Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Almost Live!: What Seattle Sketch Comedy Gave to Us

Long before Portlandia, there was another Pacific-Northwest-flavored offering to the world of televised sketch comedy. The production quality was choppy and star power was limited to Soundgarden cameos, but in 1992, Seattle’s Almost Live! scored prime real estate on then-fledgling Comedy Central — and it made a few of its cast members household names.

Unlike Portlandia, Almost Live!’s aesthetic was just a few cuts above public access, and the location-heavy humor was rarely universal. Neighborhood name-dropping was rampant, and jokes weren’t based on popular Seattle stereotypes, if any Seattle stereotypes were to be had (the grunge movement had yet to hit mainstream airwaves as a possible punch line). But the show that had started on Seattle NBC affiliate KING-TV found itself featured with the likes of Kids in the Hall and SNL reruns in the Comedy Central line-up.

For me, a Los Angeles native brought up on a shocking amount of Comedy Central, Almost Live! is notable by its absence from contemporary sketch comedy lovefests. Most of my old favorites are getting their due: you simply cannot escape The State alums (and thank God for that), Kids in the Hall DVDs are being reformatted and repackaged with the frequency of, say, your Lord of the Rings, and SNL, it hardly needs to be said, is still very much on TV. But outside of the Emerald City, Almost Live! is little more than a fever dream for early-’90s cable subscribers.

Almost Live!’s humor was more accessible than absurdist (“Worst Girlfriend in the World,” anyone?), but the half-hour show produced its share of successful routines. Take, for example, “The Lame List” (or “What’s Weak this Week”). Many of Seattle’s hair band elite gathered to voice their monosyllabic opinions on hot-button cultural issues and grievances, including (but not limited to) “Christian heavy metal bands,” “girls who won’t pick you up at 3 am,” “the great taste of beer without the alcohol,” and “KISS not playing at Clinton’s inauguration.” In each installment, the grubby panel voices unanimous disapproval on each question (with a variant of the verdict “lame”), before getting tripped up on a more complex question about international policy or Shakespearean theory.

Yet the show’s greatest cultural contribution may not have been to comedy, but to the sciences. Without Almost Live!, the world might have fewer chemistry majors, and graduating classes in the early 'oughts might have settled for less compelling commencement addresses, for it was on the set of Almost Live! that Bill Nye the Science Guy was introduced to the world.

As the story goes, Nye, a Boeing-employee-turned-performer, corrected show host John Keister on his pronunciation of “gigawatt,” and the nickname was born with Keister’s sarcastic retort, “Who do you think you are — Bill Nye the Science Guy?” Soon after, Science Guy made his debut in lab coat and silk tie. He would make the move to Disney, PBS, and a bow tie three years later, but Almost Live!’s segments served as an audition for Nye’s live-action stint on Back to the Future: The Animated Series, where he played a Teller-like lab assistant to Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown, thereby gaining more network exposure.

On Almost Live!, early Science Guy sketches provided a pleasant pause amidst the parody. Early Science Guy segments play on Keister’s friendly awe of Nye, and the humor is less about instant gratification, more about the comedic gold of one man’s passion for the surreal pleasures of chemistry.

With Science Guy cemented as a popular host and educator, Nye managed to snag two fellow Almost Live! alums for his new show: cast member Pat Cashman (who became his announcer), and ornery kids’ show personality Uncle Fran, whose acoustic performances went from bad-mouthing his ex-wife (on Almost Live!) to strumming about the food web.

After his multi-network success as an educator and pop culture icon, Nye would continue to drop by Almost Live! to give the audience the lessons on photogenic chemical reactions. But he wasn’t the only cast member to get a career boost from that Seattle stage: former Mercer Island resident Joel McHale spent his early twenties in the Almost Live! cast, playing an inordinate number of game show contestants. Although he didn’t crowd-test any standout personas, he arguably cut his parody chops while acting as occasional correspondent for Keister’s take on the “Weekend Update” formula, showing the unmistakable (if sarcastic) panache he would later bring to The Soup.

Another familiar face was Lauren Weedman, later destined for an anxiety-ridden turn on The Daily Show. Performing for her hometown audience gave Weedman an opportunity to showcase the frenetic stage presence that would (by her account) cut short her career as a fake news correspondent, but which would later win her rave reviews for her autobiographical one-woman shows.

