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.  

1985  John recruits Joe Guppy, a founding member of local improv comedy troupe Off the Wall Players, in 1985. His future wife, Nancy Guppy, isn’t far behind.

Nancy Guppy: I took an acting class at Seattle Central Community College when I was working at Nordstrom, post-college. I didn’t like what I was doing, so I took an acting class simply to do something different. At that time, I had seen Joe’s Off the Wall Players and I ended up meeting him. We got interested in each other, we start to date. He’s just getting involved with Almost Live!; I’m just starting to enter the world of theater and performance. I was still working at Nordstrom, and whenever they needed another woman—because they had only two other women on staff at that point—he would call me and say, “Hey, can you get off Thursday at 2 to come down to do this shoot and play Ross’s wife?” or whatever. That’s how I got into it.

Ross Shafer: I think in the second year we got a new set. They took us seriously enough to give us a little money for a new set. And they paid the band. I don’t think they paid them the first year. … We had to borrow equipment from the news department. Cameras. We didn’t have any cameras. We had no gear, no microphones. When they weren’t using it, we’d go out and see if we could borrow it to shoot. We begged and borrowed and stole things. We’d haul people out of a meeting and say, “We need another person in this sketch. Can you come out in the hallway for five minutes? Just walk by and don’t say anything, and then you can go back to your meeting.”

Terry Murphy (story producer, Evening Magazine, 1986–90): You would be sitting at your desk and John Keister would come up to you and say, Do you mind if we hold a gun to your head and you pretend you’re a receptionist? You’d say, Okay, fine.

  

1986  By 1986, Almost Live! has added Pat Cashman, then–creative director at KING, and former Boeing engineer Bill Nye as full-time cast members. 

Jim Sharp: Bill really had a passion for comedy. He was trying to do standup.  

Bill Nye (cast, 1986–91): I started doing standup after winning the Steve Martin look-alike contest in 1978. 

Jim Sharp: And he wanted to be a writer on the show. 

Bill Nye: I was submitting jokes. I used to have a saying: “If you’re awake, you should be working.” As I look back, it wasn’t the best saying.

Jim Sharp: Bill was always hanging out. I think it was Ross who said to him at one point, he said, “Bill, what do you love? Science. Right? You love science.” And Bill goes, “Yeah.” He goes, “Okay, that’s it. That’s what you’re going to focus on, that’s what you are going to do. You are Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

Bill Nye: I was a Big Brother, and I would volunteer at the Pacific Science Center on weekends, as what they called a Science Explainer. I wore a vest. “So Bill, you could do that thing you do at the science center.” This is Ross talking. “You could be, like, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Well, I gotta go.” And he folds up his briefcase and goes to [his AM radio show on] KJR. And I go, “Wow, that’s it, man!” So I went to Hammer Uniform or some costume shop and I got a lab coat, and I had safety glasses from my day job at Sundstrand Data Control.  

Terry Murphy: He was a nerd then and he continues to be a nerd today.

Bill Nye: I would just do classic science demonstrations dressed up: “Here, jump off of this platform onto a paper bag full of air, and it will cushion your fall like an airbag on a steering wheel.” “Here, hang from this vacuum chamber, and when the air’s let back in, you’ll fall back down.” “Here, let’s blow up bubbles with hydrogen, because they’ll explode.” These are classic kooky things.

Bill Stainton: The only time anyone said no to us was when we tried to make fun of car dealers. You couldn’t make fun of car dealers because they bought ads.

 

Well into season five, in 1989, Ross Shafer receives an offer to take over for Joan Rivers as the host of Fox’s Late Show

Bill Nye: Joan Rivers worked for Barry Diller. They had some falling out, and he hired Ross to replace Joan Rivers. Ross brought Jim Sharp down. 

Nancy Guppy: Scott Schaefer, who is a previous Almost Live! guy, also went down to LA with Ross. [The Guppys would head to LA shortly after. —Eds.]  

Bill Nye: Ross left the show, and he kind of burned a bridge. But people have gotten over it.

