Media Inc. goes on set of the Seattle-satirizing sketch comedyPhotos by Regan MacStravic
Long-time Seattleites will fondly remember Almost Live!, a sketch comedy series that aired on KING-TV in the slot ahead of Saturday Night Live from the late ‘80s through the ‘90s. The show, led by writer-turned-actor John Keister and radio/TV personality Pat Cashman, ribbed Seattle-area sports teams and celebrities, riffed on local stereotypes, and even spawned spin-offs like Bill Nye the Science Guy. The show was canceled by KING in 1999, citing lack of profit.
Although Almost Live! has been off the air for well over a decade, fans of a good-natured Seattle-skewering can rejoice. Sketch comedy—led once again by Keister and Cashman, along with Cashman’s son, Chris—has returned to the Emerald City. Now in its second season, The  picks up where Almost Live! left off, joking about all things Seattle—from legalized marijuana and Bertha, the stalled tunnel boring machine, to sketches spoofing Downton Abbey and Duck Dynasty, entitled “Renton Abbey” and “Geoduck Dynasty,” respectively.
Jim McKenna, an associate producer on Almost Live!, serves as producer on The , along with Erren Gottlieb and Ryan Craig. His explanation for this new incarnation of Seattle sketch comedy is simple: “We missed doing a comedy show in front of a live audience, so we created The .”
The idea for the show was hatched in 2012, when Chris Cashman pitched it to his dad, Keister, McKenna, and Gottlieb. The team knew they couldn’t rely on KING or any other station to fund the show, so they decided to develop it themselves.
They first produced a few teaser clips and posted them to YouTube and Facebook to gauge audience interest. Response was immediate, with Almost Live! fans flooding the social media pages with “Likes” and comments. This piqued KING’s interest. And after a sold-out live show proved that an audience was indeed on board, the team made a deal with KING to air two pilot episodes in January of 2013.
The  was a hit from the beginning, with viewership already built in. The team seems a bit baffled by this phenomenon. Producer Craig explained, “We flipped the switch and the audience was there. It’s been the model of consistency.”
The success of those first two episodes launched a full season, and as the show and its audience continued to grow exponentially, the production moved to a much larger space—Fremont Studios—in the spring of 2013.
“I knew Jim from before and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you do it here?’” recalled Scott Jonas, owner of Fremont Studios. His studio specializes in audience-based productions, such as TV shows, concerts, and other live events. Although the facility is busy—“We’re booked out two years,” says Jonas—they made room on their schedule for The .
“Scott called after he saw the two pilot episodes in January 2013,” said McKenna. “We shot those in an abandoned firehouse in Bellevue. Scott invited us over, and the firehouse really wasn’t set up for an audience, so we moved for episode 5 and 6 of the first season.”
McKenna added, “Scott was an early mentor of mine when we did remote sports television. He is also an artist, thinks big and knows how to put on a show. He has made me look good on a number of productions, including The .”
Jonas gave Media Inc. a tour of the impressive 50,000-square-foot facility, including the two soundstages, edit suites, green room and mobile video unit. The show films on Soundstage A, which is the largest and only audience-rated, acoustically-designed, environmentally-controlled production studio north of Los Angeles in the United States. And not only does Fremont Studios provide the production with the use of both its soundstages—they film on Stage A and host a pre-party for their studio audience on Stage B—but they also provide equipment, operators, and even in-house catering.
“The look and presentation of the show has significantly improved because we now shoot on a real soundstage, as opposed to a firehouse,” said McKenna. “We went from an audience size of 55 to 60 people to now around 450 people per taping. Now, we have room to really swing a Jib, we have great sound, room for side sets. The goal is to make a network quality show disguised as a local show. The viewers seem to appreciate the effort.”
On this rainy Tuesday evening, the weather couldn’t deter an enthused audience from lining up at 6:15pm for the 8pm show. Jonas opened the doors early so the crowd could get out of the rain, and they were welcomed with free drinks and appetizers—and of course major laughs from, as Craig calls them, a “merry band of fools.”
How would you say The  compares to Almost Live!, in terms of style, production, content, etc.?
I think The  mostly compares to Almost Live! in the same way it compares to any other TV comedy show: sketches, live bits, guests, studio audience. Of course, it’s the local humor that seems to resonate best, and while we try not to lean on that exclusively (nor did Almost Live!), there’s no denying that it’s our “go-to pitch”—and the thing that our hometown audiences seem to savor most.
What do you enjoy most about working on the show?
Most people might assume it’s the chance to work with John again—and most especially, my son, Chris. But, in fact, it’s the beer and cold cuts.
What is your favorite sketch from the current season?
While we may not all cop to it, everybody’s favorite sketches are likely the ones they wrote or are featured in. Topics like legalized weed and gay marriage stand out personally, because they were unimaginable when Almost Live! was on the air. These changed times have added lots more to the palette.
As was the case with Almost Live!, my personal favorite moments on The  are always those performed live in front of the studio audience. Taped pieces are edited in advance—they are what they are—but live bits get one chance to work or fail. That challenge is a blast.
The sketches are so relatable – what’s the secret to capturing Seattle’s oh-so-polite wackiness?
The secret is to be an equal opportunity rib-poker. When we parody local TV, neighborhoods, politics, troubled tunnel projects, etc.—we’re not doing it from the viewpoint of an outsider. We live here. This is our home. And, on those occasions when we hopefully get it right, we serve up stuff other local people can identify with. When you approach something in that way, people don’t get their feelings hurt—they laugh, because they know it’s done with affection.
The  airs weekly after Saturday Night Live on KING-TV. When SNL is new, The  airs a new episode, and when SNL is a repeat, so is The .