Television History: Almost Live!

  • By Brad Holden
  • Posted 12/14/2022
  • Essay 22621
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Almost Live! was a popular sketch comedy show that aired on Seattle’s NBC affiliate KING-TV from 1984 through 1999. Featuring local comics Ross Shafer and John Keister, the show poked fun at news stories and regional stereotypes, earned a loyal fanbase, and became a hit during the early 1990s – just as Seattle itself was ascending into national prominence. After 15 years on the air, Almost Live! was canceled in 1999 when KING came under new ownership. Just as the show’s popularity mirrored Seattle’s rise on the national stage, the show's demise reflected the end of an era in which the city was rapidly transformed by the tech industry. Several cast members, including Bill Nye and Joel McHale, went on to successful careers in the entertainment industry.

Humble Beginnings

The pilot episode of Almost Live! (initially called Take 5) aired on September 23, 1984, on KING-TV. The format of the show was different from what it would become. Created by KING programming director Bob Jones and hosted by local comedian Ross Shafer (b. 1954), it began as a weekly comedy-talk show modeled after The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman. In the early episodes, Shafer would open each half-hour episode with a monologue, followed by interviews with local celebrities and sports stars. It even boasted its own house band, The Almost Live! Band. 

Joining Shafer on this new TV venture was John Keister (b. 1956). At the time, Keister was an editor and writer at the Seattle alternative weekly The Rocket, as well as the host of a music-video show on KING-TV called REV. Keister and Shafer knew each other from the Seattle comedy scene, and Keister was asked to come onto the show to do a segment about local music. Within a short period of time, Keister expanded well beyond music to become an integral part of the show.  

Originally, Almost Live! aired on Sundays at 6 p.m., considered one of the least desirable times on TV, as it traditionally had the lowest number of viewers. In addition to the poor time slot, the show debuted to mixed reviews, with one unimpressed local television critic writing, "the premiere show was an uneven entry with the best comedy provided by John Keister" ("Video Notes"), though another article came to Shafer’s defense, describing him as a "genial comedian, who’s like a combination Johnny Carson and David Letterman – a glib pro who’s offbeat and original" ("The Last Laugh").

When it came to the styles of Shafer and Keister, it quickly became apparent that the two men were polar opposites. Where Shafer was the suit-wearing professional, Keister was a shirt-and-jeans-wearing renegade. As one newspaper article observed, "If Shafer was the charming guy next door, Keister was the lunatic in the basement" ("Almost There"). Keister would recall how Shafer was initially wary of him as they had such different brands of humor. As a result, there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the two men in the early days of the show.

Influenced by such shows as Saturday Night Live, Keister was the first to introduce the idea of doing comedic sketches. Initially, Keister would independently record his sketches outside of the show and then send them in to be aired the following week. Over time, though, Shafer embraced these sketches and even began performing in them, resulting in such memorable segments as "Ballard Vice." Despite his pioneering role on the show, Keister was quick to acknowledge that Almost Live! was a direct result of Shafer’s hard work, saying that, "Ross was responsible for getting the show off the ground" (Keister interview). Within a short period of time, the disparate talents of Shafter and Keister created a dynamic that gave the show the boost it needed, and it was soon drawing a respectable following. By its second season, the show was winning Emmy Awards.

The Washington State Song

During its first year on the air, the show operated on a shoestring budget with no financial resources to help with any degree of marketing. As a result, the crew decided they needed a publicity stunt in order to start attracting viewers, as well as some badly needed advertisers. One of the show’s writers, Jim Sharp, suggested that they run a campaign to change the state song, "Washington, My Home," into something more recognizable and iconic. The team debated which song would make a good replacement. "The Witch," by The Sonics, was one of the first suggestions, though it was "Louie, Louie" that they eventually decided on. The hit song was written and recorded in California in 1957 by a musician named Richard Berry (1935-1997), though it didn’t really become a hit until Seattle band The Wailers covered it in 1961, followed by other Northwest bands, including The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and The Raiders.

After deciding their song choice, Shafer announced their campaign on an episode of the show in February 1985, resulting in a massive response. As Shafer later reported, "I just announced it one week on the show, and it was like a match striking kerosene" ("When Louie Louie ..."). The announcement was swiftly followed by an actual resolution being introduced in the Washington State Senate, and Shafer even appeared before the senate to speak in support of the song change. The campaign gathered a high degree of public support, and April 12, 1985, was declared as "Louie, Louie Day," with an estimated 5,000 people showing up at the State Capitol for a spirited rally. In the end, all efforts to change the song stalled at the legislative level, and to this day the official state song remains as "Washington, My Home." However, the show did achieve its primary goal, which was drawing attention and bringing in advertisers. "It just shot us so far ahead ... and we sold out every ad," Shafer said ("When Louie Louie ..."). The campaign was such an effective publicity stunt, in fact, that KING-TV decided to expand the show to a full hour to capitalize on the new ad sales. 