Ross Shafer: The demands of Hollywood. I was not ready. What that meant was, “Okay, we need you down here in three days to start your job immediately.” I didn’t realize that that was going to be the case. … I wish I had understood that Hollywood can wait.

Bill Stainton: He did leave us in the lurch because it was the day before a taping, I think. … That said, looking back on it now, he got the gig of a lifetime. He got to be Johnny Carson. He got a national talk show. It was one of those things where they said, “We need you down here now.” So of course you’re going to take it.

Joe Guppy: And he wanted John to be his cohost, like his Ed McMahon.

John Keister: Ross invited me to come down for a couple weeks. I had asked KING, Are you going to make me the host? And they didn’t have an answer. They couldn’t say yes. They were trying people out. I thought, Well, okay, if they’re going to try people out, okay, I’m going down there. 

 

The Northwest boys head to Tinseltown. 

Jim Sharp: I ended up with Joan Rivers’s old office. It was this huge office that had all pink furniture and looked right out at the Hollywood sign. 

John Keister: She had a dressing room that was about the size of my house. We called it the condo. It had a reception area, a bedroom, a crystal toilet paper holder. Everything was gold plated. 

John Keister: The thing was, my wife, who’s now my ex-wife, was pregnant with twins. I knew that if I went down there that it was going to be a 24-hours-a-day job. And I’d have to move the kids and her down there and she’s not a Hollywood type of person. I thought it would be a disaster for the kids. It was a very difficult decision. 

 

Meanwhile…KING seeks a replacement for Ross Shafer as host of Almost Live! 

Steve Wilson: They went through a whole bunch of auditions. They brought in national people, local people. Cashman tried out. 

John Keister: By the time I came back to KING, they were just furious I had gone down to LA without asking them. 

Steve Wilson: But they finally decided to go with Keister as the host, because he’d kind of been second banana to Ross on the talk show.  

John Keister: I was like, Well, you know, I think this will be the better decision. 

Nancy Guppy: It was really a disaster in a lot of ways. He was stepping into Ross’s shoes—wearing the suit, gonna bring on comedians…that’s not John’s deal. He’s a comedian, a goofball. 

Joe Guppy: I wouldn’t call it a disaster, by the way. I thought it was moderately successful. 

John Keister: We were trying to reinvent TV because we were young and no longer had these constraints put on us, so we were really kind of ballsy. But people weren’t interested in it. It was way over people’s heads. There were some funny bits but I wasn’t a very good interviewer. I was concentrating mainly on the comedy.

Steve Wilson: He was awful as a talk show host. He was terrible. I mean, seriously. He was seriously terrible. One year after that they were either going to cancel the show on Sundays, or we had to change it.

John Keister: The ratings started to plummet, and I thought, Aw, this is great. I turned down a high-paying job in LA to come back and run this show into the ground.

Bill Stainton: Between season five and season six, I went around and around trying to think about how to fix the interviews. Do we pour more money into it? Do we hire a coach? And it finally hit me what the problem was: I was still trying to fix Ross’s show, and it was no longer Ross’s show. 

Ross Shafer: John had to step in and try to be a talk show host, and he hated it. He was fortunate to convert it to an all-sketch show. Then history started being made.

 

Eyes Wide Shut The cast of Almost Live! Back row: Tracey Conway, Joel McHale, Nancy Guppy, Bob Nelson, Pat Cashman. Front row: Bill Stainton, John Keister, Steve Wilson.

Negotiations to move the show to Saturday night begin.

Bill Stainton: What if we could just be a half hour of doing only what we do best? We could make the show tighter and play to our strengths. And that also opened up the Saturday time slot for us. We couldn’t push Saturday Night Live an hour, but we could push them back half an hour. Fortunately, again, the planets aligned. At that time, NBC was having a huge problem with Leno and Letterman. And the affiliates were really ticked off at the network. So the network was doing anything they could to keep the affiliates happy, especially the major affiliates like Seattle. We went to them and said, “What if we push SNL back a half hour and put this other show in there?” And they said, “Sure, go ahead.”  

