In his upcoming stand-up show, which he deems to be his last, John Keister takes on a new Seattle: “The city is changing so much that I just want to catch it while it’s partly recognizable.”
Spend enough time with John Keister and you get used to the looks. The people who will stare for a little too long, trying to place his bemused mug and bald head and how he looks like he’s on the verge of making some wisecrack.
“Is that you?” an older woman asked Keister as he walked through Columbia City recently. “I thought that was you.”
There was a certain relief in her voice at seeing something she thought was long gone from this town. Like a pay phone, or an affordable apartment.
John Keister: Living & Dying in Seattle
7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9; Benaroya Hall — Nordstrom Recital Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $25 and $30; seattlesymphony.org;
Keister, 61, is still here, though, and taking in all that has changed in Seattle since he grew up here, and made a name on “Almost Live!” the hyperlocal sketch show that ran on KING5 from 1984 to 1999.
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He’s crafted his observations — the growth, the newcomers, the slickness and speed that tech boom has wrought — into a one-hour stand-up comedy show on Sept. 9 at Benaroya Hall.
Keister has titled it “Living & Dying in Seattle,” and is calling it his last stand-up performance. This is it. He’s done.
“I get the feeling that we’re all this tipping point in Seattle,” he explained. “I’m not a Salish or Duwamish Indian. I don’t have the right to complain. But I do have a core audience and want to do this before the city gets swallowed up.”
He’s also had some health issues that “snapped me into the reality that I am 61 years old and need to take better care of myself.
“But I don’t want the headline to read “ ‘Almost Dead,’ OK?”
His show won’t be an hour of old chestnuts, but riffs on growing up here — and also what the city is becoming.
“I think there’s a lot of people who want to laugh about what’s going on in this city,” Keister said. “And there’s a lot of new people who want to understand this place and have a laugh about it. It will be comedy instead of the constant wringing of the hands.”
At the same time, there are those who long for the kind of humor — and place — that Keister personifies.
At a gig for the King County Library Association filled with “white-haired women my age,” Keister mentioned he had edited The Rocket (a music newspaper that published here from 1979 to 2000) “and a rumble went through the room.”
“I thought, ‘These are my people!’ ”
They cornered him at the end, he said, and peppered him with praise and questions.
In January, Keister arrived at the funeral for Stan Boreson, the “King of Scandinavian Humor,” and found every chair filled.
“They so underestimated how many people wanted to pay their respects,” Keister said. “And people said things that really touched me.
“It just seems like the march of time has been accelerated.”
Part of that is because Amazon chose to “claim this city” and move into downtown, he said, transforming — and, in many cases, removing — what once was and replacing it with new buildings, and new people.
Take boxy houses, for example.
“I’m upset at how slipshod the buildings are that are going up,” he said. “Little cages full of rocks? Who came up with that?”
One of the deepest cuts for Keister was the shutting down of KING5’s longtime headquarters on Dexter Avenue, which was a second home not only for him, but also his four sons.
Keister will talk about “Almost Live!” but only in the context of what they got away with then, and never could now — at least not without a very good attorney.
“If the internet had existed when ‘Almost Live!’ was on, you would have probably seen my head on a pike in Westlake Center,” he said.
On April Fools’ Day in 1989, Keister and Co. broke into their own show to air a “War of the Worlds”-style “special report” saying that the Space Needle had collapsed. So many people called 911 that the lines were shut down.
“We’re sitting there for days wondering, ‘How many people did we kill?’ ”
The cast also had a cache of real guns — including an Israeli Uzi submachine gun — that they left in a prop closet when “Almost Live!” was canceled. Years later, when the guns were discovered, the building was put into lockdown.
Still, this new — and last — show isn’t just for those who remember those days.
“Although, I welcome the ‘Almost Live!’ crowd if they can negotiate the stairs,” he cracked, “I’d love the new people who are taking over Seattle to come, too, because I’ve been through their culture and I’ve got lots of jokes that they’ll love.”
On a visit to Facebook, Keister was shown the couch founder Mark Zuckerberg had in his dorm room at Harvard, and where employees can have their clothes sent to be cleaned. (“If I worked there,” Keister said, “I would like, at some point, to go home.”)
At Groupon, he marveled at the windows with soaring views of Elliott Bay — then puzzled over seeing everyone hunched over their computers.
Keister knows he sounds like a crank. But he’s actually happy about the future of the city where he was born and raised.
“When an idea has become a destination, as Seattle has, people have no allegiance to the place they’re going to,” he said. “I hope that people coming in grow to value the beauty of this city, even though that isn’t what brought them here.”
Keister will continue to write and teach script-writing at the Art Institute of Seattle, perform at corporate events and wave from convertibles at whatever parades will have him.
“But a live concert, well, this may be the last,” he said. “The city is changing so much that I just want to catch it while it’s partly recognizable.”
For now, Keister will stay put in Columbia City, where he lives with his wife, Mary. Their four sons are grown and thriving, as are Keister’s parents, Glenn and Kathy, who are 93 and 91, respectively, and living in a retirement community in Madison Park.
And he will stay forever young on television. Some 33 years after “Almost Live!” first went on the air, reruns are still going on KING5 — albeit, at 1:30 a.m. on Sundays. (“I had no idea that I was going to spend the rest of my life giving people high-fives.”)
“I’m heading into an era where this is the last time I’m going to be able to do this,” Keister said. “I really feel that we’re coming to the end of a cultural era in this city, and that we’re heading into this Brave New World where Jeff Bezos becomes the mayor.
“But I know that there’s a tremendous group of people having a fantastic time here. And I wish them well.”