It was always on.

Ask enough people about Almost Live!, the Seattle sketch comedy show that both skewered and defined Western Washington from 1984 to 1999 (and in perpetuity in reruns), and it starts to sound like the test pattern on every TV screen after hours. It’s hard to appreciate something until it’s gone—and Almost Live! has never left. Over 15 seasons on KING-TV, the local NBC affiliate, the series went from a bare-bones talk show on Sunday evenings to the lead-in for Saturday Night Live, taking over the coveted 11:30 time slot and winning more local Emmys than the cast could haul home. (A few trophies ended up at Goodwill.) 

With its hyperlocal humor—sending up Ballard and Kent with equal abandon—Almost Live! would transmit regional pop culture nationally at a time when everyone wanted a piece of our grungy city. TV stars Joel McHale (Community, The Soup) and Lauren Weedman (The Daily Show, Hung) would cut their teeth doing Seattle sketch; so did writers Jim Sharp and Bob Nelson, who would go on to prominence at Comedy Central and as a screenwriter, respectively. (Nelson penned Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, out this year.) And thanks to a conversation around the Almost Live! writers’ table, Bill Nye will forever be known as “the Science Guy.”

There’s always rumor of an Almost Live! reunion, and when late-night sketch show The [206] debuted in January with AL! alum John Keister and Pat Cashman, we wondered: Could Almost Live! be back? 

But after interviewing a dozen cast members, crew, and fans of the long-running show, it became clear that nothing will ever replace Almost Live! It was a product of a special time and place in Seattle—one we’re free to relive every Sunday at 1:05am. —Laura Dannen

 

 

1983 The story starts in 1983, with family-run KING-TV anxious to develop a local pilot. It will initially be called Take Five.

Ross Shafer (original host, 1984–89): Al Wallace had a show called How Come? on Sundays at 6 for years, and then he died. So they basically had to fill some time.  

Steve Wilson (director, 1984–99): It was my suggestion to do a local Letterman thing, where we had a comedian hosting it, and we had a band. See, I loved Letterman when he came on. I loved Carson, and then I loved Letterman more because I was young at the time and Letterman was a hip Carson, so…we hired Ross Shafer. He had won the local standup comedy competition. 

Ross Shafer: I had to take quite a cut in pay to do it. I was touring as an opening act for Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross. Some big-name people. I was making really good money, so when I found out what they were willing to pay, it was...Wow, I’m going to have to make a third of what I was already making to go on television? I thought, I don’t think I can do this. I have a family. I have kids to support. I’m not going to be able to do it by going on TV. My agent, John Powell, said, “No, you don’t understand what this would do, with the exposure.” So I went along with it. 

Nancy Guppy (cast, 1988–89 and 1992–99): Ross was kind of like Miami Vice. He had a Ferrari. This was the ’80s.

Joe Guppy (cast, 1985–89): It was red, I think. I was in it one time. It was loud, uncomfortable. 


1984  Almost Live! debuts in the fall of 1984, taking over KING’s 6–7 slot on Sunday evenings.

Steve Wilson: That was, at the time, known as the television ghetto, because it was a lead-in to CBS’s 60 Minutes, which was pretty much a juggernaut at 7. It was like, Oh my god, this is never going to work. We’re up against Town Meeting with Ken Schram [on KOMO], which was unstoppable. … We’re putting on this two-bit, penny-ante comedy-music talk show. 

Ross Shafer: I didn’t think it was very good, frankly.

Pat Cashman (cast, 1986–99): If you look at some of the early Almost Live! stuff, it’s almost painful to watch.

Ross Shafer: I would interview two or three guests, and we would insert little comedy segments, live comedy segments. … Twenty-two minutes, but it felt like 22 hours for each episode. By the time we completed an episode, we’d look at each other and go, “We have to do this again next week? Where do we start?” Fortunately, one of the guys I had hired as a head writer, Jim Sharp—whose previous experience was as a history teacher at Port Orchard—was a funny guy.  

Jim Sharp (head writer, 1984–88; executive producer 1992–93): I taught school for three years right out of college. I went to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. During graduation, they put you in alphabetical order when you line up, or at least they did then. And “Sharp” and “Shafer.” I was standing next to Ross Shafer.

 

Jim Sharp joins as head writer and later becomes the senior vice president of original programming and development at Comedy Central. The Almost Live! team continues to grow, adding producer Bill Stainton and John Keister, then a music writer for The Rocket newsweekly and an on-air correspondent for REV (short for “Rock Entertainment Video”). 

Ross Shafer: We knew it was an uphill battle, because the press, when we aired the first real episode, says, “Almost Live Arrives Almost Dead.” So we knew we were trying to do something that made people go, “Oh really? You think you can do this? Watch the Letterman show. Watch The Tonight Show. That’s how you do it.” 

Bill Stainton (executive producer, 1985–99): The owner of KING at the time, Dorothy Bullitt, wasn’t even a big fan of Almost Live!, but she was a huge fan of local. There was a lot of support. Plus, the timing was really good. There were really only three stations at that time. There was KING, KOMO, and KIRO. So we could afford to suck for the first couple years. And we did.


As they work out the kinks, a new star emerges.

Joe Guppy: While Almost Live! was working out this talk show format, the video pieces that John was doing were just outstanding. The video comedy was really good from day one. He was doing some of the most cool, innovative, interesting video stuff. 

John Keister: I think the one that pushed it over the edge was the parody of Miami Vice called Ballard Vice. We had Jim Zorn and Michael Jackson from the Seahawks, these big local people, and they specifically wanted to be on these sketches I was doing. 

Ross Shafer: We got an audience because we were talking about our local community. We were serving our customers, you could say. And they kept tuning in to see what else we would do.