Joe Guppy: When this opportunity came up to push Saturday Night Live, it was kind of weak at the time—which was another tremendous, lucky shot for us.  

Nancy Guppy: They would push it. John did three or four episodes that were straight sketch. That was the first time that had happened. And it did great

Bill Stainton: From that point on, it was John’s show.

John Keister:  We started at 11:30, and then SNL started at midnight—the only place in the country where that was happening. NBC said we’ll let you do it for six weeks. We threw everything into those six weeks. … We came up with some really funny characters like Billy Quan  [a riff on Bruce Lee]. That’s when we did Ballard Driving Academy and the High Five’n White Guys [literally a bunch of white guys high-fiving each other around town].

Terry Murphy: They used to make fun of Ballard a lot. It would always be the blue-haired woman behind the wheel who never turned off the left-hand signal on the car. 

Steve Wilson: The one that people stop me in the grocery store for is the High Five’n White Guys. I was in every High Five’n White Guys. ... It was a heavily white male staff, but as far as white guys go, I’m the whitest. I’m the fucking whitest guy. … The White Guys came from Ed Wyatt, who was a cast member and staff member. He’d come in from Super Bowl weekend, and he said, Did anybody watch all the commercials over Super Bowl weekend? Nothing but white guys slapping hands and having a beer. And we were like, We should do that. We should just run around town and just do that but not have the beer.

Steve Wilson: The first year, people hated us because they were missing Saturday Night Live: “What the hell is this? What the hell! Why do we have to watch this crap?” 

John Keister: And then that stopped. That criticism stopped really quickly. Then it was replaced with thank god we have that show to watch instead of crummy SNL. This pattern emerged that people would watch our show and then SNL until Weekend Update, and they would turn off their TVs. ... We had this symbiotic relationship, and there was nobody up against us. Nobody wanted to take on SNL.

Steve Wilson: Instead of doing a David Letterman–like show, we did a Saturday Night Live–like show. Only it was all local humor. So people started to figure it out: Well, they’re making fun of us; this is kind of cool! 

John Keister: Coincidentally, as the six weeks’ deadline came, we won an award as the best local show in America. Looks like we made the right decision. 

 

1989 Except for that fateful day: April 1, 1989.

 Steve Wilson: Oh my god, the April Fool’s Day sketch

John Keister: There was a phrase at news organizations around town: “If the Space Needle falls down.” As in: I’m going on vacation and I don’t want to hear from anyone unless the Space Needle falls down. So we thought, Let’s do that! Let’s make the Space Needle fall down. 

Ross Shafer: John Keister made a model of the Space Needle. It was made out of cardboard. It was ridiculous. 

Bill Nye: A guy named Hung, of Vietnamese descent… What’s his last name? He’s very skilled. He’s very good. And he made what, in those days, we called a Paintbox. He made a very nice electronic representation of the Space Needle tipped over and broken.

Steve Wilson: We do the show, and it interrupts: “We interrupt this program, blah blah blah to bring you a special report: The Space Needle has fallen over. Nobody was hurt. One guy was slightly injured. Again, the Space Needle has fallen over. We’ll bring you news as it comes by.” Then we went back to the open, and John comes out in this live show, and all he says is, “Bummer about the Needle, huh?” Well, oh my god.

Bill Stainton: I was the last person who saw that script. I was the last person who saw that piece. There was nobody above me saying, “Okay, let’s take a look at this.” Possibly to their detriment.

Tracey Conway (cast, 1990–99): I wasn’t even aware of what Almost Live! was, because you know, I was a theater person. … The producer of the show, Bill Stainton, came down and said, We’re going to do an April Fool’s spoof and we want to use faces that aren’t familiar. I need you to be on the street, like a witness on the street if the Space Needle collapsed. I said, Yeah, I can do that. He basically said, Just say that you saw it sway and you know that it went over and be worried about it and all that. I did one take and he said that’s great—well, maybe he didn’t say that’s great, it was at least okay. Then he said, Now go over the top with it. I said, Fine, I’m going to use my real acting chops. The tears and the whole thing. That’s the one they used. 

