Artifacts: Reliving Almost Live!
On the air with John Keister
By Brad Holden June 2, 2023
Once upon a time, during the halcyon days of network television, a Saturday night staple for many area residents was a Seattle sketch comedy show that aired on KING-5. Taped in front of a live audience, each episode began with the host delivering his opening monologue. As he walked out onstage, an “On Air” sign would be flashing behind him to indicate that the cameras had officially started rolling.
Viewers would then be treated to a series of comedy skits that poked fun at local stereotypes and whatever the news stories of the day happened to be. Afterward, all the cast members gathered together onstage and waved to the audience as the credits rolled, at which point the “On Air” sign would be turned off, signaling the wrap of another successful episode. The following week, regional water cooler talk was often a recap of what everyone’s favorite sketches had been: “High Fivin’ White Guys,” “Mind Your Manners with Billy Quan,” and “Ballard Driving Academy,” to name a few. They are comedy classics that people still laugh about to this day.
The name of the television program was, of course, Almost Live! To this day, the show continues to have a dedicated fan base and serves as a nostalgic symbol of ’90s-era Seattle. The perennial host of Almost Live! was local personality, John Keister, who now lives a quiet, semi-retired life in the Seward Park neighborhood. Carefully stored away in his home is an eclectic assortment of memorabilia from the hit series, including the iconic “On Air” sign that kicked off the start of each and every episode. I recently paid a visit to Keister to hear his story and view some of these cherished relics.
Keister was born and raised in Seattle and is an alumnus of Franklin High School, just a short distance from where he currently resides. He later attended the University of Washington, where he wrote for the student newspaper. After graduating with a degree in communications, Keister began writing for a weekly alternative newspaper known as the Seattle Sun. In 1979, a small group of renegade writers from the Seattle Sun decided to start their own music publication, leading to the formation of The Rocket, a highly influential magazine devoted to all the great punk and new wave bands of that era, as well as the local music scene. Keister soon joined this new venture and became one of its top writers, penning a popular column that he wrote under the nom de plume, Johnny Renton.
During his tenure at The Rocket, Keister was also an aspiring stand-up comic, occasionally performing at local comedy venues. While his days were usually spent in front of a typewriter, his evenings often involved telling jokes to an audience with his microphone in hand. It was in these comedy clubs that Keister met such people as Ross Shafer and Bill Nye, both of whom later emerged as important figures in his life. These early contacts, as well as all the writing and comedy, eventually coalesced and contributed to his later success. But first, an unforeseen event was about to dramatically change the course of his life.
In Keister’s case, destiny arrived in the form of a telephone call. As he recalls, “I got this random call one day while working at The Rocket in which a producer from KING-5 was putting together a music video show called REV and wanted Johnny Renton to be a part of it.” Keister had to explain that Johnny Renton was just a pseudonym, but that he would be willing to appear on the show under his real name. And thus began Keister’s foray into the world of television.
Several months later, KING-5 had decided to launch another new show called Almost Live! After learning about Keister’s comedy credentials, he was invited onboard. Within two years, he was serving as the show’s host and continued to do so until it ended in the late ’90s.
Looking back on that serendipitous moment, Keister recalls a movie he recently watched involving the Mars Rover, which he remembered had carried an interplanetary sundial that had been designed by his old friend and former cast mate, Bill Nye. Keister had been the one to bring Nye onto Almost Live!, which is where the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” persona was born. Keister chuckles over the extraordinary chain of events that resulted in Nye’s contraption being placed on a distant planet.
“So I was bouncing around in the comedy clubs with Bill Nye, and then that phone call I got at The Rocket led me to Almost Live!, which led to Bill Nye the Science Guy, which led him to collaborating with NASA, which led to a sundial eventually landing on the surface of Mars.” He shakes his head and laughs over the absurdity of it all.
While discussing the events of his life, he pulls out random items to show me, including an early photograph from his days at The Rocket in which he and a coworker are standing next to a rocket-shaped float that had just been part of the Seafair parade. Behind them is the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill. He then disappears into a room and walks out holding two framed black-and-white photos of Nirvana in its early days, another memento from his involvement with the local music scene.
In the photo, the young band — which was in the process of recording its breakthrough album, Nevermind – looks blissfully unaware of the huge success that would soon engulf its lives. Keister often used his musical connections from his days at The Rocket to recruit various Seattle musicians to appear on different Almost Live! sketches. This included members of Nirvana. Looking at the photo brings a smile to his face, saying, “Grohl is happy, and Cobain is looking optimistic.”
He also shares a recent photograph of himself and Ross Shafer. Shafer was the original host of Almost Live! back when it first aired in 1984. Two years later, he would exit the show after taking over hosting duties of The Late Show down in Los Angeles, at which point Keister took over the helm in Seattle and captained the ship until the show ended in 1999. It was certainly an unexpected career turn for Keister that all began with that fateful phone call.
As my afternoon with Keister wrapped up, I finally had the opportunity to hold the iconic “On Air” sign. I once had the good fortune of attending a live taping of Almost Live! and still remember the thrill of the sign lighting up, letting us audience members know that things were about to kick off. The memory of it all gives the item a visceral quality, and I half-jokingly comment that it belongs in a museum. Today, the iconic sign now hangs in Keister’s home with a certain degree of prominence. It serves as a proud reminder of his years spent on local television and is, inarguably, a true Seattle artifact.
Brad Holden is an amateur historian and is the author of two books: “Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners and Graft in the Queen City,” and “Alfred M. Hubbard: Inventor, Bootlegger and Psychedelic Pioneer.” Check out his Instagram page @seattle_artifacts for more interesting tidbits about Seattle’s history.