Almost Live! Gets its Footing

The first couple of years of the show were spent getting established and putting together a working ensemble of performers, including Joe Guppy, Andrea "Andy" Stein, Scott Shaefer, Mike Neun, and Bill Stainton (b. 1957), who also served as the show’s executive producer. Local personality Pat Cashman (b. 1950) began making his first appearances on the show, recalling, "I did pop up a few times in the early years and became a more frequent cast member around 1990 or 1991" (Holden interview). Bill Nye (b. 1955) joined the show in 1986. At the time, he was a Boeing engineer and aspiring stand-up comic who Keister knew from the local comedy clubs. Nye was brought in as a writer, but was soon appearing in some of the sketches, including the popular "Speed Walker" segment. The show also took advantage of Nye’s engineering background; he would occasionally conduct wacky science experiments for various episodes, thus giving birth to his Bill Nye the Science Guy persona. 

Another important cast member addition during these early years was Nancy Guppy (b. 1961). She and Joe Guppy were dating at the time, and as she recalls, "I had been taking some acting classes and met Joe Guppy. The show didn’t always have a woman on staff at that point – this was in the mid-’80s – and so he would ask me if I could get off work to be in a bit when they needed someone to play a wife or girlfriend or whatever it was. And so I would get off work, lying to my employer that I had a doctor’s appointment, and would then go to the appointed place and shoot my part in the sketch.  And that is how I initially got involved" (Holden interview).

During these show-building years, as the show continued to climb in popularity, Shafer and Keister would reach out to up-and-coming comedians, who were in town for a comedy gig, and would recruit them to appear on the show. Early episodes included such luminaries as Dana Carvey, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ellen DeGeneres.

Shafer Exits

In 1986, a new late-night talk show premiered on Fox Broadcasting called The Late Show, with famous comedian and actress Joan Rivers (1933-2014) serving as the host. However, the show struggled in the late-night TV world, and as a result of poor ratings, Rivers was fired in 1987. Following her exit, a series of guests sat in for hosting duties until 1988, when Shafer was named as the new host to help revive the struggling show.

Shafer’s first hosting appearance on The Late Show took place on April 15, 1988, and he moved to Los Angeles soon after. Initially, he would fly to Seattle on the weekends in order to tape episodes of Almost Live! and would then have to turn around and fly back to California. It was an exhausting schedule, and Shafer eventually decided to put all his focus on his new TV venture and say goodbye to his original show. After four years and several local Emmy Awards, Shafer’s farewell performance on Almost Live! took place on May 8, 1988. Unfortunately for him, The Late Show was never able to get its footing in late-night TV and was canceled in October 1988. After the show ended, Shafer went back to doing stand-up comedy.

When Shafer first took over as the host of The Late Show, Keister had joined him in Los Angeles to help with the new show and get a taste of what life was like in Hollywood. However, soon after Shafer’s exit from Almost Live!, Keister was appointed as the new host, and it quickly became apparent that he was going to need to make a choice between pursuing a career in Los Angeles or assuming his new hosting duties in Seattle. At the time, Seattle hadn’t yet exploded into the national spotlight and was still seen as a small town with no real opportunities in the entertainment world. Even though Keister had begun making important contacts in Hollywood, he chose to return to Almost Live!, though many people at the time thought he was making a horrible career decision. As Keister recalls, "It was one of the most difficult decisions in my life" (Holden interview). 

Back in Seattle, Keister tried to replicate Shafer’s style of delivery as well as follow the same interview-centric format as before. However, his comedic style was completely different from Shafer’s and things fell flat, including the show’s ratings. This was right after his return from Los Angeles, and so he thought he had made a terrible decision. In his words, "I thought I had ruined the show" (Holden interview). Realizing that he was going to need to make changes that better suited his style, Keister decided to play to his strengths and gradually transformed Almost Live! into the sketch comedy show that it would eventually become known for. The guest interviews and live band segments were dropped, and the show was shaved back to a half-hour format. Within a couple of years, as Keister recalls, "everything fell into place for the show just as Seattle exploded and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made" (Holden interview).