Bill Nye: People freaked out! Phones were jammed.

Steve Wilson: It jammed up the 911 lines. People drove from Spokane thinking their daughter who’d waited there had been killed. … When we came back from break—it’s a live show—I’m in the booth. The phone rings. It’s the company that does security on weekends and they said, What did you do? The police are calling. I’m like, Oh crap

Tracey Conway: Anybody who was listening but not really paying attention on April Fool’s Day, all they heard was someone mildly hysterical talking about the Space Needle collapsing. So that was my introduction to Almost Live!

John Keister: The next day or two, the headlines—we had this collection on the wall of the Miami Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times—all these different headlines. “Seattle Panicked.” [Also: “Space Needle ‘Comedy’ Nets Wrath, Not Laughs,” “Space Needle Joke Falls Flat.”]

Bill Nye: And it was April freaking first. April Fool’s Day! Come on!

Steve Wilson: The manager of the station came down; he made me erase the show so it would never appear again. The show’s gone. Then John had to do a big, long apology the next week. 

Bill Stainton: I immediately made a copy, which is in some storage box in my house somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find it for years. A snippet of the footage somehow remained, and that’s the clip they always resurrect on April 1. 

John Keister: I never would do something like that [prank] today because I’m a lot more timid now as an adult, and not as sure of myself as I was when I was in my late 20s. I would never do something that dangerous or provocative. It’d be too frightening. But it made me realize that there was this one time in my life when I was strong enough to push over the Space Needle. 

 

1990s  Know the saying that all press is good press? With its newfound notoriety and the addition of writer Bob Nelson, Almost Live! enters its heyday in the early 1990s.

John Keister: All of a sudden people started writing these really amazing things. And the ratings kept going up. There came this point when I said, I think we’re the best comedy show in the world right now. Right at this moment. In the early ’90s, I think we’re better than SNL.

Bill Nye:If you got a joke in the monologue, you felt like a million bucks. And as you may know, when Bob Nelson showed up, it was Bob Nelson and...everyone else, as far as monologues went. He was the funniest guy on the freaking planet. And then if you got Cashman to perform it, you’re cutting a swath at that point. 

Weird Science Bill Nye the Science Guy finds the funny in liquid nitrogen.

Pat Cashman: Bob could deliver a eulogy, and I would fall down laughing.

John Keister: He would come up with these premises that were real provocative and really funny. ... He did one called Wally Hoagland, Crappy Cult Leader, about this inept cult leader who couldn’t do anything right. He couldn’t manage to get all the women to sleep with him. Instead of a cache of arms, he got a cache of alarms, smoke alarms. Things like that. 

Bill Nye: People come in with bits. Joe Guppy wrote Speed Walker [cue the narration: “the physically fit superhero who fights crime while maintaining strict adherence to the regulations of the international speed-walking association”]. It was fantastic. God, Joe Guppy. Did you see Before Marriage/After Marriage/After Marriage Counseling? I laugh out loud about it twice a week. “Before marriage: My girlfriend is a bitch. After marriage: My wife is a bitch. After marriage counseling: I’ve chosen to marry a woman who is a bitch.” The people I worked with were so good. 

Jim Sharp: Two of the real creative forces were John Keister and Pat Cashman. They had the smartest ideas and the best ideas. They were just tremendous performers. Those guys really started to have a regular and consistent presence. The show got better. I give them all the credit in the world for that.

Tracey Conway: John made the show his comic sensibility. … He was the Puget Sound backbone of the show.

 

John Keister keeps in touch with Jim Sharp in Los Angeles. A cable deal is in the works...  