But for all that, Almost Live! remains a footnote. The show’s re-descent into obscurity can partly be explained by the number of times I (as a burgeoning-if-prepubescent comedy nerd) had to turn from the TV to ask my mother where, say, Ballard was. (She hadn’t a clue.) Sketches like “Cops in Mercer Island” didn’t necessarily land if you were unfamiliar with the affluent suburb. But for every missed local reference, there was a speed-walking superhero or a deft send-up to “This Old House.”

Despite its short life on Comedy Central, Almost Live! ran for 15 years, only to be unceremoniously canceled when KING-TV changed owners. It was time, Keister would say in an interview with Seattle PI several years later. He complained that in place of the city’s once-distinctive subcultures — the boho bums and the Scandinavian suburbanites, say — Seattle in 1999 was increasingly defined by a new population of “wealthy people who work in the information industry.”

So it would seem the High Fivin’ White Guys had become less of a joke, more of a profile.

Saundra Sorenson lives and writes in Portland. She recently made it to Mercer Island.

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  • Davidwatts

    Wait, so, how old is Joel McHale?

    • TS Idiot

      More like how old is his hair piece?

  • Josh Drimmer@twitter

    Where's "Speed Walker?"

    /can't believe I actually remember watching this show from when Comedy Central was stand-up, this, and MST3K

  • iamjustryingtolive

    I'm from Seattle and seeing this article on splitsider is one of the proudest moments of my life #wakeupcall

  • http://asianniceguy.com El Sabor Asiático

    As a former Seattle resident during the 90s, it gives me a terrific rush of nostalgia to see this piece. Almost Live was dorky as hell, but how awesome it was to have a hometown comedy show. Like living in Madison when The Onion was a local paper!

  • Amber Petty@facebook

    I'm so happy to see this! Almost Live came on at 11:30pm, which may SNL come on at midnight in Western Washington. It was good enough to delay an NBC staple and now I can't hardly find a Billy Kwon video on youtube.

    • brosefk

      @Amber Petty@facebook

      That's cuz it's spelled "Quan" not "Kwon." Search again. They are on YouTube.

      I never missed an episode of Almost Live when I lived in Seattle. I didn't watch the series on Comedy Central, but it's some BS that they removed local references (according to Wikipedia). I distinctly remember Bill Nye as Speed Walker long before he became the Science Guy. High Fivin' White Guys and Uncle Fran also big favorites. The cast was really talented and the comedy was top notch. I wouldn't denigrate it as a footnote just because it was primarily local.

  • Jeff Collier@twitter

    I grew up and still live in Seattle. I was 6 when Almost Live ended but I feel like I grew up on Almost Live. Since the show ended, reruns have been shown during the post-SNL timeslot. I watched them all the time as a kid and I even watch them today. Surprisingly enough, they still hold up pretty damn well. Despite some of the stereotypes not really holding up and the "current event" humor being 15-20 years old (and me not really being old enough to remember the events even happening) the bits still ring true and are really funny to this day.

  • Andy@Laughstub.com

    If you grew up in Washington state in the 90's and were into comedy, then Almost Live was a show you stayed up late for and quoted with your friends at every opportunity. Great piece!

  • http://www.drujohnston.com Dru Johnston

    I am so happy to see this on SplitSider. Almost Live was my favorite show growing up… I tried to get tickets to go see it for my 14th birthday but they said you had to be 16 to get into the audience.

    Also, although no one would get it unless they lived in Seattle, everyone should watch Ballard School of Driving.

  • Yehoshua Kelley

    And Almost Live can still be seen AFTER SNL on KING-5. Two episodes play back-to-back from 1:05a to 2:05a Sunday mornings, as well as one of the hour-long "specials" on KONG-6/16 at 2a Sunday mornings.

  • Ben Douwsma

    Yeah, the C

  • http://ginawilhelm.com gina_actress

    Update: Bob Nelson (who played Uncle Fran for Bill Nye, and was always playing working-class guys from Kent on Almost Live!) was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for "Nebraska," so Almost Live! gave us him, too.