J. Keith van Straaten (center) withTracy Metro and Adam Chester
J. Keith van Straaten (center) with
Tracy Metro and Adam Chester
I was the first person to smoke pot with J. Keith van Straaten while in college. Even then, his hysterical and offbeat comic talents were evident. "Dear Dad," Keith began a letter telling his father just how his college tuition was being spent: "College is really groovy. I like my friends, especially my roommate, Akmed. The other night, he had a plastic baggie that had some funny-looking herbs and spices in it. I asked him what it was for, and he said 'mental stimulation.' He put the herbs and spices into a little pipe and lit it, then started acting really weird and laughing at everything! Then I tried it, and started doing the same thing. Dad, I hate to say it, but I'm beginning to suspect it was...marijuana! Well, anyway, I sure hope it wasn't, because I sure used a lot of it."

Keith didn't smoke pot again until recently. In the opening monologue for his self-titled show, van Straaten joked, "I haven't smoked pot in so long, at first I wondered if it had changed. Do I need to connect to the Internet now? But I'm glad I did it because it made me realize how cool I look when I do drugs." A lot has changed over the past ten years, but van Straaten is as funny and clever as ever.

At first glance, The J. Keith van Straaten Show (JkvSShow) seems like a Tonight type of affair. This impression is not entirely correct. The show's format is admittedly familiar--host's opening monologue, witty banter with a sexier than normal sidekick, brief sketches and comic bits, a house band, and various celebrity guests--everyone from Steve Allen to Margaret Cho to Luke Perry to Weird Al Yankovic. But this show is not on TV, cable, or even the radio. Instead, it is performed every Saturday night, live, in a theater for a lucky audience of 99. It has been described as "a great piece of conceptual satire," with "every trapping needed to take on Leno and Letterman." While both of these interpretations are valid, they miss what makes the show unique: Unlike TV, there are no commercials, no editing, no seven-second delay. The JKvSShow is truly live and, therefore thrillingly dangerous.

"Anything can happen" van Straaten exclaims. "I do a quick 10 minute pre-interview with my guests, just to find out what they are and aren't willing to talk about. I also research their careers so I can talk to them intelligently. The rest is spontaneous. I can't tell you how many times guests have started out stories saying, 'Well, I wouldn't say this on TV but, since no one's gonna see this...' The fact that the show is in a theater and not televised to millions of people allows for things to happen."

Has that ever been scary? "Well, yes," he admits. "But, sometimes, it's great. We had a musical guest, Donna DeLory, who I knew had sung backup for Madonna. For the hell of it, I asked if she was in Truth or Dare. Turns out, not only was she in it, but she was the one who dares Madonna to go down on the water bottle! On behalf of all men, I thanked her. Then there was the time a guest just didn't bother to show up at all. Luckily, that has only happened once."

The night I attended the show, former Taxi star Jeff Conaway was one of van Straaten's guests, and he was very funny and quite candid about his faded career. Towards 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." He did it in earnest, hoping to spread his born again message. Now, where on TV would you see something like that?


But the celebrity interviews are not the only reason to see the show; van Straaten's opening monologue, which employs the skills learned during his training with The Groundlings and Second City, is both topical and highly personal. "The audience knows when I am faking it," he says. "I don't want to just get up there and do Clinton jokes." (In fact, while van Straaten has practically no rules as to what a guest can and cannot say or do on his show, he does have two: no notes, and no Lewinsky jokes.) The star also enjoys doing local humor.

"I am amazed anyone shows up for the show at all--the guests, the audience, anyone!" van Straaten blurts out in a moment of characteristic self-deprecation. "When I had Steve Allen on the show, the first thing I asked him was, 'Why are you here?' 'Cause I am a nice person,' he said."

And so is van Straaten, which is one of the reasons his show has been such a success. But it hasn't been easy. In the beginning, van Straaten did everything himself: wrote the material, booked the guests, did the flyers, etc. Now, in addition to his regular sidekick, the gorgeous Tracy Metro, and a house band, Adam and the Chesters (actually, just one incredibly talented and versatile guy on a keyboard), van Straaten has weekly sponsors, a publicist, two producers, a stage manager, and a backstage crew.

"We had Luke Perry on last month, and that really boosted our validity," he says. "When you tell a potential guest that Perry did the show, they figure they should do it too." Wil Wheaton, former adolescent actor from Stand By Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation, appeared as a guest a while back and has subsequently become a permanent part of the proceedings. "He's our Tony Randall," Keith explains. "He did the show once, loved it, and offered to be in any bit I could use him in. I write him a new part every week."

Van Straaten's obvious fan-boy enthusiasm is a great reason for guests to do the show. "I would never make fun of them," he insists. "I am here to celebrate them! Like I said, they can do whatever they want. Shelly Long came on as 'Brenda Moore,' a character she is hoping to develop for television. Guests can do the show to get exposure, prepare for an upcoming TV appearance, or just because they want to.

"I love these guys," van Straaten enthuses. "I do the show as a showcase for myself, but there's another side to it too. I get to interview people who I admire. Sometimes I am up there talking to a celebrity and I think, 'Wow, I'm interviewing Weird Al Yankovic! This is so cool!' " So, is that the "real" J. Keith van Straaten up there on stage, bantering with the guests? "I can tell you what my shrink says: 'I come off as an introvert using satirical skills to appear as an extrovert.'"

As for the future of the show, what does van Straaten hope for? "Of course, I would love to be on TV. But right now, I am more interested in focusing on how I can make the show better in its current form. I would like to get to a point where every week we are sold out, and every week we have a great celebrity guest. If we just got a higher profile, I would be satisfied.

"Oh, and one more thing," he adds as he effortlessly slips into his stage persona. "I've gotta get more chicks out of the show. So far, I haven't gotten a lot of ladies!"