TV. But there's one blaring away at the place where I have my coffee each morning. This one commercial played constantly really drives me nuts. Thanks to the Internet, I found out I wasn't alone...
Update: I haven't seen it in the month since I typed the paragraph above so I'm hoping it was taken off the air. Could you imagine if it happened right after I wrote about how much I hated it? The commercial gods heard my prayers.
Another update: I found out who that annoyingly over-perky blond chick in the commercial is...
Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and The Social Network is about to debut another TV show. Or maybe it debuted already. I don't know what it's called, but I'm sure it will be another overly self-righteous column for The Nation magazine disguising itself as a drama. I take that back - another Democrat partisan hack bloviating away on a cable news show disguising itself as a drama. What realism - people really do talk this way - spouting off quotes and statistics a mile a minute. Can't wait.
I wonder if Aaron Sorkin got his start directing this...
The way I see it, this edition's column was a shit sandwich. Yes, I know many people would describe this column as that but I mean it in a more detailed, analytical way. The top of this column was about something positive (funny comedy like Almost Live and Portlandia, as well as good music from PIL, The Innocence Mission, Ultravox, and Oingo Boingo). That was the top of the sandwich – the bread. Then we had slices of annoying TV commercials, wacked-out conspiracy theorists, and self-righteous television hacks: The meat, or shit if you will, of the sandwich (once again, sandwich as a metaphor for this column). Now we end the column on two positive notes, which will act as the bread on the bottom of the sandwich. Ready? Here goes...
San Francisco's Hottest New Artist Laurie Jacobs was written about in the New York Times! Not for her artwork, though. The article is about the unusual living arrangement she has with her boyfriend...
And here's the middle part of the bottom bun. A few days before writing this, I went to Fresno with a business associate because it looked like I might actually have taken a job there. Yes, a job in Fresno – the fifth largest city in California, believe it or not (“The Biggest Little City in America”, as they bill themselves). As I waited for my associate to see if this would be the case or (as it turned out, thank God) not, I relaxed in a motel room for a few hours. And I did something I never do --- watched TV. I managed to catch most of a movie from 2003 called Just Married, starring Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy. I whipped out my iPhone to see what Mick LaSalle of the Chronicle thought of it when it came out. He pretty much summed it up as a nice try: That Kutcher was OK, but Murphy was better, and the flick would have been remembered for 30 years instead of forgotten after 30 days if it was more honest about relationships like Goodbye, Columbus and The Heartbreak Kid were.
Even thought I don't watch movies anymore, I was smitten with Ms. Murphy's persona. She had a certain un jen ay sa qua. Or un jen aye say que. (That french expression that I can't spell.) I Googled her name and found out that she died in 2009 at the age of 32! A crying shame. Here's the trailer for the mediocre movie she was good in...
So there you have it, folks. A critique of a nine year old movie no one remembers from a reviewer who didn't even know the main actress was dead (or alive). Is this a hip website or what?
Update: She had a certain je ne se qua.
And now, the bottom half of the bottom bread, a new book illustrated by Bay Area artist Dexter Santos...
Where's Grace?First book in a new series by Patricia Kearney featuring her character Auntie P. Auntie P is visiting her niece, Elizabeth and nephews, Robby and Chris, on her travel back from one of her many trips. Auntie P always travels by train, carries a small bag and her dancing shoes. This time she arrives at their house from a trip to Catalina Island in California where she attended a Swing Dance weekend. Auntie P's gentle guidance and positive spirit helps Elizabeth and her best friend Barry on their journey in finding grace. During each of her visits Auntie P always teaches everyone a new dance. This time it's the Shim Sham! Children 6-12.
Author: Patricia Kearney, Illustrations: Dexter Santos.
Auntie P online
Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/books/e/9780615485638/?itm=5&USRI=where%27s+grace%3f