J. Keith Van Straaten, host of the live game show and podcast for Maximum Fun, Go Fact Yourself, met up with me earlier this summer while scouting locations for taking his game show on the road to New York City.
Live shows of Go Fact Yourself are happening this weekend (July 21-22) at Caveat, with special guests Stacy London and Scott Rogowsky on Saturday; Ophira Eisenberg and Charles Busch on Sunday.
Van Straaten’s first big gig as a game show host came in 2001, when he presided over the first season of Beat The Geeks on Comedy Central.
But his first game show love was all-time classic The Price Is Right. “You saw people who were in the military, you saw people who were unemployed, you saw people who were housewives, you saw people who were grandpas, you saw people who were students, and the one thing that united them — well, you could say greed or capitalism — but also Bob Barker and a game. It was really fun.” Van Straaten has sat in the audience twice; once each with Barker and Drew Carey.
“I have never been in a room with more energy than when Bob Barker was hosting,” he said. “It was a church revival mixed with winning the Super Bowl, and that was before anything happens.”
Van Straaten grew up in Chicago, but attended high school in Los Angeles, and took improv classes from the late Cynthia Szigeti at The Groundlings in the summers during college. He eventually decided to try hosting a talk show instead of pursuing comedy.
“I rented a theater, picked a date, and worked backward from there,” he told me. He booked five dates in 1997 at the Tamarind Theater, before the Upright Citizens Brigade went Hollywood and took over the joint. Van Straaten wasn’t at all sure what he was doing at first, but pushed himself through the experience just to do it. To be able to cross it off his list of life experiences. “Thank goodness I was friends with Danielle Koenig, and her father is Walter Koenig (Chekov on Star Trek), and he agreed to do the show if she did the show also.”
Two decades later, he’s working as a content producer on the comedy panel TV show, Funny You Should Ask, and writing trivia questions for NPR’s Ask Me Another. And he’s still hosting, this time mixing the format of a TV game show but producing it as live theater, and recording Go Fact Yourself as a podcast.
“The quiz part is fun, but it’s really just to talk to people,” he said. “How can we talk to people about something they love but don’t get to talk about all the time?”
In an era where facts get less appreciation by our political leaders, he’s more than happy to celebrate actual knowledge.
He hasn’t yet pitched Go Fact Yourself to television networks.
“But the part that would be great on TV, and a part that I wish we could capture on the podcast, and the reason that I really encourage when they can to come see it in person: Every third or fourth episode, and we’re trying to make it more frequent, the expert will come on, and the reaction from the guest in seeing who the expert is, or realizing who it is, is so magical. It’s like their souls went up to the heavens and danced together,” he told me.
Among past such experiences: Marvel Comics writer Mark Waid surprising comedian Jackie Kashian, and Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie) showing up for Andrea Savage.
Who will show up this weekend? Only one way to find out with your own eyes.