In his new book, “Almost Live! The Show that Wouldn’t Die,” Bryan Johnston profiles the sketch-comedy show that parodied Puget Sound life and propelled John Keister and other stars into show business.
Had no one complained, longtime Seattleites might be waxing nostalgic not just about “The Ballard Driving Academy” and “The High Fivin’ White Guys,” but about another “Almost Live!” sketch called “Yelling at Whores.”
Cast member Bob Nelson was the one to come up with it.
That’s right; before he was nominated for an Academy Award for best Screenplay for his 2013 film, “Nebraska,” Nelson penned the never-seen gem, “Yelling at Whores.”
The author of “Almost Live! The Show that wouldn’t Die” will appear along with several of the former show’s cast members at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 13, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
It’s horrible, but it’s funny.
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According to a new book, “Almost Live! The Show that wouldn’t Die,” Nelson wanted to make fun of the fratlike culture of some office settings. So he put a few male cast members in an office and had “Almost Live!” star John Keister pop in and ask: “Hey, what are you up to?”
Finishing reports, the other guys say.
“Well, we still have a few minutes before the next meeting,” Keister says. “Wanna go yell at whores?”
They taped it at a nice office building downtown, where cast members Tracey Conway and Nancy Guppy stood outside, dressed as prostitutes, while male cast members hung out the window and yelled: “Hey, whores!”
As Nelson recalls in the book, people working in adjacent businesses — including a florist — heard the racket, saw a KING 5 van parked outside and called the station to complain.
The program director approached “Almost Live!” Executive Producer Bill Stainton and said, “I know this isn’t true, but some people are saying KING employees are yelling ‘You’re whores!’ out a window.
“Then he looked over at the show board,” Nelson recalled, “and there’s our little card saying ‘Yelling at Whores’ on it.”
It’s all captured in Bryan Johnston’s book about the show, which debuted in 1984 and — despite being shut down in 1999 — has never left the air. You can still see reruns at 1:30 a.m. on Sundays.
Johnston will appear at The Elliott Bay Book Company on July 13 to talk about the book, which chronicles the show’s start as a talk/sketch show hosted by Ross Shafer, to a purely sketch-comedy show hosted by Keister. (Some cast members will also be there to tell stories and answer questions).
Both versions of “Almost Live!” featured a cast that would follow various routes to show-business success.
Joel McHale went on to host “The Soup” and star in “Community,” as well as appear in feature films. “Bill Nye the Science Guy” went national. Guppy is hosting “Art Zone” on The Seattle Channel. Pat Cashman is hosting another late-night sketch show, “Up Late NW” (formerly “The 206”), with his son, Chris. Ed Wyatt is working in television in Melbourne, Australia. And Nelson was not only nominated for an Oscar, he wrote an Amazon series called “Highston” and wrote and directed another feature film, “The Confirmation,” starring Clive Owen.
Johnston, a longtime television producer who is now a creative director at the Visual Media Group in Bellevue, wrote a book about local television icon J.P. Patches in 2003.
He was looking for another, Seattle-centric story to tell, and — during one of his 50-minute commutes from his home in Lake Forest Park — landed on “Almost Live!” No one had ever written a book about the show and its history.
(The book is available at almostlivebook.com.)
Johnston contacted former cast member and director Steve Wilson, who connected him with the rest of the group. The book is structured as a series of recollections from the cast, and those who appeared or worked on the show.
“Every single one said they would be honored to help,” he said.
The book is filled with behind-the-scenes stories of the show, including the night in 1995 when Conway died on the set.
The show was just ending when Conway, 38 at the time, collapsed from what was later determined to be cardiac arrest. She was clinically dead for 20 minutes, but was revived — and back on the air two weeks later. (Conway now wears a pacemaker).
KING 5 TV may have given the show a shot, but it didn’t give it a lot of money.
And yet, the region was rich with ideas that turned into favorite sketches and characters:
The Lynnwood Beauty Academy and its three basic styles, “including the patented ‘Wall-A-Bangs.’ ”
“East Side Story,” which pitted the “The Bellevue Squares” against “The Factoria Trash.”
Every neighborhood got a dose of the “COPS” treatment. And Seahawk legend Jim Zorn once appeared in a sketch called “Ballard Vice.”
“At one point during filming, they were running around the streets with fake machine guns,” Johnston said. “Nobody said a thing. It was before 9/11. A different time.”
Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters appeared in a sketch with Guppy called “Me!” in which she broke his guitar (but not before he played a bit of “Big Me.”)
In 1989, Shafer left to host a late-night talk show on FOX — and brought Keister with him.
“It was intoxicating,” Johnston said. Shafer’s dressing room — formerly occupied by Joan Rivers — was 2,500 square feet and had two bedrooms. The toilet-paper holder was made of crystal.
Keister dipped a toe into the Hollywood life, and after two weeks high-tailed it back to Seattle to be with his wife and twin babies.
“He realized, based on his personality, ‘This was not a good thing for me,’ ” Johnston said of Keister. “He had everything he was hoping for, and he left.”
He returned to “Almost Live!” and struggled for a year before abandoning the talk-show format and focusing on sketch comedy. The show took off.
Johnston praised Keister’s “quick mind and his deep love of Seattle.” He called Cashman “a comic genius,” Guppy “fearless,” McHale “talented and nice” and Nelson “the greatest comedy writer.”
The show served as “a total mirror” of the Seattle that gets a little further away every time a building is razed for something new and shiny.
“So many people said ‘Almost Live!’ was Seattle,” Johnston said. “It was like, ‘Nobody can make fun of my little brother but me.’ ”
But he doubts there will ever be another show like it.
“I don’t think so, sadly,” he said. “All the neighborhoods in the community were so unique. Everything is starting to taste a little like chicken. And it’s harder to make fun of stuff.”
But it will do newcomers well to watch “Almost Live!” and learn about the Seattle that once was.
“Watch that show,” Johnston said, “and you’ll learn more about Seattle than from anything else.”