Splitsider

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Inside 'The [206]', the Most Popular Local TV Comedy in America

The seeds of the most popular local TV comedy in the country were planted 25 years ago, outside a Seattle restaurant when two strangers walked up to Chris Cashman’s dad, Pat, and thanked him for his work on Almost Live, a local sketch comedy show similar to Saturday Night Live.

“They didn't even know him,” Chris, now 36, recalls. "That was the neatest thing I'd ever heard of, and I thought, if I could just do that some day…”

But Almost Live was cancelled in 1999, just as Chris became old enough to join it. The show didn’t generate enough profits for the Texas company that bought the station and the new owners had no allegiance to the local talent, despite the show’s having developed stars such as Bill Nye the Science Guy and Joel McHale who is now on Community.

But Chris didn’t give up his dream. Two years ago, he was sitting around with his dad and John Keister, the host of Almost Live, talking about how the business of comedy had changed. Now stars like Louis CK edit their shows on laptops and sell work on the Internet. They didn’t need a network, he told the older men, they could do a show on their own.

The result is The [206] — named after the Seattle area code — and they run it similar to a small startup: build an audience, hustle for sponsors, and carefully manage costs.

"We strongly believed that there was an audience for entertaining local content,” Chris says. “But there's just no way that any of the TV stations were going to create something like that themselves.”

The trio started off by floating a few video sketches on the Internet to create buzz. Then they planned a live event, which sold out in 24 hours. Pretty soon the local station offered them a late night slot but told them they had to sell their own ads.

They got creative there too. "We really partner with advertisers,” says Pat. "We produce special promos and special commercials. We come to their events. We come to employee parties. We try to give them a lot of extra value.”

They also make the tapings like a party: they invite hundreds of people, play loud music and give away food and drinks.

"You check in, you get some drink coupons, go have some beers and wine, some finger food, and mingle,” said Damon McGee, 39, a local fan who has been to two tapings.

Although the show makes enough money to pay for itself and "a little bit more", Chris says they make most of their money by cashing in on their local celebrity: they’ve been hired to make videos for Microsoft and to run auctions for local events.

"We don’t make money on the show but we make money because of it,” he says.

They are careful about what they spend money on and save costs by filming only once a month. The professional studio where they tape the show was donated in exchange for publicity. Chris edits the sketches on his laptop. Director Steve Wilson, another veteran from Almost Live, worked for free the first year but now receives about half his rate.

"I don’t tell them this but I would do it for free,” Wilson said. "It’s like going back to the old high school party."

The [206] team knows their bread-and-butter are local jokes. Hometown celebrities make cameos and local comedians do standup, which attracts their fan bases.

Two of the show’s most popular sketches, “Renton Abbey” and “Breaking Ballard,” put a Seattle spin on popular shows. And 206 focuses on local issues. “We've been served up some wonderful opportunities with the passage of gay marriage and now that weed is legalized in Washington State,” says Pat.

The [206] receives an average of a 2.7 share of viewers between 25 and 54, which is more than the top news stations in Seattle normally receive on any given night. This works out to about 100,000 viewers when you add in all ages and the DVR numbers.

Their business manager, Ryan Craig, is currently in talks to bring the show to Spokane and Portland, so that they can bring in more revenue.

"We know that the Almost Live legacy got this whole thing taken seriously but that’s not going to keep it going,” says Chris, acknowledging that the legacy also comes with challenges.

"We are walking this fine line between wanting to be our own show, which it is, but we frankly wouldn’t be on the air if it weren’t the precedent of those 15 years [of Almost Live],” says Pat. “So there’s still a lot of old blood mixing with the new blood. Which can give you a disease. I should’ve thought that through.”

When Chris first started working on The [206] he was worried about what people would think of him as the one newcomer and Pat’s son. “Fortunately I was able to create and produce a couple sketches and parodies that were pretty popular, so I earned some cred,” Chris said. "Now I know that at least my group around me knows I’m worth my weight.”

Now, he says, the next generation of Seattle comedy is already in development. “My oldest is 6 and she does jokes and faces already,” says Chris. “She is a complete ham. I didn’t teach her this. She didn’t see me do any of this. But she is a whole lot like me. It sort of confirmed what I always assumed: a lot it is genetics."