The show format during Keister's tenure as host always included an opening monologue, followed by a few skits, and would conclude with "The John Report," in which Keister poked fun at whatever the local news headlines were that week. Each episode would then end with everyone on stage waving as the credits rolled. 

Much of the comedy was centered around Seattle culture. This included making fun of stereotypes for different neighborhoods, such as elderly drivers in Ballard, hippies in Fremont, and the often-snobby environments of Bellevue and Mercer Island. Other frequent targets included suburban Renton, Kent, and Lynnwood. Keister also knew many local musicians from his time at The Rocket and would have them appear on the show for different skits. This happened just as the Seattle music scene was starting to explode; the show boasted cameos from members of such noted bands as Alice In Chains, Nirvana, and Soundgarden.  

In the spring of 1989, Joe and Nancy Guppy left the show to move to Los Angeles after being hired to work on an HBO show called Not Necessarily The News. Prompted in part by their departure, Bill Stainton hired Ed Wyatt and Bob Nelson (b. 1956) to be writers and eventual cast members. Joe and Nancy would return to Almost Live! in 1992.  

Calamity at the Space Needle

On Saturday, April 1, 1989, Almost Live! pulled an April Fool's Day prank that would backfire and became national news. Because of scheduling changes, the show had been moved to a Saturday 6 p.m. time slot, which is largely why the prank was found to be so believable. During the episode, the show did a spoof which mimicked a "we interrupt this program for an important news story" style of emergency reporting. A fake television reporter then appeared on the screen (played by a hired actor who wasn’t a recognizable part of the show) and delivered "breaking news" about the Space Needle collapsing. Viewers were then shown images of a collapsed Space Needle, followed by an interview with a hysterical passerby who had reportedly witnessed the whole thing. The distraught eyewitness was played by Tracey Conway (b. 1956), a classically trained actress who was working in the human resources department of KING-TV and had been specially recruited for the sketch. It was Conway’s official entry onto the show; she would become a regular cast member.

Despite a caption at the bottom of the screen identifying the skit as an April Fool's Day prank, as well as the display of the Almost Live! logo, viewers thought it was real and began flooding the KING-TV station with panicked telephone calls. The 911 emergency assistance line was inundated with calls, as were the Seattle Police Department and the Space Needle. The sheer volume of phone calls was so great that many local emergency switchboards were shut down, resulting in people being unable to report real-life emergencies. Keister had left immediately after the taping of the episode, as he was hosting a local comedy show that night, and had no idea about any of the ensuing fallout until after he got home and his answering machine was full of urgent messages. 

The next day, the prank was front-page news in newspapers all over the country and by Monday morning, every morning radio show was talking about the stunt. The following week, attorneys for the Space Needle contacted KING-TV, threatening to sue, and many tense and high-level meetings subsequently took place between management and the cast of Almost Live! Eventually, things blew over and clips of the now-famous skit are commonly shared online every year on April 1.  

The 1990s

In April 1990, after Keister’s first season as host, the show was moved from its Sunday 6 p.m. slot to Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m. This required KING-TV to get special permission from NBC, as it delayed Saturday Night Live locally by a half hour. This new Saturday time slot was granted a six-month trial but was eventually allowed to continue indefinitely, thus cementing Almost Live!’s legacy as a half-hour sketch comedy show. Around the same time, such local offerings as Microsoft, Starbucks Coffee, and grunge music helped propel Seattle into the national spotlight. Almost Live! was able to capitalize on all of this, just as it was hitting its comedic stride, and the timing of everything was a big part of the show’s increasing success.

Joe and Nancy Guppy returned to Almost Live! in 1992, which is also when the show became syndicated on the Comedy Channel. This is also when Cashman became more of a regular cast member, and a new 30-second opening that introduced all the cast members was filmed at local music venue, The Weathered Wall.

On January 21, 1995, just after wrapping up one of the episodes, the cast members came out to wave to the audience when Conway suddenly collapsed on the stage. One of the earlier skits in that episode was about a bumbling hospital staff, which she was a part of, so most people in the audience initially thought it was just a comedic stunt. However, it quickly became apparent that a medical crisis had taken place, and two firemen, who happened to be in the audience, began performing CPR on Conway until an ambulance could arrive and transport her to Harborview Medical Center. Conway’s heart had gone into a potentially fatal arrhythmia and she had suffered cardiac arrest. Conway recovered and was back filming episodes two weeks later.

Later that year, McHale became a regular cast member after originally joining the show as an intern. He would leave the show in 1997 to go to graduate school for acting. Also in 1995, one of the show’s cameramen, Darrell Suto, started appearing in a popular and recurring skit called "Mind Your Manners, With Billy Quan," in which Suto would play an etiquette-minded martial arts master who would deliver flying kicks to anyone he caught being poorly mannered. 