Jim Sharp: I was working with a guy by the name of Howard Bolter. We bought some comedy pieces from Seattle and John and Almost Live! to go in this sketch show we were doing down here…. It was for Fox. Howard, he was really impressed with the material. I said to him, I’ve been down here now for whatever number of years, six or seven years, and they’re still the most talented writers and performers and smartest guys I’ve been around. And so what we essentially did, is, we said, let’s make a pilot. It was a production company called Worldvision. They gave us some money. We went up to Seattle. We did this pilot that would play nationally—and Comedy Central ended up buying it.

Steve Wilson: We spent the summer of 1992 producing 65 episodes in 16 weeks, which is unheard of. It was way out of control. The work schedule was crazy.  

Jim Sharp: It was killer. It scared everybody. … It was a thrill, I was back in town, and I was executive producing this, and you know, we were shooting, I believe, four shows on Saturday and four shows on Sunday. … Craziest schedule I’ve been on to this day.

Nancy Guppy: It was really intense. 

Steve Wilson: Hardest work I’ve ever done. Just put your head down. I worked seven days a week. I missed a family reunion and a wedding, because it was like out of control.  

John Keister: We took out most of the local humor, but not all of it. We left a lot of stuff in. I would sometimes have to go to New York for meetings, and people would stop me on the street and go, you’re the guy on that show, right? I’d say yes. And they’d go, What is Ballard? With this Puerto Rican accent. We don’t know what you’re talking about, man, but it’s very funny.  

Jim Sharp: There’d be premises, like The Lame List [with the tagline “What’s weak this week, brought to you by America’s heavy metal community”], that already existed, that were kind of bulletproof, that were proven to work. And again, this is a credit to all the stuff that those guys were doing up there, under John’s tutelage. They were tailored to a national audience. 

Nancy Guppy: The Lame List had Kim Thayil from Soundgarden yelling “Lame!”, or Mike McCready, or Chris Ballew from the Presidents. I did a bit with Dave Grohl called “Me!”, which was fabulous. It’s like, my god! These people are available?! 

Bill Stainton: That’s when Seattle became the center of the universe. All of a sudden there’s grunge, all of a sudden there’s Twin Peaks, all of a sudden there’s Northern Exposure, all of a sudden there’s Microsoft for crying out loud, and Amazon and Starbucks. All of this stuff starts to happen, and we’re at the epicenter of it. 

John Keister: At that time everything Seattle was like really cool. That was the coolest thing in the world, to be from Seattle. Comedy Central would promote it as: “Watch the show that Seattle’s been laughing at for years!”

 

Almost Live! airs on Comedy Central from 1992 to 1994, five nights a week. Seattle sketch comedy goes national.

John Keister: A friend of mine was working on SNL, and I’d go to SNL and Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, would say, Hey, I really like that bit you’re doing. I also found out Ron Jeremy was a fan. My biggest fan [laughs]. 

Bill Stainton: We did a thing with Michael Jordan once. We had access to him for five minutes, so we did a fake promo with him. I remember going to his hotel room and introducing myself, and he says, “I know who you are. I watch your show. Everyone in the NBA watches your show.”

Pat Cashman: The best response we got was when things were local. We created a lot of these stereotypes. … Most towns have their own quirks as well. 

Steve Wilson: Back in the day, Ballard was where the old people lived, the old Swedes. And then Bellevue, rich. Mercer Island, rich people. Hippies and goofy people lived in the U District. We defined those neighborhoods.

Pat Cashman: There were certain truths about Seattle that resonated in other towns around the country.

Nancy Guppy: People like to feel like they’re a part of something. Interestingly enough, local stuff was never my favorite stuff. To me, it’s either funny or it’s not. 

 

Almost Live! stays strong through the 1990s, holding steady at number one in its time slot and rotating in new guest stars.

Ross Shafer: I wish I had been there in the days when Joel McHale came in as an intern. Because Pat has told me that, with Joel’s enthusiasm, you could tell something was going to happen with him. And he’s surpassed everybody’s expectations. He had what it takes.

Ron Callan (sports director, KIRO-AM 710, 1996–2002): I first met Joel McHale in ’96 or ’97, when he was the intern for Pat’s show [on KIRO-FM]. He was affable and always willing to go get us lattes.  

