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COMEDY

Really Unplugged

Comedian takes the TV talk show to a new level. It's not actually on TV.

May 06, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The J. Keith van Straaten Show" is a talk show with a twist: It isn't on television.

That may be the only twist left for a genre that has become a kind of limbo for show business' dispossessed. Positioned against the talk show glut, there's something perversely clever about van Straaten, who every Saturday night at 10 walks onstage at Los Angeles' Acme Theatre in a suit to deliver a monologue, tease the night's guests and kick it over to his house band, which is actually just a talented guy on a keyboard, Adam Chester, who goes by the name Adam and the Chesters.

As it turns out, there's nothing terribly perverse or satirical at play here. It may all seem like a goof (kind of like that "Seinfeld" episode in which Kramer discovers the old "Merv Griffin Show" set and turns his life into a talk show), but van Straaten's aim is actually pretty earnest.

Sometimes he plays off not being on television, as when, for instance, he holds up a CD cover for a nonexistent camera to shoot a nonexistent close-up.

But though his guests aren't exactly A list, they are real: Joan Van Ark, Shelley Long, Fred Willard, to name a few recent ones. The musical guests (Jonatha Brook, Tim Burlingame) aren't household names, but they're real too. So are the comedians and the rotating sidekicks. It's all real, bracingly real at times, as any unrehearsed talk show would be.

"There is a postmodern angle to the idea of, 'Well, who the hell is this guy to have a talk show?' " says van Straaten, 27, insisting that he isn't out to skewer the talk show community.

"[I]f I saw this show, I would get it right away, but it's interesting; a lot of people tell me it takes them awhile to adjust and sort of figure out what's a goof and what isn't."

On the one hand, van Straaten's concept isn't new. In Los Angeles, theaters are used occasionally as staging grounds for would-be TV shows; it's a way to present, say, a sitcom pilot without having to wait for a studio or network to green-light a script and cast.

And yes, van Straaten--whose clean-cut-with-horned-rim-glasses onstage look gives him the aspect of a Drew Carey on Ultra Slim Fast--does have aspirations to do TV as either a writer or a performer. But there are probably easier ways to go about that career leap than cobbling together a live talk show every week.

Booking Tests His Resolve, People Skills

Over breakfast recently, van Straaten spelled out just what it takes to do his show: Update Web site, schlep to Kinko's to print programs, write monologue, book guests. Why does he do it? After dabbling in improv (four years with Acme's sketch companies) and stand-up comedy, van Straaten says, he decided that his talent and interests were better suited to a talk show, even if he'd have to assemble that show himself.

It's the booking of guests that has tested both van Straaten's resolve and his people skills. After all, when you're cold-calling agents and publicists, how do you pitch a talk show whose audience maxes out at 99?

"I've got this show, it's in Los Angeles, a TV talk show format in a theater," is how van Straaten broaches the subject. "If they're still looking at me sideways," he says, "I'll say, 'And it's not me in a van.' "

Surprisingly--or maybe not so surprisingly--people bite. Not Calista Flockhart or George Clooney, but people nonetheless. Some use the show as a rehearsal space for TV talk show appearances and other projects (on Saturday, Shelley Long was a guest, appearing as a chirpy Midwesterner named Brenda Moore, a character she'd like to develop for television); others do the show on recommendations from friends.

How to Find a Luminous Guest

Since launching the show at the Tamarind Theatre in Hollywood in August 1997 (there were seven people in the audience, van Straaten says, and his very first guest was Walter Koenig, who played Chekov on the original "Star Trek"), "The J. Keith van Straaten Show" has racked up a five-page resume of guests.

During breakfast, van Straaten whipped out a list of prior guests and how he got them. The list included former Olympic sprinter Mike Powell ("My last day job had me working with his brother-in-law"), French Stewart from the NBC sitcom "3rd Rock From the Sun" ("I know his wife. Pitched him the idea at their Christmas party") and the aforementioned Van Ark ("I'm friends with her daughter"). Character actor Joe Pantoliano ("The Matrix") is a potential future guest (van Straaten ran into him recently at a cousin's bris). Steve Allen is confirmed for the season finale on June 26 (van Straaten approached the talk show founding father at a Museum of Television and Radio event).

"It's so interesting how rarely a publicist or an assistant or a manager will ever actually say no," van Straaten says. "They'll always say, 'Well, not at this time,' or 'Try back in a few months.' I wonder if it's that usual Hollywood thing of, like, you don't want to burn any bridges; you don't want to close any doors."

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