End of an Era

In September 1999, it was announced that Almost Live! was being canceled. A Texas-based company, Belo Corporation, had purchased KING-TV two years earlier, and despite being the top-rated show in its time slot, it was decided that things were no longer profitable enough to continue on. As Stainton described it, "we were a line item on a budget" (An Oral History). After 15 seasons and over a hundred Emmy Awards, the show had a special one-hour finale, titled "Almost Live! Gets All Fired Up," which aired on October 23, 1999. Afterwards, the cast held a farewell party at Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill. As Keister told reporters at the time, "When we started, the city was a much different place than it is today. And really, the stereotypes we played off 10 years ago simply do not hold up" ("Almost Live Party ...").

A year later, in 2000, Keister debuted in a show for KIRO-TV called The John Report With Bob, which was similar to "The John Report" news segment he did on Almost Live!, and which lasted two seasons. A special Almost Live! reunion episode aired on KING-TV in 2005, followed by a series of "best of" episodes in 2006, called Almost Live! Back At Ya. In 2013, Keister and Cashman introduced a new regional comedy show called The (206). Keister departed that show in 2014, and in 2015, the show was revamped as Up Late Northwest, though it only lasted one season, ending in 2016.

Despite being off the air since 1999, Almost Live! maintains a lasting pop cultural legacy, and many cast members have gone on to other successful ventures. After leaving the show in 1995, Nye attained widespread fame with his Bill Nye The Science Guy show on PBS, as well as his follow-up show, The Eye Of Nye. Likewise, McHale appeared in dozens of TV shows, movies and commercials. Stainton and Shafer found individual success as popular motivational speakers, while Nelson became a noted Hollywood screenwriter. Nancy Guppy became the creator and host of a series of shows that focused on local arts and culture, including Art Zone with Nancy Guppy. Cashman is probably best known for his recognizable voice, which is familiar to local listeners from the radio programs that he has hosted over the years, including a show on KOMO-AM 1000. Since that time, he has lent his voice talents to a variety of television commercials, including several advertisements for Taco Time.  

Keister was the only cast member who was at every taping of Almost Live!, from the pilot episode to its last recorded episode. In September 2017, he performed a final stand-up comedy show at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. Perhaps being somewhat allegorical to the story of the Almost Live!, his final comedy performance was titled, "Living and Dying in Seattle."


Bryan Johnston, Almost Live!: The Show That Wouldn’t Die (Seattle: Fever Pitch Publishing, 2016); John Voorhees, "Video Notes," The Seattle Times, September 29, 1984, p. 33; Patrick MacDonald, "The Last Laugh," Ibid., December 12, 1984, p. 83; Kay McFadden, "'Almost Live' Party: Cast Look Back On Precious Memories," Ibid., October 25, 1999, p. E-1; O. Casey Corr, "ALMOST THERE: 'Almost Live' Star Ross Shafer is Only A Step From The Big Time," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 22, 1987, p. 80; Susan Paynter, "Ross Shafer is New 'Late Show' Host,” Ibid., April 15, 1988, p. 1; M. L. Lyke, “Ross Shafer Decides To Make L.A. His Home," Ibid., October 13, 1988, p. 18; Stephen Clutter, "Too Deep A Needling?" Ibid., April 2, 1989, p. 24; "KING-TV On Space Needle Hoax: Sorry, Folks," Ibid., April 3, 1989, p. 8; Susan Paynter, "Hollywood Lures Away Two More Of KING’s 'Almost Live' Stars,” Ibid., April 25, 1989, p. 28; Kitt Boss, "Almost There," Ibid., April 28, 1991, p. 53; John Levesque, "KING/5 Is Pulling The Plug On Almost Live,'" Ibid., September 2, 1999, p. E-8; John Levesque, "Kicked Out On Your Keister? Move To KIRO," Ibid, April 1, 2000, p. 62; Tracey Conway, "No Joke: That Night I Almost Died On 'Almost Live'," Ibid., May 19, 2000, p. 14; Feliks Banel, "When 'Louie Louie' Almost Became Washington’s State Song,", August 19, 2020; Almost Live!: Still Alive website accessed on 10/15/22 (; Matthew Halverson, An Oral History of Almost Live, Seattle Met, June 2013; author Brad Holden interview with John Keister, Nancy Guppy, and Pat Cashman, September 27, 2022 through October 25, 2022, transcripts in possession of Brad Holden, Seattle.

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