Joe Guppy: They brought in these guest characters, many friends of ours, like [writer and Theatresports improv comedian] Matt Smith… 

Nancy Guppy: That was kind of my thing, I was overseeing that. Matt Smith, Lauren Weedman…

Joe Guppy: There were a lot of really talented rotating guest stars that would come in for a quarter or whatever it was. Nobody ever stuck.  

Nancy Guppy: There was no spot for them. The idea was never to replace anyone.

 

But there’s an expiration date on everything. In 1999, just shy of the 16th season, Almost Live! produces its final episode.

Bill Stainton: It started to end when Dorothy Bullitt died. She was the matriarch of KING-TV. She was the one who really believed in local. And after she died—she was like 94 or 95 [she was 97]—her family just didn’t really feel like running a TV station. So they sold to The Providence Journal in Rhode Island. And then Providence Journal got sold to a company called Belo in Dallas, Texas. Now, we were still number one in our time slot. For those last 10 years, we were never less than number one
in our time slot. But once you got all the way down to Dallas, we weren’t a phenomenon. We were a line item on a budget. 

Pat Cashman: I was asked to emcee a company-wide meeting and the new owner of KING came on stage. He was this tough guy, and he goes, “Hey, so what’s this Almost Live! thing? Is it almost dead?” And I said, “Well, that’s kind of up to you.” It got a big laugh.

Steve Wilson: Oh god, we got called into a meeting. We’d been planning for year 16, and it was like two weeks before we were supposed to shoot the show. And they called us into a meeting and said, “Well, we’re not going to do the next season.” “What? What the fuck! What are you talking about?” 

Nancy Guppy: Jay Cascio was the program director at that point, and he came down to meet with us, and he basically said, It seems like maybe people are kind of tired of doing the show. I guess we’re going to talk about maybe doing quarterly specials or something.

John Keister: At the time the show went off the air, not everybody loved it. 

Nancy Guppy: A number of us were burnt out. I should have left by then. I should have been gone by then. Seriously, I should have. But I wasn’t. 

Steve Wilson: They made us do one more special. They were going to give us all severance—but oh, by the way, you won’t get your severance unless you do this last special in October. We called it Almost Live Gets All Fired Up. It was like a neon sign, and as the thing went on, the letters went out. The letters kept going out until the end of the show. It was: “Almost Live Gets…Fired…” I thought that was the best title ever.

Steve Wilson: The thing is, Almost Live! is still on the air. The repeats—you can see two every Saturday night after SNL. The show has never left the air since 1984. We stopped producing in 1999.

John Keister: It’s not like I ever left TV. It’s like, How old am I going to be this week?

Joe Guppy: It has helped Seattle hold on to its identity, even as it grew and grew and grew. I don’t know where Seattle’s identity is today.

 

With Almost Live! on the shelf, the cast scatters. Nancy Guppy is now host and senior producer of Art Zone with Nancy Guppy on Seattle Channel; Joe Guppy is a psychotherapist. Steve Wilson, whom Bill Nye called the “Cal Ripken of Almost Live!” for directing every episode, is now at the helm of New Day Northwest on KING. And April through June, John Keister, Pat Cashman, and Cashman’s son, Chris, were bringing back sketch comedy TV with weekly episodes of The [206], directed by Wilson. The show looks strangely familiar…

Nancy Guppy: It’s not an Almost Live! reboot. Chris Cashman, he’s the driver. 

Pat Cashman: You ask Chris, and he’ll say, I always dreamed that when I finished school, I would get to work on Almost Live! So when that vaporized...

John Keister: Nothing is ever going to be Almost Live! There’s a million weird accidental things that all came together to make that show happen. It really has to do with how the city was in those days. 

John Keister: Without question, best years of my life. 

Updated June 3, 2013, to correct Nancy Guppy, who mistakenly stated that there were no women on staff when she joined the show. In fact, there had been two female cast members on the show at the time.  

Published: June 2013

 

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