ARLINGTON – With the new year approaching, now’s a good time for expert business advice about simple ways to motivate teams.
For example, seek input from outsiders, show appreciation for team members and, whatever you do, don’t break news that the Space Needle has fallen.
That’s sound advice from Bill Stainton, a multiple Emmy Award-winning TV writer, performer and for 15 years executive producer of Seattle’s legendary sketch comedy, “Almost Live”.
He spoke at a recent Arlington-Smokey Point Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Gleneagle Country Club.
As a noted speaker and business humorist, Stainton blends the business smarts he learned from 20 years in corporate management and show business. On to that faux Space Needle story on Almost Live.
“We actually did the show live – live live, on April Fools Day, 1987,” Stainton said. “It’s a comedy show. What could possibly go wrong?”
Stainton had the idea to interrupt the show with a fake newscast alerting Western Washington viewers that the Space Needle had fallen over.
After the first commercial, the show’s switchboard operator raced into the studio. She told Stainton that calls had overloaded the phone system. Not just KING 5’s or the Space Needle’s switchboard. It overloaded the entire 911 emergency phone system in Western Washington.
“Mistake,” Stainton deadpanned. Senior management ordered that all tapes of the show be erased.
Stainton shared other management lessons.
He related how in 1987, it was hard to get good guests on Almost Live. But, on a day where everything clicked, Johnny Depp, filming 21 Jump Street in Vancouver, BC, wanted to appear. He had to pull out at the last minute because his show was doing reshoots, Stainton said.
He called an emergency meeting to come up with an available local guest. All the ideas were rejected, until the lowest paid writer on staff piped up and said, “I might be able to do something with liquid nitrogen.”
“Clearly he didn’t understand the situation,” Stainton said. The writer persisted. He described liquid nitrogen, about how you could drop an onion in it, pull it out with tongs, get a hammer, and shatter the onion like glass. He could also drop in a marshmallow, bite down on it, and smoke would pour out of his nose and mouth.
That junior writer was Bill Nye the Science Guy.
The lesson? “Seek input from outsiders,” Stainton said. “Bill Nye sees the world differently. He came up with a solution that none of us came up with.”
Stainton recalled another lesson from a 1981 show. There was a loud thump, and 175 audience members gaped as they saw cast member Tracy Conway collapse on stage. She lay lifeless on the floor for 12 minutes, having gone into cardiac arrest. Two volunteer firefighters worked on her until an ambulance arrived.
Stainton ran upstairs to find Conway’s medications. As he searched, he noticed a Post-It note he had written to her: “Hey, Tracy, great job on the sketch tonight. You really nailed it!”
He said he had written that note a year before. “It’s the only one I ever wrote, for her or any cast member. What did it take – seven seconds to write.”
When he mentioned it to her later, she told him it’s the last thing she looked at every Saturday night before going onstage.
The takeaway? “Show appreciation for your team members,” he said. “Buy some Post-Its. Don’t wait until a good time to show appreciation. It’s always a good time to tell them.”
Stainton also shared the last time that Jerry Seinfeld appeared on Almost Live. He was watching himself on video to try to improve his delivery. The lesson is, never stop raising your game, Stainton said. “When things are going well, it’s easy to rest,” he said. “Don’t. Never stop.”
Stainton’s last piece of advice came from fellow Almost Live cast member Nancy Guppy.When the show was canceled in 1999, interviewers asked Guppy what she would miss most. She said, “I’ll miss waking up every morning knowing that I get to go spend the entire day playing with my best friends.”
Stainton’s takeaway, “Whatever you’ve got going on that is good, hold onto it.”