Live Onstage, It's Reality TV: Keith Van Straaten '93
Those of you who remember Keith Van Straaten ’93 as SLC’s pop culture king probably won’t be surprised to hear that he produces and hosts his own LA late-night talk show, The J. Keith van Straaten Show. A la Letterman, Keith does an opening monologue, has a house band, cracks topical jokes, banters with his sidekick and interviews a wide range of celebrities.
The twist? It’s live, but not on TV: It happens in a 99-seat theatre, with guests so close to the audience that you can actually see them sweat. This is the real fear factor—no commercials, no editing, no seven-second delay—more real than reality TV.
The show actually grew out of Keith’s Sarah Lawrence days. After graduating, Keith went to Los Angeles to break into show business, not exactly sure which aspect of the industry to pursue. “I made a two-column list of the things I was good at and the things I enjoyed,” he remembered. “Finally, I identified what I loved most: going out with friends and goofing around. These were skills I definitely cultivated at SLC.” But how to translate that experience into an entertainment form where he could integrate his comic abilities?
His idea crystallized at his day job. “Every week, a different employee hosted lunch at my company. I made my theme The J. Keith van Straaten Show and did a monologue, told jokes and interviewed coworkers. Everyone loved it. I knew I had something.”
By 1997, Keith was channeling all his spare time into the project; and within a year, he was attracting major press and major stars. His show was profiled in LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, even on CNN; and celebrities such as Luke Perry, John Ritter, Shelley Long, Margaret Cho and the late Steve Allen have sat on Keith’s couch for impromptu interviews. “Guests often start out stories saying, ‘I wouldn’t say this on TV but, since no one’s gonna see this…’ The fact that the show is in a theatre and not televised to millions allows for things to happen.”
Often it’s fabulous. “When Jamie Kennedy came on, he brought onstage with him a cat he found in the alley. That was a surprise, and so was Academy Award nominee Robert Forster doing ‘Hambone,’ slapping on his legs and feet, and Esai Morales showing off his ballet training.” Sometimes it’s scary, like the time one guest just didn’t bother to show up at all. But above all, it’s always raw.
The night I attended, former “Taxi” star Jeff Conaway talked candidly about his faded career. Toward the end of the interview, he pulled out a guitar. “I’ve been saved by the Lord,” he declared and proceeded to sing a rather lengthy song called, “Go Out and Save Someone.” You’d never see that on Letterman.
SLC alumnae/i—including Carmen Mitchell ’93, Dufflyn Lammers ’95, Jami Williams ’92, Evy Sheinkopf ’93 and Zoë Leven ’92—have flocked to the show, and SLCers have a behind-the-scenes presence as well. “Julia [Berman ’93] Coyote is basically the co-executive producer,” Keith explained. “She helps write sketches and produces and directs video pieces. We’ve also had SLC celebrity guests like Leslie Grossman [’93] of TV’s “‘Popular.’”
And while Keith has had other gigs, including a guest spot on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and hosting the first season of Comedy Central’s quirky “Beat the Geeks,” he always returns to his eponymous show. Last year, The J. Keith van Straaten Show marked its 100th episode, and Star Trek’s Wil Wheaton (a regular guest) became his permanent sidekick. “This the best marketing tool for my talents,” Keith explained. “I love it. It’s my ultimate medium as an artist.”
For show schedule and information, visit the website.
— Raven Snook ’94